Want to Build the Perfect Sand Castle? The Pros Tell You How

Belmar contest competitors share their granular secrets.

Keith Bargmann, of Scarsdale, New York, works on his 2016 creation.
Keith Bargmann, of Scarsdale, New York, works on his 2016 creation.
Photo by Jim Connolly

This should be easy: Grab a shovel and bucket, and pick a spot on the sand close to the water’s edge—but not too close. Then dig, pile and sculpt.
But no, it turns out there’s more of an art to building a sand castle, as evidenced at New Jersey Sandcastle Contest, Belmar’s signature oceanfront event, held each year since 1986 on the second Wednesday after the Fourth of July.

Larry Murray, of Maryland constructed a tribute to his fellow firefighters who died on 9/11.

Larry Murray, of Maryland constructed a tribute to his fellow firefighters who died on 9/11. Photo by Jim Connolly

Last summer’s competition attracted 500 entrants. Armed with props and advanced techniques, their creations included glitter-speckled mermen, towering anthills crawling with giant plastic ants, and a prostrate snowman with pepperoni for eyes.

We turned to these surfside Michelangelos for tips on how to make a sand castle that rises above the ordinary.

“Water is really the biggest thing,” said Larry Murray, a fireman from Montgomery County, Maryland, and a past Belmar winner. “You have to have enough water to hold your castle together.” Murray’s 2016 sand masterpiece was a fireman’s helmet inscribed with the words, “Never forget”; he called it “Tribute to 9/11.” The previous summer, Murray created a giant diamond ring nestled in an open box. The ring won the over-16 category and earned Murray a basket full of beach gear—as well as the heart of his then fiancée.

Ted Sabo and daughter Kayla, of Spotswood, put the finishing touches on their Minions creation.

Ted Sabo and daughter Kayla, of Spotswood, put the finishing touches on their Minions creation. Photo by Jim Connolly

Other tips from Murray: “Start down here, not up there,” he says, indicating a spot close to the water. “The sand is too grainy if you go up higher.” Also, while you can buy specialized tools, Murray prefers basic household implements, like a masonry trowel. Finally, he says, “get help.” In fact, most of last year’s competitors worked in teams. Murray, basted in sweat, worked alone, the recently minted Mrs. Murray lounging with a book in a nearby beach chair.

Canadians Daniel and Jeremy Milones with their 2016 entry, "Church on a Turtle."

Canadians Daniel and Jeremy Milones with their 2016 entry, “Church on a Turtle.” Photo by Jim Connolly

Theresa Tarabocchia of Belmar built a horse-drawn chariot last summer with her husband, Kevin, and their friend, Anthony Punch. The chariot rode to first place in the over-16 category. The couple’s secret weapon: “We have spray bottles, so we can keep spraying it down. That keeps it from falling apart.”

Curiously, the water in the spray bottle is purple. “It’s food coloring,” she explains, “to give it a little pop of color.”

Elsie Johnson, a 13-year-old from Belmar who constructed a flower-strewn “hippie hippo” with her sister, Amelia, 15, said patience is essential. “We get here early and work slow,” she explained. The sisters won third place in the 12-to-15 age bracket.

The best advice, though, may be to build from experience and with a sense of detachment.

“Go with what you know,” said Andrew Guarrera, a plumber from Old Bridge. Guarrera won the top prize, Best on Beach, for sculpting a life-size toilet and sink with a fellow plumber, Chris Kirsten of Bri

Floridian Rocky Tolla and his granddaughter created a Safari Sandcastle Contest in Belmar.

Floridian Rocky Tolla and his granddaughter created a Safari Sandcastle Contest in Belmar. Photo by Jim Connolly

ck.

Guarrera’s tips: Use very wet sand, and pack it tight. But a plumber’s perspective comes in handy when the competition ends.

“I don’t get really attached” to sand creations, he says. “I’m used to things going down the drain.”

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