The perfect sand castle starts with a good circle.
John Gowdy, who started building sand castles with his own kids about 25 years ago, has all the credentials (and then some) to show you how to build a perfectly good one with your kids. He even teaches sand-castle building professionally, and his system is so easy, he calls it the "No-Hassle Sand Castle."
To start, he grabs his trusty garden shovel and, with the point of the blade, traces a quick, light circle, maybe 3 feet in diameter, into the hard sand he's picked as today's construction site.
But he didn't just choose this spot at random, which brings up an important correction: The perfect sand castle actually starts with a good tide table.
Gowdy, a retired Atlantic City firefighter and professional sand sculptor who has traveled literally around the world to compete or build commissioned works, says the best time to build your sand castle is when the tide is going out, and the best place to do it is just below the high-tide line.
First, that gives you access to tons of wet sand, which is what you need to build your perfect sand castle. And second, if you try building a sand castle with the tide on its way in, you're setting yourself (and the kids) up for a visit from a force of nature Gowdy knows much too well:
"The great eraser," he says ominously, meaning the ocean's nasty habit of destroying all sand castles - among other manmade structures - that get in its way.
And if you can't find a tide table - even though they're printed every day on page A-2 of this very newspaper -ask a lifeguard, because "they live here," says Gowdy, who spent seven years on the Atlantic City Beach Patrol himself, and knows that a good lifeguard always knows what the tide is doing.
OK, so now you have your circle in the sand, in just the right spot. Gowdy takes the shovel and, working from the outside, digs all the sand out right around the circle, and piles up what he digs out on the inside. All that wet sand is what you'll turn into the castle - "The bigger the pile, the bigger the castle," he says.
Plus, by digging out just outside of the circle, you're building your moat - a key defensive structure in all your finer castles, sand or otherwise.
The expert digs deepest of all at the point on the circle that's closest to the ocean, not stopping until he hits the groundwater a few feet down. That's because of another one of his rules for the perfect sand castle:
"You can't use too much water," Gowdy says - several times over, in maybe 90 minutes of building two complete castles. "The water will go right through the sand. ... If you do use too much water, just give it a few minutes and (the water) will pull right out. "
He says the sand everywhere is different - it might even be different on the Ventnor beach he chose for this project and a beach just a few blocks down. But he has a simple test for knowing when you have the perfect-textured sand for your castle:
If you can make a ball out of the sand and it stays together when you toss it back and forth from hand to hand, 6 or 8 inches high, you can make a fine castle out of it.
With his dug-out sand piled up in his circle, Gowdy then steps on top and uses his feet to firm up his foundation a bit. He prefers to get an assistant he calls a "sand dancer" to do this job - kids ages 6 to 8 or so are usually perfect - and the idea is to just compress the sand a bit to strengthen it.
Now that he knows he has good sand - what he likes to call "Mudddd" as he works with it - Gowdy goes back to making circles. He turns his muddd into pancakes, maybe 4 or 5 inches across and half an inch high, and quickly stacks them into a tower a foot of so high.
If they do pile right up easily in this "muddd-stacking" process, you're doing it right. And they shouldn't take too much help, he adds.
"A lot of kids want to pack it down when you're doing this. If you do, it'll just fall down," Gowdy warns.
With one tower built painlessly, he moves on to the next one a few inches away, repeating the process.
And once you have two towers, under all internationally recognized laws of sand-castle building, you have to make an arch between them. Gowdy has a simple trick for this job too.
If he has a trustworthy young assistant, he gets him or her to hold a hand - perfectly steady, of course - in the gap between the tops of the towers. If not, he puts one of his own hands there, and either way, he starts piling more muddd up onto that human-hand base. When the muddd has enough structure to survive on its own, Gowdy very gingerly pulls the hand away and leaves just the sand behind in a graceful, and strong, arch.
He builds a roof on each tower by stacking a few more circular pancakes on top of the towers, getting smaller and smaller as he gets toward the top. He lightly shapes that into an "upside-down ice-cream cone" with the popsicle stick again.
Then, when he's finished with his first sand castle, Gowdy unceremoniously knocks it down and shows how to build a second, even easier one, using a few simple items he brought with him to the beach.
One is a bottomless, five-gallon paint bucket - this pro cut the bottom out himself - for making a big, solid circle as his base. Then he pulls out two lengths of PVC pipe, one 6 inches across and the other 4 inches. The plastic pipes are maybe a foot long each, and Gowdy takes the wider one, puts it on his firm base, piles wet sand in, tests it by twisting the pipe slightly and, when it's ready to stand on its own, gently pulls the pipe away.
"It's called the magic shake ... or magic wiggle," Gowdy says. "Then you slide it up and down" a bit to firm up the towers.
Then he repeats that pipe-filling and removing step with the smaller pipe on of the base tower - the pipes just take away the need for hand-stacking the mud.
"You can make as many towers as you want using this," the expert says, "or using the mud-stacking."
The possibilities are endless - and so are the hours you can keep the kids occupied at the beach with these few simple tools and techniques.
And if disaster strikes and your castle collapses, here's one final bit of professional wisdom:
"Don't get all bent out of shape," Gowdy says. "There's plenty of sand and water on the beach."
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Tools of the trade
Gowdy starts his project by tracing a light circle with the blade of a garden shovel, then digging around the outside of the circle and piling the dug-up sand inside the circle.
"The bigger the pile," he says, "the bigger the castle."
A popsicle stick makes a fine tool for decorating sand castles, including digging out windows and tracing on bricks or stones. Gowdy also uses plastic butter knives and sea shells as tools - if you forgot a shovel, a big clamshell makes a nice digging tool..
Gowdy takes a selection of buckets with him when he's building - including a 5-gallon one he cut the bottom out of. He fills that with wet sand to form an easy base for a castle, then lifts the bucket off when the sand is solid. He also uses a small, basic garden shovel to dig up all the wet sand he needs for his construction projects.
On top of his bucket base, Gowdy makes a simple tower by filling lengths of plastic pipe with more wet sand. He uses sections 4 inches and 6 inches in diameter, each one about a foot long.
To build a simple arch or bridge connecting two towers, Gowdy puts his left hand between the towers, holds it steady, then piles wet sand on. When the structure is firm, he gently pulls the hand away gently and leaves a firm arch/bridge standing.