A sand master shares her sand-sculpting tips for your beach trips

Aug 1, 2021

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And you thought you had a fun job.

As the artist-in-residence at both The Reach Key West, Curio Collection by Hilton and Casa Marina Key West, A Waldorf Astoria Resort, “Sand Master” Marianne van den Broek hosts annual sand-sculpting competitions and leads workshops for hotel guests to inspire them to think beyond the sandcastle box when they find themselves on the beach with a pail and a shovel.

Van den Broek, who moved to Key West from the Netherlands in 2005, runs her own sand-sculpting business (Just Sand and Water) and is also a vice-chair on the City of Key West’s Art in Public Places Board.

If you’ve ever been tempted to perfect your own sand-sculpting skills during a family beach vacation, van den Broek’s tips and tricks might take your sand art game (don’t limit yourself to castles, she says!) to the next level — until the tide washes it away, of course.

Related: 9 of our favorite points hotels in the Florida Keys (including The Reach and Casa Marina)

We talked to her about what her sandy daily life is like, the best sand for building and how she got into this unique line of work.

Train Sandcastle
Sand sculpturist Marianne van den Broek at the Casa Marina Resort in Key West. (Photo Rob O’Neal/Florida Keys News Bureau/HO)

What is a day in the life of a sand artist like?

No two days are the same. Sometimes, I’ll spend the whole day just shoveling sand to build up the foundation for a big sculpture to work on the next day. Or maybe I’ll work on creating a proposal sculpture for someone looking to propose to their partner.

I often find myself sketching drawings and brainstorming ideas with clients, too, looking for a sculpture for their wedding or other important life events.

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I get corporate clients who want their logo carved for a team-building event on the beach. You name it. Sometimes I am just teaching families how to make their own sand creations down on the beach. Every now and then, I’m also just down there on the sand myself, making sand creations just for the fun of it.

What type of sand or beach is your favorite for building?

There are many different types of sand on the world’s beaches. Everywhere you go in the world, the sand is a little bit different. And that determines what kind of sculptures you can build.

Not every type of sand allows you to build straight up or carve intricate details.

The best type of sand is angular in shape. If you would look at it under a microscope, the sand I use has edges on it, like a tiny little brick.

A lot of beach sand, especially where there is a lot of surf, has been rolling around so much the edges are worn and every grain is like a small marble. You can stack blocks, but you can’t stack marbles.

We are very lucky to have some of the best sand in the world for sand sculpting here in South Florida. It allows me to build tall and elaborate sculptures. And when I look out over the ocean right before sunset at the Casa Marina Resort where I display my art, I cannot imagine anyone else in the world having a better view from their ‘office.’

How do you know if sand is good for building a sandcastle?

fish sandcastle
Photo courtesy of The Reach Key West, Curio Collection by Hilton

To test the sand and determine how well you can build something with it, you will need to grab a handful of moist sand.

If it packs together and sticks like a snowball, you have great sand to work with. If it falls apart and runs through your fingers, you may be better off just spreading your beach towel and taking a nap.

What’s your favorite sand to build with?

The sand I like to build with is brought in from a quarry and is very fine and clean. It has an even consistency. It has no big chunks of clay, shells or rocks in it. There’s nothing worse than trying to cut a straight line in the sand and then hitting a rock right in the middle. Or trying to put the detail in a face and getting stuck on a chunk of clay in an eye or nose.

How did you get into this line of work?

I got involved in sand sculpting in 1999 when I was 18 years old. I had a temporary job shoveling sand in my native Holland for what turned out to be a large sand-sculpting festival near Amsterdam, where they were attempting to break the record for the highest sand sculpture in Europe.

It was love at first sight. I offered to stay and work for free that summer to learn how to sculpt. I became part of a team that traveled through Western Europe every summer to work on these large sand-sculpting festivals. In 2002, I started competing in the United States. I moved to Key West in 2005 and thought to myself: Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have my own location where I can create, teach and share my work but go home in the evenings?

My first location in Key West was an open lot. The sandbox was shaped like a baseball diamond and it was located right next to a laundromat and Cuban sandwich shop. The air smelled like laundry detergent or bacon all the time. I liked both smells and when I smell them today, it still very much reminds me of that time.

Eventually, after getting the word out around Key West about my business and what I do with sand, I received a call from Casa Marina in 2011 asking if I was interested in moving my business to their property. I didn’t hesitate for a second. Between there and The Reach, I have three sandboxes where I get to entertain, teach and show my work.

What surprises people about your job?

Key West sandcastle
The Reach Key West, Curio Collection by Hilton

Most people have never considered building sand sculptures as a career before. The fact that I make a living shoveling sand and creating art is mind-blowing to some people. Even though it’s considered a job, I could also make the argument that being a sand sculptor is a lifestyle.

Can you picture yourself doing any other kind of art?

People ask me often if I work in other media. I don’t. Sand is it for me. I love art and get inspired by many things I see around me as well as work from other artists who are creative in their field.

I always compare it to being a musician who plays the guitar. Some musicians sing, play the drums, bass and piano as well. Some just play the guitar. That’s me — I only work with sand. And the only time I sing is in the shower when no one can hear me.

What are your best tips for people looking to build an epic sandcastle?

It takes patience, determination and effort to create the sand sculpture of your dreams. But the right conditions will definitely help the final result.

Make sure to wear sunglasses, a hat and put on plenty of sunscreen to protect your skin. You want to work fairly close to the water so you can fill your bucket when needed.

One thing people underestimate is how much water it takes to build with sand. If you are by the ocean, keep an eye on the tide. An outgoing tide is great because it will give you more time to create your castle before Mother Nature comes in and washes away your hard work. It doesn’t matter if you are by a lake or the ocean for the water to work — if it’s salt or freshwater does not make a difference.

What else should people know about building sandcastles?

That it’s OK to be creative and think beyond the sandcastle.

Most people think of them first, but you may have noticed I use the phrase “sand sculpting” about what I do.

The variety of creations is so wide, I actually have to admit I don’t create castles that often. Even though sandcastles are the most famous term and the first idea of what to make in the sand, you can make endless creations with sand — from turtles and palm trees to a portrait of John Lennon or contemporary shapes, to name just a few ideas.

The list of ideas to create is endless — and that makes every day on the beach a place for endless possibilities.

Interested in taking a workshop on your next trip to Key West? Van den Broek offers 2.5-hour workshops at Casa Marina for a minimum of two people that teach the fundamentals of building sand sculptures ($69 for adults and $59 for children ages 6 to 12, reserve in advance).

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Featured image courtesy of The Reach Key West, Curio Collection by Hilton

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