Thursday, June 30, 2011

Castles and trains built of sand

It is that time of year. Roll out those lazy, hazy crazy, consulting days of summah!! (GW)

Work's a Day at the Beach for Sand-Castle Consultants

As the Summer Building Season Heats Up, Advisers Dig In; Lessons at $75 an Hour

Wall Street Journal
June 30, 2011

A train sculpture built for 'Sand in the City' in Omaha this year.

CANNON BEACH, Ore.—On a recent weekend, sand creatures were sprawled across this Pacific Coast beach. There were sea horses by a giant squid, with an "Attackin' Kraken" sea monster nearby, along with several pigs, some giant mice and an amputee octopus.

Many of the sand sculptures had the same point of origin: They had been built by people who at one time or another were advised by Bert Adams, one of the nation's handful of professional sand-castle consultants.

"They did well," said Mr. Adams, a 51-year-old former electrical engineer, as he surveyed the array of creations made by his onetime students at Cannon Beach's 47th annual sand sculpting tournament.

"He's a great mentor," says Amos Callender, an Olympia, Wash., architect who took a course—Sand 101—that Mr. Adams taught two years ago. Mr. Callender and his team took first place at Cannon Beach last year, while this year they built a sand sculpture depicting "the good life"—a wine lover sporting a beret; a mouse tucking into a giant wheel of cheese—that finished second.

As this year's sand-sculpture season gets going, Mr. Adams is one of the people who have carved out a unique consulting niche on the circuit. While millions of kids will construct sand creations all summer for nothing, sand advisers have built practices charging individuals and companies for sand castle-building classes, as well as partnering with charities that sponsor sand-sculpting competitions. Just one consulting gig can garner thousands of dollars, while building a birthday sand castle in an hour can yield a fee of $300.

Mr. Adams's peers include Lucinda Wierenga, who goes by the professional name Sandy Feet. The resident of South Padre Island, Tex., who teaches sand-sculpting workshops and gives private lessons for upwards of $75 per hour, says she expects to make around $65,000 this year.

The 53-year-old former high school English teacher says her sand-consulting practice has even gone global. Last year, she made $6,000 for a week of sand carving in Qatar; this past spring, an exhibition in Taiwan contracted her services. "Travel expenses, lodging, good food and they make sure I have a good time," says Ms. Wierenga.

The rise of sand-sculpting consultants comes as the sand-castle tour increasingly resembles the pro golf or tennis circuits, complete with grueling schedules. Competitions now take place everywhere from Amagansett, N.Y., which in August will hold the 20th annual East Hampton Beach Master Sand Sculpting Competition, to San Diego, where in July the U.S. Open Sandcastle Competition will distribute $21,000 in prize money.

Like stock-car racers, sand sculptors can even pad their income by signing on with sponsors—albeit at amounts more modest than what's available to Nascar stars. Mr. Callender's team, for example, was paid $800 last year for wearing T-shirts at Cannon Beach emblazoned with the name of a local veterinary clinic. At another tournament in Long Beach, Wash., he and his team got $1,200 to wear T-shirts provided by a building-supplies store.

Sand consultants don't have groupies though—just "gritties," jokes Mr. Adams. While fans admire his intricate creations, "I know how I look: covered with sand, sweaty," he says.

Mr. Adams, a Michigan native, came to sand sculpting after a former employer—National Semiconductor Corp.—transferred him to Oregon in 1995. On Oregon's beaches, he discovered he had a talent for converting wet sand into castles, busts and other objects.

Over the years, he forged a business model in sand, mainly through trial and error. In 1996, he began partnering with charities that sponsor sand-sculpting competitions, taking 10% of any gross from ticket sales and entry fees.

He has promoted "Sand in the City" in Omaha for the past eight years to benefit the Nebraska Children's Home Society. That event—sponsored on a rotating basis by local blue chips like ConAgra Foods Inc. or Mutual of Omaha Insurance Co.—grosses about $100,000 annually.

These days, Mr. Adams pulls in a five-figure annual income, though he says "it's less than my wife would consider a lot of money."

Mr. Adams says one partner didn't fulfill its obligations, leading him these days to demand a four-year exclusivity clause that groups he works with can't do a sand event in a given city without him, and vice versa.

James Anderson, assistant general manager of the Great Wolf Lodge in Grand Mount, Wash., took a course from Mr. Adams where he learned how to wield a spackling tool with a turkey baster to lend a silky sheen to sandy surfaces.

Mr. Adams "was very open to any ideas we had on technique," says Mr. Anderson.

In May, Mr. Adams brought Sand in the City to Shawnee, Kan., for the Wonderscope Children's Museum. As with all new clients, Mr. Adams insisted on certain guidelines: that Wonderscope pay expenses for four trips for him to prepare the event, plus his fee of $4,000, or 10% of the gross, whichever is greater.

Ten teams paid the Wonderscope Museum $2,000 each to learn sand sculpting from Mr. Adams and then compete against each other at a fund-raiser that drew over 3,000 spectators. The museum took in just over $26,000, and over $100,000 in donated building materials. The event is now on Wonderscope's 2012 calendar.

"We're planning on this being our annual fund raiser going forward," says Lauranne Hess, Wonderscope's executive director.

At some events, he is a competitor, not a consultant. Mr. Adams' signature technique is creating pieces that play off each other—such as a train carrying a load of toys. For his Cannon Beach entry earlier this month, his team made a "Sand Bar," where sea horses made of sand were tied to a sand hitching post, near a sand sheriff and not far from a sand "pool" shark shooting a rack of balls with a sand seal.

The elaborate tableau drew admiring sighs from fans and other sand masters. It also won first prize for the day and a check for $1,300.

Write to Joel Millman at


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