Barbara’s Handcrafts: Gourds and More
As I vend my decorated gourds, I am often asked advice on the growing, harvesting, drying, cleaning and decorating gourds. I am by no means an expert on all aspects of gourds. The answers I give are based on my own experience from trial and error and the methods I use. The answers are not comprehensive. There are many books published that deal much more comprehensively with gourds. This paper will give some advice as you get started with gourds. It will give you no projects or designs to follow. I will leave that up to you. As you get serious about working with gourds, invest in a few good books and tools that will enhance your experience. I also suggest you join the Idaho Gourd Society, where there are classes to take and experts willing to help.
History of the Gourd
I am often asked what gourds are and what they are used for. Gourds are a plant. They are members of the pumpkin, squash, cucumber, melon family. Although they can be and are eaten when they are very young, they are mainly allowed to mature (when they are inedible) and use to enhance life. Gourds are one of the first domestic crops planted by man. They can be found globally. Throughout history they have been used as a part of the daily life of early man. They have been used as water containers in arid areas, food storage containers, dinnerware, jewelry, musical and percussion instruments. The gourd was made into anything that was of possible use. Cut a dipper gourd and you have a drinking vessel to use with the rain barrel. Hang birdhouse gourds near the gardens to attract the birds to help keep the garden free of insects. Use the gourd to make sounds to dance to or to hold sacred ceremonies by filling one with dried beans or pebbles to make a rattle, cover with a net of beads to make a shaker, stretch a goat skin over the open end to make a drum, and even attach metal to make a finger piano. The list of things that can be made with the gourd is long and could never be complete since all of the ideas are not used up yet.
I need to start this section with a disclaimer. I AM NOT A GARDNER. Oh, I have tried and tried and haven’t done well. I haven’t given up trying. This is the information I have gleaned from others. When you buy the gourd seed, unless you live in a very warm climate (not Idaho) it is best to start them in the house.
- Clip off the points of the seed to help the process and then soak them overnight.
- Plant them an inch or so under the soil and keep them nice and warm.
- Plant the seedlings outside once any chance of frost is over and made sure they get plenty of water that drains well.
- Gourd plants need plenty of sunshine and, since they are related to the pumpkin, squash, and melon family, know that they will take up a lot of room. If the room is limited, they also like climbing up trellises, fences, or trees.
- Some people help with the pollination process. Others make sure that any gourd that needs a flat bottom is set upright as it grows. Still others just let them do their own thing and leave them alone. You can choose what you want to do.
This I know about harvesting gourds. DON’T!
- eave the gourds on the vine for as long as possible. It is best to allow the gourd plants to fully die back before you take them from the garden.
- If you live in a dry area, you don’t even have to do that. Just leave them in the garden over the winter and let them dry naturally.
- The longer the plant is supplying nutrient the stronger the gourd grows, the thicker the wall, and the more mature.
- If a gourd is picked before it is mature, you will increase the chance of it rotting, getting soft and having to be thrown away.
Drying gourds is as simple as ignoring them for 6 months or so.
- They can be left outside in the garden if the ground is going to be dry.
- If not, they still can be left outdoors. Place them so that there is a flow of air around them such as on a pallet or mesh table. If that isn’t possible, you may have to turn them a couple of times over the winter.
- They can also be taken into an out building, garage or basement. Just make sure they are spread out a bit. If you choose a basement, be aware they will get moldy and if your heating system draws fresh air from the basement, those mold spores will come into the house.
- I choose to dry my gourds outside because they are easier to clean after they are dried.
- If your gourd gets moldy, DO NOT THROW IT AWAY. The beautiful patterns on the shell of a gourd are created with the mold. The only time you will need to throw a gourd away is if it has become soft and mushy like an old jack-o-lantern.
- You will get more mold from protected indoor areas thus more patterns. Some like to spray bleach on the gourds over the drying season to keep the mold down. Too much damp mold on a drying gourd can cause the mold through to the inside of the gourd and soften the gourd in spots.
Cleaning the outside of the gourd
I have found that if I soak the gourd for awhile it makes the clean-up and scrubbing so much easier.
- I place the gourds in water, weigh them down with a wet towel and let them soak.
- If the gourd feels like it has a thinner shell, I keep the soaking to a minimum, otherwise they can soak for up to an hour or so.
- Then I use a steel scrubber. The one I use is similar to the copper scrubber only steel. The copper scrubbers can be used, but I find the steel ones more effective.
- I don’t scrub as hard as I can. I find that it works better to just go over the same spot numerous time.
- During this time I squeeze the gourd trying to break it, that way I get rid on any that are weak and more likely to break later on. There are some thinner shelled gourds that I use for night lights that I hold gingerly as I scrub because I am looking for the thinner shell.
- The gourds that have a whitish covering on them are the most difficult to clean.
- With any of them, make sure you rinse them well and double and triple check them for bits of covering left behind. It is easy to miss bits of the covering.
- I let them dry a day or two before working with them.
- If the gourd is moldy, you can use a small amount of bleach in the water. I don’t.
Cutting the gourd
If you have chosen to cut the gourd to make a vase or bowl this may be problematic for the beginner. I say this because without the right tools cutting a gourd can be challenging.
- Typical small hand saws cut a straight line and give very little flexibility in the cut. It can be done.
- A full sized jig saw can be used on a large gourd, but is dangerous unless you can secure the gourd.
- When I was beginning, I used the smallest keyhole saw I could find for straight cuts and used a cutting bit on a Dremel to make round or curved cut. I tried using an Exacto knife but had limited success with it, maybe my blades weren’t sharp.
- Later I purchased a couple of mini-jig saws that make a big difference in my ability to make nice smooth cut.
- My favorite cutter is a tiny keyhole blade that fit into the handle of an Exacto knife. The only place I have found these blades is online at Welburn Gourds.
- To start the cut many will drill a small hole into the gourd to place the saw blade to start. I use my tiny keyhole blade and work it back and forth until I have gone through the gourd shell.
- If you are looking to have a fitted lid on your gourd, you will need a mini-jig or very small saw. You will need something that will take as little as possible away as it cuts, otherwise the lid will not fit because of the curved surface.
- To get a level cut on a gourd, I initially piled books to the height I wanted, braced a pencil on it, then turned the gourd as I drew the line with the braced pencil.
- Wearing a face mask filter when opening a gourd or sawing on a gourd, first for the mold that may be inside and secondly for the gourd dust caused by the sawing.
Cleaning the Inside of the Gourd
A face mask filter is absolutely necessary when cleaning out the inside of a gourd. Once the gourd has been cut, you now have the job of cleaning out the inside.
- I am always a happy camper when the fibers on the inside have pulled away from the inside wall of the gourd and all I have to do is pull that ball of fiber out and toss it. This rarely happens.
- I use a heavy serving spoon to scrape the inside of the gourd to remove the fiber.
- There are times when there is a white shiny coating on the inside of the gourd even after the seeds have been removed and the spoon doesn’t easily remove it. That is when I use any tool that works such as a looped clay scraper, a coconut scraper, copper scrubber, a pebbled ball attachment to my Dremel or anything I can find to work.
- Occasionally, the white coating on the inside is beautiful and unflawed and can be left as is.
- Also, there are times when the mold has entered inside a gourd and has left dark spots and/or a rank smell.
- With the dark spot, your only options are to leave them or cover them over with stain or paint.
- When a gourd smells bad, you can sometimes remove the smell by soaking the inside with a baking soda and water mixture. Sometimes you just have to throw the smelly gourd away.
- When cleaning very narrow necked gourds, I scrape out as much as I can with an opened coat hanger or skewer, and then often soak the gourd to loosen what is left.
- The truth is, I do whatever I need to get the inside cleaned out.
Sanding the gourd
As a cautionary note, please always use a face mask filter when sanding.
- When sanding the inside of the gourd, I usually start with a copper scrubber to remove the last of the loose fiber.
- I follow that with sanding sponges of various grits depending on how smooth I want the inside.
- For birdhouses, I do very little cleaning and leave fiber for the birds to use.
- For the narrow necked gourds, I use my Dremel to sand what is visible and leave the rest.
- For a bowl, I sand as smooth as possible.
- For a nice level top to a bowl or vase, I have a circle of sand paper with a sticky back meant for a power sander, that I have attached to a heavy base. I use that to sand a beautiful level edge.
Decorating the Gourd
There is so many methods and styles that I couldn’t possibly begin to cover them here in any detail.
- You are only limited by your own imagination and creativity.
- You can paint with water colors, acrylics, oil paints, even house paint.
- Many people use a wood burning tool to etch into the gourd.
- If a gourd is thick enough, the gourd can be carved with hand carving tools or power carving tools.
- The gourd can be drawn on with marker, colored pencils, India Ink, or any other media you choose.
- The edges can be finished by weaving with pine needles, yarn, raffia, leather, rope, or any other thing you can think of.
- The gourd can be covered with paper, fabric, or things found in nature.
- Gourds can be put together, taken apart, inlayed, have added adornment, etc. As you can see there is so many ways to adorn a gourd.
Finishing touches and Finishing the gourd.
So now you have grown, dried, cleaned, cut, cleaned again, and then decorated your gourd. The last step is finishing it.
- Sometimes the natural look of the gourd is desirable.
- Because a gourd is porous, a finish to fill in those pores is necessary especially in damp areas or gourds that will be outside.
- Any of the waxes work well. There are shoe, furniture and floor polishes that can be buffed to a nice sheen.
- You can use varnishes or polyurethane that fill the pours and come in a variety of sheens.
- Many of the oils can be used; just make sure that they will not go rancid, like a vegetable oil.
- Any product that works on wood will work on a gourd.
- Many who work with gourds find that they have a favorite one they use.
When putting on the finishes touches think of where the gourd will be displayed and what it will be used for.
- When hanging a gourd, you can use jute, leather thongs, parachute cord, fishing line among others. Will you use one hole to hang the gourd or two.
- Will the gourd need a stand so that it sits securely, and what kind of stand will look best?
- You can add feathers, fur, beads, leather studs, brads and many other items to enhance the look of your gourd.