North Carolina Gourd Society

Using Gourds

You can put your gourds to work or make them your favorite playmate. People all over the world have used the hardworking gourd to hold just about anything that needed holding for thousands of years. Your gourd patch can provide everything to dish up dinner, from plates to cups. Baskets, bowls and boxes are easy to craft and can be as simple or as elaborate as you want. Storage gourds were often thought to preserve what was kept inside. In the pyramids of ancient Egypt, pharaohs were buried with gourds filled with grain. Half a world away, the Incas too, buried corn-filled gourds with their dead. Daniel Boone's grandfather stored eggs in a gourd basket. Seeds were stored in gourds. American pioneers carried seeds of bushel gourds, given by Indians, west in their covered wagons because the dried gourds held, and preserved fat after hog-killing time. Liquids from water to beer to wine were carried in gourds. Africans brewed beer in large gourds. Gourds have been fashion accessories-Peruvian earrings-to fashion. Nigerian mothers use gourd hats to shade their babies' heads, and Chinese workers used gourd hats while building American railroads. In New Guinea, men wore gourd penis sheathes, and in Brooklyn, one strong-minded stripper made most (of the least) of a costume from North Carolina gourds.

Gourds are the basis of musical instruments from rattles, to banjos, sitars, marimbas and more. Pablo Casals learned to play on a gourd cello. Popular music and folk revival groups are recreating and using gourd musical instruments like the song bow, thumb piano and didgeredoo. Shakerees have made their way onto stages with singers and dancers.

Gourds also make great silly stuff. Right off the vine, penguin gourds are more than halfway to being penguin statues. Goose gourds, a type of bottle, grow into angry geese. Dinosaurs, swans, whales and elephants can start with gourds. Gourds can be doll heads. Holiday ornaments made from gourds can range from Thanksgiving turkeys to Christmas tree angels and permanent Easter eggs.

Most gourds are dry enough to craft when the seeds inside rattle, anywhere from a few weeks to six months or more after harvest. Here are some basics to get you started and directions for some popular projects.

Preparing Gourds for Craft

Both hardshell and ornamental gourds have two skins. For most projects, the thin, membranous outer skin must be scrubbed off before work begins. A short soaking in warm, soapy water makes scrubbing easier-but it also softens and weakens the shell. Watch thin-shelled ornamentals carefully or they will break. The best tool is a wide-coiled scrubber like Chore Boy. Because drying gourds mold, you might want to add chlorine bleach to the scrub water, or to a final rinse. Let the gourds dry overnight before cutting or drilling. You'll control the cut better and be less likely to cut yourself.

Getting to Know the Patient

Before surgery begins, let's talk about the structure of gourds. Basically, they are very like wood. They can be cut, carved, drilled, burned, painted, stained or dyed. One difference is that wood is pretty consistent in texture, at least after the bark is removed. But gourds have two layers-a brown or tan, hard outer layer and a cream-colored, corky inner layer. This difference is much less apparent with the thinner shells of ornamentals. The under layer is easier to cut and soaks up more stain or dye.

Inside, the gourd looks like the inside of an over-aged zucchini or pumpkin. Seeds, 400 or more of them, and fiber fill a small portion of the interior. An inner lining, sometimes in relatively large, satiny sheets lines all or part of the shell.

The shell itself varies in thickness. The stem and blossom ends are likely to be thicker and harder to cut. Some areas may be thinner and easier to break.

Your First Bowl

A bowl is a simple project. Most gourds can be made into bowls. Some good choices are birdhouse, basketball, canteen or bushels. Ornamentals are too small for a useful bowl and so light, they jump off the table and smash. Remember that your bowl doesn't have to sit on your table the same way it sat in the garden. Would it look better on its side?

A place to sit. Start by making a level bottom. The easiest approach is to find a gourd that sits. You can sand parts away or add "legs." A three-"legged" gourd, like a wash pot or witch's caldron, is by far the easiest to level. You can add one or more buttons, beads, lumps of wood dough or pieces of wood or gourd. Attach with glue or drill a hole, insert your attachment and glue. Wood dough can serve as an attractive reinforcement. If you have glued, let dry entirely before cutting.

Guidelines Cutting a gourd is like cutting wood. And just like cutting a board, measure twice, cut once: an accurate guideline is essential. For a plain cut, stack some books up as high as the height you want your bowl, hold a pencil or watercolor marker on top of the books, place the gourd where the pencil will mark it and spin it around. If all is well, the line will meet on the other side. If not, try again. A rubber band stretched around the gourd or masking tape can be good guides. For an irregular shape like a flower or other, use a paper pattern.

Cutting. While many people are comfortable using a paring knife, Exacto knife or a drywall saw, others are taking the high-tech route and use miniature power tools and cutting drill bits or RotoZips. Make a half-inch cut along the guideline. If the gourd is sturdy enough, the fastest way of finishing is with a hacksaw blade (hold it with a rag if it isn't mounted). Insert in the first hole and carefully saw around the gourd. Stay on that guideline. Be particularly careful as you come near to finishing the cut. The top will want to move and can distort the cut, or break.

Cleaning the interior. Scrape out seed and fiber, but don't add them to the compost heap yet. The seed are likely good for growing and certainly good for making jewelry (soak and string with a needle), and the fiber may have craft uses-paper, maybe? This is a good time to take a break. Gourd dust is irritating to breathe. Wearing a mask helps, but soaking eliminates much of the problem and makes scraping easier. But then you'll have to wait for the gourd to dry again. My favorite tool is an old stainless steel spoon. Indians used clam shell. A friend uses a chunk of a roadside mailbox he knocked over.

Finishing. You can smooth the edge or interior with sandpaper, but your basic bowl is finished. You can wax with furniture wax or shoe polish for added color, dye with fabric or leather dye, paint, stain, burn with a wood-burning tool. Or you can use any of these finishing techniques after applying a pattern. A popular finish for the edge is basketry: Drill a regular series of small holes about a quarter-inch from the edge and lash vine (honeysuckle, wisteria, grape) to the edge with round reed, available from craft shops. Yarn is pretty. Leather or metal can be lapped over the edge.

Here are some LINKS to suppliers of gourds, seeds and arts & crafts supplies.

copyright Mary Ann Rood April 7, 1998