Introduction: How to Clean a Hardshell Gourd

Picture of How to Clean a Hardshell Gourd

Hardshell gourds have been used as food and beverage containers, and art pieces for centuries. They are often referred to as "nature's pottery" due to their beautiful variety of shapes and hardy uses. The creative crafting possibilities of hardshell gourds are endless; from bowls and cups (mate gourds, used for drinking yerba mate), to purses, jewelry, Christmas ornaments, lampshades, jewelry boxes, bird houses, tribal penis shields, and even a wide variety of musical instruments. The list goes on forever, only limited by your imagination.

But I'm not here right now to tell you what to do with them (maybe later); I'm here to tell you how to clean them inside and out, using safety precautions.

The need to clean depends largely on what you plan to do with the gourd. You may decide to only work on the outside without a need to open the gourd, in which case you get to avoid the extra work involved. If you plan to make a bowl, for example, then clearly you'll be working on both inside and outside, as well as cutting and/or carving.

The outsides of dried gourds are fairly simple to clean, if sometimes labor intensive. The extent to which you clean them depends upon how you want to use them, and what you might want to add to the surface (paints, dyes, etc.). If you want a naturey-looking gourd with its natural waxy coating you don't have to do much beyond washing off dirt and dark mold with a hot water and bleach solution (maybe 10 parts water to 1 part bleach), which retards future mold growth. However, if you want to dye a gourd, leaving the waxy coating on it might prevent dye from soaking into the surface the way you want it to, which means you'll have to scrub harder to remove nature's irritating addition to your innocent craft project.

The insides of gourds are a different story, and a potentially dangerous one. You need to be careful not to inhale the contents. Not all hardshell gourds are terrible inside, but they are all dusty, and you can't guess which ones will merely make you sneeze and which ones might contain mold/fungus, bacteria, and other pathogens that could cause serious allergic reactions, including anaphylactic shock. I've personally been flattened with a gourd dust-related illness that gourd crafters refer to as "gourd flu", which was basically illness that mimicked semi-severe flu symptoms (fever, aching joints, muscle soreness, mucus, fatigue) for about two to three days. If there's a medical term for this, I don't know what it is, but in hindsight... I probably should have seen a doctor. And you should, too, if it ever happens to you.

So... to prepare, make sure you use a dust mask. They're easily found at hardware stores all over. Choose a good one designed for working with wood/sawdust; if possible, look into one that also protects against molds/fungus. Second, use protective goggles. Remember, these precautions aren't just for gourds; any time you do craftwork involving dust, solvents, tools and so on.

What can you expect to find when you open a gourd (via Xacto knives/saws, mini electric jigsaws, or Dremels... be careful not to cut yourself)? Dust, seeds, a styrofoam-like substance, and hardened pulp, maybe even a few tiny beetles. You probably don't want to keep that junk in there, right? So you have to clean it out, and often this is easy, but occasionally this can get ugly.

You should prepare yourself for cleaning the outside with:
~ A sink or tub, the size depending on the size(s) of gourds you're cleaning.
~ Rags
~ Copper scrubbing pads. 100% copper means they won't rust should you want to use them again later.
~ Bleach
~ Old towel(s)
~ Something to scrape with, perhaps a knife edge
~ Rubber dish gloves

You should prepare yourself for cleaning the inside with:
~ Gardening gloves, or thicker gloves
~ A melon baller
~ A taxidermy scraper
~ A sanding sponge
~ A shop vac
~ Dust masks, the best ones being for the finest particulate matter
~ Eye protection, especially if you plan on using power tools
~ Electric drill with wire brush bit for spots that are hard to reach

Please don't ignore the safety precautions, especially regarding sawdust. If you use a high-powered cutting tool (Dremel, etc), you'll be generating a lot... a LOT... of sawdust from the gourd, and it is very, very fine. The faster the tool, the more dust you'll create. Many gourd artists opt for mini-jigsaws with variable speeds, to control the cutting and minimize dust. In addition to dust masks and goggles, you should work in a well-ventilated area.

Step 1: Assess Your Gourd Gunk.

Picture of Assess Your Gourd Gunk.

Here you can see what dirty gourds look like outside and inside.

Gourds, which are varieties of cucurbits (cucumber family) grow with a waxy green skin. The shell itself is hardened when dried out in the field, which can take weeks or months. The waxy skin shrivels, dries and turns the dark brown/grey you see in the photos of the intact gourds. The lighter tan you see is the hard shell itself exposed when the waxy skin is removed.

Now see the photos of the opened gourds. You'll notice some are fairly empty, and some are full nearly to the top with dried vegetable matter and seeds. Some are crusty and dusty, and some look pretty smooth. Some have a curled, dried skin inside that is easy to pull out, and others have a white, styrofoam-like lining which isn't so easy to clean out.

Step 2: Cleaning the Outside.

Picture of Cleaning the Outside.

Normally when I scrub gourds I have garden bags full and tackle them all at once. I fill my kitchen sinks with hot water and a bit of bleach and shove as many gourds in there as will fit. Gourds bob like little buoys so you have to either find a way to hold them under water, or you have to periodically turn them to make sure all sides get wet and soak thoroughly. I do not have photos of this process, but will ad some later, after my next gourd shopping expedition.

What I do have is a photo of a gourd that didn't need much soaking and did well with just some hot water and a copper scrubbie. You can see I wasn't wearing gloves, which was a poor idea, because my wet fingernails were shredded. Yuck. Wear gloves.

This gourd is mottled from fungus, and as a result wasn't very pretty once clean, as the thick fungus darkens parts of the shell while the sun bleaches out parts with thinner or no fungus. If your gourd is too mottled for your liking you can set it out in the sun for a few days, which will fade it slightly, or you can try wrapping it in a bleach soaked rag for a few hours (then rinsing and drying). Neither option is guaranteed to lighten the shell, but occasionally it works.

If you have a gourd with waxy areas on the shell you'll have to soak longer, scrub harder, and possibly resort to scraping the wax off with the edge of a knife. I won't lie, this can be a huge pain in the patootie. But if you want dyes or inks to evenly saturate your gourd shell you will have to remove the waxy skin.

You can scrape the outer layer of skin off green (as in not yet dried) gourds, which effectively removes the waxy substance before the gourd dries, saving one the labor of scraping off the hardened stuff later. However, this can result in a collapsed gourd due to uneven drying based on the skin's removal (even during the drying process, the skin does offer protection against the shell drying out too quickly). You decide whether the risk is worth it. My luck with this method has been 50/50 at best.

Step 3: Cleaning the Inside.

Picture of Cleaning the Inside.

Don your dust mask. Don't be tempted to skip this step, and don't try to improvise by using a bandana instead. The particulate matter is too fine to be filtered by a bandana and will end up in your mouth, nose, and lungs. Did I mention some gourds have extremely bitter dust? You don't want it in your mouth, believe me.

Now, put on your gloves if you don't want to get scraped up. If you do want to get scraped up, don't bother.

Dump out what you can.

Now grab your taxidermy scraper and your melon baller, which should be sufficient in scraping out all of the stuck-on matter from a typical gourd, and start scraping. And scraping. Scrape out every last bit of fiber, dust and seeds, dumping the mess into the garbage as you go, or vacuuming it out with a shop vac (recommended). If there are areas in your gourd that are tricky to reach, try using a power drill with a wire brush bit around those bends. You can also try bending long-handled spoons to reach odd areas, but it's not very effective in most cases. At this point you may end up with a very clean vessel, and if that's the case you're lucky.

A lot of gourds, though, have stuff inside that resembles thick, squishy styrofoam, and it's very difficult to scrape out. In this case you may want to resort to soaking. Set your gourd in a sink or tub, open side up, and fill it to the top with very hot water. Let it soak for a half hour or so, and when the water is cool enough you can stick your hand in there and start peeling that foamy stuff out. Whatever is left after peeling you can now scrape out with your melon baller or taxidermy scraper. You'll need to let the inside dry out before moving to the next step: sanding.

If you want the inside walls to be smooth you'll need to sand them. You may have a little piece of "stem" (umbilical cord? LOL) in the bottom of the gourd. You may ant to remove it with pliers, as not to scrape your hand on it while sanding. Use a sanding sponge, which easily adapts to the curves, to rub the walls smooth. You can then wipe or vacuum it out, and your gourd is ready for whatever project you have in mind.

Have fun. I'd love to see your finished projects if you'd link to them in the comments :)


RobertM693 (author)2017-02-14

I recently bought a house and the previous owner had a few very impressive bushel gourd plants so i took care to pluck the gourds and set them on palets for the winter now all the snow is gone and i have quite a few giant gourds that were easily in the 20lb range last fall when i harvested them but now are quite light and im sure drying out properly they currently look alot like the photos of the gourds you had before washing so i have 2 questions first you mentioned that you went gourd shopping how much do you pay your gourds or what would you say is a resonable price to put on these and how much more would you pay for already cleaned gourds ie is it worth the work or will there not be much benefit to cleaning second are you getting them from a farmers market or something i was considering craigs list or other buy sell trade site any info around these topics will be much appreciated thank you for the tutorial

AntalyaS (author)2015-05-14

Just by chance I met this group while surfing on the Internet...

I have lived in US and returned to Turkey a few years ago. After my return , I have been in search of what to do and finally decided making gourd lamps.

First, it was just a hobby but making gourd lamps turned to a pofessionality in time and today I am a gourd lamp producer and exporter.

If you would like to have an idea about my works please visit following links. Starting from gourd lamp beads to table lamp bases, you can find some materials used for making gourd lamps.

Thank you,

indeepknit (author)AntalyaS2016-07-07

Absolutely beautiful.

krackershacks (author)2016-01-27

What tool do you use to actually cut the gourd open like if I were to want to make a light I need to cut a hole big enough to rig the light kit so what tool/equipment do i use?

indeepknit (author)krackershacks2016-07-07

X-acto knife, drill, mini jigsaw... Lots of possibilities.

indeepknit (author)krackershacks2016-01-28

You could use an xacto knife or xacto saw blade, as well as mini power saws.

PrestonL6 (author)2016-06-13

Dear Author,

Last week I was cleaning and cutting gourd bowls and then a day or two later I got extremely sick nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, aches all over my body, and a fever. I am still suffering these same symptoms today 4 days after getting sick. was this similar to when you got sick from gourd dust/mold? I am trying to identify the cause because this has been horrible! (I know this isn't a medical blog, I am just curious if the gourd dust could have been reason)

Thanks you,


indeepknit (author)PrestonL62016-07-07

It was a very long time ago that I acquired "gourd flu", but I don't remember nausea/vomiting/diarrhea... Only aches/fever/chills/malaise. I hope that you're well again. I'm thinking you probably had a virus?

NandiniJ2 (author)2016-04-12

Hello dear author

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Kind regards
Marry Green

cherie.hodges.54 (author)2014-09-02

awesome!!!! thank you so much for your time and effort on this, it has made the world of difference and i am now excited about my future projects.... all 6 of them

I'd love to see what you end up making! Have fun!

daugust5633 (author)2011-11-19

I have grown birdhouse and luffa gourds for years. I've got more birdhouse gourds this year than I've ever had.

Never heard of gourd flu and never wore a mask while cleaning them.

I had a HUGE one this year that started to rot at the neck while it was drying. So today I pulled off the neck, cut it off at the shoulders to make a bowl. It is still green. It was very juicy as I cut it and I assume that's why the neck began to rot - too much tissue to dry out before it started to rot.

Anyway. I scraped most of the wet "meat" from the inside and now have it upside down in a 170 degree oven. It is sitting on a few beer bottles to keep its weight off of the edges. HAS ANYONE EVER DONE THIS BEFORE? LOL. I mean dry them in an oven. Obviously I won't have any "mold wars" going on. Is it just going to cook or will it dry. Should I remove the "meat" right down to the green shell? Yikes! I bet I just ruined a gorgeous, giant birdhouse gourd.

mcorbin (author)2010-12-23

Your method works pretty well for cleaning gourds. I tried it with about a dozen, soaking them in an ice chest. A couple of weeks later I found a stray gourd that didn't get cleaned. Looking for a quick, easy way to achieve your results, I just rinsed it in the kitchen sink with warm water. Then I sprayed it with a Lysol w/bleach product that I had on hand, and gave it a scrub with some steel wool.

Worked very well, with a minimum of mess and without the longer soaking time I used before. Next time I'll try this with all my gourds.

Sevion (author)2010-01-30

 Hey, I don't have first hand experience with this, but if you want to have a neck like mine, you can take little rocks and just shake it all around for a while. I'm not sure what kind of results this produces, but the one I have, which was made by my grandfather using this method, is really really nice and I love the neck!

unosuke (author)2008-11-14

I have the strange urge to make a gourd water bottle/flask. Kinna drunken master style.

Sevion (author)unosuke2008-12-28

I have one :D

a_traceur (author)Sevion2010-01-29

I got that same urge!

mole1 (author)2009-12-28

Thanks for the precautions!  Molds can be a serious hazard, and I never would have expected to find it inside a gourd.

Haven't ever tried gourd craft, so a real nubie question: How did you cut it open?

indeepknit (author)mole12009-12-28

 Depending on how smooth the cut needs to be, and how tough/thick the gourd is, you can use anything from an Xacto knife to a hack saw. I typically make a starter cut with an Xacto blade, then finish with a mini jigsaw (try eBay). The mini jigsaw is nifty in that it can make some pretty intricate cuts, so you can do some nice artwork with it in addition to just using it to open a shell.

biofueljunke (author)2009-12-14

make one big yerba mate gourd with that

BLASTFEMI (author)2009-06-21

Gourd flu! Who knew! I'm so glad I read this before attempting to clean mine! I grew some ladle gourds last year. They are finicky to grow. They don't like it too hot. A heat spell during the bloom wiped out all but 3 of our gourds last year. We found a cooler spot in the garden for this year's crop. Fingers crossed! Great info! Thanks!

FunkNattidelic (author)2009-01-21

this is really shweet, and would probably come in quite useful if someone was to attemp a DIY Sitar! =P

xsamusaranx (author)2008-12-31

Hey thanks, where do you purchase yours at?

Sevion (author)2008-12-28

I have a gourd like the one in the picture. Mine is slightly more orangeish. It was my grandpa's. My family is from China. My grandpa got it from his grandpa :O. The way it was cleaned out was the cut a tiny bit off the top (Like an inch down in the picture example) then filled it with water and rocks. Then they shook it around A LOT until everything came loose and fell out. When it was 100% cleaned out, they filled it with wine and drunk till they was happy! :D So, I guess this is a separate way to clean it out, however, it's probably less safe. Wouldn't skimp out on the mask etc when doing this.

anngel369 (author)2008-11-04

i really wanna try this out! thanks for the detailed instructions..i didn't know you could get really sick if you inhale the stuff inside..thanks again":D

zombiehottie0900 (author)2008-10-24

cant wait to try this

craig3 (author)2008-10-17

the leafy stuff that is inside it, what is it like before it dries out? ive only ever seen dried and dead gourds never ones that would be fresh and still living what is inside the alive ones?

indeepknit (author)craig32008-10-17

I don't know for sure, as I've never cut a green gourd before, but I have to assume it's somewhat like what you'd find in a pumpkin.

craig3 (author)indeepknit2008-10-17

ah alright then, ill have to find out for myself then This really makes me want to start growing gourds but i dont ave much space in my yard for a big patch of them, damn

(your name here) (author)2008-10-09

I've been making jack-o-gourds for years, but never spent this kind of time cleaning out a gourd. Great job!

Thank you!

jurtle (author)2008-10-09

Good explanation. Incidentally, the moldy stuff you are cleaning off of the gourds can be interesting in its own right as seen in this slide show:

indeepknit (author)jurtle2008-10-09

Oh, definitely! I've seen some gorgeous mold patterns and have made a point to keep the nicer ones by way of sealing. Great video. Thank you for sharing :)

Kaiven (author)2008-10-03

So THAT'S how they do it... what about the kinds that look fully closed, but are hollow? Do you just glue the cut piece back on?

indeepknit (author)Kaiven2008-10-03

Yes, you can hollow out a gourd and superglue it back closed with a barely detectable join.

Dr. Steel (author)indeepknit2008-10-03

hm, really? i shall do that *thoughts of getting a gourd big enough to make a gaara gourd*

craig3 (author)Dr. Steel2008-10-05

i dont even know if it would grow that big, and if it did what are the chances of having the right shape? but, none the less, nothing cooler would of ever been made if it worked out

indeepknit (author)craig32008-10-05

I had to look this up to figure out what a Gaara gourd is. I've seen gourds that size and shape at gourd farms. They probably cost $15-20.

Dr. Steel (author)indeepknit2008-10-08

Really? Hmmm, I will look for a gourd farm. I have this feeling there aren't many gourd farms around SoCal. If any one knows where to find a gourd farm anywhere near Long Beach, please tell me.

indeepknit (author)Dr. Steel2008-10-08

The closest is Welburn Gourd Farm in Fallbrook, about an hour south of you (and me). It's a nice day trip.

Trebawa (author)Dr. Steel2008-10-03

You'd need a lot of sand, though.

Solderguy (author)2008-10-03

I grew a gourd plant, but I think I planted it too late in the season. Can you tell me when to plant gourd seeds?

indeepknit (author)Solderguy2008-10-04

I wish I could tell you. I've never grown them myself, though I've wanted to for a long time.

Solderguy (author)indeepknit2008-10-04

I got the seeds from a Walmart if you're interested.I planted them in about May; I wanted to plant them earlier but we had an inch of snow-slush in April.

Jackabee (author)Solderguy2008-10-07

I'd imagine that planting them after the danger of frost has passed would be best. You could start them indoors though if you are worried about the season not being long enough.

shadow12952 (author)2008-10-03

step 3 picture 6 looks like indians or somethin could have grown these and made bowls and stuff out of them/great instructable 5/5

indeepknit (author)shadow129522008-10-03

Thanks! Native Americans did/do make gourd bowls, and do lovely beadwork in decorative gourd bowls.

killerjackalope (author)2008-10-03

Wow, featured and rated, great pictures and lots of great safety tips... I've always wanted to know where to find myself some gourds, as far as I can tell they're not native to anywhere in the UK... I'll have to try some places, I always thought there was huge amounts of treatment involved in making the shells hard but I can think of some great projects for them. By the way to help sort out the insides of gourds and smooth them out, as long as there isn't foamy stuff you could take a shot at putting a handful of small pebbles in and shaking vigorously, it might be a good way to dislodge the particulate inside then vacuum out safely. Also a small funnel shape added around the base of a mini jigsaw and attached to a vacuum cleaner will almost eliminate the spread of dust. Granted from what you've said about it, it might be best vented outside as some filters are quite poor.

Thank you very much :) Unfortunately, the climate in the UK is just not suitable for this crop, but I know you can find gourds easily on eBay if you don't mind the postage. Pebbles don't get the toughest stuff out, as it's pretty stuck on, but they do indeed get the looser stuff fairly well. And you're absolutely right about it being best to filter the vacuumings outdoors. I think I like the vacuum attachment idea. It'd have to be very light, as to keep the mini saw precise.

Well maybe using an adapter on your vacuum to add to some smaller pipe would help with that, basically it's just suction at the cutting edge of the blade. if they have a flat bottom plate it'd be best as you could simply extend the blade hole backwards to make a suction hole... Hmm I'll keep that in mind. If pebbles are a little ineffective maybe ball bearings or even just finding a way to move it fast enough, like a simple spinning set of rollers, of course that might all and up being way too complicated. Unless you take a notion to supply IKEA with gourds...

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Bio: Weird and crafty geek girl. I make food, clothing, paper houses, and hula hoops. I grow things. I write funny stuff. ASD mama times two ... More »
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