How to Clean a Hardshell Gourd

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Introduction: How to Clean a Hardshell Gourd

About: 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. Crazy cat mom to Calamity Jane, Salem Massoftwoshits, and Daenerys Sto...

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.

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.

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.

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 :)

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    50 Comments

    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

    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.

    marmarisgeceleri.blogspot.com
    antalyakabakevi.blogspot.com
    pinterest.com/makbulerdogan
    instagram.com/gourd_lamp

    Thank you,

    020.jpg
    1 reply

    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?

    2 replies

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

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

    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,

    Preston

    1 reply

    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?

    Hello dear author

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    Kind regards
    Marry Green

    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

    1 reply

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

    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.

    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.

     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!

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

    2 replies

    I have one :D

    I got that same urge!

    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?

    1 reply

     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.

    make one big yerba mate gourd with that