The Art of Gourds

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Gourds come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and are perfect for creating decorative projects, such as birdhouses, bowls, flowerpots, and more. These fruits are first classified by the name of their general shape, such as kettle, canteen, gooseneck, and egg, and then by their size. A note may also be added as to whether a gourd is thick-walled, blemished, or has coloration variations on the outer shell. Gourds are measured by height, diameter, and circumference, with the diameter and circumference always being the widest part. For example, a kettle gourd might be noted as being 9 inches in height, 6 inches in diameter, and 19 inches in circumference.

No gourd is absolutely perfect, but working with the peculiarities is part of the fun of gourd art. In fact, projects like the following flowerpot are a great way to use blemished, scarred, and distorted gourds.

Preparing a Gourd

Gourds grow with a natural waxy covering that protects the shell and seeds from water during winter. As the gourd dries, this waxy covering begins to develop a layer of mold that consumes it, exposing the wood-like shell to the elements. The shell can now crack, break, rot, and open, releasing the seeds in the spring. The inside of the gourd can also contain mold and dust.

Any type of mold or fine dust can be hazardous to humans if inhaled, so you should always wear a dust mask while you’re cleaning gourds. Latex gloves should also be warn to protect your skin from coming in direct contact with dust and mold. And you should always clean and sand gourds in a well-ventilated area.

To clean and prepare a gourd, you’ll need the following:

  • Dust mask
  • Latex gloves
  • Dishwashing soap
  • Steel wool soap pad
  • Paper towels
  • Pencil
  • Assorted books
  • Utility knife or bench knife
  • Long-handled teaspoon or palette knife
  • Terry cloth towel

Step 1: Wash the gourd. Put on your mask and gloves, and then give the outer surface of the gourd a good, hard scrub using warm water, dishwashing soap, and a steel wool soap pad to remove any mold spores, dirt, and dust. Rinse well, and let the gourd dry on paper towels.

Step 2: Create a straight cutting line. For tall gourds, rest a pencil on a stack of books that measures the height of where you want your top cut. Turn the gourd, keeping the gourd wall against the pencil, to create a level cutting line.

Step 3: Score along the guideline. Use a sturdy utility knife or bench knife to score a cut along the pencil guideline. Use short, shallow strokes to slowly deepen the cutting line, but don’t puncture the gourd just yet.

Step 4: Pierce the guideline. After thoroughly scoring the guideline, use a knife and carefully cut until it goes completely through the shell wall. Cut all the way around the guidelines until the top piece detaches. Don’t pry or force the cut section to free itself from the gourd. On some thin-shelled gourds, this can crack the side of the gourd.

Step 5: Remove the insides. Remove the seedpods, which can be saved and planted in the garden in spring.

Step 6: Scrape out the insides. Use a long-handled teaspoon or sturdy palette knife to loosen any remaining seedpods and pod fibers inside the gourd. Remove all of the loose seeds and any other debris.

Step 7: Soak the inside of the gourd. Fill the inside of the gourd with warm water, and allow it to sit for a few moments before dumping the water. This dampens any dust, dirt, and mold spores that are present, so they can’t become airborne. I often repeat this step several times to help clear out any loosened fibers.

Step 8: Continue to clean. Use a long-handled spoon or palette knife to scrape the insides of the walls. Remove the fibers until you reach the wood-like inner shell.

Step 9: Finish. Give the entire gourd a second scrubbing with soap and warm water. Set it upside down on a terry cloth towel, and allow it to dry completely.

Treating the Gourd Surface

Once the gourd has been cleaned inside and out, its outer surface needs to be treated to create a solid base for crafting. Depending on your gourd, you may not need to do all of these tasks, but you’ll likely need to do many of them.

For this step, you’ll need the following:

  • 220-grit sandpaper
  • Craft knife
  • Ox-hair brush
  • Water
  • Acrylic sculpture paste
  • Paper plate or aluminum foil
  • Palette knife

Step 1: Sand. Sand any blemishes, scars, and small holes.

Step 2: Cut open the holes. Use a craft knife to open up small holes, creating cone-shaped walls that won’t trap air when sculpture paste is added.

Step 3: Remove dust. Dampen a stiff-bristled ox-hair brush with water, and scrub each area you’ve already worked to remove the fine dust left from the sanding.

Step 4: Let dry. Let the gourd dry until it’s lost its glossy look, but is still damp. A slightly damp surface will allow the sculpture paste to create a tighter bond to the gourd walls.

Step 5: Fill the holes. Place a small amount of sculpture paste on a paper plate or a sheet of aluminum foil. Fill the holes with sculpture paste using the palette knife.

Step 6: Finish the holes. Smooth the sculpture paste with a damp finger, and allow it to dry. Small, shallow areas can dry within 15 minutes. Larger areas may require several layers of sculpture paste, slowly building up the paste to the surface level of the gourd. Allow each layer to dry for at least 1 hour before adding the next application.

Step 7: Sand. Lightly sand the dry patches of sculpture paste to remove any ridges and to smooth the area until it conforms to the surface of the gourd.

Drip Flowerpot Project

By the end of this project, you’ll have a unique and decorative flowerpot. Prepare all of your dripping colors at the same time, as each layer of paint needs to be added while the previous layer is still wet.

Step 1: Apply the base color. With a paintbrush, apply 2 to 3 light coats of black paint to the entire outer surface of the gourd. Allow each coat to dry before applying the next coat.

Step 2: Protect the rim. If you’ve added a reed rim to your project (see “Creating a Reed Rim” at top right), place strips of painter’s tape over it to protect it — and the inside of the gourd — from paint splatters.

Step 3: Prepare your paint. Combine 2 teaspoons of turquoise paint and 3 teaspoons of water in a paper cup, and mix well. Pour some of the bright-yellow, pale-yellow, and pale-yellow-cream paint into three different paper cups.

Step 4: Drip the first paint color. Set the gourd upright in a small bowl to hold it in place, and then set the bowl on a paper plate. Using a piece of straw, move the blue paint from the cup to the gourd, making a long, narrow drip. Because the paint is thin, some of the black base paint will show through the blue.

NOTE: Alternatively, you can use a plastic mixing spoon instead of a straw, and slowly dribble color from the spoon across the gourd’s surface in short, diagonal movements, which will create a different pattern.

Step 5: Drip the second color. Repeat the dripping process using a new straw and the bright-yellow paint, placing the new drips inside the blue drips created in the previous step. Because the previous paint layer is still wet, each new layer of dripping pushes against the layer below, causing the colors to bleed into each other.

Step 6: Drip the third color. Drip the pale-yellow paint inside the bright-yellow drips.

Step 7: Drip the fourth color. Drip the pale-yellow-cream paint inside the pale-yellow drips.

Step 8: Add the first glitter color. While the last layer of dripped paint is still wet, lightly sprinkle the top of the drips with silver glitter. The glitter will stick to the wet paint, so you won’t need glue or other adhesive to adhere it to the gourd.

Step 9: Add the second glitter color. Add a light layer of black glitter over the wet drips and silver glitter.

Step 10: Add the third glitter color. Add a layer of bright-orange glitter.

Step 11: Add the final paint drips. Add a few more paint drips in the colors you’d like to be prominent on the flowerpot. ( I chose to add more drips of blue.)

Step 12: Allow everything to dry. Let the gourd sit, untouched, for about 30 minutes, and then carefully remove it from the small bowl and set it on a clean paper plate to dry completely.

NOTE: If you added a reed rim to your gourd, now is the time to remove the painter’s tape and paint the rim. I painted my rim black, so the drip design would stand out as the focal point of the flowerpot.

Step 13: Finish the flowerpot. Finish the gourd with several light coats of acrylic spray sealer, letting it dry thoroughly between each coat.

Tools & Materials

  • Paintbrush
  • 7-inch tall, 7-inch diameter, 21-inch circumference cannon gourd, or gourd of your choice
  • Black acrylic craft paint
  • Painter’s tape, optional
  • Medium-turquoise acrylic craft paint
  • Water
  • Small, wax-coated paper cups (4)
  • Plastic teaspoons
  • Bright-yellow acrylic craft paint
  • Pale-yellow acrylic craft paint
  • Pale-yellow-cream acrylic craft paint
  • Small bowl, for holding the gourd
  • Plastic straws, cut in half (2)
  • Finely ground silver glitter
  • Finely ground black glitter
  • Finely ground bright-orange glitter
  • Wax-coated paper plates
  • Acrylic spray sealer

Creating a Reed Rim

If you want, you can add a reed rim to your project, as I’ve done. Just about any rim finish that’s used on flat or willow reed baskets can be used on gourd art. To prepare a gourd for a reed rim, after cleaning it and creating the opening, drill a series of 1/8-inch holes 1/2 inch down from the opening, spaced about 1/2 inch apart. Then, weave the rim following your chosen weaving technique. Search the internet for basket rim videos to learn about the different techniques.

Lora S. Irish is a painter, woodcarver, and crafter. This is an excerpt from her book Crafting with Gourds: Building, Painting, and Embellishing Birdhouses, Flowerpots, Wind Chimes, and More (Fox Chapel Publishing). You can explore her work and find a variety of project tutorials at www.LSIrish.com.