Health & Safety Issues: Working with Gourds

Basics of Gourd Health

When working with gourds, the following common sense measures and easy-to-find products will help keep you healthy and happily crafting.

  • Gloves:  Avoid direct skin contact with moldy gourds which have not yet been cleaned.  Some people also cannot handle cleaned gourds without gloves.  A metallic taste in the mouth is the first sign of this tactile-taste problem.  Vinyl gloves like those used by the health industry can be purchased by the box at your local pharmacies and large chain stores.  When scrubbing gourds, dishwashing gloves are recommended.
  • Mask or Respirator: Airborne dust particles and mold spores from gourds should be avoided just as any other type of airborne particulate should be.  A mask or respirator designed to prevent inhalation of these minute particles should be worn when cleaning the outside surface, sanding, cutting, and cleaning inside surfaces of a gourd.
  • Work with gourds outside whenever possible.  If you must work inside, make sure you have good ventilation and a dust control system is strongly recommended.
  • Dust particles and mold spores will cling to clothing and hair.  After working with gourds in the cleaning, sanding, cutting, carving, etc. stages, change into clean clothes and wash the ones you were wearing.  Keeping your hair covered while stirring up gourd dust or mold is also a good preventive measure.
  • If you are new to gourds, you will soon learn your sensitivities to them, if any, and the measures you’ll need to take when working with them. The first signs of a problem will most likely be a metallic taste in the mouth, fits of coughing, or sneezing with runny eyes and nose as in an allergy attack. The measures and protective items mentioned above are the first steps to maintaining good health while working with gourds. They should be followed even if you don’t notice any sensitivities at all. Gourds, like many other pollutants in the environment we come in contact with throughout our lives, don’t always send up an immediate signal that they are causing a problem.

Gourds are a wonderful natural resource to work with, providing many creative opportunities and practical uses.  So let’s all gourd in good health!

Joy Jackson and Jerry Lewis, 2003 Gourd Artists Gathering

Useable Gourd Finishes

Mark and cut a bowl shape from your cleaned gourd, making it as shallow or as deep as you want. You can cut the gourd using any tool you prefer, exacto knife, small exacto saws, dremel or mini- jigsaw, making the edges straight or scalloped, according to your needs.
Remove the seeds and pith with a scraper, either flint, sharpened spoons or purchased cleaning tools, always moving from the centre out, to avoid scarring the remaining pith. When you’ve removed all the soft pith, sand several times starting with course grade (60-80) and finish with fine grit (180-220) again, moving from the inside to the outside. Use the sanding burr tip on the dremel tool to smooth the bump in the centre, to as low as it will go. Be sure to check the depth of the centre from the outside, so as not to make it too thin in the centre.
Sand the cut edge and then soak the bowl in warm, soapy water. Sand and soak a few more times to remove any soft pith, and the bitter taste. A brew of sage tea can be used to do this as well.
If you wish to decorate by wood-burning, inside or out, do it before the last sanding and finish, as burning raises the grain.

  • Natural Finish
    Your bowl is ready to use as-is with no sealer, but all cut edges must be sealed by burning. After use for soups, stews, beans etc (avoid boiling hot liquids), rinse well, let dry, and if necessary give a light sanding.
  • Oil Finish
    If you want to use a salad bowl finish, then both inside and out must be treated the same. Re-apply several times, to deepen the coating and maintain the waterproofing.
  • Varathane
    Ask for latex varathane for baby furniture, to ensure it is non-toxic. After sanding, coat the interior with a harder gloss finish, at least 3 times, lightly sanding between coats. Seal the exterior as well, with either gloss or satin finish.
  • Epoxy
    Use a 2-part epoxy called Enviro-tex from ACE hardware. It requires an alcohol solvent for cleaning up. Seal the exterior and edges with epoxy or varathane.
  • Spoons and Ladles
    If you wish to make ladles or spoons, use the tops of bottle gourds. Ladles are cut using the stem end as the scoop and the handle runs down the side of the gourd top. Spoons are cut from the top bulge, the handle being the indentation and the flare from the bottom bulge. You can get several spoons out of one top. These utensils are stubby and bent, but sit well inside the bowls. Sand and seal the same as the bowl. Decorate with wood-burning, for natural or oil finish. Painting can be used under varathane or epoxy, but must cure at least a week before sealing.

Tutorial on the useable gourd finishes by Catherine Devine
Information from a workshop that Catherine attended, which was given by Lynne Slack at the Indiana Gourd Show