Fixing Broken Gourds

Contents copyright N. P. Cutchey 1999 through 2011 etal.

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Stephen Coleman wrote:
I found your tutorial helpful. A Sitar I have purchased from a local shop has been broken. The gourd has a two inch square hole and a split six inches up the middle. Is there any way I can repair the Sitar myself? Or, can you refer me to any online sites with this information?

Hi Stephen,
It is always sad when this happens to a Sitar. To me it's like someone killed it. But we can, with some skill and patience, bring it back!

BTW, I don't take instruments like this in for repair as I don't have the time or energy for this. Most of my repairs have been performed on instruments that have been broken while being shipped to me from India in which case they are sold as repaired items.
Please don't use superglue to repair musical instruments. It's nasty stuff in general and, if you ever need to undo the repair later this is difficult to do with superglue. Common wood glue is fine for most repairs, but hide glue is even better. You can get this at wood shops and sometimes lumber yards.

Broken gourds are unfortunately quite common and I have repaired a number of these. When done carefully the instrument sounds as good as it was before being broken.
The traditional way of performing a broken gourd repair is to remove the gourd from the rest of the sitar and patch the inside of the gourd with goatskin. So far as I know this is only done in India by highly skilled makers. Don't try this at home, folks!

OK, what to do:

First keep all the pieces you have left, if any. If all the pieces are there you can build them back in again using Elmer's carpenter's or hide glue and replacing one or more pieces at a time. Don't hurry the process. Let the glue dry for a few hours before putting more pieces in place. You'll soon get the knack of doing this 3D jigsaw. The hardest part is committing yourself to the repair. Working up the nerve, really.
After you have done this you can fill the small surface irregularities with Plastic Wood or Bondo Glazing and Spot putty then refinish it as below.

If there are no, or few, pieces left then you'll have to rebuild the gourd another way. The best way that I know of is to use materials that are available at most hardware and auto body repair stores.

To repair a hole when you haven't got the original pieces left you will need:

  • Masking tape, 1 roll 3/4" and 1 roll 2".
  • 2 medium size garbage bags.
  • One plastic supermarket-type grocery bag.
  • Fairly fine carbon fiber cloth.
  • Elmer's wood glue (white) or hide glue.
  • A tube of Bondex plastic Wood. Natural is the best color.
  • A tube of Bondo Glazing and Spot putty.
  • Coarse, medium and fine sandpapers.
  • Twine.
  • One or two aerosol cans of sandable wood primer.
  • One or two aerosol cans of gloss finish (color of your choice).
Masking off:
Make a hole in one end of one of the garbage bags. Place the open end of the bag over the neck and run it down until it is at the curved portion where the neck joins the gourd. Put a strip of masking tape round the end of the bag to tie the bag to the neck and a strip of tape to secure the bag to the back of the neck. Put a strip of masking tape round the other end of the bag to tie the bag to the neck.
Place the second bag around the neck and pull it down over the end of the first bag until the top of the bag meets the top of the neck. Put a strip of masking tape round the end of the bag to tie the bag over the other bag.
In this way all of the neck is protected while you do your work on the sitar. Mask off the leaves on the gourd using 3/4" masking tape. You can slightly overlap the leaves with tape onto the gourd and paint this area later on, using a small brush, when you have finished painting the main gourd and removed the masking tape.
Use 2" masking tape to mask off the rest of the woodwork.
Take the plastic supermarket-type grocery bag and place it on the front of the sitar. Using 3/4" masking tape secure the bag to the beading around the edges of the front in such as way as the beading is also protected.
When you have finished this, unite the bag to the other bag you have already taped down at the bottom of the neck.
Fill up any gaps here with masking tape. Now all the sitar is completely protected against dust and paint spliis, etc.while you work on the gourd.

The crack:
First, repair the crack by coating the sides of this with glue, pressing the crack together and winding twine round the gourd to keep the crack shut. Leave until the glue is dry, then unwind the twine.

The hole in the gourd:
Cut a piece of the carbon fiber cloth and secure it under the hole so it isn't sticking out beyond the outside of the gourd.
Thread wires through the carbon fiber cloth so when the cloth will be pushed into the hole the wires will cause it to be held against the inside of the gourd, against the edges of the hole. The ends of the wires will be on the outside of the gourd so they pull the carbon fiber cloth up against the inside edges of the hole.
Remove the carbon fiber cloth and wires but leave the wires in the cloth.
Coat the inside of the hole with glue. Then coat the edges of the carbon fiber cloth with glue. Carefully push the carbon fiber cloth though the hole and, using the wires, pull the carbon fiber cloth up so the glue meets with that you have already applied to the inside edges of the hole.
Leave this for a few hours and then apply more glue to the carbon fiber cloth at the edges of the hole.
Eventually you will have the carbon fiber cloth bonded to the inside of the hole. When this has all dried out remove the wires.

Now, using the plastic wood, build up layers on the carbon fiber cloth until you have filled the hole. The plastic wood should protrude a little so you can sand it down when it is dry and get a good curved profile.
When dry, sand the patch down using coarse, then medium, then fine sandpapers.

Fill the crack with Bondo Glazing and Spot putty and, when dry, sand with medium and fine sandpapers until smooth.

Spray the gourd with several coats of sandable wood primer sanding between coats for smoothness.
If the gourd has previously been finished with french polish you'll need some thick coats of primer otherwise the final gloss coat will react with the french polish and spoil the finish.
Apply the final coats of gloss paint and remove all masking when dry.
Take some primer and apply it to the unpainted space around the wooden leaves. Then, when the primer is dry, apply some of the gloss paint around the wooden leaves.
and... you're done!

Note: you can also do these things and then, instead of spray paint, use an undercoat made from colored earths and french polish then French Polish the gourd. This is the traditional and proper way to refinish a sitar gourd and is what I normally do. If you wish to learn how to do this, borrow some books on wood finishing from your local library.
Be very careful about breathing in denatured alcohol or allowng it to be absorbed through the skin. Alway make sure you are in a well ventilated area. Poisoning is culmuative with this. Shame on any government that deliberately poisons a substance just so they can tax "legitimate" alcohol for drinking purposes. Denatured alchohol can blind you, cause hearing loss, Parkinson's disease like syndrome, and nerve damage.

Got more questions? e-mail Peter and I'll do my best to find an answer for you, plus I'll put the Q&A into this FAQ so this will help others.