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Anatomy of a RattleHead Rattle…

  • 8 min read

Rattles are one of the oldest musical instruments and trance inducing tools. Certain seed pods make wonderful rattles. Very dry gourds rattle from their internal seeds. Currently, I make wood handled rattles with gourd shakers. I plan to explore additional production options in the future. I’ve been wanting to make some rawhide rattles. This is an overview post which contains the seeds for more detailed expositions on rattle making.

My favorite woods to use are Sassafras, Cedar, Maple (and the wonderful Ambrosia Maple, when I am lucky enough to find it), Black Walnut, Birch, Honeysuckle Vine and the occasional unknown wood. Each type of wood is unique in its appearance, carving characteristics and energetics. I am not a wood expert, many resources of information exist about this. I will blog from my personal experience working each of these wood sources for rattle handles.

All the wood is ethically sourced, mostly from where I live or from friends property. Though, I am always on the lookout for a nice stick. I carve from branches and also from wood that has been split from rounds. Sometimes it is an a simple piece of wood, often with a curve in it, which I personally like. I often use branched sticks or a tripod stick. When you add more gourds, the chorus of sound is very nice. I do a lot of green wood carving. So much easier on most woods, and I have found there is little problem with cracking as the wood handles dry out (though I know not to leave them in the sun). There are woods I need to carve green because they are much more difficult to work when fully dry. These include Honeysuckle Vine (amazing how hard it gets) and Maple. Other woods carve nicely when fully dry including Sassafras, Cedar, Black Walnut and Birch.

I like adorning the handles with gemstone inlay. I mix the ground stone with 2 part epoxy, put in place, dry it and sand for beautiful effects. I listen to the wood as to where to place the inlay. Often I utilize natural defects or accentuate existing cracks. Other times I just decide where to put it. My favorites are dark blue Lapis Lazuli, green Malachite, orange Pipestone, Red Coral and light blue Turquoise. These provide the colors, and energetics, I like. They are all soft enough to be easily worked/sanded. I have tried many others, like Amethyst, which looked amazing but was too hard to work easily. I’m making a lot of rattles, so I don’t want to make it too tough on myself, smile.

The use of Gourds, for so many purposes, is legion around the world. Gourds are usually named according to their shape or use. I use smaller gourds for rattle heads. All my gourds are filled with popcorn, it is what I have found works best. Another consideration for me is that when I initially clean out the gourds, I am removing pulp and seeds. It feels proper to replace that with seeds. I have not been satisfied with non-organic fillers like stones, pebbles, crystals and the like. Most of the gourds I use are 2” – 4” in diameter. I like eggshell gourds, mini-dipper gourds, mini-pear gourds, small Martin gourds. Some gourds are a little thinner (like the eggshell gourd) and more prone to damage/cracking. Some are thicker and stronger. I have never known anyone to crack a gourd by simply playing the rattle. Usually there is trauma involved like hitting a hard surface with the rattle, sitting upon it or packing it in a tight backpack. Repairs are easily made.

Often I leave the gourd surface in its natural state. Sometimes the surface is a homogeneously even golden tan. Often the surface has been painted by fungus during the drying process, and these mottled patterns are beautiful to my eyes. I also like to adorn the gourds. I use a craft wood burning tool to burn/emboss various designs onto the gourds, which to me has a very ‘tribal’ feel to it. In recent years, I have enjoyed brightly colored gourds by using the application of Alcohol Ink. After sanding the gourd surface I paint it white with a protective enamel. I sand it first to give the paint something to grip onto and create an even layer without streaking. I paint it white, so the alcohol ink stands out. If applied to the natural surface color of the gourd, it all looks kind of muddy. These brightly colorful alcohol ink treated rattles have become very popular, stimulating me to explore these techniques further.

The handles are carved to have a post at one end (or at both ends when I make a ‘dumbbell’ style rattle). This post is where the gourds fit onto the rattle. I place a hole in either end of the gourd, remove pulp and seeds, treat inside of gourd with shellac, adorn gourd if desired…. then it is ready to fill with popcorn and slip onto the post. The gourds are bound knotless to the handle with “artificial sinew” (flat waxed nylon, or polypropylene, cord that comes in rolls). A tiny cedar dowel is placed at the end of the post to secure the rattle heads. 

This picture shows buckskin cord instead of artificial sinew

The sound of the rattles depends on a number of variables. The gourd is a major determinant. Aspects of the gourd that impact the sound of the rattle include size, shape, wall thickness, internal wall texture (can be very hard or slightly soft). I have also found that the sound of the gourd is different when it is placed on the post. Shaking it with and without a post present creates a different dynamic. With the post present there are a lot of scatter from hitting it which adds to the sound. Another factor impacting sound is what you fill the rattle with. I tried non-organic fillers and was not satisfied (though using seed beads gave an interesting airy sound). So I started using seeds (about 15 rattles in each series) including a yellow lentil series, a field pea series, an orange lentil series (sounded just like the yellow lentil, chuckle). All these were okay, though when I finally listened to my drum teacher, Bear, and used popcorn it was clear how much better it was.

I sure do like making custom Rattles! People have the opportunity to pick the wood and whether it is branched or not. They can choose the type of gourd and how many. The adornment of handle and gourd is customized to design or color. On smaller rattles, I like the addition of a leather wrist strap. I think one of the coolest customization’s is putting some of your “Personal Medicine” inside of your “Personal Medicine Rattle”. Folks will send me some popcorn kernel sized items that they cherish, or that hold some significant meaning for them. This might include gems, crystals, stones, beads, seeds, herbs. And I have received various combinations of the same, that were then placed inside the custom rattle, along with the popcorn. SO SWEET! 

People acquire my rattles for many reasons and to use in many ways. They are made with the intent of being tools to use in Ceremony (personal or group). They are not made as musicians rattles (though there are musicians who use them). There are plenty of shakers on the market for musicians that are easier, louder, more consistent sounding and are unaffected by weather. Many musicians tell me they like shakers with not handle. They are not made as baby rattles. They ARE NOT baby rattles. On my rattle tags it says “Not a toy, Sharp edges and choking hazard if broken.” Little ones chew on them and the dowel can break off in their mouth. 

Mostly they are used in ceremonial circles, often plant medicine circles. I am pleased to know many of the ceremonial leaders, and participants, who have adopted the use of my rattles.

All of this… makes my head rattle!

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