Do you have your own set of matryoshka dolls? Was there a time wherein you just paused and gazed at the wooden masterpiece and wondered how was it made? Have you ever thought it was made from wood at all? How can one piece of wood be as smooth, glossy, and shaped into a hollow oval? How is wood even shaped into an oval? Won’t it break?
It is fascinating to believe that the Russian nesting dolls are made entirely from wood. Given their glossy appearance and smooth finish, one might even think that they’re shaped from glass or porcelain. The people who buy them might never understand the process that it goes through to carve and how the workers are able to produce such a masterpiece. Carefulness, precision, and mastery of the skill are needed to create just one set.
The People Behind the First Set of Russian Nesting Dolls
In the year 1890, two men namely Vasilii Zvyozdochkin and Sergei Malyutin, carved and painted the first set of matryoshka dolls. This set consists of eight uniquely painted wooden dolls, each one different from the other. The idea was to create a wooden doll that had the capability to hide more toys inside of it: resulting in the Rooster Girl, which was composed of eight individually unique wooden dolls. She was named “matryoshka” which means “little matron”.
There was no clear process indicated with the making of the first set of Russian nesting dolls. Sources believe that the procedure remains unchanged; meaning most of the matryoshka dolls made today are still carved by hand with the help of a turning machine called a lathe, and painted by hand—no measurements, no templates.
Matryoshka Doll Making Process
To start, the process begins with the most important element of the dolls: the wood to be used. Naturally, limewood works best for the material of the toys. Wood for the dolls can also come from alder, aspen, balsa, birch, or linden. Each trunk is cut from the top and bottom, then examined by an experienced quality control personnel to see if the wood is fit to be carved into matryoshka. After inspection, the logs are arranged to get aired out for one to two years. They will only proceed to the next step when the woodworker decides that they are ready. Rejected wood is usually rotten or damaged, and those who pass the quality inspection are proceeded to be stripped and husked until only the almost white inner wood is left. Before turning it over to the carving department, the wood is placed on the lathe machine to shape the wood into cylinders. Most sources say that the whole piece of wood is used for the whole set. However, based on the largest number of produced nesting dolls factory in Russia, each cylinder of wood that is stripped and husked is only equivalent to one half of a single doll.
For this next step, it is unclear whether or not the carving starts from the smallest doll to largest or vice versa. It is safe to assume that the workers may start on either, it just depends on which size they are more comfortable to begin with. Using sharp tools and razors, the cylinder blank of wood is again fastened to the lathing machine to carve each part of the doll. The top part is usually carved out first, which will then be used to mark the dimensions on the second block of wood for the measurements of the bottom part to match. The challenge is to create a doll from the two different blanks of wood as if it was made with only one. After the carving process is complete, the two parts are joined and sanded together to complete the shaping procedure. The carver then moves on to the next size and repeats the same steps. No measurements are made during the carving process, it all depends on the worker’s skills and intuition.
Wood has this characteristic of absorbing paint and chipping over time. To prevent this from happening, the dolls are coated with a starch-like texture of glue before they are painted. The substance not only protects the wood, but it also substitutes to the modern primer, making the dolls non-toxic and safe for children. Two to three layers of the coat are needed for each wooden doll before it is taken to the next step.
All matryoshka dolls are painted by hand. Workmanship is so precise that all the dolls look like they’ve been painted by machinery. Gouache is used to paint the dolls, which is a type of paint that is opaquer than watercolor, giving the colors a bright, bold, and vibrant look. What’s painted on the doll first is usually the outline, then the blocks of colors, and finally, the details. The paint on the dolls is left to dry before taken to the final step.
For the last part of the procedure, each doll is coated in a few layers of lacquer. This is to protect the paint job from natural wear-and-tear. Lacquer is also responsible for the shiny and glossy finish that the doll has when it’s displayed. After the lacquer has dried out, the set is complete, which will be then shipped all around the nation as well as other countries.
Nesting Dolls as a Work of Art
No modern and state-of-the-art equipment are used to create the matryoshka dolls that are enjoyed and wondered all over the world. The time and effort that was given complete just one set is an astonishing factor, with the workers so skilled that they’ve been making nesting dolls for decades.
The matryoshka doll serves as a symbol of a woman’s fertility and her motherhood. Similar to the role of a mother in her family, the process of creating the Russian nesting dolls require hard work, dedication, determination, and a good amount of passion. The wooden toys have been an ancestral treasure to Russia for more than a hundred years, and with good reasons. Each doll represents a slice of life from the traditional times, letting the owners reminisce on how simple the days were. It is, in fact, true that matryoshka dolls not only bring recreational joy to the young ones, but it can also carve a permanent mark in someone’s memory, the way they were carved to preserve theirs.