Even if you haven’t been to Russia, you must’ve learned about Russian dolls from a movie like Transsiberian or your friendly Russian fanatic.
Anyway, here’s a brief introduction to the world of Russian dolls or, as we often call them, Russian Matryoshka.
A Brief History of the Russian nesting doll
Matryoshka dolls are a set of wooden dolls of decreasing size placed one inside another. The term 'Matryoshka' translates to 'little matron', which is a diminutive form of the Russian female first name 'Matryona' (Матрёна) or 'Matryosha.'
History claims that the first set of traditional Russian dolls were based on Japanese nesting dolls. But I believe that the Matryoshka originated back when woodcarvers used polished wood to create wooden Easter eggs in Russia.
The first Matryoshka doll, produced in Moscow, was handmade by Vasily Petrovich Zvyozdochkin in the 1890s. Vasily was a Russian turning craftsman, woodcarver, and doll maker.
Another name in the Matryoshka hall of fame is Sergey Malyutin, who hand painted the first wooden nesting doll.
Other names for the Russian nesting doll include Matrioshka, Babushka dolls, and stacking dolls.
How to make a Russian Nesting doll
Making a Nesting doll is a delicate process because we aim for the utmost quality and durability. You have to think about the doll’s size, the number, and what materials you need. Here’s a brief systematic procedure for making one Matryoshka doll set.
1. Harvesting logs
The process of creating a nesting doll starts with harvesting logs. Contrary to common opinion, recently harvested timber logs are not ideal for doll making. You have to ‘age’ the wood before it is good enough for the carving process. The choice of wood is also crucial.
Various wood types can create Russian dolls, but the Linden tree is the most widely accepted choice. It is pliable, making it perfect for carving and cutting. Some doll makers let their linden timber logs dry for two years, while artisans may wait as long as five years.
Woodturning is the art of cutting a symmetrical shape around the log’s rotation axis using a lathe and hand-held tools. Like the potter’s wheel, the wood lathe is a simple mechanism that can create various forms. However, the process of creating these shapes is not as simple.
Most turners in Russia start learning woodturning at the young age of 10. At Firebirdworkshop, our woodturners have years of experience under their belts, making them very efficient at carving shapes without excess material waste.
Shaping the smallest doll is usually the first step. The turner starts with carving the most miniature doll and then finishes with the biggest doll. As you can imagine, cutting the smallest doll is the most challenging task.
For safety and health concerns, the woodturning workshop must be well-ventilated and dry. Wood is most durable when it is free from any moisture. Turners use a chisel to perfect the doll’s shape with incredible precision.
3. Painting the Matryoshka
At this stage, the turning and carving process is complete. Like Michelangelo’s Sistine chapel painting, Russian dolls are genuine works of art. Artists dedicate years of learning to perfect the art of portrait painting on Russian nesting dolls.
Painting a nesting doll requires immense precision and skill because each doll tells a story, and they come in petite sizes. The first step involves painting the doll’s face.
Later on, we will publish an article on the various types of paints for wood painting and why we use tempera paints at the FirebirdWorkshop.
4. Applying Lacquer or Varnish
We apply up to five layers of eco-friendly, VOC-free, water-based lacquer on our nesting dolls. Lacquering ensures that the dolls have a beautiful glossy finish.
There is a difference between lacquer and varnish, but we will also have an article for that. Varnishing or Lacquering is the process of applying a solution to wooden furniture or ornaments to protect its surface and preserve its beauty.
5. Quality Control
Most defects appear in the packaging and transportation process. Sometimes cracks may occur if there’s some moisture in the wood. At Firebirdworkshop, the quality control process happens at every stage to minimize these defects.
Why Russian nesting dolls make great gifts
We believe Matryoshkas represent parenthood and family. Creating a Matryoshka is a delicate, tedious, but beautiful process involving a lot of people.
Like raising children to grow up hale and hearty, doll making requires strength, attention, and lots of love. Our Russian dolls are also excellent souvenirs and home decor items. An unconventional doll gift for a child’s birthday party, wooden dolls are eco-friendly.
Thank you for reading through. If you like this article, visit our blog to read more like this by clicking here. Our workshop makes beautiful custom nesting dolls, so stop waiting around and get your Russian nesting doll today!