The Russian nesting dolls are usually made of basswood (linden tree). There is no shortage of this tree in Russia, it is fast growing and the wood is easily carved. The trees selected for matryoshka blanks are cut down at the beginning of Russian spring usually in April when the trees are full of sap. The bark is removed leaving a few rings to prevent the wood from cracking; the butt-ends are waxed. The logs are arranged in piles with some spaces for air circulation and left to dry for two years. Only an experienced master can tell when the wood is ready.
Then the logs are cut into work pieces. It is essential that the full set of nesting dolls be made from one piece of wood, because the expansion-contraction characteristics and moisture content of the wood are unique; making a set of dolls from different pieces would result in a set that would unlikely fit together properly.
The craftsman uses a turning lathe and a few tools including and a variety of woodcarving knives and chisels of different lengths and shapes. Making of blank nesting dolls begins with the smallest doll—the one that is solid and can not be taken apart. This smallest figurine is shaped on a turning lathe first, and her shape and size determine those of all the larger dolls that follow. The bottom half of the next doll (the smallest one that can be taken apart) is turned first. The last made portion of this lower half is the ring fitting the bottom to the top. Then the matryoshka's head is turned and the necessary amount of wood is removed from within the doll’s head to slip on the ring. All these operations do not involve any measurements, and rely only on intuition and require high professional skills.
The woodworker completes his job by putting the upper part of the matryoshka doll on its lower half and allowing the wood to dry. This tightens the ring to its upper fitting so the halves of the doll fit perfectly.
The resulting blank nesting dolls are almost pure white because the linden tree wood is white. The unpainted nesting doll is thoroughly cleaned, lightly oiled to retain moisture and prevent cracking and left to cure for a while. Finally, it is primed with starchy glue, dried and is ready to be painted.
The painter is the next craftsman to work on the matryoshka. In the history of the Russian nesting doll, the early dolls were prized for the skills of the turner and his ability to make a thin shell for the matryoshka. Woodworking was prized above painting. By the 1980s, this balance had shifted and the painting was considered to add more value than the wood turning. There were also two schools of emphasis in painting; one put more importance on the doll's face, and the other featured the costume and its details. Nesting doll artists were often also painters of religious icons (images of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, and other religious figures) that were revered in churches and private homes. So the detail they could achieve in their chosen style was amazing.
Early matryoshkas were painted with gouache - an opaque form of watercolour. These days high-quality tempera (colloid-based paint like poster paint), oil and the paints similar to those used by artists on canvas are employed to colour the Russian nesting dolls. Watercolours are also used, but watercolour dolls are more rare and expensive because this is a difficult technique to use on wood.
The painters are true artists who know the character of the wood, the tradition of the matryoshka and other wooden toys, and national costume and folk tales, as well as have their own individual artistic strengths. The artistic style may be very rough or extremely fine—sometimes, only a single hair from a brush is used to add eyelashes and threads of lace. Gold leaf is also added to enhance the detailing.
Although the majority of matryoshkas are painted all over, some have the native wood colour exposed. The wood becomes the background of the doll, and paint is added to give her a face and costume.
A heated poker is also used in some designs to burn in details of the matryoshka including facial features and costume. This is a pyrography technique also known as pokerwork or wood burning. The nesting dolls decorated with poker work are often called woodburn dolls. The woodburn tecknique is often combined with painting.
The painter completes his or her set of Russian nesting dolls by adding a signature to the bottom of the largest doll and writes the number of nests in the set (the bottom of the dolls is often left unpainted). After the paint has dried, the dolls are finished with a protective coating. Wax is used rarely, lacquer is the most common finish. For the artistic sets, at least five coats of lacquer are applied.