Sandalwoood - carving techniques

Sandalwood carving was traditionally a caste bound occupation. Sandalwood carvers were once a particular group of people, called the Gudigars. Each new generation in the family would keep to the same craft. Traditionally carvers learnt their craft at home. However, now the government has set up some training institutes. Traditionally only men were sandalwood carvers and women used to make wreaths from the shavings. However, now some women in the co-operatives are polishing the figures and carving the finer details.

Craftsmen and co-operatives

Historically craftsmen might be attached to a temple or receive patronage from royalty and wealthy people. Such patronage gave a fixed salary which would continue into old age. Village craftsmen tended to work in exchange for services while town craftsmen joined together in powerful guilds. These are similar to present day craft co-operatives. Earnings are generally low compared to the price the carving eventually fetches.

Classic carvings

A photograph of a carved sandalwood box housed in Kew's Economic Botany Collection.
This intricately carved box is made from sandalwood.

A common type of carving is a free standing human or animal figure. A carver starts by reducing a block of sandalwood to the rough shape. At first the carver will sit on the floor holding the block between their feet while hitting it with chisel and mallet. Gradually the figure emerges. Finer work is done using the chisel held like a pencil. The figure is then smoothed off with sandpaper and finally given a wax polish. The left over sandalwood shavings can be used to extract sandalwood oil or to stuff pin cushions.

Another type of carving leaves figures so they stand out from a flat background. The excess wood around the figures is cut away with chisels and gouges to a certain depth. Designs can also be lightly incised into thin flat pieces of wood to go on boxes and trays.