Oaxacan wood carving is one of the most cherished cultural treasures of Mexico. Artists make every effort to ensure that each Oaxacan wood carving is unique. While most pieces are referred to simply as figuras, the most impressive and inspired carvings are given the distinction of being called alebrije, setting them apart as one of the best Oaxacan wood carvings.
Oaxacan wood carving artists spend a great deal of time and effort imagining their next carving. The decision of what form to carve is a vital part of the process to this particular art. It helps the artist choose which piece of wood to use. The wood used in Oaxacan wood carving is considered as important as the carving itself. Common woods include cedar and tzomplantle. Most artists prefer the wood of the copalillo tree, a member of the Burseras family that grows in the warmer parts of Oaxaca. Artisan carvers classify a copalillo tree as male or female, based on sight and smell. Female copalillo wood is preferred, as it is softer and has fewer imperfections. The artist chooses searches carefully for which branch of which tree best fits the figure he or she intends to carve. Once chosen, some artists let the wood dry and harden for several days before beginning their work, while others prefer to carve immediately into the softer wood.
The actual carving of the wood is done with an array of tools dependent upon the required precision. Larger cuts are made with machetes, while more detailed work is performed with chisels, mallets, and small blades. When the carving is finished, the figure is dried in the sun for a period of time relative to the size of the piece. Large carvings can take up to a month to fully dry. Dried figures are then sanded and treated to protect them against insect infestation. Imperfections in the wood are treated with wood putty and white glue. Finally, the piece is carefully painted and decorated. Today’s Oaxacan wood carvers uses different sized paintbrushes to perform the same decorations previously achieved throughout Mexican history by using items from nature, such as thorns and reeds.