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How to Carve Cigar Store Indians

Carl Hose

Wooden cigar store Indians have stood outside tobacco shops for decades. They came into existence at a time when illiteracy was high, as a way to let customers know they could purchase tobacco in the store. Wooden Indians are no longer as popular, but collectors still enjoy them for their decorative appeal.

With a little patience and sweat, you can make your own wooden cigar store Indian to display at your front door.

  1. Select your wood. Keep in mind that cigar store Indians are typically life-sized, so you will need to be able to transport the wood you choose for this project. If you want your Indian life-sized, the wood piece will need to be about seven feet high and three feet thick on all sides. This will give you plenty of room to carve. You can use tree wood or purchase pine, ash or mahogany.

  2. Find a sturdy platform to set your wood. This is where you will be working for a while. Hang your reference photo nearby and get to work. Start with a hammer and point chisel and begin roughing out the shape of your Indian. You'll remove a lot of wood during this phase, which is what the point chisel is good for. It doesn't matter whether you start at the bottom and work your way up, but try to work in one direction at least until you reach the halfway point. If your Indian will have a full headdress, you may want to begin there just to get the difficult part out of the way.

  3. Use your flat chisel once you have the outline of your Indian in place. The flat chisel will allow you to refine the gouges and jagged edges left behind by your point chisel. Work slowly during this process, bringing out the lines of your Indian. You still won't be working on details at this point. This is a shaping process. Work from your reference photo as you refine.

  4. Finish your carving with a tracing chisel. This is a smaller chisel with a flat edge that allows you to chisel in the lines to detail your Indian's feathers, facial features and clothing texture. Use heavy sandpaper to smooth away any rough edges before you begin detailing.

  5. Paint your Indian with acrylic paints. Let the natural wood show through for most of the carving, reserving the paint for feathers, face paint and highlights on the clothing. Too much color will take away from the wooden charm. When the paint dries, apply a clear lacquer to give your Indian a gloss of protection.