MARTINEZ -- With his twinkling eyes, gray beard and generous heart, there's a kind Gepetto-like quality that is apparent in Martinez woodcarver Jim Marieiro.

Unlike Pinocchio, the focus is not on fostering conscience in a wayward wooden puppet, but rather he has set his sights on attracting young aspiring carvers to the art form that has captivated him since his own boyhood.

There are no long wooden noses or handcrafted toys. The subjects, which are judged in the youth division in various tournaments, are mostly myriad fish and fowl.

"White hair was becoming our common denominator. It was time to get young people involved," says Marieiro, who teaches a group of youths, ages 9 to late teens, many of whom whittle away on a block of tupelo gum each Thursday evening at a local Martinez frame shop. Dremel tools are donated for the under-18 set.

"He really pushes you. He really wants this art to live on," says Sabrina Larez.

Sabrina recalls having seen some of Marieiro's carvings as a girl, with those pieces' lifelike quality in each rock, leaf or feather. The College Park High School junior signed up for his classes a year ago and "fell in love right there," intrigued by the creative challenge.

"The head shape has to be right. The tail has to be right and you have to burn the feathers just right," says Sabrina, whose red tanager won a top award at the Capitol Woodcarvers competition in Sacramento this past weekend.

His students primarily compete in tournaments as far south as San Diego and as far north as Vancouver, for which the judging criteria has been established by the International Wildfowl Carvers Association, including the competition hosted by the Pacific Wildlife Flyway Decoys Association.

"It makes you appreciate a lot of things in nature and what we do as carvers. You understand how much time and effort went into it," Sabrina adds.

Jared Yokum says he had a "fair amount of experience with knives" when he first sought out Marieiro's carving tutelage. The College Park sophomore was then working toward a woodcarving merit badge for Boy Scouts, initially trying his hand at a blue catfish.

This past weekend, his cardinal was among the top award winners.

"Before, I didn't consider myself as artistic and now it's great to create something I'm proud of," he says. "I'm hooked."

Meanwhile, Tyler Clemons, a seventh-grader at Martinez Junior High School, is a relatively new student, and on this particular Thursday, patiently sands away on his catfish.

"It's the detail of it and how it all comes together," he says, describing his enthusiasm for the class.

The class also has its adult contingent.

Concord resident Jack Borde chalks up his and fellow carvers' -- young and old -- awards to Marieiro's teaching talents.

"He knows what the object looks like in reality," says Borde, noting Marieiro's former career as a local taxidermist. "He's a consummate carver in his own right."

Tom Oakes was very familiar with duck decoys, growing up in Iowa where he hunted and fished, and the requisite criterion that they needed to be hollowed out to float.

It wasn't until six years ago, when he started studying with Marieiro, that it became an artistic pursuit.

"(At first) I threw mud against the wall and it stuck," he says, lightheartedly describing how his carving has since flourished, and how he is now competing in intermediate divisions, having segued from novice.

The Walnut Creek resident took home two blue ribbons from the Sacramento show.

On a recent Thursday, Pacheco resident Pat Calabro pops in to get her mentor's advice on a new tool she's acquired.

At first glance, Marieiro's not optimistic, concerned she wouldn't be able to control the heat.

Calabro pulls out a bird she's carving, asking him to offer feedback on how she's progressing.

"Jim is my sensei," she says.

open house
Samples of Marieiro's and his students' woodcarvings will be on display at an open house from 5:30-7:30 p.m., May 23, at I've Been Framed, 411 Ferry St., Suite C, Martinez. For more information, call 925-228-7353.