CASTRO VALLEY -- Today's lesson: How to carve a lifelike wooden fish, in two simple steps.

Step 1: Start with a sturdy block of clean, knot-free wood, such as a foot of 3-by-6-inch cedar.

Step 2: Cut away every part of it that doesn't look like a fish.

Hours later, after your attempt to sculpt a rainbow trout produces something that resembles a mangled stonefish caught using dynamite, you will understand that there are no simple steps to carving a wooden fish, at least not if you want to do it right like Stanton Nunes.

Nunes' intricate and beautiful carvings of trout, crappie, catfish and the like currently are on display at The Book Shop in downtown Hayward, 1007 B St., where he'll talk about his craft at 1 p.m. Saturday.

It's a painstaking process, but one that the 57-year-old retired prototype machinist finds immensely gratifying.

"It's relaxing for me," he said in his Orange Avenue workshop, as he described the process that takes 200 to 300 hours per fish.

It starts with fish-shaped templates that are attached to the wooden block, which help get it into a rough form. It's slowly smoothed out, and then the detailing begins.

Scales are seared in, one at a time, using a wood-burning iron with a special U-shaped tip that Nunes crafted. Fins are all done separately -- it's critical for the grain to be just right so the wood can be whittled reed-thin without chipping.

The glass eyes are another thing altogether, one of Nunes' favorite parts.

"You put the eyes in, then paint over them," Nunes said. "After it dries, you clean the eyes off and that's when the character comes out. It's looking back at you -- it has life now."

He's won some competitions with his fish, although he said he's been humbled by some pieces done by other master craftsmen. But Nunes is advancing -- these days he's doing models with open mouths, and that's a whole new can of worms.

"You need to have the gill rankers, the esophagus," Nunes said. "The judges want to look in there and be able to say that looks like a real fish."

Those judges are biologists, and know their fish anatomy, Nunes said. That means he needs to know it, too.

To get the details down, he took a fish he'd caught and filled the mouth with silicone to make a mold.

Nunes said that's why nearly all the fish that are carved for competition have closed mouths.

"The judges say, 'If you carve it with an open mouth, you're inviting me in there,' " Nunes said.

Nunes' fish will be on display at the Sun Gallery in the fall, and right now he's gearing up for more competitions. He hopes to eventually start selling his pieces, maybe for $750 to $1,000 per fish.

Nunes acknowledges that doesn't mete out to much of an hourly wage, but he hardly considers it a job.

"I just enjoy every part of it," he said. "And it's always evolving, and I'm always trying new things."

Contact Eric Kurhi at 510-293-2473. Follow him at Twitter.com/erickurhi. Read his blog at IBAbuzz.com/hayword.

Online
To view a slideshow of Nunes' art, go to http://extras.mercurynews.com/slideshows/news/2011/04/woodfish.