What You Need to Know From the World’s Greatest Samurai On Entrepreneurship and Woodworking

The Book of Five Rings
The Book of Five Rings

Santa was very good to us this year.  He brought several terrific books on woodworking that were highly recommended by some of the current big names in woodworking.  One of these tomes, “The Book of Five Rings”, is a popular strategy book written in 1645 (available at Amazon.  Click here for the book), which you wouldn’t normally think of as an entrepreneurship and woodworking book; however, the author and samurai, Miyamoto Musashi, talks about working with wood in his strategy analogies which can be very helpful for entrepreneurs and woodworkers.

So who was Musashi?  He was the founder of the Niten-Ichi-Ryû-School of sword fighting and fought sixty duels, the first when he was 13.  Obviously, someone who fought that many duels with swords and survived, to such an age, is someone that might be worth listening to.  They just might have some skill and wisdom.

“The five ‘books” refer to the idea that there are different elements of battle, just as there are different physical elements in life.”  I’ll share three relevant concepts to the entrepreneur and woodworker here.

Become Proficient With Your Weapons (or Tools)

Musashi’s thoughts on artisanship and strategy are particularly useful:

“The Way of the carpenter is to become proficient in the use of his tools, first to lay his plans with a true measure and then perform his work according to plan.  Those he passes through life.”  Musashi then goes on to talk about the importance of training with weapons every day in order to become proficient.  Likewise, the craftsman must build up many hours of hands-on experience to become proficient.  Along those lines, I’m finding my current set of measuring tools are not up to the task as I continue to become more accurate.  For example, using the English system with 1/16 inch increments is just proving to be inefficient when I have to continually add or subtract 1/4, 1/8, 1/16 inch etc.  It’s much easier to do everything in the metric system which increases accuracy because there is less chance of making an adding or subtracting error.  In addition, a millimeter is finer than 1/16 inch which increases precision even more.  That’s why I’ve been gradually acquiring metric rulers and squares and using them more often.

“Like a trooper, the carpenter sharpens his own tools.  he carries his equipment in his tool box, and works under the direction fo his foreman.  he makes columns and girders with an axe, shapes floorboards and shelves with a glance, cuts fine openwork and carvings accurately, giving as excellent a finish as his skill will allow.  This is the craft of the carpenter.”  Musashi brings up a great point here.  It is so tempting to keep working away on a piece when you know you should stop and sharpen the tool, but who wants to stop when you’re making progress and having fun?  In the long run, it will take less time to take a break and sharpen that tool.

Develop Correct Strategy

“The comparison with carpentry is through the connection with houses.  Houses of the nobility, houses of warriors, the Four houses, ruin of houses, thriving of houses, the style of the house, the tradition of the house, and the name of the house.  The carpenter uses a master plan of the building, and the Way of strategy is similar in that there is a plan of campaign.  If you want to learn the craft of war, ponder over this book.  The teacher is as a needle, the disciple is as a thread.  You must practice constantly.”  Probably the most important step in designing a project is to listen to your client (we talked about that in our last post, Traughber Design and Nomades Collection Team Up!) and question them to understand what their vision is.  The next most important is to think through your strategy before shaping a single piece of wood.  This will save much time in the long run.  We see this continuously in woodworking.  It is imperative to have a strategy and plan for piece.  For example, without a cut list the woodworker will continually be shuttling back and forth from teh wood shop to the wood dealer.  I solid plan and cut list will ensure one trip for material and more time spent on the craft.

Another tie to strategy is that the enemy’s actions require the good strategist to adjust.  Likewise, the woodworker needs to adjust their strategy as the work progresses.  I recently finished a serving tray for Mrs. Woodworker.  We got a fine piece of mulberry from fellow woodworker, Jacob Hummitzch (thanks Jacob), and when Mrs Woodworker had seen the raw board (see the post , the original dimensions we had discussed were out the window because the mulberry has so many interesting patterns in it.  What I thought was going to be a simple rectangular board finished with a food-safe oil, is now going to be much different.  Mrs Woodworker wanted to keep at least one live edge, so then I had to think of a different finish to preserve the live edge.  In addition, we followed the  circles of the grain at one end, versus making 90 degree corners.  The woodworking strategy needs to be adjust to the wood, just as a military campaign strategy needs to be adjusted to conditions on the battlefield as Musashi writes.  For more on this read our post about Entrepreneurship, Woodworking, and Clausewitzian fog and friction.

Conquer Oneself

Musashi’s thesis is that “a man who conquers himself is ready to take on the world, should need arise”.  This is very useful advice for entrepreneurs.  If someone wants to scale up their enterprise, they need to get their personal leadership skills in order to be a good boss.  Leadership in an entrepreneurial enterprise is the same as leadership in the military, according to Musashi:  “The foreman carpenter must know the architectural theory of towers and temples, and the plans of palaces, and must employ men to raise up houses. The Way of the foreman carpenter is the same as the Way of the commander of a warrior house.”

“The foreman carpenter allots his men work according to their ability.  Floor layers, makers of sliding doors, thresholds and lintels, ceilings and so on.  Those of poor ability lay the floor joists, and those of lesser ability cave wedges and do such miscellaneous work.  If the foreman knows and deploys his men will the finished work will be good.”  In many cases, the supervisor can do the work, but should he/her?  In doing the work themselves, the supervisor is taking away an opportunity for subordinates to develop.

“The foreman should take into account the abilities and limitations of his men, circulating among them and asking nothing unreasonable.  He should know their morale and spirit, and encourage them when necessary.  This is the same as the principle of strategy”

I hope you enjoyed this deep dive into a Samurai’s view of woodworking and entrepreneurship.  Check out the book, when you get a chance.

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