Enzan no metsuke – a secret of the masters

Enzan no metsuke is roughly translated as “gazing at the mountains”. In the martial art I practice ( Iaido), it refers to a technique of gazing at a wide field of vision rather than focusing upon a single point or opponent. For ancient Samurai, it was a valuable survival tool. Staring too intently at the enemy you expect leaves you vulnerable to the enemy you don’t detect due to your extreme focus.

Enzan no metsuke is an essential tool for the artist, as well. Who has not become so focused on the specific that a defect in the work at hand remains undetected until correcting it becomes a substantial or even impossible job? Here are four easy, cheap ways of upping your game in the shop using a variation on Enzan no metsuke; without the zen.

  1.  Get an inexpensive hand mirror for the shop and use it to look at the piece you are working on. Adjust the mirror so the angle of view changes. I learned this from my friend ( and fantastic painter) Kim Mellema. I assure you that it works as well in woodcarving as it does in painting. 
  2.  Turn your work upside down. If there is an alignment issue, this will expose it. We become habituated to looking at a piece from a single angle. Turning it upside down forces our eyes to reevaluate things.
  3.  Take it outside. If you work in a shop with artificial light, it’s always a struggle to light adequately and with the correct shadows. My friend Bill Bromell suggested taking it outside and looking at the work in natural daylight.
  4. ) The best method is the last. Just take a break. Go away, have some coffee or tea, have lunch. Break your focus on the project, and come back in an hour to two. It’s amazing what time away will do for your perception of the project.

These methods work by altering the way we view the work, shifting our viewpoint.

The Fugitive Nature Of Art

One of my wife’s great grandfathers had been a successful chip carver in Vermont. He had even been mentioned in a contemporary book on artisans in that state. All this, as is often the case, was forgotten over the generations. About thirty years ago the elderly sisters who controlled the family estate began liquidating the old family homes and contents. Among the items that poured forth were carved pieces from grandfather. Like me, he sold the number ones and kept the number two’s as reminders of how to cut the patterns. One of these little boxes found its way to my wife. I was fortunate to receive a small book of designs that he regularly carved.
As a carver, my wife’s great grandfather was praised for the accuracy of his cuts, and the effortless nature of his carving (the photo I’m including is of one of his practice pieces; all that remains of his work as a carver).

Eventually, the cleaners reached the attic of his house. In the attic were the real reasons for his accuracy, and success at carving; Boxes and boxes of practice pieces. He had been a compulsive perfectionist in his craft and saved his failures as kindling for the woodstove. At the end of his life, the last five or six shoe boxes never made it to the stove and were consigned to the attic.

This post could end with an encouragement to practice for the sake of mastery – as Coveney put it the need to “sharpen your saw.” What you do often you do well. And, this is very true, but let’s take it just a bit further. One of my senseis in Iaido ( the Japanese art of drawing the sword) likes to talk about the “fugitive nature of the art.” It’s impermanent, use it or lose it. Try laying off a skill which depends on not just your intellect, but also the sort of muscle memory needed to cut accurately and the skill degrades. Don’t do it for long enough and while your brain may remember all the steps your body is cranky. Your muscle memory has degraded. This fugitive nature of the art holds true in sword work, in hand-carving, and I’d imagine in arts like dance.
We do not just achieve mastery once. We continue to reach for it through continued use because skill is fugitive.


I almost put on my hakama* without putting on my obi. The arthritis is bad enough to force me to do standing kata, but after two months, it feels great to be practicing – remember the Katana is long, but the ceiling low. Sword cuts in the ceiling are not allowed. Must not upset she who is not to be trifled with.

Covid-19 knocked me out for only a week. I had a mild case. But the recovery has been long, very long – weeks of low energy levels and fatigue.

Today though, I cleared the living room and slowly moved through three sets of standing seitei Iaido. I was tired, but not entirely out of breath. Eventually, the dojo will reopen, and I don’t want to be the one in the corner panting because the long layoff from practice has sapped my strength, although it has. 

The problem with long periods of no practice is that you think you are doing great, but then realize that your technique has atrophied. Like other forms of art, there is a fugitive component that you struggle to keep at bay through regular practice. I’ve had similar issues when I’ve stopped carving for periods. “how the heck did I do that?” Because so much of both those arts are tied to muscle memory, you can lose it if you don’t use it. 

Sometimes it’s interesting as you work back into things. You get little bursts of “beginners mind,” and you can use those to restore freshness to your work. You have an opportunity to avoid old harmful patterns – if you are careful.

Notes for those who don’t do Iai:

The hakama is a sort of divided pantaloon that was a typical style of dress in feudal Japan- being that Iaido is Japanese swordsmanship we dress in that style.

An Obi is a broad, very long belt that we wrap around our waist beneath our hakama ( but over our short jacket called a Keikogi).

Kata is a pattern of practice. In the case of Iaido, a pattern of sword cuts and movements that mirror a combat situation. Iaido gets practiced solo.

The Katana is the long Japanese sword used by the Samurai. It takes years of dedicated practice to master its use.

Seitei Iaido is one form of Iaido. In my dojo, we also practice a type called Muso Jikiden Iaido – another school of training. 

dojo is a place where you learn and practice Japanese martial arts.

Contact me is you want to know more.


I am reposting this as part of Fandango’s Flashback Friday – April 16th.

<p class="has-drop-cap" value="<amp-fit-text layout="fixed-height" min-font-size="6" max-font-size="72" height="80">My long-suffering guitar teacher Sid Glick: "Get that tempo down! You always want to rush!" Of course, he was correct. I was poorly self-taught, and he was trying to correct the errors of that self-tuition. Slow…down. "You can't gain mastery unless you can do slowly what you now do at full speed." My long-suffering guitar teacher Sid Glick: “Get that tempo down! You always want to rush!” Of course, he was correct. I was poorly self-taught, and he was trying to correct the errors of that self-tuition. Slow…down. “You can’t gain mastery unless you can do slowly what you now do at full speed.”

Fast forward forty years, and I found myself giving the same advice to woodcarving students. In some cases, I’m trying as Sid did to hide the frustration in my voice.
Once I started teaching carving, I had to master the art of slow. You can’t explain what you don’t understand, and every day, most of us do complex tasks at full speed. Such full speed that we don’t know what we are doing, and when called upon to show others we fumble.
If you teach manual skills, you know what I mean. The teacher has to be a master of slow to show the way to the student. The student, of course, is frustrated by slow and wants to go fast.
I thought I understood this. Then at age sixty, I returned to martial arts. I practice a Japanese sword art called Iaido. Iaido is the art of drawing the sword. There was the usual master to student instruction to “slow down.” which I found amusing and frustrating; because I thought I understood that part. I gradually started mastering the basics. Then both my senseis threw in a curve. My draw and cuts need Jo-Ha-Kyu. Jo-Ha-Kyu implies a sort of acceleration in the process of drawing and cutting. Like many concepts, there is more to the telling, but a simple English explanation is slow at the beginning, faster in the middle, and fast like an express train at the end. For something so deadly, it’s quite beautiful to watch when done correctly ( not by me). Let me add that, like many simple things, this is not easy to master.
I didn’t think there was anything comparable in carving. Then one day, I was smoothing the background of boat portrait, working hard to flatten the background with a large flat fishtail gouge. I woke up to the slow initial set of the tool. Then the gradual acceleration into the cut. And, the ending sweep as I added a bit of fast rotation to the gouge at the end; Huh. Jo-Ha-kyu.
I am very much in the early days as far as Iaido is concerned so, I won’t comment further on the functions it has in sword work. In carving, however, there is a feedback mechanism involved in the technique I described. To fast and too hard at the start, and I can dig my tool into the wood resulting in a wedge that can split and raise a shaving. After the initial set, I sense the progress of the gouge and the way the wood responds. I can detect if it drags, pulls to one side, or starts descending. If I react early enough, I can correct it. In the end, I control the rotation I use to finish the cut. As one sensei like to say, “and that’s all there is to it.”

Slow is essential, but the next level is knowing control and acceleration. But, to see that you have start slow.


“Now let the tool do the work. The edge is sharp. All you have to do is guide it.” That was me to a student at the WoodenBoat School years ago. More recently, sensei said to me, “Lou, the sword is sharp, let it do the cutting. All you have to do is guide it.” In the first case, I was an instructor in maritime carving, and in the second, a student in Iaido – a Japanese sword art.
After years of working as a carver, my hands knew how to finesse a cut. To apply just enough strength to shave off what I wanted, and no more. As a neophyte student of Iaido, I was fighting the impulse to put too much power into a cut, and not trust the sword to do the work.
The solution is, as it always seems to be, lots of practice. With a gouge as with a sword, the control you need can’t be just a matter of mind over a tool. Something called muscle memory needs to develop. Muscle memory allows you to do the right thing as required without thinking now I’ll apply just this much pressure, rotate the tool five degrees, swivel two and finish.

When you begin carving, you can’t imagine how the carver almost idly manipulates the tool to remove precise shavings with the gouge. The secret is in part in the hands, but the entire body can be involved. Watch a carver or the swordsman cutting. The body shifts, the hips move, the shoulders flex. The hands are the recipient of all the focused energy and direction. Ask to be shown in slow motion how to do it, and most people won’t be able to explain it. It slips from the mind. One day you’ll be carving and wake up from musing on car repair or cooking dinner. You’ll realize that the past fifteen minutes, your carving has been on a sort of autopilot with your hands, body, and some deep part of your mind operating without you.

Blade Work: in search of perfection

There are some interesting parallels between Japanese swordsmanship and effective carving technique. No, I am not suggesting that they are just alike, just that both involve very sharp steel blades, and reliance on muscle memory to complete accurate cuts. Let’s start at the beginning.
I always begin my classes in carving with sharpening. Nothing gets done effectively or safely without a sharp blade. After sharpening students have an opportunity to test the edges of their knives in chip carving. That being said sharpness is not the only thing needed to be successful. To be competent in chip carving you must have a sharp blade, and be able to cut at the correct angle and do so consistently. An incorrect cutting angle leads to irregular cuts and lopsided designs. Sharpness will not help with this.
A sword similarly needs to have the correct hasuji to achieve the intended effect; a clean, effective cut. Hasuji is the path your sword takes in a cut and the edge alignment which you maintain while you cut. Yes, one is with a very large blade, the other with a blade of an inch length, but the principle is the same.
In chip carving an angle too steep or too shallow dooms your project to failure; so correct hasuji is essential. With a sword, correct cutting angle will use less energy and will cut cleaner as well.

You can go to books on chip carving and find the correct angle at which you should cut to a degree. But, you are not going to get too far lining up each cut with a protractor. You have to learn it, and through practice put that angle into your muscle memory. This is pretty much what we do with a Japanese Katana too.
As with a Katana so with a knife; we learn correct hasuji through practice.

An additional piece of wonderment in blade work

You may have heard of a state called mushin ( mushin no shin), sometimes referred to as “no mind.” I have yet to achieve this state in martial arts, but when I was carving every day for hours on end, I’d frequently find myself awakening from mushin after an hour of doing something like hollowing the wings on an eagle. My body knew what needed to be done, and my training took over leaving my mind to relax, and think of no thing. You cannot achieve this sort of state if you are consciously thinking things through all the time.
My first martial art was Judo. My Japanese sensei heard me complaining one day that we practiced all these throws thousands of times. His response was to throw me and then sit down beside his thirteen-year-old critic and explain that we practiced the techniques thousands of times in dojo with the intent of learning them so well that when needed there would be no thought at all involved in their use. The first time I was jumped on a New York subway and defeated my attacker with a single throw and a wrist lock I knew that…as usual…sensei knew best. As sensei pointed out the key was practice. The swordsman Miyamoto Musashi was also an acomplished poet, pholosopher, calligrapher and painter. He advised that the principles involved in mastery of one thing can be applied to learn and master others – ” from one thing learn a thousand things.”

So, get out your tools, and start practicing.

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