The Underhand Chop is one of the most thrilling TIMBERSPORTS® disciplines to watch – it’s the one most likely to make first-time watchers of the sport wince too. Why? Competitors stand on a horizontally placed poplar log and swing an axe between their feet to cut the block of wood in two!
New followers of the STIHL TIMBERSPORTS® series may worry about the razor-sharp axes hitting feet instead of logs but this discipline is actually perfectly safe for trained athletes. Like many of the TIMBERSPORTS® disciplines, its roots are in real-world forestry techniques from the past. It mimics how foresters would chop a felled tree into manageable lengths of timber before the world had chainsaws.
Swinging an axe from above your head to below your feet doesn’t come naturally to most people though, so just how do they do it? Firstly, all the logs are properly prepared before the competition. Each athlete cuts two footholds into the timber to give them somewhere flat to stand. They also draw lines on the block to guide where they chop.
Once the judge starts the competition, athletes then have just 90 seconds to chop through a 32cm diameter log or they are disqualified. They must chop the log from both sides, can’t cut through their footholds or chop the block if a foot is touching the floor.
Another way they could be disqualified is to forget their all-important chainmail protection! Whilst it may look like the top athletes are just wearing trainers, they actually have specially made chainmail socks covering their feet and lower legs.
Even the best athletes can suffer a lapse in concentration so it’s important that their lower legs and feet are protected from a miss-hit of the axe. Newbies to the sport do need maximum protection though until they are proficient so they wear metal boots that look like the legs and feet from a medieval suit of armour or a robot! As their skill level develops they graduate to wearing less cumbersome chainmail which can be individually made to order for maximum comfort. This chainmail will prevent axe miss-hits making any cuts to the skin, although an axe will still leave a good bruise if contact is made!
In the fastest heats, the racing axes hit the log at 60mph and at a 45-degree angle. Athletes follow a symmetrical rotating pattern of cutting that allows the timber to fall away to reveal new wood to cut. 2018 American Women’s Division Champion, Erin Lavoie demonstrates the technique here:
You also shouldn’t forget that you are working with nature in TIMBERSPORTS®. Axes can be damaged by undetected knots in the timber so it’s essential to have a spare axe on stage. Knots in the log can be much denser than the surrounding wood and can easily take chunks out of an axe edge even though it’s made of high carbon steel.
Pro athletes have other tricks to ensure that they consistently perform at their best. You’ll see them putting chalk on their hands and axe handle to improve grip and grease on the axe head helps prevent axes sticking in the wood.
Once half the block is cut, athletes jump 180 degrees to face the opposite direction and then continue chopping through the other side of the block. All cuts need to be precise and need power behind them to get those winning times.
What makes the athletes fast? Impressive technique, good personal fitness and a great axe are on the list, but practice makes perfect when it comes to wood chopping. The best in the world is 24-year-old Brayden Meyer from Australia. At the 2015 TIMBERSPORTS® Individual World Championship he clocked just 12.39 seconds for the Underhand Chop. It took only eight hits with his axe on the first side and seven hits on second. Meyer is a fourth-generation wood chopper and started chopping aged just nine years old which is why he’s one of the best TIMBERSPORTS® athletes in the world. You can watch his world-record heat here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jyHyArAOmvE
Aussies and Kiwis dominate the records for this chopping event. Out of the top 10 quickest times in the world for the Underhand, there’s only one person who isn’t from Australia or New Zealand. That’s Matt Cogar of the USA – six times US champion and 2019 Champions Trophy winner. Cogar also comes from a wood-chopping dynasty and has been chopping since he was young so practice really is the name of the game here.
The Underhand Chop is a thrilling, quick TIMBERSPORTS® discipline but it can be heartbreaking to watch. It isn’t always immediately obvious when the log has split in two as it is held in metal stands for stability. Competitors can often make what they think is their final axe blow, put their foot on the floor thinking they are finished and then realise they haven’t quite severed the log. They then lose valuable seconds stepping back up to finish chopping through. It can take several strikes to finally break the timber because their chopping rhythm has been interrupted and that can be a disaster for their final time. Competitions have been won and lost on such mistakes so it’s vital to make a clean, final cut.
All of the excitement of the Underhand Chop make it a firm crowd favourite at TIMBERSPORTS® competitions, but is it one of yours? Let us know your favourite TIMBERSPORTS® discipline in the comments.