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It has been said that the sport we now know as woodchopping originated as the result of a bet between 2 men in a bar in Ulverstone, Tasmania in 1870. Jack Biggs from Warragul, Victoria and Joseph Smith form Ulverstone, had a wager for £25 to see who could fell a tree the fastest.
Many of the axemen of today still work within the timber industry, which is of course no longer reliant on manpower for harvesting. As the years have passed the sport has developed into a much more sophisticated affair which includes, Underhand chopping, Standing Block Chopping, Treefelling, Single and Double handed Sawing and Axe throwing.
Generally there is the perception among the public that axemen (or woodchoppers as they are often referred to) are all huge men and only the big men are of any caliber. While it is true that many of the sporting axemen of today are well above average in size and most of the top axemen are big men, size is not a prerequisite to being a good axeman. There are many very fine axemen who are not overly big physically, they can often compete very successfully against men much bigger than themselves by cutting the log more precisely, with less hits and with better technique and timing. It has been witnessed on many occasions, where the small man defeats the big man through technique, fitness and skill.
The sport today is
conducted in various forms (all very very similar) in Australia, New Zealand,
Canada, USA, Wales, Ireland, England, and Spain. Australian axeman have
a formidable reputation for being the best in the world at cutting hardwood.
The Spanish axemen cut endurance events more so than speed events, which
are the normal events in the other countries.
This style of chopping is considered easier to master than the standing block (seen below). The log lies horizontally in a cradle and is fixed or “doged” at one end so that when the log is severed the free end falls away. Axemen place “foot holes” in the blocks to give them a safe flat platform to stand on. Although the axeman actually cuts the scarf between his feet with a razor sharp axe it is much safer than it looks.
This style of chopping takes a little longer to master and is generally considered more difficult than the Underhand. Logs are clamped vertically in a “dummy” and the scarf is cut from each side until the block is severed. There is a high degree of skill required to do this well and often it is an event where skill and technique will conquer brute strength.
Modern day racing axes are very specialised instruments. They are not available from any standard hardware shop or retailer. Despite their shinny appearance the axes are not chromed, they are simply well finished and polished steel. The axes usually weigh somewhere around 2.5 – 3kg and are usually around 150-170mm wide at the blade. They are fitted with high quality American Hickory handles. There are several brands available such as, Keesteel, Longdon, Osbourne Racers, Pro axe. and Tuati (NZ).
In the 1940’s Keech castings revolutionized the process of manufacturing racing axes by casting a special mix of steel in sand moulds. Today they still produce cast axes successfully in the same manner. Brands such as Longdon and Osbourne Racers are machined from billets of steel rather than cast.
The axes are literally razor sharp and are very thin considering the forces they need to withhold. Often axemen will bend or break axes if they hit knots in the wood, which take many hours of work to repair. A good racing axe is usually valued at somewhere around $300-$350. There is an extreme amount of specialized knowledge required to properly prepare a good racing axe. This knowledge is well guarded and is often passed down from father to son, although information is gradually becoming easier to obtain.
This is arguably the most spectacular event in the sport and is certainly the most difficult and demanding. This event has developed as a result of axemen climbing up trees to avoid obstructions on the ground and low quality timber at the base of the tree.
The object of the event in the modern day arena is to climb the tree pole by cutting “board holes” and placing special tree boards in the notches to ascend up the tree in a spiral fashion. Whilst balancing on the top board (3 boards high) the axeman cuts the block half-way through (such as in the Standing Block events) and then descends bringing the same boards back down. The axeman repeats the process up the reverse side of the tree concluding by severing the block in half. The 3 board trees are approx. 4.6m from the ground including the block being cut. The axemen stand on a board at a height of approximately 3.1m above the ground.
This event requires great skill and stamina and requires years of practice to perfect. If attempted by inexperienced axemen without proper coaching it can be very dangerous.
Cross cut sawing usually takes 2 forms. Single-handed (one-man saws on his own) or double handed sawing (two men, one on each end).
This form of the sport has of course developed in the same way woodchopping has in that in years gone by timber was sawn by hand with saws similar to those used today. After the advent of machinery sawing carried on as a sport instead of a vocation.
The saws of the past if looked at in detail are quite different to the modern saws of today; this is because of the shape of the teeth. In the old days saws had a “peg and raker” pattern whereas today they are usually an “M” tooth pattern.
Despite its appearance, to become a good crosscut sawer (or axemen for that matter) good technique is vital. Fitness and strength are also good attributes.
HANDICAPPING SYSTEM AND CHAMPIONSHIPS
In Australia axemen cut in both “Handicap” events and Championship events. Handicap events are where more experienced axemen are handicapped to give axemen of lesser ability an equal chance of winning. The handicapping systems are not universal across the state (or Australia), but do have the commonality that axemen are handicapped in seconds in accordance with their past performance. If an axemen or sawer wins his handicap goes up (i.e. his start is delayed to give others a head start). If he ceases to win after a certain number of starts his handicap comes back down.
The axeman with the highest handicap (otherwise known as a "mark") in any particular heat or final of a handicap event is referred to as the “Back Marker”; he is the last man to start. The axeman with the lowest handicap will start first and is known as the “Front Marker”. Axeman in the middle areas are refereed to as “Middle Markers”.
Championships are events in the sport where all competitors start on the same handicap. Usually the starting count is 3 seconds for all competitors. As in the handicap events the axeman are ranked in accordance with their ability which in turn determines the position number they chop on. In NSW the best axemen will always be seen on number 1 position.