Underhand Chop

Underhand Chop

The STIHL® TIMBERSPORTS® Series event that appears the most dangerous - as it requires the competitor to swing an axe fractions of an inch from his feet - is taken straight from the old-time, real logging woods. The underhand chop mimics how early lumberjacks would cut fallen logs to length in the woods and is usually the first chopping discipline a competitor learns. A metal cradle holds the log horizontally with one end of the log securely dogged into the cradle, and the other end is free and will fall away when severed by the axe. In a competition, contestants cut roughly half way through the log on the front side (or first side) before turning to the back, chopping out some chips and driving the log off. The expression "driving off" comes from pattern of blows used to lift chips out of each chopping face and ultimately cutting the block in half.

The first blows are called the drives and are placed on the side determined by the individual choppers handedness. Right-handed choppers place their left hands on the bottom of the axe and place their driving blows nearest their right foot, while left-handed choppers do the opposite. The next blows are called chips and are placed opposite the driving blows, on the left side area being chop for right-handed choppers (right side for the lefties). These blows sever the fibers on the other side of the chip first cut by the driving blows, and allow the chip to fall from the block. Once the chip clears, the chopper returns to the other side of the scarf and starts the pattern again.

Since the chip has fallen out, the second round of driving blows can now penetrate deeper into the log and cut new wood with each consecutive round of four blows. As this pattern of blows approaches the center of the log, a competitor will put in a final series of drives, but not chip. This is because the chip blows are meant to remove wood, allowing the axe to penetrate more deeply on the next round of drives. Chipping after the final series of drives would not cut any deeper into the log and would waste time as the competitor is preparing to chop on the other side of the block. The final drives on the front side of the log are meant to travel deeply into the center of the log to cut the fibers evenly and completely from top to bottom as deep as the axe can reach.

The pattern of drives and chips is then repeated on the backside of the log after the turn. As the competitor approaches the center of the log, he will again look to strike powerful driving blows. This time the driving blows are meant to cut as deeply into the log as the drives placed on the front, but are slightly offset from the drives set in the front. When these blows are deep enough into the block, the block will start to shake. Competitors will continue driving, from top to bottom, until the block is cut completely in half and one side falls free from the chopping cradle. When done well, this pattern will leave a large pig's ear in the center of the log - some competitors driving three to four inches of wood in a soft block rather than chopping each side to an even point. When done poorly, the competitor will chop their scarf to a V, and the axe may appear to stop cutting and no longer penetrate the block as deeply. This is because as the axe attempts to cut new fibers and wedge into the block, the fibers have no place to go.

Competitors draw randomly assigned blocks before the contest and then mark the location they intend to chop before flattening areas called footholds to stand safely on. Cutting these footholds is the only time in a chopping event that each competitor is able to legally cut into his log before the competition begins. This practice allows competitors to test axes they may want to use for the actual race to see how they are cutting their specific block on a given day. These footholds are in a location and of a depth of a competitors choosing, deep or shallow, close to the scarf or not, depending on individual preference.

The final step of preparation for the underhand chop is installation of slab nails. Because the driving blows are the first blows struck on the log on each side, slab nails are installed on the end of the log opposite the drives for each side. This is the left foot for right-handed choppers, opposite for left-handed choppers. Soft competition wood may split along growth rings when struck with a competitor's opening blows and slab to the end of the log. This occurs because the sharp axe cuts wood fibers allowing it to penetrate into the block and wedge wood out of the way. Slab nails prevent this by holding the slab that may lift in place requiring the competitor to place chip hits so he is cutting the full complement of wood, 13 inches of lathe turned white pine on the STIHL® TIMBERSPORTS® Series.

Swinging a six-pound razor between your legs and perilously close to your feet takes confidence in your preparation that comes from thousands of logs cut for practice in your home training arena and a pair of chainmail booties worn inside your chopping shoes. As long as a competitor has his slab nails in place, waits for "Go" in the starting cadence, does not cut into his footholds resulting in a competitive advantage for cutting less wood, and completely severs the log, the final chopping discipline of the STIHL® TIMBERSPORTS® Series will go by smoothly. Competitive times will be around 20 seconds with David Bolstad from New Zealand holding the world record at 14.43 seconds to chop a face in the front, turn and chop the back.