STIHL Timbersports | We Took On a Training Camp for Professional Wood-Choppers
Mpora teams up with STIHL Timbersports to tackle "the original extreme sport"...
Words by Stuart Kenny | Photography by Matt Tween
There aren’t as many people with beards here as I thought there would be.
There’s a giant poster describing the mechanics of a chainsaw on the wall to my left, a Timbersports-branded pick up truck to my right, a sign-out form for tractors on the wall behind me and a shiny STIHL MS661 chainsaw 20 metres in front. But there are not as many beards here as I thought there would be, and not a flannel shirt in sight.
I’m at an introductory taster session for the STIHL Timbersports series; a sport consisting of various competitive challenges based on "historic lumberjack traditions", all of which make use of either a saw, an axe or a chainsaw.
Today, we’re trying out three disciplines; the Stock Saw, the Single Buck and the Underhand Chop. The Stock Saw involves chainsawing two circles, or "cookies", from a 40cm tree trunk with one downwards and one upwards cut. The Underhand Chop requires competitors to chop through a horizontal 32cm thick tree trunk with an axe while standing on top of said tree trunk, and the Single Buck involves taking a cookie off a 46cm-diameter tree trunk with a huge two-metre cross-cut saw with a handle at one end.
You can see why I was expecting beards and flannel shirts then? I had even avoided the razor myself for a month in anticipation of the event – though my attempt at a beard served more as a reminder of why I don’t do ‘Movember’ than providing any sign of axe-wielding competence.
But while there might not have been a lot of facial hair on show, there was a lot at stake.
The taster session was one of six that was run around the United Kingdom this year to not only raise the profile of what organisers call “the original extreme sport", but also to actively scout out any talented newbies who could potentially be trained into Team GB STIHL Timbersports athletes.
The hopefuls had turned out from far, wide and from all walks of life. The first few I met were all in the forestry industry, had extensive chainsaw experience and came equipped with their own protective gear, but I soon got chatting to IT consultants, dentists, NHS staff and teachers who like me had never started a chainsaw before. This comforted me slightly, until I asked one chap if he had ever tried anything like this before and he responded: “No, but I can lift a 30kg kettlebell up above my head." I wasn’t sure to what extent this skill would actually help, but it’s a daunting answer to receive to any question.
Nevertheless, our mentors for the day insisted that Timbersports was no more about strength than it was about forestry experience. It was all in the technique.
“It’s actually an advantage that you’re not in forestry," told Global Sports Director, 10-time British Champion and Timbersports trainer Spike Milton. “It’s great for us to be able to grab people who have never had anything to do with it because they've got no bad habits, so we can mould them the right way.
“It’s about how the individuals adapt, about the killer instinct, the competitive edge and hand-eye co-ordination. You can come into this sport at 30-plus and if you've got the desire and ability, we can get you there."
So my chances of becoming the next poster boy of Timbersports weren’t over just yet.
Spike wasn’t the only instructor on hand. Teaching the Stock Saw was the 51-year-old Andrew 'Taff' Evans, an ex-marine who is still competing on Team GB now. On the Single Buck was Rob Owens, a long-time Timbersports pro, now retired from the STIHL tour, and on the Underhand Chop was Spike – a wood-chopper of 22 years who never finished outside the top 10 in nine visits to the Timbersports World Championships and retired undefeated in Britain just a few years back.
The Stock Saw
My first taste of the action involved picking up the chainsaw and lending my ears to Taff. The Welshman gave a brief guide to the intricacies of the discipline, on how we should start crouched with our hands on the log and wait for the referee’s say so to reach for the chainsaw, putting particular emphasis on the milliseconds that make up the difference between a top 10 finish and a total flop.
Now, while I understood the urgency needed to clock a credible time, my concerns were admittedly elsewhere. And they were threefold:
- Firstly, I needed to work out how to turn on and off a chainsaw without chopping off my legs.
- Secondly, I needed to work out the correct technique for guiding it through the wood without the saw recoiling and chopping off my legs.
- And finally, I needed to work out how to put all of this together and take two circles of wood off a log in roughly 10 seconds. Ideally without chopping off my legs.
Seeing my rather blatant concern, manifested in the form of two unblinking eyes, Taff correctly guessed the source of my apprehension and got the chainsaw in my hands.
Sure enough, handling it was no bother, and as soon as I was comfortable with the weight of the tool – and my scan for zombies in the area had unfortunately produced no results – I turned my eye to the log. A swift line through the middle, one cookie swiftly cut and I was even drawing some reserved praise from Taff himself.
“That’s not bad. Pretty smooth," he said, “considering you’ve never used a chainsaw before."
I was addicted now. I wanted – needed – to do more chainsawing. I had visions of my life as a professional lumberjack; wearing three flannel shirts at once, chucking on a fourth whenever I got cold, chopping firewood around the back of my quaint woodland cabin and maybe - just maybe - finally working out how to grow an actual beard.
Then again, as soon as I tried to cut my second cookie, this time starting from the bottom of the log and working upwards, I was jolted backwards almost into the pick up truck behind me. Taff grew a cheerful smirk and threw out a “told you so" with regards to a previous pointer given on the placement of my footing.
A couple of re-dos later and I’ve jammed the chainsaw halfway through a log. Maybe I’m not such a natural after all. Taff teaches me that by grounding myself firmly and leaning into the wood I’ll be able to guide the chainsaw up properly.
I cut a couple of cookies with the Welshman on the stopwatch and manage to clock a time far from the pro ranks, but with enough credibility that the surrounding audience might not immediately know that I was worrying about chopping my legs off only a half hour before.
“Now I’m happy!" declares Taff. And I am too. I could get used to this chainsaw lark. It’s awfully addictive and the progress feels quick, but alas, a racing axe, the Underhand Chop and Spike Milton were waiting in the next room. And it’s a bit creepy to be addicted to chainsawing, anyway.
The Underhand Chop
The first thing Spike does is hook us up with safety gear – namely a pair of metal shin guards and shoe-covers. Think of a Stormtrooper who, having forgotten a Halloween costume, decided to spray-paint themselves silver and claim they were the tin man from the Wizard of Oz and you’re not too far off the look.
The gear is slightly awkward to walk in as well, but Spike explains that back in the day he once saw a man slice off all five of his toes with one swing of the axe, and all of a sudden the protection feels perfectly comfortable.
We chop some footholes onto our log to get started, then mark with a crayon the exact place where we want our axe to strike, with Spike going into excruciating detail about the mathematics and angles required to get through the thing quickly. Luckily, my partner understood both Spike and high school maths better than I did - Pythagoras lost it after his third album in my opinion - and was able to sort out our log for both of us.
Next thing Spike got on his wood to show us how it’s done, making it look insufferably easy while also telling us it wasn’t one of his better efforts. A few practise swings later we’re standing on the log ourselves throwing the razor sharp blade down at the drawn on lines.
My first few hits are deadly accurate – something I’m particularly pleased about given both the challenge of mastering Spike’s step-by-step technique and the fact that the top marks on our log are probably about one centimetre away from my armoured foot.
It’s tiring work though, and after a while I start missing the mark with growing consistency. Eventually one off-target strike hits my giant metal feet square on, securing the clumsy shoe guards a safe spot in my good books.
“It’s the adrenaline," says Spike of my inaccuracies. I counter: “I think it’s more the four cups of coffee," but, shockingly, the 10-time British champion, and not the newbie, is right. I take a 30 second break and watch as my hand shakes like a morning alarm clock.
Back on the log and with an emphasis on deep, controlled breaths, my accuracy returns. It’s taking a lot longer than Spike, but I’m through the log in the end and reaping the benefits of a much, much-needed breather.
Spike got through his demonstrative log in about 30 seconds, including time taken to give us instructions on how to do exactly that. The world record is 13 seconds. My attempt lasted roughly five minutes. It’s the taking part that counts. Onwards.
The Single Buck
Rob Owens has retired from the STIHL Timbersports series but still competes – and wins – along with his son in other competitions.
He's explaining to us how to cut a cookie off a log with a giant two-metre cross-cut saw. I certainly need the guidance. The thing is twice my height, wouldn’t look out of place on the set of ‘Saw 32’ (or whatever number the franchise is on these days) and I have no idea where to even start trying to pick it up.
The Single Buck is all about getting into a rhythm and getting your entire body power behind the saw. The cross-cut saw is so damn long that with your feet rooted for power and balance, you have to punch your arms as far as they can go to make the most of your movement, and then pull it back across your body to the same extent. This is incredibly tiring. Never underestimate how tiring this is.
Just when you think you’re halfway through the wood, you realise that even if that is true, it only means you have 50% more wood to saw through, and you’ve just reached the thickest part of the log.
And if your rhythm fails you, the saw will stick, taking up even more energy while removing your returns. The Stock Saw is an outrageously exhausting discipline when you do it wrong, and when you do it right, it’s only slightly better.
By the time I had reached the final third of the cookie my shoulders, arms and thighs were burning and my inner train of thought read was just the phrase "will this never end?" with the words broken up into repetitive nonsensical order.
I enjoyed a 30 second recovery period lying on the floor while an encouraging Rob laughed after completing my first attempt.
It really is all about rhythm though, and the better your rhythm, the easier it is. My second attempt was significantly less tiring than my first and my third and final attempt was better yet. I fly through the thing in about 45-60 seconds. Of course, the record is 10 seconds, but the profanities I utter upon hearing this should tell you everything you need to know about that.
And thus, my day of auditions for the STIHL Timbersports X-Factor had come to a close. I’d chopped wood with a chainsaw, an axe and an unreasonably large, soul-draining cross-cut saw. And all in mediocre time, too. I had also managed to get away without chopping my legs off; a success story in my books.
The next step is for the coaches to review the talent they saw on the day, and indeed at the other training camps around the country, and decide who they want to take through to the next round of trials for further training.
I, of course, will be waiting anxiously by my phone.
You can see STIHL Timbersports in action at the 2017 British Championship, which will take place at ‘BBC Countryfile Live’, Blenheim Palace, Woodstock, Oxfordshire, OX20 1PP on Saturday 5/6 August 2017. Tickets are on sale now.