I was in Hayward, Wisconsin for the Lumberjack World Championships this past weekend to film a thing about timbersports. Someone let me swing an axe. This is how to do the underhand chop event, where you pretend to be an old-time lumberjack for fun, without cutting your feet off your legs.
If you're going to do the underhand chop, you need to understand that you will be standing on top of a log with an axe in soft shoes. You need to understand you will be swinging an axe very, very close to your feet, and doing it at high speed. (Any speed is too much, really. Bring the axe overhead and you realize there is no safe speed for this.)
Contrary to every instinct you have, you should assume a narrow stance atop the log. Adam LaSalle, professional timbersports person, told me it's a matter of balance. In the underhand chop event, the lumberjack or -jill stands on a log that is 28 inches long and 12 inches wide. That's two feet to the eye, and feels like a lot less when you step on it. Start swinging, and the whole thing rocks like a see-saw if you're planted wide. Competitors start with their feet in a narrow stance--sometimes leaving as little as six inches between their toes.
Don't think about hitting your toes. "The surest way to put an axe in your foot is to think about how you're going to swing into your foot," is what Adam tells me. That is reassuring, because I can just think about putting the axe in the wood. This is also disturbing because I am now thinking about putting the axe in my foot.
Wear steel socks. Competitors do have some safety equipment for the underhand chop. They wear a kind of half-sock of butcher mail covering the top of the foot. This is attached to a shinguard of fireplace curtain reaching to the knee. You loop it over the big toe, anchor it with straps to the ankle and leg, and then put your shoe on over it. It keeps competitors from chopping their feet in half. You still might break a bone or at least be really sore for a week or two.
Get an axe. A good one, preferably. They cost up to $500 and are sharpened to the point where they could shave a man's face. Do not try this, just know that it's a thing you could do. Don't bring them here without a leather blade guard, and try not to let TSA mess with them too much. They'll put them back in the case the wrong way, and that is how you get axes cutting through bags and into strange luggage during the flight.
Raise the axe directly over your head. Going any further back is inefficient, and the key here is efficiency. Go too fast and you lose power, and thus take less wood out of the block. Go too slow, and risk other competitors lapping you. A good, controlled, and powerful swing covering 180 degrees and finishing in the wood: that is the balance you're looking for here.
Swing into the wood.
Do not hit your foot.
Did you hit the wood? No? Is the axe in your foot? Seek medical attention immediately. If you hit the wood, good. Swing a few more times, trying to hit the wood at a forty-five degree angle to form a triangle-shaped wedge in the log. Switch angles and come at the wedge from the other side, and continue until you're roughly halfway through the wood. You should be throwing off big, hardcover book-sized hunks of wood. (Note: you should be doing this, but you will not, because you are still half-swinging in a cold sweat praying not to cut off your own feet.)
When you get halfway, switch and repeat the whole cycle on the other side. Some competitors switch strokes more often than others, but know that the whole thing is a matter of feel for each competitor. Keep at it until the log splits. When it does, dismount carefully. You are still holding an axe, stupid.
There is a three-minute mercy rule, which you really shouldn't need barring injury. I finished my side in somewhere around a minute and a half or so, and that was done with a glacial swing and a very real electric fear coursing through my veins. On the other hand, you won't come close to a competition time, either. In 2006, Jason Wynyard set a new world record by finishing the whole thing in just 15.94 seconds.
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