Competition axing is one of the fastest growing rural sports across Europe – and visitors to the Royal Bath & West Show will be treated to displays by some of the best names in Britain. But while the discipline is a modern one, its origins date back to the stone age, as five-times British champion Mick Percival explains.
“Competition axing in its current form only came to the UK in 1966, when the Australian team came over to demonstrate their style of wood chopping,” he says. “At the time, British woodsmen were only demonstrating cleaving wood into fence posts, but the Australian style is all about clearing land for farming as fast as possible. There are different skills in different parts of the world and we can all learn from each other.”
When the Australian team first arrived, Mick was only 10 years old, and he saw them on Blue Peter. “It really struck a chord with me, which has remained ever since.”
As a schoolboy, Mick worked part-time on a local farm, going full-time after he left school. “The old boys on the farm taught me how to work in the woods; I was made redundant when the farm was sold off and it seemed like a natural progression to work in the woods full-time.”
Throughout his career Mick has undertaken every aspect of woodland management, from harvesting timber and selling it for furniture, to coppicing, planting, and working on Sites of Special Scientific Interest, cutting corridors to encourage invertebrates.
He first got involved in competitions in 1978, and took the title of British champion in the underhand discipline in 1986, 1989 and 1993, claiming the hard hitting championship in 1994 and 1995. “There are competitions for each discipline – it’s a bit like the Olympics; you specialise in one field, and underhand is what I’m best at.”
Visitors to the Bath & West Show will be treated to a display of all the key disciplines, each of which reflects a different aspect of felling and processing a tree by hand (see panel). “We like to get the message across to the general public that there are still people working full-time managing and preserving woods,” explains Mick.
“People often think we’re just destroying the rainforest, but for every tree we cut down we plant another two. Woodland has to be managed and harvested – people forget that 90% of their house and furniture comes from a tree, and there is so much demand for timber I’m not sure they can grow fast enough!”
But it’s not just about education – the competition is fast-paced and exhilarating for all involved. “The quality of your work comes out in your speed; one hit in the right place is worth two in the wrong place – it’s all about efficiency,” says Mick. “Accuracy and skill can overtake speed. But strength and fitness help, too – a good big’un will beat a good little’un any day.”
In his day job, Mick also does wood carving with a chainsaw, and visitors to the show will get an insight into how a dangerous instrument like a chainsaw can be used to produce such a delicate work of art. “Most hand work is done with a chainsaw these days, so axe and crosscut saw skills will die out if we don’t keep them alive.”
Indeed, commercial softwood forestry is mostly carried out by huge automatic machines – felling and processing a tree in just 30 seconds, where it would take a man with a chainsaw 15-20 minutes. “But there are some things you can’t do with a machine – 90% of big hardwood trees are still hand cut.”
But felling trees is a young man’s job – you have to move fast when they start to go – so Mick now concentrates on the smaller jobs, as well as training up the next generation of axemen. “I can teach someone to use a chainsaw in two weeks, but axe skills can take years, and sometimes people never pick it up – it’s all about hand-eye control,” he says.
Having started out with the Adams Axemen, Mick branched out and set up the Dorset Axemen in 2014 in a bid to bring new blood into the sector. “We meet and chop every week near Bere Regis. There are only a couple of us that work full-time in the woods – the others are plumbers, builders, fencers and estate workers. But they just love working with timber.” The Dorset Axemen go to about 20 shows over the summer, where they organise their own competitions.
Mick reckons there are around 100 axemen in the UK, and with the sport growing rapidly across Europe and there are plenty of opportunities to travel the world.
But it’s the quiet times that he spends working in Piddles Wood near Sturminster Newton that Mick still relishes. That’s when he feels at one with nature, surrounded by the trees that he loves. He smiles: “I don’t have a favourite, I just love them all.”
Panel – Competition axe classes
- Standing block – simulates the felling of a standing tree with an axe.
- Hard hitting – chopping through wood with the least number of axe blows.
- Underhand – cutting timber to length using an axe.
- Cross-cutting – simulates felling a tree or cutting to length with a saw.
- Springboard – used to get above the buttress of a large tree so as to only harvest the valuable timber. You cut an angled hole into which you place a plank to stand on and access the trunk for felling.
Panel – Tools of the trade
The perforated lance tooth saw was as revolutionary in its day as the chainsaw. Before Henry Disston designed it in the mid-1800s cross saws would get jammed in the wood as the sawdust had nowhere to go. The lance tooth features four cutting teeth and a fifth angled tooth in succession, which rakes out the sawdust and means lumberjacks do not have to keep stopping to un-jam the saw. The same principle is used now, although Mick’s competition saw has three cutting teeth and one raker. Specially designed in New Zealand, with hardened tips for competition, the Tuatahi saw is worth an eyebrow-raising $2,000.
When it comes to the axe, the blade is made of high carbon steel at the cutting edge and softer metal further back, to absorb the shock of the cut and give more penetration into the wood.