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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
James Tapper

Cutting edge: wood chopping trend takes off online

Zoe Penlington, the inaugural British women’s champion, shows her skills in the stock saw.
Zoe Penlington, the inaugural British women’s champion, shows her skills in the stock saw. Photograph: Matt Tween

For some of Thoren Bradley’s fans, it’s the look: tight white T-shirt, tattooed forearms and braces. Others are fascinated by the way his axe seems to split a log in half in a single blow.

But whatever the appeal of the man some have described as “Fifty Shades of Grey, the nature version”, Bradley and other social media axemen have created a surge in interest in woodchopping.

The sport is growing, with clubs across the UK reporting an increase in membership, and more competitions this year. The number of women in the sport is also on the rise, with this year’s British championships featuring a women’s category for the first time.

At the end of the month, the British men’s team will compete in the Stihl Timbersports world championship in Gothenburg in Sweden, sawing and chopping through blocks against teams from more than 20 other countries.

Beth Parker does the underhand chop at the Stihl Timbersports championship in Mavern in June this year.
Beth Parker does the underhand chop at the Stihl Timbersports championship in Mavern in June this year. Photograph: Matt Tween

The teams of four face off in a relay race across four disciplines. First is the stock saw, cutting two discs of wood with a chainsaw, followed by the underhand chop, where an athlete stands on a block of wood and swings the axe between their legs to cut it in two. Next comes the single buck – carving through a log with a two-metre saw – and finally the standing block chop, a simulation of tree felling where an upright log is attacked with an axe from two sides.

Teams complete this relay in less than a minute, and precision is more important than muscle, according to Graham Turner, the 36-year-old British No 2, who took up the sport in 2019 after a rugby injury.

“I thought, how hard can it be,” he said. “I’m quite fit, I play a bit of rugby. Christ, was I wrong. I thought brute strength would get me through this and… no. There’s a lot more finesse and technique.”

Turner, who runs a fencing firm in Penicuik near Edinburgh, set up his own club, Alba Axemen. “Most of the clubs are in Wales and England,” he said. “Up here we’ve got the Highland Games so the sport hadn’t travelled up, but I’ve had a few lads coming along to training with me.”

Videos like Bradley’s have made a difference, Turner said, although he is less impressed with the American’s technique. “I want to make a couple of videos to say that he’s not actually chopped the logs properly, but I’ll probably get hounded by all his blood-hungry fans on TikTok. And I don’t know if my other half would advocate me getting my top off, and parading around. But all jokes aside, it’s quite amazing the way it’s taken off with women on TikTok. Maybe one day we’ll call him up and see if he can do it our way.”

The British team is holding its first training camp this weekend in the runup to the world championships, and Turner has been training with his friend and rival, Glen Penlington, who was crowned British champion in June. The 32-year-old builder from Knighton in Wales used to watch his father demonstrating woodchopping at the Royal Welsh Show and took up the sport at 15.

Now he has 25 axes – “different sizes, different weights, different grinds for different types of wood” – several crosscut saws, a chainsaw and a hot saw. “That’s basically a go-kart engine that’s been modified to run a bar and chains,” said Penlington

Competitors wear chainmail socks to avoid chopping their feet off. “If you hit your foot, you’ll probably break the bone, but that’s a lot better than cutting a few toes off,” added Penlington.

Graham Turner does the single buck in Malvern.
Graham Turner does the single buck in Malvern. Photograph: Matt Tween

Then there’s the wood. The UK team practises with Herefordshire poplar but needs to import competition-grade white pine. Clubs pay for stock by doing demonstrations at agricultural shows, but this season Penlington bought his own timber: an articulated lorry load of about 400 logs. “I go through about 10 logs a week training,” he said. “Afterwards I process it up into firewood. My mum and dad have a wood burner. And my sister does that too.”

Zoe Penlington is the inaugural British women’s champion, inspired by watching her father and brother over the years at their club, the Welsh Axemen. “A few of the girls wanted to give it a go, family members of people already chopping,” she said. “It’s just started to build.

“Since I won the British championship, I’ve had so many women come to me and say, ‘I’d love to do that,’” she said. Not always for the purest reasons, however. “You do get that kind of lumberjack and lumberjill world – people are kind of intrigued. I’ve noticed that some women who come in really wanted to be that social media person, but then they find that actually they really enjoy it.”

Vicky Tween, at Stihl timbersports, said they were struggling to meet demand. “Although it has been around for a long time, we are really starting to see impressive growth in the sport, in particular in the women’s competition. We organise training camps for people who want to compete in timbersports but we are now finding that we just don’t have enough time and resources to train everyone that wants to be involved.”

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