At the cutting edge


Mick Percival went from wood-chopping hobbyist to invincible, record-breaking champion – now he gives spellbinding showground performances

Mick Percival Dorset Axmen – image Courtenay Hitchcock BV Magazine 2023

Mick Percival is surrounded by what he loves – wood.
In the aptly-named village of Broad Oak stands his wood yard, where Mick lives in a self-built, timber-clad house, surrounded by hundreds of logs of all shapes and sizes. These all look the same to me but under Mick’s expert eye I’m educated on the grain, the rings, the texture and density and above all the potential for cutting … and cutting fast?
As well as a wood yard selling timber and firewood, this is the training ground for the acclaimed Dorset Axemen. This band of axe-wielding showmen was founded by Mick in 2014 and now they compete and exhibit at rural events and showgrounds up and down the country, demonstrating wood-cutting skills that date back to the hard-working lumberjacks in America and to centuries before. Retired from competing, Mick – still a giant of a man at 67 – now comperes these crowd-pulling events where axemen split huge logs at break-neck speed using lethal axes.

Mick Percival took the title of British Log Axing Champion in 1986, 89, 93, 96, 97 and 98. In 1996, he chopped through a
16-inch diameter log in 33.35 seconds, setting a then new championship record – image Courtenay Hitchcock BV Magazine 2023

Champion in waiting
More than 40 years as a competitive axeman might have taken its toll on Mick’s back and knees, yet amazingly he has escaped any serious injuries. When you consider he has had a razor-sharp axe only a few inches from his feet, flying between his legs as he balances on a block of wood, that’s either incredible luck or brilliant skill and concentration.
Mick says: ‘Timber demonstrations like undercutting and crosscutting are big in Australia and North America. I saw an Australian tour of woodchoppers and log axemen that came to the UK when I was young and it sowed the seed. I got my chance when I picked up my first axe when I was 23 – that same year I won my first novice competition in the UK.’
His competitive spirit was unleashed and he went to North America to compete in the world championships.
At the Devon County Show in 1996 he was crowned British Log Axing Champion for the sixth time.
‘I was fanatical,’ recalls Mick. ‘I took to it like a duck to water. I’d work in the woods all day felling trees, using chainsaws, then come home and practise, practise, practise. It’s all about getting your eye in and mastering the technique.’

The axes Mick uses are made by Tuatahi in New Zealand. They have a high carbon tool steel on the cutting edge, tempered through to soft metal at the back – this absorbs the shock and gives more penetration into the wood. They cost £600-£700 each – image Courtenay Hitchcock BV Magazine 2023

Mick became invincible so the championship had to introduce a handicap system: ’The more you win, the higher your handicap. My opponent would start chopping on the count of three and I would start 33 seconds late. I still managed to win most of the time.’ Mick smiles.
His gleaming axes are shipped from New Zealand and Australia and his biggest regret is that he never went and lived down under. ‘I kick myself now. My uncle emigrated as a £10 Pom in the 1960s. I should have gone back with him when he visited.’

Mick Percival at home in his wood yard at Broad Oak. image Courtenay Hitchcock BV Magazine 2023

Mick’s first axe was bought by that very uncle – who simply popped into his local hardware shop. In Australia, among the nuts and bolts of everyday DIY, you can buy competition axes. ‘He sawed the handle off, wrapped it up and sent it over. I made my own handle, grinding it out on a sandstone wheel.’
He may regret not emigrating, but Mick doesn’t regret starting the Dorset Axemen. ‘I knew I needed to train younger men so I spent the winter of 2013 taking seven of them, all in their late twenties, through their paces. In 2014, we exhibited at a few local shows and have never looked back. We’ve been to Northern Ireland and Scotland. This year we’ve already done seven shows.’
And how does an axeman unwind? ‘The adrenalin really pumps when you’re competing. I still love that buzz at the shows. I like to relax with a cider in the wooden bar I built at the back of my house – I call it the Notty Oak!
I love to sit and watch all the wildlife. I’ve spent most of my life outdoors. I could never live in a town or city.’

Quick fire questions:

A-lister Notty Oak guests?
Jeremy Clarkson – I know he can have his moments, but can’t we all? – and the Duke of Edinburgh. I met him at The Royal Welsh Show. He seemed really interested in our display.

Book by your bedside?
None! But when I’ve been hiding in my bar and people ask where I’ve been, I say I’ve been out the back with Mr Crabtree’s Book of Fishing!

Best and worst wood to cut?
Poplar is my favourite. It’s the most even and it’s the cheapest to buy! It’s a crisp wood, which you need for a clean cut.
Elm and spruce are my least favourite – the pin knots bend axes for a pastime!

Two-man saws were known to the ancient Romans, but first became common in Europe in the mid-15th century. Known colloquially as a Misery Whip, they are up to 16 feet long and designed to cut in both directions – careful tooth design is necessary to clear the sawdust during the cut. image Courtenay Hitchcock BV Magazine 2023

  • See the Dorset Axemen in action in their first ever appearance at the Dorset County Show on 2nd and 3rd September.


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