Josh Shaffer

NC State lumberjack Griff Wilson a cut above

Griff Wilson has won the Stihl Timbersports Southern Qualifier two years in a row.
Griff Wilson has won the Stihl Timbersports Southern Qualifier two years in a row.

As a competitive lumberjack, Griff Wilson can rip a 6-foot crosscut saw through a tree trunk in 30 seconds – Paul Bunyan’s envy.

He can chop through a log while standing on top of it. He can slice a perfect circle off the end of a pine, a cookie-shaped chunk not 4 inches thick.

The star of N.C. State University’s timbersports club, Wilson has dusted the local competition two years in a row, and in June he takes his 20-inch Stihl to New York – a pro and collegiate championship held in Central Park.

He doesn’t sport a meticulously trimmed beard down to his sternum. He doesn’t wear a Patagonia heritage jacket. You’ll never hear anyone describe him as “lumbersexual,” the hipster fashion trend creating Paul Bunyan lookalikes out of men who never picked up an ax.

Wilson, a junior forestry major, qualifies as an honest-to-goodness wood-chopper, a rising fireball in the extreme sport popular enough to air on ESPN and draw millions of viewers.

“You’re not just another kid playing soccer,” said Wilson, 21.

If you’ve ever split wood as a chore, you know it ranks up there with digging post holes for sheer arduousness. My father bought four cords of wood a winter, turning the heat above 64 only when absolutely necessary, and we spent November to March swinging a beast called a Monster Maul.

But Wilson grew up on a South Carolina farm, where his family grew cotton, corn and soybeans, so chopping wood came as naturally as eating breakfast. He cut and sold it as a high school senior.

But he never competed until college, where he has won the Stihl Timbersports Southern Qualifier two years in a row. One of his closest competitors is his own brother Kemp, a freshman at Clemson University.

“I really wanted to chop,” Wilson explained.

I’d never watched one of these events before flipping through YouTube videos on Wednesday, and they’re a far bigger deal than I’d imagined. The broadcasts feature dry ice and a heavy metal soundtrack. The announcers talk about “chop discipline” and “power range.”

In the qualifier, Wilson took first in three events out of four: underhand chop, stock saw and single buck.

For the underhand, he stood on top of a chunk of pine, held horizontally by a pair of braces, and hacked his way through in 48 seconds, using an 8-pound ax. The key: accuracy over strength. It’s a science. You look at the position of the knots and the heart.

“Get up there with no technique, no accuracy and just whale,” he said, “and you’ll never get through it.”

The stock saw requires cutting an upward and downward slice through a flat log using a Stihl with a 20-inch bar. The crucial strategy here is to apply enough pressure so the saw pushes through quickly, but not so much that the motor stalls. His time in the qualifier: 14 seconds.

“You have to listen to those motor RPMs,” Wilson said.

For the single buck, Wilson pulls a 6-foot crosscut saw through a pine trunk. The trick here is keeping a constant angle on the blade so one of the teeth doesn’t hang up on the wood.

“You want to pull the whole 6 feet full of teeth,” he explained.

And here’s one final tip for the hipsters from a cleanshaven lumberjack:

“Flannel shirts, jeans and boots,” Wilson said. “That’s been my dress my whole life.”

jshaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4818

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