Jan 13, 2014

1945 - Finnish axes and superior axemanship at Aulanko

I felt compelled to write another piece about the Finnish axe. This time the whole article is about a single event; the Finnish national logging competition held at Aulanko in 1945. This film is accessible from the Yle (Finnish National Radio Service) online-archives. As there are no subtitles I have proceeded to explain the contents of the film for English viewers. 
Click the image above to watch the movie.

This event took place shortly after WW2 had ended.  The War with the Sovjet Union had ended the year before in September 19th, only to be followed by another conflict with the northward retreating, previous allied German forces that ended in April 1945 with the burning of Lapland.
All of the men that partook in the competition were war-hardened men who had only recently returned to their homes after enduring long years at the front lines. These men were scarred for life both mentally and physically. There was no therapy, no psychological counseling available for these men who had against all odds, survived all the hardships of a cruel war against a superior opponent. Many friends, brothers and relatives did not make it. Of the men that were 20 years of age when they were called to arms in 1940, half were injured or dead by the end of 1944. The surviving men had to return home to the grueling task of rebuilding a worn torn, poor country. In addition they had to face the challenge to work even harder in order to pay war reparations to the Soviet Union. Finland was obliged to pay 300 million dollars – a punitive 7% of its national income - to the Soviet Union in the form of goods. Finland paid this in full by 1952. 

Image 1. Otto Niskanen from Lestijäri finished 15th in this competition, despite having only one working lung after being hit in the chest by a Russian bullet during the Winter War of 1939-40.

In Finland, hand tools were used to harvest trees well in to the 1950s, and in some areas even in the 1960s. The work was difficult and dangerous, but to the men that had survived the war, woodcutting in times of peace was a walk in the park. During the war the Finnish service men were kept busy building fortification out of lumber and the work was often halted due to enemy attacks on the building-crew. 

In 1945, the country was at peace but the future of the now poor country was uncertain. People were in a need of getting the economy going and wood was needed for building, heating and export.  For this reason and to boost national pride, the state of Finland invited foreign reporters to cover the event at Aulanko. The reporters were truly impressed of what they saw; hardened men, working in primitive conditions with simple hand tools, were cutting down trees with unimaginable speed and determination during the four day long competition in October of 1945. In preparation all participants used the first day to sharpen their tools. Most men brought along a bucksaw and two axes. The saw-blades had to be carefully sharpened to perform well in the following days of competition.
Image 2. Sharpening saw-blades.

The men were monitored by doctors during the competition to determine what type of physical strain loggers had to endure. This information was later used to promote physical awareness and health. A sauna was heated every morning and evening during the event.  On the eve of the competition the logging areas were divided among the competitors by drawing lots. 
Image 3. The participants were sawing wood at incredible speeds.
The first two days the loggers were cutting wood for lumber, on the third and fourth days day were cutting firewood. The fire wood was measured per stacked cubic meter, a so called “motti”.
By the second day of competition, the champion of the previous year, Heikki Aho, from Kuru, began to take a leading position in the competition. His meticulous and systematic approach to woodcutting allowed him to avoid unnecessary work and thus conserve energy, which ultimately gave him an edge in this competition. 

Image 4. Tools used by the Finnish logger.
Even the Swedes were impressed by the Finns, they had to admit that logging at this incredible speed could only be done on the other side of the Gulf of Bothnia, “in the country were people did not eat oranges or bananas”. The price received by the top participators included real coffee, traditional Finnish leather boots, tools and some price money.
Image 5. The champion, Heikki Aho.
Many of the competitors were still using the old style of axe wielding which could be really dangerous but also allowed for a faster pace. In the old style the logger will stand next to the trunk working his way through the branches, facing the top. 

Image 6. Manne Vuorinen finished 2nd in the competition, here he swings the axe like a champ using the old, more risky technique of branching.
The logger cuts the branches off at the trunk with a downward strike, which is directed towards the legs of the logger. This is a risky technique as there is every chance the axe will hit a leg if it glances off the tree or misses it´s mark. Expert axe men avoided injury as they were seasoned axe swingers who knew exactly what they were doing, also the axes were kept as sharp as possible so the cut would be clean. The length of the handle was individually suited to each user so as the axe would not reach the feet or legs of the user. 

Image 7. The top three, in order from the left, Mauno Montonen (3rd), Heikki Ahonen (1st) and Manne Vuorinen (2nd).
Nevertheless, these axe men were pushing the limits and there was only a small margin for error.
Later all loggers were recommended to always hit away from the feet which also slowed things down as the axe man had to turn his body and swipe the axe in a sideways blow at the branch. The old style made it possibly to swing the axe in a smooth circular motion without halting the axe while the logger was moving along the trunk of the felled tree. It is incredible to watch these logging masters at work. These were truly hard men born out of hard times.  This is the legacy of the Finnish axes such as the nr 12 Kemi type axe manufactured by Billnäs – Kellokoski.
Image 8. The most popular all-around logging axe in Finland, the "twelve".

Images 1-3, 5-7. Screenshots from the film.
Image 4. The Forest Musem of Lusto, Finland.
Image 8. Marcus Lepola 2013  

The living archive of the Finnish National Radio, yle.fi/elavaarkisto/artikkelit/metsurit_kilpasilla_16811.html

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