Oct 25, 2010


I spent a bit of Sunday afternoon helping a friend clear up a fallen tree at their house. Before I'd gone over, she told me I'd need a big saw, because her 16" wasn't doing the job. I was trying to picture the tree that fell, and couldn't figure out how a 16" saw wasn't big enough.

The answer was easier than I'd expected:
Maintenance is everything.

If you own a home and have trees, a chainsaw of some kind is a worthy investment. If you lose one big branch and have to call a tree service, you've likely spent more than the cost of a basic chainsaw on one service call.

If you're in suburbia - half- or quarter-acre lot with a couple trees and a house - you can likely squeak by with an electric chainsaw. They're great for pruning and trimming, or cutting up a large limb that's fallen. They require minimal maintenance beyond sharpening the chain and keeping the bar oil topped up. Just keep in mind that you'll be working with a Very Sharp Thing near an extension cord, and be careful.

Once you're edging up to an acre and maybe some heavy brush, it's time to forego the electric saw and pony up for a gas-powered model. Don't rush out and buy the biggest most powerful saw you can afford; buy the saw that's appropriate for your usual tasks. If you expect to run the saw five or six times a year to clear up some brush and limbs, or clean up a windfall, you don't need a 60cc (or bigger) behemoth with a 20" bar. A 35cc model with a 14" bar should do anything you'll need most of the time, and won't fatigue you more than necessary.

If you've got woods that you plan to timber, or heat with wood, it's time to look at the larger pro-level saws. 50-60cc, with an 18" bar will fell almost any tree and let you limb and buck it without wearing yourself out or overloading the saw. (There are, of course, even bigger saws out there, but if you need one of those, you're probably not reading this for saw advice!)

Chainsaws are like guns, of course - if you ask five people what model is best for you, you're going to get six answers. I freely admit to being a fan of orange paint. If I'm buying a saw, my first answer will always be, "Stihl". A distant second is Husqvarna, followed by Jonsered. My personal saw is a Stihl MS-180 with a 14" bar. It's light, powerful, and handles everything I've asked of it. They run about $200 brand new from a Stihl dealer.

If I needed a mid-range saw, I'd probably look at a Stihl MS-270 ($450), and for a big saw, I'd be shelling out for an MS-360/362 ($650). There are plenty of used saws out there - including at your local shop. If you know what you're looking for, a great deal can be found. If you're not careful, it's easy to lose money on a saw. Like buying a used gun, if you don't know, take someone with you. I lost a bit of money on a saw that wasn't everything it appeared to be. Not much, but enough to make me more cautious in the future.

Of course, the saw isn't the only thing you'll need. Proper safety gear can save you - literally. Gloves, helmet, chaps, and boots are important. If you don't respect the saw, even for one second, it can seriously injure or kill you. My little MS-180 turns at 14,000rpm - about six times faster than your car motor cruising down the highway, and twice what most NASCAR motors run. That kind of engine speed translates to the chain moving at about 45mph. You are not faster than the chain, I promise.

After you've picked your saw - and ideally, as part of the same purchase (ask for a discount on accessories with the saw, the worst they can say is no!) - you should pick up at least one extra chain, bar oil, 2-stroke oil, a chain file, sprocket grease gun (if needed, not all saws do), extra scrench, extra sparkplug, and a couple plastic wedges. Milk crates are great for carrying all this stuff around.

As an aside, I *highly* recommend purchasing your saw from a shop that specializes in chainsaws and outdoor power equipment. The folks at Home Depot or Tractor Supply aren't necessarily going to know the difference between a 0.325" or 0.375" chain pitch, or why it's important to match chain gauges, or if you want a safety chain or skip chain. If you're buying from the local shop, ask to try a saw before you buy - many of them will have demo saws and a few logs to work with. Ask them to show you how to sharpen your chain and adjust the tension. You still may screw it up down the road, but an honest mistake is how you learn.

I can't teach you everything about sawing in a blog post - it's just not possible to explain the nuances and subtleties of really running a saw. I'll hit the high points, though:

- First and foremost: SAFETY FIRST. 30,000 people go to the ER with chainsaw injuries each year. Don't be 30,001. If you are tired, drunk, or under the influence of a drug or narcotic, it's not a good time to be sawing. Work, THEN play.

- All the gear all the time. Like bikers with their leathers, it's that "one quick cut" that will bite you.

- Size your saw and bar to your work. A 16" bar on a 45-50cc saw will handle almost any residential task, and a 20" bar on a 60cc saw will handle almost any firewood job.

- Take breaks. Running a saw is hot, energy-consuming work. You have to be focused on what's in front of and around you the whole time the saw is running. Most saws have a fuel tank sized to run the saw for about 30 minutes. When the tank is empty, take a break. Sit down, stretch, drink some water, service the saw, and then get back into it.

- Maintain your saw. Whenever you fill the gas tank: fill the bar oil, touch up the cutters (one or two strokes of the file is all it needs), check the chain tension, and scrape out any obvious excess dirt.

- If you've hit a nail or fence insulator or rock while you're cutting, swap chains and set the damaged one aside as a utility chain for the next time you're working on the ground.

- Change your sparkplug every 100 hours or every other year.

- Clean the air filter every 5-10 hours of cutting, replace as needed.

- Make sure you run the right blend of gas:oil mix. 50:1 is fairly common now, but older saws may run 40: or 32:1. (REALLY old saws were as rich as 8:1.)

- Every couple months of regular use, take your chain to the shop to have it professionally sharpened. This will get rid of any burrs or misaligned teeth from your home sharpening, and should also get the rakers to the right depth.

- A good sharp saw will throw chips, not dust. If you're cutting and seeing dust, the saw is trying to grind through the tree instead of cutting. Stop, sharpen and tension your chain, and try again.

- Finally: SAFETY LAST. 30,000 people go to the ER with chainsaw injuries each year. Don't be 30,001. If you are tired, drunk, or under the influence of a drug or narcotic, it's not a good time to be sawing. Work, THEN play.

A chainsaw is a hell of a tool, and knowing how to use and maintain one will serve you in good stead for most of your life. Hope this helps!


Link P said...

Excellent post. I went for the orange, too, but this was my first chainsaw (purchased at a moment where expedience was the most important criteria), so I don't expect my Echo to match a Stihl.

If you want to drink and run your chainsaw, make sure you drink 'chainsaw beer'.

ZerCool said...

Link, that picture is great, but the saw is WAY too clean!

Echos aren't bad saws at all - they're definitely better than Poulan, but not quite in the same league as the big three.

Link P said...

That picture was taken after assembling the saw prior to its inaugural use. I can't promise detailed snaps of the inner workings, but I can offer some action shots of the emergency detail.

ZerCool said...

Classic example of exactly why a chainsaw is a useful thing to have! (And also a clear case where a 14-16" bar is just fine.)

Link P said...

I have to agree with you on the length of the saw bar. The Home Depot guy knew that much. He did screw the pooch on the chain oil though! I had to make an extra trip to a nearer store than the Depot before I could get to work.

If I had the luxury of buying a chainsaw before I needed one, I would treat it more like a firearm purchase, and get it from a specialist instead of from a general store.

doubletrouble said...

I cut a LOT of wood around here (you probably saw the wood piles), & you’ve got good info laid out here.

I also used to work at the local saw shop, so I can add a bit as well.

On safety- buy a pair of saw chaps. The are available for as little as $55 from Bailey’s, & I’m sure other places. A local friend gashed his leg down to the bone in a sloppy moment- this is a guy who used to fell for a living in Alaska. I’ve cut my jeans (missed the leg!) when cutting tired; now I always wear them when bucking/limbing.

Flip the bar every time you change the chain to equalize wear. Learn to grind/file the edges of the bar to remove “mushrooming” from the rails.

If you do bring in a chain for “professional” sharpening, check it when it’s delivered; if it’s blue on the cutters, give it back to them & ask for a new chain- that one’s ruined. The place I worked, the idiot owner wanted chains to be sharpened with one pull on the grinder- this resulted in too much stock being removed at once & the inevitable burning of the cutter. I bought a machine & sharpen for folks locally; it probably takes me twice as long as a shop, but the results are worth it, & customers appreciate the extra effort.

Get a raker gauge. They’re cheap, & give you a guide for the (typical) .025” depth that can be set with a flat file. I’ve seen more than one customer complaining that they sharpened the chain, but it’s still making dust. The rakers were WAY too tall, & the chain just won’t cut that way.

I’ll stop now; I should’ve just made this a post…

ZerCool said...

DT - so make it a post! :)

A hearty plus-one to getting chaps. (I put a link to Labonville in my post, actually.) It's also worth getting the full-wrap chaps, since most chainsaw injuries are to the lower leg. When it's time to replace my $50 set from Lowe's, I'll be springing for a set of the full-wrap Labonvilles.

I tend to do the rakers by eye; if the saw isn't cutting "right" I'll just run a flat file across each one for a couple strokes. Doesn't take much.