Beginning life as a bone saw in 1830, this device has been powered with compressed air, hydraulic fluid, electricity, 2-stroke engines and even some 4-stroke engines over the years. Today the machine is one of the most-owned outdoor power tools, second only to the lawn mower.
Once considered a widow maker because of its propensity to maim its operator, in the 1960s, the chainsaw came into its own as a farm and ranch tool – still considered dangerous, but safe enough for the general public. Improved safety features and accessories have made the chainsaw ever more popular today. If you fell trees for any reason a few times each year or have serious tree trimming to do, it might just be time to take this power-tool plunge and choose the best chainsaw for your needs. But with all the models, brands, power sources and cutting capacities out there, how do you choose?
Bigger may not be better
If you are at all like me, you might be drawn to the high horsepower, heavy-duty rating and long cutter-bar length when considering a new saw. While those cream-of-the-crop cutters might make sense for professional loggers charged with felling trees all day, every day of the year, they don’t make sense for a professional tree trimmer, much less the average homeowner – even if you have 10 acres of woodlot to maintain. Sometimes the smaller, lighter saw is more than adequate for clearing brush or trimming trees around your place. Sometimes you don’t really need a chainsaw at all.
Feel the power
The chainsaws that most folks consider for home or farm use will fall into three general power head categories: corded electric, battery electric and internal combustion engine. Each has its advantages and disadvantages.
In general, electric chainsaws tend to be less expensive and lighter than their gas-engine-powered counterparts. Corded electric saws cut a little slower in most cases and tend to max out with an 18-inch-long cutter bar. Electric saws are quieter, simple to start (assuming you have a long enough extension cord or a well-charged battery), and they don’t require that you fuss with gasoline, oil and other maintenance issues associated with internal combustion engines. Battery-powered chainsaws tend to have short cutting bars (less than 10 inches), but that can be useful for light pruning. With ever-changing battery technology, the outlook for increased capacity in battery-powered saws is good.
In spite of their added expense, weight and more involved starting sequence, gasoline-fueled saws are vastly more popular than electric versions. Part of that popularity might be related to tradition, but it also relates to complete flexibility in operation location, a wide range of power capabilities, quicker cutting, and a better-developed set of built-in safety devices such as a manual chain brake, which stops the chain from moving within an instant of the back of the operator’s hand impacting the hand guard/brake lever for any reason. Gas-powered saws also have automatic chain oiling systems and other ergonomic, performance, safety and convenience features lacking in many electric saws – an advantage to choosing products from a mature and well-developed genre of tools.
Matched size and power
Brian and Jen Ruth, in their comprehensive book, Homeowner’s Complete Guide to the Chainsaw, stress that the best way to choose a chainsaw is to think carefully about the diameter of the logs or branches you will spend most of your time cutting. Smaller saws are lighter and more economical to run, so if you tackle 6-inch-diameter logs most of the time, a bar length in the vicinity of 12 to 14 inches should suffice, and you can drive that chain with a 30- to 40-cc displacement gas engine or 1-horsepower electric motor power head.
If your chainsawing plans routinely include felling medium-sized trees or cutting firewood in the vicinity of 14 inches in diameter, you might choose a more powerful 2- to 3-hp electric model or 45-cc displacement gas-powered model, each with an 18-inch bar. While you can cut smaller trees and logs with larger saws, you will spend more for the tool, and more on gasoline, chain sharpening, chains and maintenance than with a smaller saw. Saws with longer bars are also more dangerous because they are heavier and relatively unwieldy compared with shorter saws, and because longer bars are more likely to make the kinds of contact that cause kickback and other difficult-to-control movements.
When your sawing will span a wide range of wood sizes, you might consider purchasing a power head that works well when sawing the larger logs and fitting it with two or more bars (with chains) of different lengths. However, if you need to clear acres of brush and routinely cut 14-inch logs for firewood, it might make the most sense to own a 14-inch saw with a 30-cc gas power head and another with an 18-inch bar and 45-cc power head.
When purchasing your first chainsaw, you should definitely look for machines that have a front-hand guard, chain brake(s), chain catcher (grabs a broken or derailed chain) and a throttle trigger that can’t be activated unless you have the saw’s handle in your grip. But that’s not all. You also need to spend money on a face shield or other eye and face protection, hearing protection, heavy canvas shirt and pants (not real baggy), leather gloves, heavy boots (safety toe recommended) and chainsaw chaps. The chaps are designed to prevent mortal injury by stalling the saw in milliseconds with a tangle of specialized fibers should the saw’s speeding blade come into contact with your leg or thigh.
Finally, be sure you understand the safe operation of your saw and chainsawing basics before you leave the dealer. Spend some time reading and thinking about the information in Homeowner’s Complete Guide to the Chainsaw or other comprehensive guides to chainsaws and chainsawing. Better yet, read all you can read, learn all you can learn from the dealer, then ask an experienced sawyer to help you get started.
Hank Will is lucky enough to own two Husqvarna chainsaws that are used regularly to cut hedge posts, trim trees and fallen branches, and harvest logs for use in making wooden hay rakes, dough bowls and the like.
Hank Will raises hair sheep, heritage cattle and many varieties of open-pollinated corn with his wife, Karen, on their rural Osage County, Kansas farm. His home life is a perfect complement to his professional life as editor in chief at GRIT and Capper's Farmer magazines. Connect with him on Google+.