Chainsaw Maintenance Basics

Sharpening chainsaw chains is only a part of general chainsaw maintenance.

  • Safe sawyering involves a good grip and solid stance.
    Photo By iStockphoto/kropic
  • Chain oil, scrench, files and other tools are all part of maintaining your own machines. The scrench is a must-have for chainsaw owners.
    Photo By Lorain Ebbett-Rideout
  • Correct chain tension is achieved when the chain is in contact with the bottom side of the bar, but can be pulled around easily by hand.
    Photo By Lorain Ebbett-Rideout
  • Stay consistent by filing each cutting tooth with the same number of strokes. File away from you with smooth, easy strokes.
    Photo By Lorain Ebbett-Rideout
  • Anatomy of a chain, with drive teeth, cutting teeth, and rakers (depth gauges).
    Photo By Joseph Love

Possibly no other piece of power equipment is more used, more coveted, more debated, more feared, and more crucial to managing costs on the homestead than the chainsaw. Granted, each homestead is different, and maybe a tractor-mounted auger saves you thousands in labor costs every year, or maybe your haying equipment is responsible for an entire family’s livelihood. But to the average small property owner, choosing the right chainsaw and learning to maintain it and keep yourself safe while out in the grove is a critical step to warmth during winter, affordable fence posts all year long, and managing your wooded acres in a variety of ways.

Selection and care

Purchasing a chainsaw usually happens when you find yourself without one just one too many times, so knowing what you’ll be cutting is, of course, the first step in determining what chainsaw will best suit you. For most users, this means knowing trunk diameters and the species of wood they are likely to cut the most. If your use is varied and unpredictable, multiple saws and chains may suit your needs best. For a common two-saw setup, remember short saws are best for limbing, while long saws are best for felling large trees and cutting logs.

Manufacturers and professionals mostly agree that a bar-to-tree ratio of 1-to-2 can be safe. That is, an 18-inch bar is sufficient to cut through a 36-inch diameter trunk, depending on the skill of the user. To do this properly, the operator needs to gain practice plunge cutting appropriately (starting with the bottom quarter of the saw’s tip) and then working through half the trunk at a time. However, if you’ll be constantly cutting 3-foot diameter trunks, you will want to consider a larger bar and engine. Oftentimes, the bar length that you want will dictate to a certain degree the engine size, but don’t overdo it for more power and work with unnecessary weight when you don’t need it. Likewise, a chainsaw won’t last long when constantly used at its maximum workload. Consider your intended use for the saw and talk to your local dealer.

Operating the saw correctly also will extend its life. Squaring your stance before cutting keeps kerfs straight and chains spinning freely. Too often, users saw back and forth, or erratically rock the bar. No matter the cut, a firm, stationary grip is mandatory, and a solid stance — try adopting a boxer’s stance — is a must. If you need to move the saw around while cutting, bury it up to the dogs (the jagged teeth at the base of the bar), and rely on them for leverage. Regardless of how strong you are, you can’t get more leverage than the dogs. Fatigue from using too large a saw and overhandling are both pretty common, so choose the right machine and let it do the work for you.


A good chainsaw owner knows chains, and there’s no better place to start the discussion than with pitch and gauge. Pitch is the spacing between rivets, measured either as fractions of an inch (1/4) or in thousandths of an inch (.404), with numbers increasing along with chain size. Gauge corresponds to the width of the drive teeth. Sizing is in thousandths of an inch (i.e., .063). Compatibility is the main concern with pitch and gauge, secondary to overall performance. Always write down and store these sizes — your saw’s drive sprocket and bar will thank you.

Consumer saws come with round-toothed chains, which are less prone to kickback and vibration. Professionals, however, make use of the square-tooth, or chisel, chain. While rounded teeth scoop wood out of a cut, a chisel or square tooth chips the wood away, severing the wood fiber quicker. People do not agree which tooth profile is better, but the point is moot: Each serves a specific purpose, and they both do their jobs accordingly. Round-toothed chains are best suited for limbing, brush-clearing, stumping, and cutting through frozen or dirt- and mud-covered wood and hardwoods. Additionally, because they require more effort from the engine on big cuts, they are best used on shorter bars. Square-toothed chains, though, will best please the user when placed on a long bar (24-plus inches) used for felling softwoods.

12/24/2015 8:30:22 AM

This is the best article I've read on chainsaw maintenance. Very clear and without all the extras that don't pertain to homeowner use. It also cleared up the numbers used to determine the size of a chain.

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