How to Sharpen a Chainsaw Chain

Learn how to sharpen a chainsaw chain and save money while getting the most out of your machines—and it helps keep you safe.

  • Chisel point teeth on this chain are just as easy, just a little bit different, to sharpen.
    Photo by
  • Understand the lingo when it comes to the parts of a chainsaw chain.
    Photo by Dave Boyt
  • The screw-in style file of the Timberline sharpener will put an edge on, but it doesn’t file rakers.
    Photo by Dave Boyt
  • File guides help control the depth and angle of filing. File with one hand, control the tip with the other.
    Photo by Dave Boyt
  • Take it from the pros, and smart amateurs, and invest in a logger’s helmet, chainsaw chaps and steel-toe boots.
    Photo by Dave Boyt
  • Extra chains and even bars can come in handy when cutting far away from the workshop.
    Photo by Lorain Ebbett-Rideout
  • Properly tensioning the chain will have to be done multiple times over a day of work in the woods.
    Photo by Dave Boyt

Chainsawing: Is it art, or science … or magic? The feel of a good, sharp chain sinking down through an oak log spewing a steady spray of chips certainly feels magical, especially when the saw is perfectly tuned. But if the only time you experience this magic is with a new chain, maybe it is time to tune up your sharpening skills as well.

Actually, there is no magic to it … just science, and a little math – geometry, to be precise – and precise it must be. The actual cutting takes place at the tip of the blade, so it must be perfectly formed. The rest of each tooth removes the chip of wood so the next tooth can do its work, and so on. Those links between the teeth also play a vital role. These “rakers” control how much of a bite the cutting teeth can take. As the cutting teeth are filed shorter, the rakers need to be filed lower.

Understand the lingo

The first order of business is to make sure you have the right chain for your saw, skill level, and job at hand. Most of the information you need is stamped right on the bar, if you know where to look. The drive links – the part of the tooth that engages the bar and bar sprocket – need the right spacing, or “pitch,” so they will go smoothly around the sprockets. The most common pitches are 0.325 inches and 0.375 inches (3⁄8-inch). The drive links must also be the correct thickness, or “gauge,” to match the width of the groove in the bar. Too big, and the drive links will not fit. If the gauge is too small, the chain will wobble and will not cut straight. This also puts excessive wear on the bar and chain, making the problem worse. The gauge is stamped on the bar, and will be 0.043, 0.050, 0.058 or 0.063. Larger saws tend to use the larger gauge chains, because they are subjected to more stress. The bar will also have the number of drive links stamped on it. With these numbers, you can go into any chainsaw shop and be confident of getting a chain that will fit. If in doubt, bring along the bar or an old chain.

At the shop, you will be presented with more choices: full comp, semi-skip, or skip tooth? Chisel point or semi-chisel? Safety chain or “professional”? Let’s take a minute to decipher these terms.

“Full comp” means that all the cutting teeth are present. This is the most common for general cutting. If you are using a long bar, you might consider semi-skip, which has two teeth, then skips a tooth, or full skip, which has half as many teeth as a full comp chain. These chains are slower and rougher cutting, but have less tendency to bog down the saw in big logs, and have fewer teeth to sharpen – a good thing when your bar has 84 drive links. I use a semi-skip tooth chain on a 24-inch bar with my 65cc chainsaw for those times when I need just a little more reach to get through a big tree or log.

Chisel point teeth come to a sharp point, while semi-chisel are slightly rounded. The chisel point cuts much faster and smoother, but must be kept razor sharp to maintain this advantage. Semi-chisel teeth last longer, especially in dirty logs or in situations where you might put the chain in the dirt once in a while. Properly sharpened, they cut well, but not as smoothly as chisel chains.

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