I can name a dozen ways to cut a 2x4 (not including a karate chop). But when it comes to felling a tree, sectioning branches or cleaning up storm damage, there’s really only one choice: a chain saw. This tool is designed to do one thing — cut through wood fast — and it does it well.
If you’re considering buying your first chain saw or you have an old one that wears you out when you try to start it, you’ll find plenty to like about the latest models. But as always, you should think carefully about how you’ll use the tool before you start to shop. Here are some factors to consider as you make your selection.
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Your first consideration is what type of work you plan to do. There’s no reason to buy a large, expensive, high-power model if you’ll only be cutting small branches. Choose the saw that is appropriate for the type and amount of cutting you plan to do. For most homeowners that means a small gasoline-powered or electric model. Tip: No matter what type of saw you choose, it’s bound to incur a lot of wear. Buying from a dealer that offers parts and service makes maintenance easier.
THE RIGHT SAW FOR THE JOB
Work = small limbs/cleanup
Power = Gas engines 30cc to 40cc and Electric motors
Bar length = 12- to 14-in. bar
Work – firewood cutting, felling small trees
Power =Gas engine 40cc to 60cc
Bar length = 16- to 24-in. bar
Work = professional use, milling lumber
Power = Gas engine 60+cc
Bar length = 16-in.+ bar
It’s also important to consider how often you plan to use the saw. A chain saw is not the type of tool you can set on a shelf between uses and expect it to be ready to go the next time you pick it up. Every saw requires routine maintenance, which depends on how much it is used. Even a saw that needs less maintenance, such as an electric model, may require more commitment than you’d like to make. If you want a chain saw for one-time use, such as for cleaning up a few fallen branches, you might be better off renting rather than buying.
Gas chain saw engines range in size from 30cc to over 100cc. For most residential work, a 30cc to 40cc engine will do the job. A more powerful engine will typically cut faster, so if you cut a lot of firewood, it may be worth moving up to a saw with a 40cc to 60cc engine. The tradeoff for that extra power is that the saw will be heavier. In general, saws with engines over 60cc are for those who use their saws professionally, who cut down a lot of trees or who mill lumber.
Some electric chain saws are capable of doing the same work as a small gas-powered saw. Electric saws are easier to maintain, quieter and lighter than gas-powered saws, making them the perfect choice for many homeowners. The main drawback is that you’ll be tethered to an extension cord, which limits mobility and access to remote locations. However, cordless models are available.
Gas chain saws used to be infamously difficult to start. Fortunately, just about every manufacturer has made significant improvements that make the saws easier than ever to start. The starting process and controls on many models have been simplified and are now easier to understand. Purge pump primers let you prime the carburetor without flooding it. And pulling the starter cord requires much less effort, thanks to the latest spring-assisted and decompression-valve starting systems, such as those used in the Echo I-30, Stihl Easy-2-Start and Husqvarna Smart Start.
Although meeting the latest regulated emissions standards has been a challenge, most chain saw manufacturers still prefer two-cycle engines because they can pack more power with less weight than comparable four-cycle engines. Their efforts have led to innovations (such as Husqvarna’s XTorq technology) that deliver better fuel efficiency and cleaner-running engines without sacrificing (and sometimes even improving) power.
Bar and chain
The bar length on a chain saw determines the maximum diameter of the log you can cut. It also plays a role in the safety of the saw. A shorter bar is easier to control and safer than a long bar. But you don’t want the bar to be too short because it’s safest to keep the tip outside the log. Ideally the bar should be at least 2 in. longer than the diameter of the log you’re cutting. Professionals typically own several chain saws of different lengths to handle various cutting needs. For most homeowners, one saw with a 14-in. bar will suffice.
The bar and chain must be lubricated to prevent undue wear. Most electric chain saws feature a manual oil system, such as a push bulb that you press to periodically lubricate the blade during use. Gas-powered chain saws typically feature automatic oiling systems. Traditional automatic chain-oil systems work off of the drive shaft, pumping oil even when the engine is idle. In the past, this often created a pool of oil under the chain saw, but many saws now feature improved systems that use less oil. For example, Stihl’s Ematic Bar features a polymer ramp reservoir that holds bar oil until it can be picked up by the passing chain, reducing oil use by as much as 50 percent. Another innovation, Echo’s clutch-driven oil system, doesn’t pump oil when the saw is idle.
In addition to making sure the bar and chain are properly lubricated, you will have to periodically test and adjust the chain tension. A loose chain won’t cut well and can be dangerous. Chain tension is adjusted by moving the bar. Choose a saw that has a simple and easy-to-access bar-adjustment system. Some manufacturers offer convenient tool-free (no wrench required) bar adjustment.
No matter what brand or model of saw you choose, there are several safety considerations when operating a chain saw. The first is to wear the proper safety gear. Purchase safety gear specifically designed for chain saw protection at the same time you purchase your saw. The importance of wearing proper safety gear cannot be overemphasized.
The next safety consideration isn’t as obvious, but it may cause more accidents. “Fatigue can lead to injuries,” says Cary Shepherd, senior product specialist for Husqvarna, “so we factor that into the development of just about every component. If it makes the work easier for the operator, then it improves safety.”
In that sense, even the technology that makes saws easier to start can be considered a safety feature. “An operator who has had to pull a starter cord 10 times to start their saw is getting fatigued before they begin cutting,” Shepherd says.
The weight and balance of a saw can also affect fatigue. Before purchasing your saw, put on a pair of protective gloves and pick up the saw in the store. Make sure that it is not too heavy, that it feels well-balanced and that you can securely hold and maneuver it.
Vibration-control systems are another way manufacturers limit fatigue and improve safety. These systems not only make sawing more comfortable and easier in the short term but also help to prevent potential long-term physical problems that frequent saw users can develop, such as tendonitis.
One of the most important safety features that is found on most saws today and that will likely be required on all saws in the near future is a chain-brake system. The chain brake serves two purposes: It prevents the chain from moving in situations when you don’t want it to, such as when you are transporting the saw, cold starting the saw or sharpening the blade, and more important, it quickly stops the chain in emergencies, such as when the chain gets caught or pinched. (This can cause kickback, a dangerous reaction where the saw thrusts back at the user.)
There are two common brake systems. The first is a manual hand brake, typically the front hand guard, which engages when the handle is pushed forward and releases when the handle is pulled back. The second system is an inertia chain brake. It is automatically activated when the chain is suddenly stopped and the saw is forced back or upward quickly. Inertia brakes greatly enhance safety because they activate immediately in situations when the operator might not have the time or ability to react.
The best way to prevent kickback is to use safe cutting techniques, but many saws — especially those intended for homeowners — are equipped with additional protective features. Some saws incorporate anti-kickback bars, which have narrower (more pointed) tips than standard bars, so the area of the bar where most kickback is initiated is smaller. Another safety feature, an anti-kickback or safety chain, has extra guard teeth that limit how aggressively the chain can cut. And on some saws the chain at the tip of the bar can be covered with a safety tip or bar-tip guard to prevent that section of chain from engaging in the wood.
Your chain saw should also feature an interlock or throttle-lock trigger. Gas models feature one trigger or lever on the top and one on the bottom of the rear handle. The bottom lever is the throttle trigger. It accelerates the engine. The top lever is the lock-out trigger. It must be pressed for the throttle trigger to operate.
Learning how to safely operate whatever saw you choose is essential. Most manufacturers provide some user instructions with the saw, but you’ll find even more resources, such as free instructional videos, on many saw manufacturers’ Web sites. For the sake of your own safety and efficiency, don’t ever “wing it” with a chain saw — make sure you’re well-informed before you tackle that tree branch.
Smaller chain saws are appealing to homeowners because they are lighter and easier to handle. But don’t let the compact appearance of a top-handle chain saw fool you. These tools are intended for use in climbing situations when one of the operator’s hands must be free to hang onto a rope or tree branch. The forward-handle design provides much less leverage, which can result in less control. Top-handle saws are for pros; homeowners should stick with rear-handle models.
The chance of kickback is greatly reduced when a safety tip is mounted on the end of the saw bar. The Ryobi RY10520 comes equipped with a safety tip that can be removed. Safety tips are rarely used on professional saws because they prevent plunge cuts and other advanced cutting techniques.
POWER POLE SAWS
If you need to remove limbs that are beyond your reach, a power pole saw or Power Pruner (the Echo trademark name that’s become synonymous with this type of tool) is a safer option. These saws are available in lengths from 8 ft. to over 12 ft.
Don’t underestimate electric saws. They might look like toys, but the best models have enough power to perform most residential cutting chores. They are lightweight and easy to handle, and they make less noise and create less exhaust than a gasoline-powered saw, making them the only option for indoor jobs such as cutting beams. The downside is that they must be used within 100 ft. of an electric outlet. But if you have a small yard, an electric chain saw might be the perfect choice.
CORDLESS ELECTRIC SAWS
Cordless electric chain saws are lightweight and provide enough power for pruning and trimming small branches. They are an even more attractive option if you already own tools that use the same manufacturer’s battery platform. The Craftsman C3 ($129.99) features a 10-in. blade and is powered by a 19.2-volt battery.
CHAIN SAW MILLS
The thought of milling a freshly felled tree into furniture-grade lumber is intriguing to many woodworkers. You can do the job with a chain saw milling attachment, such as this Granberg Alaskan MK-III ($195). Ripping logs requires more power than crosscutting, so you’ll get the best results using a saw that is powered by at least a 60cc engine and a chain designed for rip cuts.
Black & Decker, 800-544-6986,
Dolmar, (770) 569-4945,
Solo (757) 245-4228,
Chain saw mill manufacturers: