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Chain Saw!! Professional lumberjacks, landscapers, and arborists—as well as ambitious DIYers—turn to chainsaws for a variety of wood-cutting needs, from felling large trees to trimming limbs. Whether your project involves harvesting firewood or you’d simply like to try your hand at chainsaw carving, choosing the right cutting chain for your chainsaw can make a difference in the overall success of your project.
What Is a Chainsaw?
A chainsaw is a portable saw that cuts with a set of teeth on a continuous chain that rotates over and around a guide bar. While the basic concept of a chainsaw has been adapted for use in everything from surgery to carpentry, the term is mostly used for tools intended for activities such as tree trimming and felling, which is what we’ll be focusing on.
Types of Chainsaws
A standard chainsaw is what most people think of when they hear “chainsaw.” Although their design may seem similar, there are different handheld chainsaws made for everything from felling large trees to lightweight yard maintenance.
A pole saw allows the user to trim limbs that would ordinarily be out of reach. The simplest description of a pole saw? A saw mounted on a long stick. They can be gas- or electric-powered, although many homeowners prefer corded models to keep the saw as light as possible. Controls for the saw are at the base of the pole, enabling the user to safely turn them on or off from the ground. Some pole saws are detachable from their pole, allowing them to be used as lightweight saws around the yard.
An enclosed saw shields the user entirely from the moving chain. Relatively small and lightweight, these are most frequently electric-powered limb trimmers.
Chainsaw Power Options
Gas-powered chainsaws are the most powerful option, and can drive the longest bar length. This means that they can bring down larger trees and work faster with less wear on the chain. Gas-powered saws are noisier and heavier than electric models, and their engine requires more maintenance. Also, most gas-powered chainsaws run on a blend of gasoline and 2-cycle oil — the exact ratio depending on the manufacturer — so you’ll need to make your own or keep pre-mixed fuel on hand.
Electric chainsaws are available in corded or battery-powered varieties. They have less power than gas-powered chainsaws. A corded saw has as much power as a mid-range gas saw, while battery-operated chainsaws tend to have even less power.
Naturally, the biggest limitation on a corded saw is the length of the cord. Be sure to pay attention to the amps that your corded chainsaw draws, as you’ll need an extension cord that can handle that load. Look for the amperage rating on your extension cord, and if in doubt, pick up a new heavy-duty cord when you buy your saw. Battery-powered chainsaws work great on smaller jobs or occasional maintenance.
You may also find some pneumatic chainsaws that run on compressed air. Seen much less frequently than gas or electric models, pneumatic chainsaws have many of the same pros and cons as corded chainsaws, with one added complication — you may need to purchase an air compressor to use it.
Chain Saw Buyers Guide
There are many features available on chainsaws, more than we can describe in this piece. Here are some key features to look for.
Most DIYers will be fine using the chain that comes with their chainsaw. However, if you find yourself using your chainsaw for wide-ranging tasks, familiarize yourself with the teeth profile and spacing options available. If you think you’ll need multiple chains, be certain the chainsaw you choose makes exchanging the chain easy.
Top-handle saws are more compact and lighter, and can often be used one-handed. But they are designed for use at height, which sacrifices stability.
If you’ll be working on the ground, their maneuverability makes them a great choice for pruning limbs and fallen branches. If you’ll be taking down trees or working with large logs on the ground, it’s probably wiser to choose a rear-handle model with a wider handgrip for more protection against kickback.
To reduce fatigue, look for a chainsaw with rubberized handles and anti-vibration features. This is particularly useful on gas-powered saws, which have more vibration due to the moving parts of the engine.
In case of kickback, a chain brake stops the motion of the chain almost immediately, making it a great safety feature.
A typical homeowner should expect to spend between $100 to $500 for a chainsaw. There are plenty of saws on the market that cost far more, but they are primarily aimed at professionals who use these tools all day and depend on them for their lives and livelihood.
For DIYers, the primary consideration is power and usage. A more powerful saw will require a gas motor, while a less powerful, more mobile one can be driven by an electric motor. If you’ll be clearing trees from your property and converting them into firewood, then you’ll be well served to get an 18- to 24-in. bar and a gas-powered chainsaw. If you’re simply trimming the occasional limb or fallen branch, you’ll be better off with a shorter bar and a corded or battery-powered saw.
Chainsaw Maintenance and Repair Considerations
The maintenance of chainsaws primarily involves the chain and the motor.
Keep the chain and bar free of debris such as dirt or twigs, maintain proper chain tension and maintain the chain oil. All are easy to do yourself, and should be done on a regular basis, preferably after each significant use.
Sharpen the chain as often as needed; this will vary depending on the frequency and nature of use, but a general rule do so every time you refill the gas tank. (For electric models, sharpen after a full day’s use.) No matter what kind of saw you have, if you find it’s taking longer or requiring pressure to cut, it’s time to sharpen the chain on.
Inside The Chain Saw
Yes, crudely speaking, that’s what a chainsaw does: in scientific terms, it converts the chemical energy locked in gasoline into mechanical energy you can use to “do work,” turning a tree into logs, sawdust, noise, and heat. Here’s a very simplified explanation:
- The fuel you put in a chainsaw’s gas tank contains, in chemical form, all the energy you’ll consume cutting down and chopping up logs. To keep it nice and light, a typical chainsaw tank holds just 0.5 liters (1.1 US liquid pints) of gas (a car’s gas tank holds maybe 45–55 liters or 12–15 US liquid gallons, which is roughly 100 times more).
- The fuel feeds through a carburetor to mix it with air.
- The air-fuel mixture passes into a cylinder, which works much like the ones in a car engine but with only a simple push-pull (two-stroke) action instead of the more complex (four-stroke) cycle used in a car. Inside the cylinder, the air-fuel mix is ignited by a spark (sparking) plug, burns, releases its energy, and pushes a piston back and forth. The piston in a chainsaw engine has a bore (diameter) of about 45mm (1.75 in) and a stroke (traveling distance) of about 33mm (1.3 inches)—so it’s less than half the size of a typical car engine piston and moves only half as far.
- A connecting rod and crank convert the back and forth motion of the piston to rotary motion.
- A drive shaft takes power to the centrifugal clutch.
- A chainsaw engine runs all the time, but you don’t want the chain spinning unless you’re actually cutting wood: that’s dangerous and it wastes energy. The clutch solves this problem. As explained in more detail below, the centrifugal clutch connects the engine and the chain when the engine speed is fast (when the operator pulls on the throttle) and stops the chain from spinning when the engine speed is low (when the chainsaw is just idling).
- Gears carry power from the clutch to the sprocket that holds the chain.
- The chain spins around the edge of a long-steel plate called the guide bar, spitting out wood dust as it goes!
Advantages Of Chain Saw
The main advantage of using a chainsaw—speed—is fairly obvious. It would be hard to spend an entire day chopping your way through a forest with a handsaw, but you could certainly do that with a chainsaw.
A little crude math shows why a chainsaw is maybe 5–10 times quicker than an ordinary hand saw. Think how many planks of wood you could make from a single, trimmed tree trunk: maybe ten or fifteen? Now think how laborious it is to saw through a single plank with a handsaw; cutting through an entire tree is going to take you at least 10 times as long, assuming you don’t run out of energy or melt your saw blade first.
Photo: Forestry management: A chainsaw can cut through a tree in about a tenth the time you’d need with a handsaw. Unlike a handsaw, it’s just as easy to use sideways on (as shown here). Using a handsaw at this angle is really tricky! Photo courtesy of US Fish & Wildlife Service.
Let’s try a more sophisticated estimate. Suppose you have a tree that is 30cm (roughly 1ft) in diameter and a chainsaw that makes a cut of 0.5mm (0.02in) into the wood with each pass of the chain. That means the chain needs to pass through the wood 600 times (30cm = 300mm and it takes two chain passes to remove each mm). If you’re using a powerful chainsaw with a rotational speed of about 2800rpm (call it 3000rpm to make the math easy), the chain will (theoretically) make 600 passes in just 20 seconds. In practice, it’ll take somewhat longer. Let’s say a minute.
How long would it take with a handsaw? Suppose your saw has teeth the same size as the chainsaw’s and suppose it’s roughly the same length as the chainsaw (and therefore half as long as the chain). You still need to make those 600 passes through the wood. Maybe you’re superhuman: suppose you can make one complete pass of the saw each second and keep up that pace constantly. Then it’s still going to take, as a minimum, 600 seconds—or 10 minutes. In practice, it’s going to take quite a bit longer as you get tired, as the saw slips out of its groove from time to time, and so on. These are only guesstimate, back-of-envelope calculations—but you get the idea: using a chainsaw is certainly several times faster (and probably 5–10 times faster) than using a good handsaw.
Selecting the best chainsaw chain for your project should involve an honest analysis of your experience with a chainsaw (some types of chains are more dangerous than others), consideration of the type of wood, and how quickly you need to get the job done. Read on to learn what factors are important to consider when buying a chainsaw chain and to find out why the following are solid options for a range of woodcutting needs.