When cutting down trees, you will be hard-pressed to find a better tool than a chainsaw. Tried and true over decades of use, they are unbeatable for limbing, pruning, and felling. While the concept of a chainsaw remains the same, today’s modern chainsaws have advanced significantly from the saw your grandfather might have used. They are no longer only gas-driven, have safety mechanisms to prevent nasty injuries, and new materials make them lighter and stronger. However, all these features, functions, and power can make finding the perfect chainsaw harder than you’d think. That said, we’ve compiled a guide to help you decide what kind of chainsaw is the best for you.
Choosing the right size tool for the job is always the first thing you should consider. The length bar you choose should be no longer than half the width of the widest tree you plan on cutting. To get an accurate estimate of the size you need, consider the type of work you will be doing, as well as where you plan on using it. Farms and forests have more big trees to cut than cities and require longer bars. Shorter bars are easier to handle but restrict you to small cuts. Bigger saws also need bigger motors, making them loud and heavy.
Gas vs Battery vs Electric
The biggest and most powerful chainsaws have internal combustion engines powered by gasoline. Without a power cord tethering them to a wall outlet, they are also the most versatile design. They cut fast and support longer bars, so they are common in commercial applications. From logging, forestry, to farming, ranching, and groundskeeping, a gas saw has what it takes. Gas saws can also cut for much longer periods of time since they just need to add more gas if they run low. Never wait for batteries to charge or stay close to utility power.
Battery powered chainsaws have been steadily growing in popularity in recent years. As battery technology and brushless motors have become more advanced and available, their power has begun to rival many smaller gas chainsaws, especially for consumer use.
Battery powered saws are typically smaller than gas models, but what they lack in size they make up for with convenience. No gas engine means virtually no maintenance, as well having no exhaust and minimal noise. They also start without a pull cord, even on cold days or after sitting without use for a long time.
Corded electric chainsaws have been a great alternative to gas saws for a long time, especially for homeowners. They are almost silent during use and have no exhaust or engine maintenance. They are easy to store since there is no risk of motor oil leaking out. No metal engine or heavy battery weighing it down also make them the lightest category of saws. Additionally, electric saws are generally cheaper than the other two types because of their relatively simple construction.
Chainsaws are one of the most dangerous tools you will likely ever use. Safety is not something you can afford to be cheap about. Be sure when you choose a saw that it has as many safety features as possible to prevent serious injuries.
• Chain Brake
A brake stops the chain from rotating if the saw kicks back. Once the saw jumps back at you, your hand hits the guard and rather than winding down slowly, the saw stops almost immediately, reducing the risk of injury. Almost all modern saws have this feature, but you still need to ensure it is present before you decide on a model.
• Chain Catcher
If the chain breaks or comes off the bar, a catcher wads it up into a clump and prevents it from whipping out at you. It looks like a small metal bar on the bottom, so keep an eye open for it while looking for saws.
• Low-Kickback Chain
Kickback is a very dangerous phenomenon when the tip of the chain acts catches on the wood and launches the saw back at you. Modern chains have features to reduce the likelihood of this hazard. When you buy a chain or a saw, it will have either a green or a yellow indicator box on the packaging. Green means it is low-kickback, and you should always begin with these safer chains.
• Narrow Bar
Narrow bars have a lower risk of kickback during use than wider bars. With less surface on the end of the bar to catch the wood, if it does shoot back the speed will be much lower.
• Vibration Reduction
Chainsaws can produce dangerous vibration which causes long-lasting health problems in your hands. Gas saws have the strongest vibration since the internal engine has many more moving parts than electric motors. Electric and cordless models also don’t idle between cuts, so the only vibration created is while actually doing work. Low-vibration chains also exist. Any protection to your hands will help you keep the feeling in your fingers at the end of the day.
• Trigger Lock
New chainsaws have mechanisms for protecting against accidental trigger pulls. The exact design varies from one brand to the next, but you should never buy a saw without a safety on the trigger.
• Weight And Balance
Chainsaws are heavy, so be sure you are capable of controlling it the entire time you use it. If the saw is too heavy, you will have a very difficult time wrangling it through tough cuts. The more you tire yourself out, the more you increase the chance of hurting yourself or damaging your work. Gas saws are much heavier than either battery and electric models.
• Tool-free Chain Tightening
The chain heats up and expands as you cut, and then needs to be tensioned for proper cutting. The luxury of being able to tighten the chain without any extra tools could be worth it if you are not familiar with saw maintenance.
• Automatic Oiler
Old-school chainsaws had to be oiled manually while cutting to prevent the bar and chain from overheating. New chainsaws almost always have automatic chain oilers, so this is hardly a concern anymore. However, if you’re planning on getting an older used saw, make sure you check if it has an oiler before you buy it.
• Bucking Spikes
Also called a bucking plate, spike bar, felling bar, dog teeth, and many other names. Bucking spikes are a set of metal or plastic spikes to dig into the wood you’re cutting, giving you more leverage during intense plunge cuts. It’s not explicitly a safety feature, but by providing extra grip, you reduce the risk of kickback if the blade jams.
• Easy Start Pull Cord
Gasoline saws all have pull cords starters. They can be very hard to start if they haven’t seen use in a while, especially on cold days. For the easiest starts, electric and cordless saws skip the cord altogether and start with a pull of the trigger.
Many name-brand chainsaws have networks of service centers where you can bring them for repairs. Make sure you buy an easily-serviceable saw, with nearby service centers.
• Personal Protective Equipment
Chainsaws have no safety guards covering the cutting end, so any protection between you and the chain must be worn on the user side. Protective chaps protect your legs from an errant cut. The fabric fibers clog the saw and stop it in a fraction of a second. You must always hear ear and eye protection as well. Chainsaws are very loud, especially gas models, and throw chips with lots of force. Sturdy work gloves are also essential. Not just to protect your hands against cuts, but to have an extra layer to absorb dangerous vibrations as you work.
Top Handle or Back Handle
Chainsaws generally have one handle that wraps from the top to the side for your left hand, and a second handle in the rear with the trigger. But, some specialist saws have both handles mounted on top. Top handle chainsaws are more compact than typical saws so that arborists can use them while up high in trees. The handle configuration also allows for great maneuverability and distributes the weight of the tool to both arms rather than just one. Because the back of the saw is flat, they have rings for attaching to utility harnesses to make climbing easier.
Which Is Best?
For almost all purposes, rear handle chainsaws are better. They have great balance and are very easy to steer during cuts. The only times you need a top-handled saw is if you are a trained arborist up in the air. In this case, the smaller body dimensions let you make cuts easily at any height without worrying about the balance of the saw.
Other Types of Chainsaws
While some polesaws are dedicated units, others come as attachments for powerheads. By sharing a single motor, you are able to jump between a string trimmer, pole saw, and several other tools at a much lower investment than having multiple individual tools.
Some gardening and consumer-grade tools use chains to cut through wood or other small plants. While these share many features with their full-size brethren, they have drastically less cutting power, as well as other safety features. Despite the power difference, however, they still can be useful tools if implemented properly, such as the Worx JawSaw.
Chainsaw Blades For Other Tools
Because of their unique cutting abilities, chainsaw blades have been adapted for use on many other tools. Many of these adaptations allow cuts which would have been otherwise impossible or required much more expensive tools. Two popular options are the King Arthur Lancelot cutter for angle grinders to make surface cuts in wood, and the Prazi beam cutter for making 12” vertical cuts from a 7-¼” circular saw.