Guide to Buying a Chainsaw

A chainsaw is one of those tools that can be described thusly: When you need one, nothing else will really do. We’ll help you find the right one for your needs. From the original gas-powered saws that took two people to operate to today’s lightweight homeowner versions, the chainsaw has come a long way in the last 40 years. Use our chainsaw guide to determine the machine that's right for you.

Types of Chainsaws

There are two types of chainsaws: gasoline-powered and electric. Your access to a power source helps determine which type you need, so think about where your woodcutting projects are going to be.

Gas Powered Chainsaw Gas powered saws offer maximum power and portability.

Electric Chainsaw Electric saws make short work of smaller yard chores.

Gasoline-powered chainsaws use a two-cycle engine (requiring mixing of oil and gas). Mobility and power are the main advantages of gas. Disadvantages include the bother and smell of mixing oil and gas, pull cord starting and the additional overall maintenance needed.

Electric saws are great for smaller yard chores. They’re quieter than their gas-powered cousins, lightweight, easy to start and require less maintenance. However, they have less power than gasoline-powered saws. They also add the bother of dragging a cord around behind you.

Pole saws are available in both gas and electric versions. These slightly smaller versions of their larger cousins are mounted on an extension pole. The cutting reach is extended up to 12’ (depending on the model).

Decisions, Decisions

Before you go shopping, look around the yard and think about the jobs you plan on tackling. The size of the wood you plan to cut and how often you cut are factors in selecting the proper tool. Think about how large and powerful a saw you can handle comfortably and safely.

Chainsaws come in many sizes. Saws are measured by two means: Bar length and engine displacement.

  • Bar length is measured from the cutting tip to where the chain enters the housing. Bar length represents the active cutting area - the largest size wood the saw will cut in a single pass. When determining the size you need remember the saw’s actual safe cutting ability is twice the bar’s length (ex. a saw with a 14" bar can cut through a 28" log).

Standard bar lengths for most homeowner saws are 14", 16", 18" and 20". Although these are only two inch increments, each larger size brings increased weight and power. Larger saws also increase the safety concerns for the user. Sizes over 20" can be hard to handle - leave these for the pros.

  • Engine displacement is an impressive term that simply measures a gasoline engine’s size. The measurement is represented as cubic centimetres (cc) or cubic inches (cu. in.). Use these measurements to compare models. A higher number delivers more power.

Homeowner models have less than 3.8 cu. in. (62 cc) ratings, though most of these saws normally range from 1.5 to 2.8 cu. in.

You may also notice other numbers, the chain pitch and chain gauge. These are probably most important to remember when replacing a chain.

  • Chain pitch is the spacing of the rivets on the chain. The saw’s sprocket has the same spacing. The normal pitch is 3/8".

  • Chain gauge is the thickness of the chain. It should fit the groove in the bar.

SAFETY NOTE: A chainsaw is a powerful tool and commands attention to safety. Always read and follow the manufacturer’s instructions.

When Shopping for Chainsaws

  • Try to find a good combination of size and power. Power matters most if you’ll be cutting hardwood (oak, maple, etc.) rather than softwood (pine, fir, etc.).

  • Remember that with power comes weight. A large saw can get pretty heavy after a long session of cutting. Larger saws also create more vibration.

  • You lefties especially may want to handle one before buying since they’re basically all made for right-handed people.

What may look like a lot of “bells and whistles” are really some pretty smart features. Look for these comfort and convenience add-ons:

  • Anti-vibration - buffers the shock of the impact on blade and chain on wood (especially handy if you’ll be cutting for an extended period of time).

  • Quick start electronic ignition - reduces the pulling force needed for starting (available on some gas models).

  • Automatic chain oiler - lubricates for safe and efficient cutting.

  • Quick-adjust chain - allows the user to change the cutting chain tension easily.

  • Muffler - reduces noise.

  • Exhaust air cleaning system - cleans air before it gets to the air filter to help extend filter life.

  • Carrying case - provides convenience and helps protect the saw.

You need more than just a saw. Protective clothing is an essential part of the woodcutter’s toolbox. ALWAYS wear protective clothing, including:

  • Leg protection such as chaps, leggings or cut resistant pants.

  • Hard hat if there’s any material overhead.

  • Gloves or mittens with an enhanced gripping surface.

  • Eye protection with side shields.

  • Hearing protection such as earplugs or earmuffs.

  • Boots or shoes with steel toes and nonskid soles.

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