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Tips To Buy And Use A Chainsaw

Our chainsaw is one of our most important tools. We use it to cut material for corrals, sheds and windbreaks, trim fallen trees off fencelines, cut watering holes through winter ice, and slice post holes into frozen peat. I’ve sliced and diced a frozen beef carcass when pet food was needed. And of course, we’ve used it to harvest dozens of cords of firewood. When it comes to building, dismantling or repairing anything made of wood, my mantra is, “If it can’t be done with a chainsaw, it can’t be done.”

When it comes to chainsaws, you get what you pay for. Most of the lower-priced saws on sale at retail outlets are “weekend” units. They are designed to cut a small number of undersized branches here and there, and a couple of months later trim a few more. These saws will last almost indefinitely, eventually becoming unserviceable due to non-availability of parts or due to dried seals. A saw should be run at least once a month simply to circulate fresh gas through the carburetor and moisten seals.

For more demanding service, sticker price should not be the prime factor. Quality is remembered long after price is forgotten. Anyone who has spent frustrating time fruitlessly pulling a starter rope knows what I mean. To have saved $100 rapidly becomes a diminishing comfort.

If you want decent service and fair part prices, buy from a local dealer with its own service centre. Even the best saw will eventually need a new bar, drive sprocket or carburetor overhaul, and if you can book an appointment with a medical specialist faster than you can get a saw component, you’re probably dealing with the wrong outfit. The most exasperating response to a request for service from a dismissive hand-wringing vendor has to be, “Oh, we don’t service them. Go to ___.” You may as well fill in the blank with “hell.”


When making a purchase, pay close attention to perhaps seemingly innocuous details — like the style of caps used to secure oil and gas reservoirs. A plain pop bottle-style slip-over cap is best by far.

Our latest purchase features an uncommonly complex cap design. After handling these plugs in Canadian cold, we found they might not necessarily function reliably. Chain oil is naturally viscous at freezing temperatures and in these circumstances, may act as a binder rather than lubricant, immobilizing these caps’ essential internal movement. If you are unable to cap the oil reservoir, you can’t use the saw. A cap that won’t close needs to be washed and turned a few times to initiate movement. A couple splashes of gasoline is usually sufficient as a cleaning agent.

Basins on these “improved” caps catch dirt around the edges so fine debris is unavoidably introduced into reservoirs at each filling. Admonishing instructions to clean before opening are as ineffective as the design. You can’t clean the core before you extract the plug, which unavoidably drops extremely fine crud into the reservoir eventually plugging the oiling mechanism.

Debris drawn into the gas tank may significantly shorten engine life. A new carburetor was our only option, but this is not something I would do again. Replacement plus cleaning oil lines added nearly $150 to the price of our saw and we still had a used unit. Then the oil pump ceased working again a few working hours after cleaning. This didn’t improve my opinion of the design.

Our air filter is not sufficiently sealed at the joints, which should be edged with rubber or an equivalent. Straight non-grooved plastic on plastic connections have too much scope for imprecision. When this filter is removed, there is a residue of extremely fine dust left inside ready to be sucked into the carburetor. We turn the saw on its side, splash a dash of gasoline into this space a couple of times, replace the filter and are ready to resume cutting.


You need to know if a saw will operate efficiently using gasoline containing ethanol, and if the engine will tolerate synthetic two-stroke oil in the gasoline mix. Some do not. Breaching these conditions on intolerant saws creates extremely uneven idling — if the engine will consent to idle at all.

Do not allow your unit to run out of fuel. Some are OK. Some are not. Determining if yours is one or the other isn’t worth the trouble. At the first r. p. m. hesitation, shut it down.

Do not overchoke when starting cold and do not choke a hot engine. Some units may flood virtually instantly and the only remedy is to take your lunch break and return later. When ready to start, saws should emit a few light coughs, which signals stop choking and go to the “run” setting. After the third or fourth pull following such display of early life, a saw should start quite reliably.

If a saw refuses to show any indication of starting after repeated pulls, the easiest recourse is to check — or better yet, change — the spark plug. A new plug kept in the glove compartment of your pickup can be a good investment. In our experience, a plug will not work at an occasional tempo. They either work or do not. Keeping them clean is a prerequisite to operations, but once they fail, it seems they have failed for good. To be sure, a few short strokes with fine sandpaper quite adequately removes soot. If there is life left in a plug, such cleaning should bring it forward.


You want a saw big enough to do the jobs you have in mind, yet small enough to handle for long periods. Small saws also have teeth that are too fine for most farm-size jobs.

Maintain blade tension so that at cold rest, the teeth clear the base of the bar by a minimum of one-eighth of an inch, but not much beyond that. Too loose and the chain will jump track. Too tight and your bar will heat and “flare,” wearing rapidly at the leading edge while putting unnecessary strain on the engine.

If you find your saw is not cutting well, check the base of your bar. It should be smooth top and bottom. If there is any kind of a “roll” present, run this lightly past your grindstone. Such roll is a drag on penetration and partly inhibits teeth from making wood contact. If your cut is drifting to either side, teeth have been unevenly sharpened. You may manually resharpen, but small engine repair shops have a special unit that produces vastly superior results. You get the correct angle and pitch and your chain performs like new.

Chains will not cut rocks. We found it advantageous to leave a light base at the bottom of each log cut in order to keep the chain off the ground entirely. A half-roll of such log later will expose the partial cuts and the job can be finished without concern for running your chain into dirt. Dirt and rocks can be unbelievably abrasive at chain revolution speed. One second on a rock at full throttle and you can successfully kiss your last sharpening fee good-bye.

It is vital to continuously monitor chain movement. After making a cut, take a few seconds to allow the chain to move unencumbered before resuming work. If it stops like it has been mechanically braked, it needs oil or a groove cleaning. A pulpy log may deposit very fine sawdust into the bar groove, slowly choking chain action. It requires increased energy to move the chain, which will come to a dead stop as soon as the engine drops to idle. Simply slide a thin knife or equivalent along these grooves (after removing the chain) and clear the debris.

A comparable situation may occur if you are cutting too close to the ground and sawdust cannot be properly expelled. Chips will accumulate around the sprocket area, constricting movement and causing overheating. Stop the saw immediately or buy a new bar and perhaps a drive sprocket later.

If your chain becomes irregular in tension you might wish to examine your sprocket. If the drive points show considerable wear, replace the sprocket. They are easily installed at home. All you need is to buy the part.

We buy new chains from the same establishment that provides our sharpening service. They are cut to order at about two-thirds the cost of dealer chains while the quality is entirely comparable.

Be careful if you are cutting into a log that is wider than the blade is long. The chain has a high risk of “bucking” and a loose left-hand hold could bring the saw up and out of control in the fraction of a second. Cutting from bottom to top is quite practical but should be done with considerable care for safety.

A well-tuned saw with an adequately sharpened chain should need very little downward pressure in action. Light pressure is needed but leaning into a saw that is spinning more than cutting is futile and costly. Don’t try to save a few pennies by using a chain after it has lost its best cutting edge. Watch the size of your chips. If you are pumping sawdust instead of wood flakes, it’s time to switch.


Working equipment should include steel-toed boots, hard hat, sound protection and goggles. Gloves should be good-quality leather and clothes should be neither too tight nor too loose. A spinning chain, even in decelerated motion, has tremendous cutting power and one layer of clothing can be the difference between a hole in the cloth or a bleeding slash in one’s skin.

Each tree has a natural lean no matter how little. We try to accommodate this bend by falling in that direction if at all possible. Dropping a tree contrary to such natural leaning can be done but not well by non-professional fallers. The backwoods is not the place to pretend I am something I am not.

In circumstances where a precise drop is essential, we tie a three-quarter-inch rope up as high as we can reach, either using a long stick as an aid or tossing the rope over a solid branch. The loose end is attached to our half-ton, and while I’m cutting, my life’s partner maintains tension on the rope. At the first sign of the tree beginning to lean she pulls ahead and the tree follows as meekly as a haltered sow.

There seems almost a tradition among chainsaw artists that a tree must be cut as close to the ground as possible. Well possibly, but not when making the first cut. Stump size can be adjusted later. We much prefer to make the cut about waist height. If I need to beat a hasty retreat, I am already standing and there is less potential for body damage from falling snags. Even a relatively small branch free falling from a 40-, 50-or 60-foot height has tremendous striking power. Being in a standing position wearing a hard hat beats being bent over with my back exposed to falling debris solely for the sake of cutting a low stump.

When making your initial cut, assure you have enough angle on the up and down cuts so the tree gains momentum while falling. Too shallow a cut may cause a tree to twist off direction before it hits the ground. I like to cut the wedge to about half-trunk depth, then make the terminal cut about three or four inches higher on the off side to provide directional stability. A final cut made straight across from the front allows too much leeway for trunk twisting and subsequent uncertainty of fall.

When making wedge cuts I like to move the saw back and forth a few inches, much as I would using a hand saw. The purpose is to detect even the slightest tendency towards binding. A saw being held firmly into the wood won’t signal trunk movement and a tree leaning against the cut will hold a bar tighter than can be imagined. Once a bar is pinched the only alternative is to get a second saw and make another cut above the first. Failing that, pray the wood will readily yield to an axe, a dicey proposition as each stroke needs to be firm and precise. You really don’t want to hammer your saw bar or worse the saw itself with an axe.

A partially cut tree can be extremely dangerous to work around. The wood may not be solid and extreme vigilance is prescribed to detect any sign of movement. Once it has started falling, a tree can go from full standing to flat on the ground in seconds and anyone familiar with the sight and sound of a large tree landing after such free fall recognizes a miscue on where you should be standing would have no remedy.

Stan Harder writes from Glendon, Alta.

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