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Chainsaws: What You Need to Know Before You Buy

Many homeowners rely on landscapers to handle the heavy work around their yards, but for those who feel inclined to take on a project or two, chainsaws can prove invaluable.

Some of the projects for which chainsaws are useful include:

  • chopping off branches or cutting down small trees;
  • cutting one's own lumber, whether from slab wood or from previously felled trees;
  • creating foliage sculptures or wood carving, which some users elevate to an art.

Your usage will determine the type of chain saw you need.

The first things you should consider when making a purchase are: budget; frequency of use; and area, meaning how far will the saw need to travel to be useful in your yard.

Another vital factor is how your chainsaw is powered. There are two types of electric chainsaws: cordless and corded. Cordless chainsaws require charging in order to remain ready for use, and can hold a charge for only so long before becoming depleted. They are best deployed in instances where a minimal amount of work is needed.

Corded chainsaws do not require charging, but are limited in distance, depending on the location of your outlet and whether you want to invest in grounded extension cords.

Electric chainsaws of either type are quieter than their gas-powered cousins, but what they save in volume, they often lose in power. Some versions of electric chainsaws are strong enough to compete with gas-powered types, but buyers will pay a premium for the option.

Here is a breakdown of different electric chainsaw models:

  • The top of the electric heap leads us to the Makita UC40151A 16-in. electric chainsaw has a 14.5 amp motor capable of running at 2900 FPM (feet per minute). It weighs 12.3 lbs., and features both a built-in limiter to avoid motor burnout and an automatic oiler with a viewing window. No tools are needed to adjust the chain tension. It also offers a chain brake, a soft starter and comfortable grips.
  • Remington also makes a good electric saw: the Limb and Trim RM1425 14-in. 8 amp model. A cut above a hedge trimmer, it weighs just 6.25 lbs. and is ideal for small jobs. Regardless, it effectively cuts through petite branches and firewood logs, and is great for pruning around the yard. It features an easy to access chain tensioner and a push button oiler. Plus, at just 14 in., kickback is low, meaning your safety is secure.
  • Oregon, a company best known for producing high-quality bars and chains, also makes a few great chainsaws. The CS1500 is self-sharpening (just pull the attached sharpening lever), 15 amp saw with an 18-in. minimal kickback bar and chain system. Like the Makita, the chain can also be tightened without tools. The CS1500 weighs 12.6 lbs., has a chain brake system and includes low vibration grips to limit hand and arm fatigue. It also oils itself automatically.

The category of non-gas powered chainsaws includes saws powered by batteries.

  • The Dewalt DCCS690M1 16-in. 40 volt Lithium Ion XR is a brushless motor chainsaw. The 16-in. bar and chain (made by Oregon, mentioned above) comes with a chain brake to prevent kickback, and is also auto-oiling. It weighs 12.3 lbs., and runs for 160 watt hours per charge.
  • Black and Decker also makes a good cordless chainsaw. The LCS1240 12-in. 40 volt saw is great for chopping up firewood and can handle pruning or even felling small to medium sized trees. It weighs 8.3 lbs., and can process either 60 cuts or 50 minutes of runtime per charge. A tool-free chain tensioner and automatic oiler are standard.
  • As well as its electric version, Makita also makes a terrific lithium-ion battery powered cordless chainsaw. Known for being more powerful than its 36 volts suggest (36 volts = two 18 volt LXT lithium-ion batteries), the Makita XCU02Z is a good choice for those who've already invested in other battery operated Makita tools, since neither the batteries nor the charger come with the saw.
  • The Makita XCU02Z comes with a tool-less chain tensioner, an automatic oiler, a chain brake, and weighs 10.1 lbs. It runs at 1650 ft. per minute.

Gas-powered chainsaws are strong, but they also emit fumes and noise, so are perhaps less than ideal for home users with nearby neighbors. Along with power comes increased vibration, a side effect users may notice in their arms or hands for several hours after working, especially if they are unaccustomed to powerful or heavy power tools.

However, gas-powered chainsaws are the most popular choice for professionals, and for those homeowners with wooded yards or large properties.

  • The Husqvarna 450 50.2 cc is a great chainsaw. It features an 18-in. bar with a 3.2 HP X-Torq engine that limits exhaust emissions and a vibration dampening, easy operating Smart Start system. It weighs just 11.3 lbs.
  • The Stihl MS 251 C-BE 45.6 cc is another excellent option for those in market for a gas powered chainsaw. Its list of features is extensive, and includes an optional bar size base of 14, 16 or 18 in., an Ergo Start, a master control level, carburetor heating, an ematic oiler and a 2.95 horsepower output. It weighs just 11.9 lbs.
  • The ECHO CS-450P 45cc can't be overlooked. Another saw that can accept multiple bar lengths (in this case, 16 to 20 in.), it also features a digital ignition, an automotive style air filter and engine pre-cleaner, vibration reduction and the highest available EPA durability certification, plus a 5-year warranty.

The size of the chainsaw you need is another factor in your decision. Bar length, or the size of the blade around which a chain is wrapped, should be at least two inches longer than the usual size of wood you cut (i.e., branches, slab, etc.)

Thinner trees, most foliage and common branch types (anything with growth less than a full foot in width) can generally be managed with a bar length of 12-14 inches. Because of this relatively small circumference and resulting ease of cutting, electric chainsaws can easily handle this size project.

Anything above 14 inches in circumference usually requires a gas -powered chainsaw. Sixteen- to 20-inch gas-powered chainsaws are a common size, although some deluxe electric models are available in this bar size. Users who prefer a lightweight model may want to consider this option, as it allows for easy wielding, despite the longer bar length.

Users requiring chainsaws with a bar length of 20 inches or more should consider a commercial grade cutter. Though definitely pricey, commercial grade chainsaws should last indefinitely with proper maintenance.

Chainsaw Maintenance

Maintaining a chainsaw is an important part of ownership. It's also a way of protecting your investment. Here are some basic chainsaw maintenance rules:

Chain Sharpening: The sharper the chain, the cleaner and safer the cut. To aid in this process, chainsaw filing kits containing a variety of file sizes, an interchangeable wood handle for holding the file while you work, filing guides, and a depth gauge for measuring the degree of sharpening needed are readily available from chainsaw dealers and on line. Chainsaw makers often offer their own guides for best sharpening practices, as well.

Cleaning: When your bar and chain accumulate dirt, additional wear and tear are placed on your chainsaw. Cleaning after every use is therefore recommended, especially if any mud or clay-like dirt lands on your blade, as rust could quickly penetrate the metal.

Proper Chain Tension: Chainsaws should have about 1/8" of slack for best results. Too much slack could break the chain, while too little could stall your blade. A tension dial for adjustment should be easily found on your chainsaw.

Oiling the Chain: Proper lubrication is a necessity when two or more metal parts interact. Pay attention to the look of your chain: if it begins to lose shine or look dull, it's time to grease it. Be sure to use the right type of oil, as special bar and chain oils are formulated for just this purpose.

Air Filters: Gas powered chainsaws use air combined with gas to create power. This means that the air filter on your chainsaw encounters fuel every time you use it. Brush out the filter after use to keep it as clean as possible. After hard use, consider replacing it altogether, as maintaining a clean filter will lengthen the life of your motor.

Gas Tanks: Using old gas after a period of idleness can cause your motor to seize. This is due to the thickening of old gas, which can turn into sludge after weeks or months of disuse. Be sure to empty your tank responsibly before adding fresh fuel.

If you keep these best practices in mind, chainsaw maintenance will be a cinch.