Buying a Chainsaw? Which One?

Buying a Chainsaw? Which One?

By Ben Hoffman, Maine

Buying a chainsaw can be a frustrating experience. What brand should I buy? What size bar should I get? How many horsepower? And the list goes on, depending on your purpose in buying it in the first place. Are you just going to limb some trees in the orchard, or do you plan to cut firewood? Are you going into the woods and cut trees down, or buy tree-length wood from a logger?

First, and foremost, buy from a saw shop that services what it sells, preferably one that deals with loggers. This may be difficult as increased mechanization in the woods has reduced chainsaw use, sales have declined and many saw shops have gone out of business. But shops that deal with professional loggers can answer most of your questions and, most importantly, service what they sell. If you buy online, or from a big box store, the service ends when your credit card is swiped.

There are many different makes and models, but for me, I stick with the major brands—Stihl and, Husqvarna—principally because they are popular with loggers, hence there are more dealers offering service as well as sales. I have owned both and do not have a favorite. There are other excellent saws on the market, and if there is a dealer who provides service, go for it. I had a Husky 44 for 30 years and could always get parts and service. With a 12-inch bar, I safely cut and limbed a 22-inch elm tree. My very favorite saw was a 56 cc Stihl with a 14-inch bar, big enough to safely fall and limb a 30-inch white pine tree.

A year ago, my first excursion  into “homeowner” models was a  32 cc Jonsereds with a 14-inch bar. It easily handled a 22-inch ash and is my backup in case my 52 cc Husky gets pinched. If you need a saw for occasional cutting, the $199.95 saw is fine, but it is not designed for cutting several cords of firewood. My experience has been that the bars and chains do not stand up to cutting hardwoods such as oak, rock maple and ash. If you need a saw for more than occasional work, expect to pay $300-350. If you are cutting oak, beech ash or hickory, get at least a 52 cc model. For softwood—pine, spruce, fir and cedar—44 cc is fine.

BAR LENGTH?

The longer the bar, the more risk of accidents and the greater the likelihood of striking rocks. When I was a logging contractor, I bought a saw with a 21-inch bar but two weeks later switched to an 18-incher. You can cut a tree with a diameter of 2.2 times twice the length of the bar, so why get a long bar? Unfortunately, most current ads for saws feature bar length. Years ago, listening to my tirade about people using long bars, my wife suggested that bar length might somehow be subconsciously equated with manhood.

If you are cutting the tree down in the woods, consider the work involved. Based on time studies, sawing time to fell a tree is about 15 percent of total work time but removing limbs may take from  35 percent (hardwoods) to 55 percent (softwoods). So a smaller, lighter saw is desirable. A 16-inch bar should be adequate for most non-pros; if a good quality 14 were available, that would be my choice. The shorter the bar, the safer and more efficient the saw, and the less weight you drag around. One of  my first saws weighed 35 pounds — many modern saws run 10 to  12 pounds.

KEEPING IT SHARP

Regardless of what you get, like any cutting tool, the sharper the saw, the better it performs. Having filed saws for years, I have no problem keeping the chain sharp. But when I was logging, I took my saw to the dealer every Friday and sharpened the chain on his machine. That assured that all teeth were the same height, depth and sharpness, at least on Monday. If teeth are not uniform, you might cut in circles. I still use a file in the woods but bought a cheap chain grinder from Harbor Freight (See their ad on page 117.) You’d be surprised at how many new friends I have. But best of all, my woodcutting is much more efficient; the chips coming from my chain resemble ribbons, not fine sawdust, and the motor isn’t screaming.

For a novice filer, file guides take the guesswork out of sharpening chains.

Safety Gear
Minimum safety gear includes a helmet with ear and face protection, safety chaps with Kevlar pads from ankle to waist, steel-toed boots and gripper gloves. A bright-colored shirt is an added safety feature in the woods.

SAFETY

Chainsaws are dangerous tools and can cause serious accidents, so safety and safety clothing are of paramount importance. Do not use a chainsaw unless you have, at a minimum, a safety helmet with face and ear protection (take it from one with stitch marks in his scalp), plus safety pants or chaps. My 33-year-old chaps (no cuts!) wrap around the legs and zip—no laces or straps to catch in the brush. I keep duct-taping the tired fabric because my new chaps, with straps, snag on brush. Last winter I bought safety pants—waterproof nylon, insulated, with sleeves inside the legs to hold Kevlar safety pads. Much more fun in the snow, and no snagging. Never launder Kevlar pads as that will reorient the fabric, so I slip the pads out and launder the pants. Check out Labonville.com.

You can also buy safety boots with Kevlar protection, and steel toes. Nothing like dropping a log on your foot without steel toes. And non-slip gloves are important when handling a saw. Safety equipment is not cheap, but it beats the heck out of the emergency room. You will also need a couple of wedges, files, bar and chain oil, 2-cycle engine oil to mix with the gas, and a one or two gallon gas can for fuel. Most modern saws use a 50-to-1 ratio of gas to oil and make little smoke. Older saws used more oil and created a great cloud of smoke that kept the black flies, skeeters and no-see-ums away.

Chain Grinder
A cheap chain grinder from Harbor Freight makes up for poor filing.

SUMMARY

So, if you’re going to buy a chainsaw for cutting firewood, expect to pay about $500 for saw, chaps, helmet and accessories. With regular cleaning and maintenance, using sharp chains, a modern saw can last 30 years or more. My 1973 Stihl 031 is still running, but it lacks the safety features of newer saws. Gloves and boots should already be in your wardrobe if you spend any time in the woods. If you buy from a reputable dealer, a used, reconditioned saw is a good way to cut your initial expense, and he’ll treat you well when you trade up for a new saw.

To summarize—purchase a 45 cc to 55 cc displacement with a 16-inch bar and chain. I’ll get into more details on safety, and my reasons for these recommendations, in future articles on felling and processing standing trees. If you only cut up long lengths of purchased wood, more horsepower is fine, but stick to a short bar.

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