How to Use a Chainsaw Safely

Don't fire up this potentially dangerous tool without donning protective wear, becoming familiar with your saw, and learning the basic safety rules.
By Allan and Gail Damerow
October/November 1993
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Stay safe when using a chainsaw.
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You don't have to spend much time in a woodlot to learn that a chain saw is one dangerous tool — far more dangerous than the much maligned gun. Because the dangers inherent in operating a chain saw can't be foreseen, the most important safety precaution is to stay alert, concentrate, and always expect the unexpected. Quit working when you feel tired, extremely hot or cold, hungry, or frustrated, no matter how badly you need the firewood or the income from its sale. Fatigue and frustration reduce your alertness and increase the chance that kickback or a bouncing tree will catch you by surprise.

Safe Clothing

Start thinking about safety from the moment you get dressed in the morning. Select clothing that's warm but not bulky or baggy. A guide bar as short as 16 inches has about 25 razor-sharp teeth revolving at approximately 50 feet per second—teeth that are eager to grab a sleeve, shirttail, or pant leg and chew through to bare skin. Avoid this source of injury by avoiding loose clothing.

Wear a pair of especially sturdy pants. Some woodcutters wear jeans. I prefer Carhartt bib overalls, made of exceptionally heavy fabric that's doubled along the thighs and knees. Although they cost about $32 a pair, they last twice as long as any other pants I've worn in the woods. Even if you don't snag your pants on a saw tooth, working in the woods still wears pants out pretty fast. A pair of chaps, at $60, both saves wear and tear on your clothing and protects your legs against a close encounter with a whirling saw chain.

In cold weather, keep your upper body warm with several layers of clothing so you can take something off as the day warms, and put it back on toward evening when the weather cools. You'll fatigue less quickly if you maintain a comfortable body temperature.

During hunting season, top your outfit with an orange safety vest and cap. As little sense as it makes, some people who take a gun into the woods aren't hunters but shooters—they shoot at anything that moves. Furthermore, deer aren't frightened by the sound of a chain saw. Rather, curiosity attracts them to the noise. Deer, in turn, attract shooters.

Another source of peril in the woods is slippery footing. I am simply aghast when I see fellows go dancing out to cut a little firewood wearing sneakers. The only sensible footwear is a pair of steel-toed laceup boots. At $75 they're expensive, but so is a crushed or cut foot. I'll never forget the day I went into the woods wearing a brand new pair of boots, started up my saw, tripped, and slashed the tip of the bar across my right boot. If the boot hadn't had steel toes, today I'd be minus all the toes on one foot. If you live in north country, fit your boots with removable logger's cleats to minimize slipping on snow or frozen ground.

Protect your hands and cushion them from your saw's vibrations with a pair of leather work gloves. Avoid slick gloves, like suede gets when it's old or has been wet too many times. Your hands will stay warmer and fatigue less quickly if you wear a pair of Lycra therapeutic gloves beneath your work gloves. These gloves support your hands and wrists, but because they're fingerless they don't interfere with movement. They cost about $24 a pair and will last a long time if you wear them under your regular work gloves.

Finish your fashion statement with a hard hat and eye and hearing protection, costing about $28. If you think you don't need eye protection, you'll change your mind when a wood chip flies into an eye. If you feel silly wearing a hard hat, wait until a dead branch falls on your head and knocks some sense into you. And if you believe you can get by without ear protection, speak up, boy, so I can hear you better.

Safe Tools

Before you enter the woods, thoroughly familiarize yourself with your chain saw. If you buy a new saw, read the instruction manual carefully before you crank it up—every saw is just a bit different from any other saw. Review the manual at least once a year. In an emergency, you shouldn't have to think about what to do; you should know what to do to avoid becoming a statistic.

For any serious woodcutting, use the best saw you can afford. It doesn't take long to become frustrated trying to start a balky saw. Excessive vibration from a poorly built saw can cause your arms to fatigue quickly. Frustration and fatigue lead to injury.

Even if you already own a saw, consider getting a second one. I never go into the woods without taking two saws along. I have several reasons for this apparent extravagance. First, I don't want to have to trot home every time something goes wrong with my saw. Second, things sometimes go awry, causing a guide bar to get wedged in tight. Using a second saw is the fastest and often safest way to free a stuck saw. Third, I like to use a heavy saw for felling trees but find that a lightweight saw for trimming branches is easier on the old back.

Whether you have one saw or two, take a hard look at the length of your guide bar. Unless you're a professional, for safety reasons your bar should be one to two inches longer than the largest diameter you expect to cut through. Whatever the length of your bar, protect both your chain and yourself by slipping a scabbard over the bar whenever the saw is not in use.

Aside from a saw or two, you'll need to carry a few other things into the woods. Obviously, you'll need a gas can and an oil can. Bring along a couple of files to touch up the chain during the day and keep it sharp. To help you drop trees where you want them, carry a hammer and a pair of plastic or wooden wedges. Never use steel wedges designed for splitting wood—hitting a steel wedge with a running saw would damage your chain or worse. A real back saver and chain saver is a cant hook or peavey for turning partially cut-through logs. And don't forget a thermos of hot coffee, tea, or cider. When you start feeling a little cold or tired, taking a short break with a hot drink will work wonders.

Safe Habits

Now that you're dressed appropriately and have all your equipment lined up, you're ready to get started. At this point, double-check the weather. If it's windy or rainy, call the whole thing off. Rain makes for slippery, dangerous footing. Wind shakes loose dead branches and can cause a falling tree to suddenly change direction.

Even when all's clear, things can go wrong, so avoid heading into the woods alone. If you have to work in the woodlot by yourself, leave word exactly where you'll be and when you expect to be back.

When you get into the woodlot, park your vehicle well away from your work area, and watch where you drive. A small-diameter tree, cut at an angle, can puncture a tire like a dagger. So can cable screws. Wet, sloping ground can cause your truck to slide sideways into a tree or stump, seriously denting a bumper, fender, or running board. Driving up onto a stump can get your truck hung up, causing serious embarrassment or damage to the truck—possibly both.

Oh, and take care not to run over your saw. I felt pretty sheepish the time I ran over my brand new Stihl. When I took it back to the dealer for repair, he told me (a little too cheerfully, I thought) that he fixes at least one run-over saw a week. If you do manage to run over your saw, get an estimate on repairs and weigh the age of the saw and cost of repairs against the price of a new saw.

Back at the woodlot, count your tools as you remove them from your vehicle. When you're done at the end of the day, count them again to make sure you've got them all. You won't have trouble keeping track of your tools if you paint them blue—not red, yellow, or orange (colors that blend too nicely into autumn leaves) or green (which disappears in lush summer grass). Hunting for lost tools during the day is time consuming and frustrating, and a mislaid tool can trip you up at an awkward or dangerous moment.

Tree Selection

When selecting a tree to fell, first look up and study its branches. Carefully consider any dead limbs still on the tree or that started to fall but got hung up in live branches. It doesn't take much vibration from your saw to shake a dead limb loose and cause it to come crashing down. For good reason, such branches are called "widow makers." A tree with several widow makers, or just one in a strategic place, is best left to an experienced logger.

Assuming the tree passes the widow-maker test, study the way it leans, which is the direction it will tend to drop. There are ways to trick a tree into falling in some other direction, but don't try them unless you have substantial experience.

If you're working on a slope where nothing is perpendicular, determine the tree's lean by lining up its trunk with a set of keys dangling from a string. If the tree is near a power line, call the utility company even if you're sure the tree will fall the other way—better to wait while they send out an expert to fell the tree, than take the chance you'll drop it on the line. The direction of fall of a large, hollow tree can be especially difficult to determine, because you can't always tell how thick the sound wood is and at what point the tree might split and pivot.

When you're done looking up at your chosen tree, look down at the ground around its base. Move fallen branches lying where you plan to drop the tree, so they can't get hurled through the air when the tree comes smashing down. Move any branches you might trip over during your retreat as it falls. Check around the base of the tree and along your escape route for holes from burrows or rotted stumps, that might be covered over by leaves and other forest debris. Falling into such a hole can cause you to twist an ankle or break a leg, and in any case may slow your retreat from the falling tree.

When you're ready to cut into the tree, study the trunk for signs that someone might once have used the tree as a fence post or sign post. Hitting a piece of barbed wire, a staple, or a nail can ruin your chain or cause you serious bodily harm. If unusual marks or ripples on the trunk signal imbedded metal, cut higher or lower than the marks, or consider moving on to another tree.

Avoid heading into the woods alone. If for some reason you have to, leave word with a friend or family member exactly where you'll be and when you will be back.

Safe Cutting

Start your saw only when you're ready to cut, and switch it off as soon as you stop cutting. Never leave your saw running while you carry it from one place to another. Once you start the saw, keep a firm grip on it with both hands. Stand with your feet far enough apart for good balance, knees slightly bent. Get the teeth running at top speed before you begin to cut.

Next, make your V-cut on the side of the tree in the direction you expect the tree to drop; then make the back cut. If the tree is 16 inches or better in diameter, knock in your wedges as soon as the back cut is deep enough to hold them. Wedges will help drop the tree where you want it, and reduce the chance that your saw will bind if you miscalculate or the tree sways. If you hear a "snap" while you're cutting, don't take time to look around. Move out fast -- the tree could split and fall prematurely or a widow maker may be on its way down.

Assuming everything goes as planned, when the tree starts to move, quickly slide out your saw, switch it off, lay it on the ground, and git. The safest escape route lies at a 135° angle from the direction of fall, or 45° from the extended fall line. Keep an eye on the falling tree as you move away from it. Uneven growth or a twist in the trunk can cause the tree to fall where you least expect it. Sometimes a tree bounces or hits a stump and slides sideways or downhill.

If other people are around, let them know when a tree is going to fall by yelling "timber" or some other prearranged signal. Make sure others are aware that they should stay behind you and not try to outrun a falling tree. Children and pets have short attention spans; leave them at home.

Once your tree is safely down, start at the stump end and trim all the branches close to the trunk. Don't be sloppy—a pointed stub can cause untold grief. When you reach the point where the tree's diameter is smaller than you consider useful, cut off the crown. If you're working on a hill, stand on the up-slope side in case the freed log decides to roll.

While you're limbing the tree, take care not to let the tip of your saw hit dirt or a second branch, causing kickback. This is the culprit in some 30% of all chain saw injuries. It occurs when the whirling teeth passing the upper half of the bar's tip hit something solid, forcing the bar back toward the saw's operator.

Avoid kickback by cutting only with the flat part of the guide bar, as close to the engine as possible. If for any reason you have to make a cut with the bar's tip, get the teeth moving at high speed and cut with the underside of the tip. Do not attempt to cut with the tip unless you are thoroughly familiar with your saw.

For the best grip on your saw in case kickback does occur, work with your left arm straight and your right elbow bent and close to your body. Make only cuts that keep the saw below your waist height—if you reach higher, you'll lose control of your saw. Always stand to the left side of your cut so your head and chest are out of the way if kickback does occur.

Saw Maintenance

I would no sooner lend out my chain saw than I would lend out my rifle. A mishandled saw is not only dangerous to an unsavvy borrower (leading to injury and a potential lawsuit), but may become damaged and thereby more dangerous than ever to the owner.

No matter how careful you are, though, eventually your saw chain will get dull. As soon as you notice your saw cutting perceptibly more slowly, or making sawdust instead of chips, stop. Get out your file and touch up the teeth. Don't think you'll save time by pushing on. Not only will you fatigue more quickly, but you'll risk damaging your chain, guide bar, sprocket, and clutch.

After a day in the woodlot, sharpen the chain properly and clean the sprockets and the grooves in the guide bar. Turn the bar over so it wears uniformly. Because a well-cared-for saw is a less dangerous saw, here are a few additional maintenance tips:

Avoid damage to both chain and bar by filling the oil reservoir with bar oil every time you add fuel. Check frequently while you work to make sure the chain is well lubricated. Check the chain's tension often. A loose chain can fly off the bar, causing serious injury to you or someone working nearby. Replace the chain, bar, and sprocket when they get badly worn. The bar and sprocket should last two to three years, but you may go through two or more chains a year. When you use a new chain, break it in by running the saw at low speed for two to three minutes. Turn the engine off and readjust the tension as necessary. Adjust the saw's idling speed so the chain stops whirring as soon as you release the throttle. Some 15% of all chain saw accidents are caused by chains that keep spinning. Never make any adjustments, or check the gas and oil, while the engine is running. (Never!)

I won't go so far as to say that a well maintained saw is a safe saw. But I can safely say that if you take care of your chain saw, you will substantially reduce your chances of having a mishap.

Sources:Some chain saw manufacturers put out pretty good safety manuals. Inquire about a manual for your brand at your local dealer.

Giving Safety an Edge

Keeping your chain sharp cuts down on operator wear and tear, thereby cutting down on accidents. A sharp chain also prevents your guide bar and sprocket from wearing rapidly, and keeps your engine running longer because it doesn't have to work as hard. A well-sharpened chain feeds into a cut when you apply slight pressure. If you have to force the chain into a cut, the teeth are either dull or damaged. It takes only 10 or 15 minutes to thoroughly sharpen a chain, which should be done after every day in the woodlot.

Use the right size file for your chain, as recommended by your dealer or the saw's manufacturer. A good file costs about $3. Get several files so you'll always have a sharp one. They will last longest if you don't let them rattle around on the dash or in your toolbox.

When you're sharpening a lightweight saw, clamp the guide bar into a vice to hold it steady. When you're sharpening a more substantial saw, the weight of the saw will keep it steady on the work surface. Wear gloves so you won't cut your fingers on the chain teeth. Sit down where you can work comfortably and won't be inclined to hurry to get the job done. Begin by checking the chain tension—it's hard to file a loose chain.

You'll get the sharpest cutting edge if you file each tooth evenly and pay attention to the angle of the file. A file guide is well worth using because it helps you get the correct angle. For a chipper or a semi-chisel chain, hold the file at a 90° angle to the guide bar and file each tooth at a 35° angle. For a chisel chain, angle the file handle downward 10° and file each tooth at a 30° angle.

Look for the most damaged cutter (the one with the shortest top length) and file it first. Count how many strokes it takes to file down the damaged edge, then use the same number of strokes on all the cutters to keep them even.

More is not better, here. Use no more strokes than you need to keep the teeth even while filing away damaged areas.

Make contact during the file's forward stroke only, from the inside toward the outside edge. Lift the file for the backward stroke. When you finish filing one cutter, move the chain forward to the next cutter. If you move the chain backward, you'll be working into freshly sharpened teeth instead of away from them.

Every chain has two sets of cutters, those facing to the right, or right-hand cutters, and those facing to the left, or left-hand cutters. File all the teeth of the cutters on one side, then turn the saw and file all the teeth on the other side. File the cutters evenly on both sides, or your saw will pull to the side instead of cutting downward.

In front of the tooth on each cutter is a depth gauge or raker. The raker leads the cutter into the wood and determines how large a bite the tooth takes. If it sticks out too high above the teeth, the chain can't get a good bite and wilt cut like a dull chain. After you've filed the cutter edges several times, you'll have to file down the rakers. Each time you file the teeth, check the chain with the raker gauge that came with your saw (if you don't have a gauge, you can get one from any chainsaw dealer). When you've filed the teeth so far down that the rakers stick out above the gauge, it's time to file down the rakers. With a flat file, remove the part that sticks above the gauge.

Some people file with the gauge in place, taking a chance of filing the gauge along with the rakers. A better plan is to remove the gauge, file a few strokes, and reapply the gauge until you know how many strokes you need to take the rakers down the right amount. "take care not to file the rakers down too far, or the cutters will grab too much wood and the saw won't cut smoothly. After you have filed each raker to the same height, go back around and file the leading edge of each raker, slightly rounding the corners back to their original shape. 


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