How to Choose and Maintain Your Homestead Chainsaw

Find a chainsaw to fit your needs, and then follow these simple bar and chain maintenance tips so you can safely put it to work for years to come.

| October/November 2016

  • Purposeful cutting techniques and proper safety attire, such as a full-face helmet, gloves, and protective pants, will help protect you from harm.
    Photo by Fotolia/Kadmy
  • Stock your chainsaw kit with (from left to right) a flat file, a round file, a file guide, a scrench (combination screwdriver and socket wrench), a spare spark plug, chain, and bar, and bar oil.
    Photo by Lorain Ebbett-Rideout
  • Stock your chainsaw kit with (from left to right) a flat file, a round file, a file guide, a scrench (combination screwdriver and socket wrench), a spare spark plug, chain, and bar, and bar oil.
    Photo by Dave Boyt
  • Correct chain tension is achieved when the chain is in contact with the bottom side of the bar, but can be pulled around easily by hand.
    Photo by Lorain Ebbett-Rideout
  • You can sharpen a saw using a file and file guide in the shop by clamping the chainsaw bar and supporting the engine.
    Photo by Fotolia/Samopauser
  • File guides help control the depth and angle of filing. File with one hand, control the tip with the other.
    Photo by Dave Boyt
  • The screw-in style file of the Timberline Sharpener will put an edge on, but it doesn’t file rakers.
    Photo by Dave Boyt

For homesteaders and property owners with woodlots, the chainsaw is, without doubt, the most used, coveted, debated, feared, cussed, and crucial piece of power equipment in the shed, barn, or truck. And it’s no surprise why: A well-maintained chainsaw will keep you warm during winter, allow you to create your own affordable fence posts and lumber, empower you to respond to storm-downed limbs and trees, and enable a woodlot management plan. For the most efficient, economical, and safe chainsaw experience, remember these rules: Always size and style the chainsaw’s bar to the job, and inspect, maintain, and document your bar, sprocket, and chain before and after each use.

Size Your Saw’s Bar and Chain to the Job

Proper use is one of the most efficient tool maintenance techniques, and knowing what you’ll cut is the first step in determining the best chainsaw for you, and that means knowing the range of trunk diameters and the most common tree species you’re likely to cut. If your use is varied and unpredictable, like mine, consider multiple saws and chains. For example, in an experienced user’s two-saw setup, a short saw, such as a 12- or 14-inch model, is used for limbing, pruning, and felling small trees, while a long saw, with a bar length over 22 inches, is reserved for felling large trees and bucking logs.

Many manufacturers and professionals agree on a bar-to-tree ratio of 1-to-2, which means that an 18-inch bar can cut trunks up to 36 inches in diameter without damaging the chain, bar, or motor. However, if you consistently cut trunks at the high end of your bar-to-tree ratio, consider a larger bar and engine — your chainsaw won’t last as long if you constantly use it at its maximum workload.

While your target bar length should dictate your minimum engine size, don’t oversize your engine for “reserve power.” Fatigue from fighting too large a saw is fairly common and quite dangerous for you and those working around you, so choose the right machine for the job at hand, and let it do the work for you. Finally, after you have all the information about what you need to accomplish, talk with a reputable dealer of high-quality chainsaws. Find the right tool size for the task, and make sure it suits your body, your personal fitness, and your strength.

Sharp Chains Make Clean Cuts

A good sawyer knows the ins and outs of cutting chains. In addition to bar length, the pitch and gauge are the fundamental measurements that affect cutting-chain performance. A cutting chain’s pitch represents the space between its drive links, measured either as fractions of an inch, such as a 1⁄4-inch pitch, or in thousandths of an inch, such as a 0.404-inch pitch. Similarly, a cutting chain’s gauge, or the width of its drive links, corresponds to the width of the sprocket’s teeth in a chainsaw’s drive mechanism, with sizing in thousandths of an inch. Compatibility is the primary concern with pitch and gauge. Always record and store every chain’s pitch and every sprocket’s gauge to guarantee compatibility — your drive sprocket and bar will thank you.

Tooth shape is another variable to consider when determining the best chainsaw for your needs. Consumer saws come with round-toothed chains, which are less prone to kickback and vibration. Professionals, however, make use of the square-tooth, or chisel, chain. The two differ in the way that they remove wood fibers after severing the grain. Whereas rounded teeth scoop wood out of a cut, like a gouge, a square tooth chips the wood away like a chisel, removing the wood fiber faster. People argue about which tooth profile is better, but the point is moot: Each serves a specific purpose, and, when sharp, both do their jobs accordingly. Round-toothed chains are better suited for limbing, brush-clearing, stumping, and cutting through hardwoods and frozen or dirt- and mud-covered wood. Additionally, because they require more power from the engine on big cuts, round-toothed chains are best for shorter bars. Square-toothed chains, on the other hand, perform best on a long bar (24 inches and up) and when used for felling clean softwoods that aren’t frozen.

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