When my wife and I purchased our rural 43 acres, both of us were hit with a range of emotions. It was a big step financially, and it suddenly dawned on us that it was going to take time and physical effort to make our homestead dream come true.
The need for a chainsaw
One of my first tasks as a new landowner was to clear the area and eventually the ridge site where we planned to build our house. We also intended to burn wood as a heat source. With over 40 acres of mixed hardwoods at hand, we would never have to worry about having an ample supply of useable fuel. But to do all that, certain tools were needed to get things done. Topping the list was a chainsaw.
Chainsaws were not unfamiliar to me. My dad owned one for years, and under his tutelage, I had been using one since my late teens, but I knew little to nothing about actually investing in one.
After visiting several dealers, conversing with salespeople and repeatedly explaining what I would use the saw for, I made my purchase.
One of the salesmen made an important point I have never forgotten: All chainsaws will cut, but not all are intended or best suited for all tasks.
Since then, I have invested in additional saws over the years as my needs changed or a saw was beyond repair, always keeping his words in mind.
His point was important a few decades ago, but is even more important today, considering that at least 80 chainsaw models are now available in various sizes, weights, bar lengths and degrees of power.
Options include models powered by gasoline, electricity and batteries, as well as certain safety features.
So how do you decide which model is best for you?
The utility factor
The first question to answer is, “What will the chainsaw primarily be used for?”
Within reason, today’s chainsaws—regardless of size and power—can handle a multitude of tasks, but each type and model is best suited and intended for specific jobs.
Answering that first question will help you decide how much power you need, the best bar length and whether a gasoline, electric or battery-powered saw is the right choice for you.
If your primary goal is cutting medium 6- to 10-inch and larger hardwoods for several cords of firewood each spring, it makes little sense to purchase a saw too small for the task. Doing so will lead to more exertion on your part, more wear and tear on the saw and ultimately frustration.
Gasoline-powered chainsaws are rated by their piston displacement, or cubic centimeter (cc) output, while battery-powered and electric saws are rated by their amperes or amp output. In a word, the higher the cc and amp rating, the more power.
Generally speaking, gasoline-powered chainsaws with higher cc displacement are best for large cutting tasks. For the average homeowner, farmer or rancher, something in the 45cc-to-55cc or 15 amp range would be a good choice. Gasoline-powered chainsaws are available in 60cc to more than 70cc models, but these are generally considered commercial-grade saws intended for professional woodcutters and are just too much saw for the homeowner.
If, on the other hand, you need to prune limbs from fruit or yard trees, clear small shrubs and cut broken branches on the ground and want to have a chainsaw on hand in case a hand saw won’t do the job, something lighter in weight, smaller and with less power—in the 30cc-to-40cc range, perhaps even one of the battery-powered or electric saws in the 8-to-10-amp range—is the way to go.
The type of chainsaw chosen in most cases is determined not only by the tasks at hand but also by your physical ability to use the saw safely. A chainsaw that’s too heavy to handle properly, or even one too light for the wrong tasks, isn’t just useless—it’s dangerous as well.
Each power source for chainsaws has its pros and cons. Electric saws must be attached to a nearby outlet (or portable generator), and use is limited to the length of the cord, usually 100 feet or so.
With that said, today’s electric models are lightweight and compact, quiet, offer less vibration, are less demanding physically on the user, require minimal maintenance, offer instant startups and deliver long run times as long as they are plugged in. Power-wise, electric models can handle light yard chores, rivaling gas models of comparable size.
The same attributes are true of today’s battery-powered saws. The primary advantage they have over their electric counterparts is that they offer more mobility, since the internal battery supplies the power.
Battery life varies depending upon the task, but major improvements in today’s lithium-ion battery technology generally offer enough life to get most jobs done or nearly done. If not, the battery can be recharged and swapped out for a standby fully charged battery. These saws also give off zero emissions for those concerned about the environment.
Size for size, gasoline-powered saws typically generate the most power and have faster cutting speeds, which is why they are the most common mid-sized models and are preferred for heavy wood-cutting jobs.
Gas-powered saws are heavier than electric or battery-powered saws, are noisy, thus requiring ear protection, cost more and often require more maintenance to keep clean. They are also equipped with a pull rope and can be more difficult to start.
Most gas-powered saws for homestead, farm or ranch use are powered by two-cycle engines, which means they must be refueled with an oil and gasoline mixture recommended by the manufacturer. Because they burn gasoline, they emit a smell and blow out smoke.
All chainsaws, regardless of their power source, are equipped with a guide bar, sometimes called a blade, on which the chain rides. Bars are available in various lengths and work best when matched to the size of the engine or power source and primary task.
In other words, the more powerful or higher cc the engine, the longer the bar can be and the better larger trees or wood can be safety cut.
When selecting a chainsaw or alternate bar, a good rule is that bar length should be at least 2 inches longer than the typical or average size of the wood to be cut. In other words, if the hardwoods to be cut for firewood are 8 to 10 inches in diameter, the bar should be at least 12 inches in length.
By following this rule, you can make a single cut through a tree or piece of wood, thereby ensuring that the sprocket on the bar nose is beyond the cut. If the bar is too short, multiple cuts may be needed.
The 2-inch rule will also help prevent the saw from “kicking back” (when the bar suddenly moves upward), one of the most common causes of chainsaw injury.
There are several reasons why kickback occurs, including a dull chain and loose chain tension, but anytime the bar is too short and the sprocket is inside wood during the cut, the chances of kickback increase as the cut deepens and the saw-to-wood angle increases.
In general, electric and battery-powered saws come equipped with 8-to-12-inch bars and are great for small- and medium-limb trimming, brush thinning and small-tree cutting.
Saws in the 30cc-to-45cc range typically come with 10-to-14- inch bars suitable for large limbs, small and medium trees up to 8 and 10 inches in diameter, while 40cc-to-55cc models typically come equipped with 18-to-20-inch bars and are a good choice for larger tasks, such as cutting firewood and other heavy cutting.
Longer bars are available for more powerful saws but are too much saw for the average homeowner, farmer or rancher.
Depending upon the engine-power output, generally, gasoline models over 45cc will accommodate two different bar and chain lengths, allowing the saw to handle various cutting tasks safely and adequately.
Just keep in mind that as bar length increases, not only does the weight of the saw increase, making it more physically demanding, but it is also more difficult to handle and maneuver.
Starting/Safety options to look for
Today’s chainsaws have come a long way since the days of their early predecessors. Most gasoline-powered models have trouble-free electronic-ignition systems for easier starting, and the life, power and cutting speeds in battery- and electric-powered are light-years ahead of what they once were. Innovations in design and safety features are much improved.
While faster and more powerful, today’s models incorporate metals and components that are not only strong and durable but also light. My Husqvarna 50cc 455 Rancher with a 20-inch bar weighs about 13 pounds. The offerings today are also more compact and ergonomically designed to make handling and maneuvering easier and less physically demanding.
Keep in mind that features vary by chainsaw type and model. Many models have anti-vibration systems; some do not. In years past, cold-starting a gas-powered chainsaw could be a chore, but along with electronic-ignition systems, some gasoline models are equipped with a decompression valve that reduces pressure in the engine’s combustion chamber, reducing the amount of effort required to pull the start rope.
One of the most important safety features is the chain brake—basically a lever in front of the handle that automatically stops the chain in case the saw kicks back. Some saws may be equipped with low kickback chains, or they can be purchased separately.
Depending on the model, other safety features may include a chain catcher designed to protect the operator by “catching” the chain should it break or slip off the bar during operation.
Some models may be equipped with left, right and top hand guards to protect the user’s hands in case of a chain break, a safety throttle that prevents accidental starting and a centrifugal clutch that disengages the chain during idling
Choosing the right chainsaw isn’t rocket science. Like any tool, give it some thought and choose the type and model that best fits the tasks at hand.
This article was submitted by Andy McDougal.
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