The best chainsaw has

  • A trigger lock with a deadman feature. This automatically stops the cutting chain whenever you stop pressing the trigger, virtually eliminating accidental starts.
  • Anti-kickback chains. These are much safer for non-professionals, and every chainsaw in this report comes with one. Unless you've had expert training, stick with this type when you buy extra or replacement chains.
  • Inertia-activated chain brakes. Sometimes called double-acting chain brakes, these can be activated in two ways. The front hand guard not only protects the hand from moving toward the bar and chain but also serves as a manual chain brake: If the saw kicks back and the guard bumps against the hand, the chain stops. The safest chain brakes also have inertia sensors that stop the chain earlier by sensing the rotation typical of kickback.
  • Anti-vibration handles. Otherwise, vibration can cause pain and numbness in the hands and wrists.
  • Side-mounted or tool-free chain tensioning. This makes it easier to see what you're doing and adjust chain tension on the go.
  • On a gas chainsaw, a primer bulb and decompression valve. Reviewers say these make starting much easier.
  • California Air Resources Board certification. All two-cycle gasoline engines cause air pollution and emit toxic fumes, but if a gas chainsaw can't be sold in California, its emissions are especially high.
  • A built-in circuit breaker. This is crucial if you'll be tempted to push an electric chainsaw beyond its normal capabilities, which can burn out the motor.
  • A heavy-gauge weatherproof extension cord, no longer than required. The longer the cord, the more voltage drops. Most electric chainsaws should be used with a cord no longer than 100 feet. At 12 amps or less, the range extends to 150 feet. A 10- to 12-gauge cord is best, and a ground fault circuit interrupter cord adds a margin of safety if you use the saw in wet conditions.
  • A sharp chain. Experts say you can sometimes improve a budget chainsaw by equipping it with a top-notch chain, and you can always enhance performance by keeping the chain sharp. Remember: Unless you've had expert training, stick with an anti-kickback chain meant for consumer-grade chainsaws.
  • Easy maintenance. Look for see-through oil and gas tanks when applicable, self-oiling chains and tool-free chain adjustment. Gas chainsaws automatically obligate you to more maintenance than an electric or cordless model: mixing oil and gas, filling the gas tank, storing extra gas properly and cleaning spark plugs.
  • A decent warranty. Most retailers won't accept returns on chainsaws; federal laws prohibit mailing a tool that has contained fuel, even if you drain it out. You'll have to go straight to the manufacturer for warranty service, so if it comes down to choosing between two similar saws, opt for the one that has a dealer or service center nearest you. You'll be glad you did if anything goes wrong during the warranty period, typically 2 to 5 years.

Know before you go

Where do you plan to use the chainsaw? Any anticipated need to ever use the chainsaw indoors automatically rules out gas models, which pose all the hazards of using any exhaust-emitting engine indoors.

Do you have an alternate power source? If the answer's no and you need a chainsaw ready for emergency use, you might want a gas or cordless model. While gas saws will keep running as long as you can put fuel and oil in them, you need a source of electricity to recharge cordless chainsaws once their charge runs out. That can be anywhere from 30 minutes to about 4 hours, depending on model.

What sort of cutting will you do? For heavy-duty logging, gas chainsaws remain the fastest and most powerful option. However, some modern electric and cordless models make quick work of light-duty fare such as cutting firewood and clearing branches. For light work, experts recommend a bar measuring 14 inches or less. For most other jobs, a midsize chainsaw with a bar 14 to 20 inches long is best. It's safest to use a bar longer than the wood you cut, but not so much longer that the tip might hit the ground or another branch.

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