Expert Chainsaw Buying Guide
Types of chainsaws
Each type of chainsaw has advantages and drawbacks, and if you cut a lot
of wood, you may end up with two or three saws for different situations.
Experts urge using an electric chainsaw if you can because they are quieter,
lighter, cleaner and easier to use and maintain.
- Electric chainsaws are the
only type that can be safely used indoors -- for carving in a workshop,
for example -- and electric models vibrate less than gas models. On the
other hand, you can't use a corded electric chainsaw in wet weather or
more than 150 feet from an outlet. In fact, most models have a 100-foot
chainsaws cut faster in general, and you can use one anywhere outside,
even in the rain or snow. But they're heavier and require additional
maintenance. Gas chainsaws use noisy two-cycle motors that emit fumes and
require the operator to mix oil with the gasoline. Additionally, you need
to store the gasoline and make sure it's fresh or mixed with a fuel additive.
You may even have to drain the fuel from the chainsaw between uses to keep
it from gunking up the carburetor.
- Cordless chainsaws are the quietest and lightest
type. Reviewers say cordless chainsaws are great for pruning and
for limbing small branches, and some owners say they're happy cutting all
their firewood with a cordless model. For most users, though, a cordless
chainsaw is a pleasant addition to the tool shed rather than the primary
For comparison purposes, the weight of a chainsaw is nearly always specified
for the power head only, because the guide bar (the long metal frame that
guides the chain) and chain (similar to a bicycle chain with a small sharp
blade or tooth on each link) are removable. You can equip most chainsaws
with bars of various lengths to suit the size wood you usually cut, but most
saws balance best with a certain length bar installed. The bar and chain
usually account for another 1.5 to 2 pounds, and adding about a pint of gasoline
will tack on another pound or so to a gas chainsaw.
For very light work, as with a cordless chainsaw, experts recommend a bar
measuring 14 inches or less. For most jobs (unless you're a pro), 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 is apt
to hit the ground or another branch.
Reviewers indicate that a scabbard is important for covering the chain when
the saw isn't in use. However, scabbards are inexpensive accessories to buy,
and whether or not one is included shouldn't be a big factor in making your
The chain-oil tanks on gas chainsaws are designed so you still have oil
left when you've used up the gasoline. A few have translucent oil tanks.
Of course, electric chainsaws never need refueling and most come with windows
or translucent oil tanks, so you can check the level easily.
Thanks to standards agreed upon by the Consumer Product Safety Commission
(CPSC), the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and the Underwriters
Laboratory (UL), most consumer-grade chainsaws come with basic anti-kickback
features. These include an anti-kickback chain, a chain catcher (to keep
a broken chain from flying back at the user) and a C-shaped rear handle that
protects the rear hand.
Most chainsaws also come with a wraparound front handle, and the user can
adjust the grip and balance. A lock-out trigger prevents accidental startups.
Other features vary. Experts say the following are the most important:
trigger lock with a deadman feature is safest. A deadman feature automatically
stops the blade whenever the user stops pressing the trigger. The trigger
lock or lockout keeps someone from starting the blade accidentally.
chains are the best type unless you're a professional; most consumer-grade
chainsaws come equipped with one. We found a few complaints about them
from owners already used to other chains that cut more aggressively and
need less frequent sharpening. However, anti-kickback chains are much safer.
brakes activated by inertia are safest. These are sometimes called
double-acting chain brakes, because they can be activated in two ways.
The front hand guard protects the hand from moving toward the bar and chain,
but it 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 and automatically,
by sensing the rotation typical of kickback.
- Anti-vibration handles help prevent discomfort and
long-term hand injuries. An anti-vibration handle includes metal
springs and/or rubber bushings that separate the handle from the vibrating
engine and chain. This is important for anyone who operates a chainsaw
for more than occasional use in short sessions, because vibration can cause
irreversible chronic pain and numbness in the hand and wrist.
- Side-mounted or tool-free
chain tensioning is convenient. Reviewers say it's easier to see what
you're doing with side-mounted chain-tensioning screws than with rear-mounted.
Most reviews praise tool-free chain tensioning (with knobs at the side),
but the Tools of the Trade review finds that the tensioning wheels easily
get clogged with sawdust and oil -- making screwdriver adjustment more
a gas chainsaw, look for a primer bulb and decompression
say these make starting much easier. Spring-assisted starters get more
mixed reviews. Gas chainsaws aren't made with electric starters, presumably
because it would make them heavier.
- California Air Resources Board-certified
(CARB) or 50-state gas chainsaws pollute less. All two-cycle gasoline
engines cause air pollution and emit toxic fumes, but if a gas chainsaw
can't be sold in California, that's a clue that its emissions are especially
- A built-in circuit breaker protects an electric
chainsaw's motor. This
is especially important if you'll be tempted to push an electric chainsaw
beyond its normal capabilities, which can burn out the motor.
- For an electric
chainsaw, use 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, but at 12 amps or under, the range extends to 150
feet. A 10- to 12-gauge cord is best, and a ground fault circuit interrupter
(GFCI) cord adds a margin of safety.
- Budget for
protective gear. Reviewers say this can cost more than the chainsaw
itself, but far less than a trip to the emergency room. Hearing protection,
goggles and Kevlar (heat- and cut-resistant) gloves are the minimum, but
reviews strongly recommend a hard hat, Kevlar jacket and chaps, plus safety
boots -- not just with steel toes, but with Kevlar behind the toes where
chainsaws often cut. Chainsaws cause nearly as many cuts on legs as on
hands, so the leg chaps are important.
- A sharp chain makes all the difference
in cutting smoothness and speed. Experts say you can sometimes improve
a budget chainsaw by equipping it with a topnotch chain, and you can
always improve performance by keeping the chain sharp. Unless you've had
expert training, however, it's best to stay with the blue-labeled type
of chain that comes on most consumer-grade chainsaws, because it's designed
to minimize the risk of kickback.
The bigger and more powerful the chainsaw, the more potential there is for
danger. But the sharp teeth on even a small saw are moving at 40 to 60 miles
per hour, at fairly close proximity to the user's arteries.
The average chainsaw cut on a person requires 110 stitches. It's better
to buy a less expensive chainsaw and have money left over for safety gear
than to blow your whole budget on the saw alone. Chainsaw safety features
are great, but most are designed to prevent injuries from kickback, when
the saw tip catches on something. Studies show that most new consumer-grade
chainsaws do indeed minimize kickback, but statistics say that only about
a fourth of all chainsaw injuries are caused by kickback.
In addition to minimizing your risk by wearing protective clothing and selecting
a chainsaw with good safety features, professionals and owners suggest getting
some training. Many dealers provide hands-on instruction in using a chainsaw,
and you may also find a chainsaw certification course useful. Unless you've
had good hands-on instruction, experts warn that it's best to restrict your
chainsaw use to cutting up trees that are already down. Felling trees is
best left to professionals; it's dangerous even for them.