Chain saws range from small, light-duty electrics to large gas-powered models intended for forestry work. Prices are often tied to cubic centimeters of engine displacement for gas saws and amperage for electric saws.
Chain saws are associated with tens of thousands of injuries and a number of deaths each year. Some of the most serious injuries occur when the chain snags and the saw kicks back toward the operator's chest and head. Chain saws now have safeguards designed to eliminate kickback.
But even the safest saws should be used with care. Start with snug-fitting clothing and sturdy work boots, preferably steel-toed. Shield your legs with cut-resistant chaps and the backs of your hands with protective gloves, and wear a helmet with a face shield. All chain saws require hearing protection. Sound levels for gas saws can easikly exceed 100 decibels at the operator's ear. And even electric saws require hearing protection.
Keeping the cutting chain properly sharpened, tensioned, and oiled speeds cutting and helps to prevent kickback. When starting a gas-powered saw, grip it with both hands and keep both feet firmly on the ground. Don't saw on a ladder or with the saw above your shoulders. Avoid sawing with the tip of the chain and bar, where kickback typically occurs.
The kinds of jobs you plan to do should dictate the type of saw you buy. Expect to pay at least $100 and more if you need more power. Here are the types of chain saws to consider.
Gas-powered chain saws
They tend to cut more quickly and smoothly than electrics, and their faster chain speeds require less pressure. But they're heavier and noisier, and they emit exhaust fumes. They need regular tune-ups, and starting the engine usually requires several yanks on a cord. Chain bar lengths typically range from 16 to 18 inches for homeowner saws, longer for pro models.
Electric chain saws
Most electric saws are corded and cost and weigh less than gas-powered models. And they start more easily; just plug them in and squeeze the trigger. But their relatively small size typically limits them to lighter-duty chores, and their power cord keeps you tethered to the nearest electric outlet. Bar lengths are typically 14 to 16 inches.
When it comes to chain-saw features, safety is paramount. Next is convenience, and then ease of use. Nearly all saws have a label indicating compliance with voluntary safety standards, including a test for kickback.
Extra guard links on the chain keep the cutting teeth from taking too large and aggressive a bite. Most saws now include this feature.
Most chain saws have a bar with a narrow tip or nose to limit the cutting area that generates most kickback.
This feature stops the chain almost instantly when the front hand guard is pushed forward or when the saw kicks back. Most gas-powered saws and many electrics have a chain brake.
To help prevent kickback, some saws have a steel attachment that covers the nose of the bar to prevent the tip of the chain from snagging. The nose guard is a good idea if you keep it on the saw. But a tip guard shortens the usable length of a bar. We have spoken to many users of chain saws, including professionals, who admit that the first thing they do is remove the guard because it gets in the way of cutting.
This metal extension beneath the guide bar keeps a thrown chain from flying back toward the user. Most models have it.
To prevent accidental engagement, the throttle trigger won't work until you depress a separate palm switch or button. Lockouts are now common.
Most mufflers on gas-powered saws are covered so that you can't touch them inadvertently.
Case or sheath
A full case or a cover for the guide bar and chain can protect you from the sharp cutting teeth when you carry or store the saw. If your saw lacks a case or cover, you can buy an aftermarket one.
Wraparound front handle
Many saws now have a wraparound handle that provides a comfortable grip and eases horizontal cutting, as when you cut down a tree.
Automatic chain oiler
We consider this a must-have device. It lets you keep cutting without having to stop and manually pump a plunger to oil the cutting bar. It also lets you keep both hands firmly on the saw while you cut. Fortunately, it's now a common feature.
These sharp spikes near the base of the bar bite into logs and serve as a fulcrum, letting you pivot the bar and chain downward while cutting logs in a sawbuck or log stand. Many saws have this feature.
Tool-free chain adjuster
A hand-operated wheel-and-crank mechanism conveniently unlocks and locks the chain bar and moves it in and out so you can adjust chain tension without loosening the adjustment nuts or turning the adjustment screws.
Visible bar oil level
A translucent tank or viewing strip lets you check the chain oil level at a glance.
Most gas models have rubber bushings or metal springs between the handle and the engine, bar, and chain to minimize vibration. Without that feature, vibration can make sawing uncomfortable even for short periods.
Many makers of outdoor power equipment also make chain saws. Use these profiles to compare chain saws by brand.
Craftsman is one of the leading brands of gas and electric chain saws. Craftsman chain saws come in a variety of bar lengths, from 14 inches to 18 inches, and are geared to the consumer market. The Craftsman electric chain saws have smaller bar lengths than their gas counterparts. Craftsman is made for and sold by Sears and models can be purchased online and in Sears and Kmart retail stores.
Echo is one of the leading brands of gas-engine chain saws. Echo chain saws come in a variety of bar lengths, from 14 inches to 20 inches, and are marketed to consumers and professionals. Echo chain saws can be purchased from dealers and Home Depot.
Homelite is one of the leading brands of gas and electric chain saws. Homelite chain saws come in a variety of bar lengths, from 14 inches to 20 inches, and are marketed to consumers. Homelite electric chain saws have smaller bar lengths than their gas counterparts. Homelite chain saws can be purchased from dealers and Home Depot.
Husqvarna is one of the leading brands of gas-engine chain saws. Husqvarna chain saws come in a variety of bar lengths, from 14 inches to 20 inches, and are marketed to consumers and professionals. Husqvarna also makes chain saws under the Poulan brand name. Husqvarna chain saws can be purchased from dealers and Lowe's.
Stihl makes consumer and professional-grade gas and electric chain saws. Stihl chain saws come in a variety of bar lengths, from 14 inches to 20 inches; the electric chain saws have smaller bar lengths than their gas counterparts. The Stihl brand is an outdoor power equipment dealer exclusive.