Chain saws are handy for quickly removing dead tree limbs and sawing fire wood. They can also clear fallen branches after a storm in a fraction of the time you'd spend with a hand saw. Here's what you need to know before you shop.
Chain saws range from small, corded and cordless electrics to large gas-powered professional models aimed at forestry work. Prices are often tied to cubic centimeters of engine displacement for gas saws and amperage for electric saws. But more isn't necessarily better.
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 reduce kickback.
But even saws laden with safety features must be used carefully. 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. You'll also need hearing protection, since practically all saws--including electric models--exceed the 85 decibels at ear level where hearing damage occurs. Grip gas-powered saws firmly when pull-starting and keep both feet firmly on the ground; most handles include a spot for securing the saw with one foot while pulling the starter cord. Never saw on a ladder or with the saw above your shoulders. And avoid sawing with the tip of the chain and bar, where kickback typically occurs.
Maintenance is also key for safe sawing. A chain that's properly sharpened, tensioned, and oiled speeds cutting and helps prevent kickback while reducing wear on the chain and the bar it rides on. A chain that's too loose can also slip off the bar and toward the operator as it spins.
Decide which type of chain saw you'll buy--gas or electric, corded or cordless--based on the kind of sawing you'll do, how often you'll do it, and how far from a power outlet you plan to work. And figure on paying at least $75 for an electric saw and $150 or more for gas models. Here are the pros and cons of each:
Gas-powered chain saws
These tend to cut more quickly and smoothly than electrics, and their faster chain speeds require less pressure. But most are heavier and noisier, require fueling and regular service for the engine's air filter and spark plug, and emit exhaust fumes. And starting the engine usually requires several hard yanks on a starter cord. Chain-bar lengths are typically 16 to 18 inches for homeowner saws, longer for pro models.
Electric chain saws
Most electric saws have a plug-in power cord and cost less than gas-powered models. Most also weigh less. And all start effortlessly: Just plug them in and squeeze the trigger. But their slower sawing limits them to lighter-duty chores, while their power cord keeps you tethered to the nearest electric outlet. You'll also need a 14-gauge or even heavier 12-gauge extension cord to get the amperage needed for optimal performance. Cordless electric chain saws run on battery power and free you from a power cord. But they can cost more than many gas saws, and their short run time per charge and even slower speeds are strictly for light-duty sawing. Bar lengths are typically 14 to 16 inches for corded-electric saws, 12 inches for cordless battery models.
Safety tops the list when it comes to chain-saw features, followed by convenience and ease of use--especially since a heavy, clumsy saw can contribute to fatigue and carelessness. Today's saws typically have a label showing compliance with voluntary safety standards, including a test for kickback. Here are the chain-saw features to consider.
Extra guard links and a less-aggressive cutting profile help keep the chain from taking too large a bite, which could cause kickback. 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 if the saw kicks back. Most gas-powered saws and many electrics now have one.
Some saws have a steel attachment that covers the nose of the bar, called a tip guard. While the guard prevents kickback at its source, it also shortens the usable length of the bar and can get in the way when working, inducing many owners to remove it.
This metal extension beneath the guide bar helps keep a thrown chain from flying back toward the user. Most models have it--a plus, particularly if the chain is too loose because of improper tensioning and other maintenance.
Most saws now include a separate palm switch that must be pressed before the throttle trigger engages.
Mufflers on gas-powered saws typically have a heat shield to protect hands and fingers from burns.
Case or sheath
A full case or a cover for the bar and chain helps protect against cuts when you carry or store the saw. A cover also helps contain oil leaks from the chain. You'll find aftermarket cases and covers if your saw doesn't include one.
Wraparound front handle
Many saws now have a wraparound handle that provides a comfortable grip and eases the horizontal cutting needed when felling trees.
Automatic chain oiler
Even low-priced saws now include this must-have device, which lets you keep cutting without having to stop and pump a plunger to oil the cutting bar--and keep both hands firmly on the saw. A well-oiled bar and chain keep both from wearing prematurely and overheating, which can lead to a broken or thrown chain.
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 on a sawbuck or log stand. Most saws include this simple feature; metal spikes tend to work better than plastic ones.
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 having to use a wrench or screwdriver. It can also improve safety by making proper adjustment quick and easy.
Visible bar-oil level
A translucent tank or viewing strip lets you check the oil level for the bar and chain at a glance so you can add more when needed. Most saws tend to use more oil than you may expect, and all tend to leak oil during storage.
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 both onerous and fatiguing--a concern for safety as well as comfort.
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.