Weathering disaster: Chain saws

Chain saws are getting safer but you still need to take precautions

Last updated: July 2013

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Quick-acting brakes and safer chains and chain bars are the major features that make today's chain saws a bit less risky. While saws aren't required to have those features, many gas-powered saws and a growing number of electrics now include them. Nonetheless, almost 25,000 related injuries and several deaths each year underscore how critical it is to treat any chain saw with respect.

According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, kickback—where the tip of the saw snaps up and back toward the user—is involved in one in four of those injuries. If you're not sure how to use a chain saw, ask the retailer or dealer to show you. Then follow these tips to help make sawing as safe as possible:

How to stay safe

  • Wear eye and ear protection, gloves, tight-fitting clothing, cut-resistant leg chaps, boots, and a hard hat with a protective face screen.

  • Keep the cutting chain properly sharpened, tensioned, and oiled. (Hint: Always have a second, sharpened chain on hand so that you can keep working when the first gets dull.)

  • Grip the saw with both hands and keep both feet firmly on the ground.

  • Saw only tree limbs you can reach from the ground. Never saw on a ladder or while holding the saw above your shoulders.

  • Avoid sawing with the tip of the chain and bar, where kickback typically occurs. While plunge, boring, and other cuts that use the bar tip are essential for some kinds of sawing, they're for experienced users and raise the risk of kickback.

  • Felling (cutting down) a tree is a job best left to the pros, particularly for trees larger than about 6 inches around. While trees often fall in the direction they're leaning, knowing where a tree will come down can be tricky. You'll also need two safe escape routes when the tree begins to fall. The Web site of the University of Missouri's extension center is among several with illustrated tree-felling techniques. Again, however, given the risks involved, we suggest calling a pro instead.

  • Carry saws safely. For vehicles, secure them in the trunk or cargo area. Use a bar sheath or carrying case to protect yourself and the bar and chain. For hand-carrying, be sure that the engine is stopped and face the bar and chain to the rear. Also be sure the muffler is away from your body in case it's still hot.

Chain-saw maintenance

With fall yard cleanup work approaching, you'll be happy to know that today's chain saws are better and safer than ever. But if you don't properly maintain your saw, you might need to replace it or pay a pro to repair it.

The simple steps we've included here will keep most any chain saw running reliably for years. Note that most of the tips here are for plug-in electric saws. The engine-maintenance tips apply only to gasoline-powered saws.

For a saw that's sat for more than a season

  • Inspect the entire saw for loose parts, cracks, and other problems.
  • Make sure the chain brake (the guard bar just in front of the top handle) stops the chain as soon as you push it forward. If it doesn't, get it repaired by a dealer.
  • Check the chain bar for bent rails and replace it if necessary. Also replace the bar if it is worn. You'll know it's time replace the chain bar if the sides of the bar are starting to mushroom out; also check that the depth of the groove that supports the chain conforms with the owner's manual. Chain bars typically are available at large retailers and dealers for about $25 to $50, including the chain.
  • Use a stiff brush or compressed air to clean the cooling fins on the flywheel, the cylinder fins, the area outside the carburetor, and the starter housing.
  • Replace or clean the air filter (check your owner's manual); some filters can be washed and reused. You'll know it's time to buy a new filter or clean the current one when the saw is down on power. Also change the spark plug after roughly 100 hours of running, and replace the fuel filter at least once each season.
  • Before each use, be sure the chain is properly tensioned. The chain should be snug against the bottom of the bar but not so tight that you can't move it around the bar by hand (wear gloves).
  • Check that the chain-oil reservoir is full. If it's not, fill with the appropriate oil.
  • Refuel the saw using the proper ratio of gasoline and oil (check the owner's manual). Too much oil will cause poor running, increased exhaust emissions, and fouled spark plugs; too little can damage or destroy the engine. Also be sure you shake the gas and oil mixture before you add it to the saw's tank, since oil tends to settle to the bottom.

During regular use

  • Retension the chain each time before you use it.
  • Sharpen the chain if it's dull (you'll know it's time when cutting takes longer and the wood dust is fine rather than course chunks). Consider having the job done by a pro (about $7 to $10). Also keep an extra, sharpened chain handy (chains cost about $15 to $25) so you can quickly put on a sharp one and keep on sawing.
  • Check that the chain doesn't run when the engine is idling. If it does, lower the engine idle speed as suggested in the owner's manual. This step is important-a chain that runs at idle speed is a safety hazard.
  • Periodically rotate the bar for even wear by flipping it so the bottom edge is on top.
  • Make sure the throttle trigger works smoothly. Also check the chain brake.
  • If the saw will sit for more than a week or so, return any unused fuel to its container.

Anatomy of a chain saw

When you're buying a chain saw, there are some key safety and convenience features you'll want on your saw. The list of features below and our illustration of the ideal saw highlight those elements and will help you make the right choice. Tested models that lack a particular feature are indicated.

1. Bar-tip guard

A steel attachment that covers the nose of the bar, limiting the cutting area in which most kickback is generated. A tip guard shortens the usable length of a bar by about 1 1/2 inches.

Covers the entire saw or just the guide bar and chain, protecting you from the sharp cutting teeth when the saw is being transported or stored.

This brake, which engages when the handguard is contacted or activates automatically via an inertial system, stops the chain almost instantly.

A metal extension beneath the guide bar that keeps a thrown chain from flying rearward towards the user. Present on all tested models.

A bar with a narrow tip or nose that limits the cutting area in which most kickback is generated.

This type of chain has extra guard links that keep the cutting teeth from taking too large a bite. Present on all tested models.

This palm switch or button must be depressed before the throttle trigger will operate, preventing accidental engagement. Present on all tested models.

A continuous handle that curves downwards, allowing you to comfortably hold the saw and easily switch between sideways and horizontal cutting grips.

Rubber bushings or metal springs between the handle and the engine, bar, and chain minimize vibration and user fatigue.

Lubricates the bar and chain automatically using an internal pump rather than a plunger that must be depressed manually.

These sharp metal points protruding from the body of the saw near the base of the bar bite into logs and act as a fulcrum, allowing you to lever the bar and chain downward for cutting logs secured in a sawbuck, or log stand.

A hand-operated wheel-and-crank mechanism that unlocks and locks the chain bar and moves it in and out, allowing you to adjust chain tension without loosening adjustment nuts or turning adjustment screws.

A clear tank lets you easily check the bar-oil reservoir.

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