Chainsaw Buying Guide

Handled with the proper safety know-how, a chainsaw can be an indispensable labor-saver. It's a powerful power tool that can clear through brush too thick for electric loppers, fell a tree that's threatening a roof, slice off dangerous broken tree limbs, or dice stumps into firewood.

Chainsaws come in a range of sizes, from small electric models (some with cords, some without) to hefty gas-powered models intended for heavier work. Prices often correlate with engine size for gas saws and voltage for electric saws, along with the length of the cutting bar—the arm of flat metal that guides the chain. But bigger isn't always better.

Finding the right model depends on how—and how often—you plan to use your chainsaw. To guide your decision, here are three questions to ask yourself:

What's on your property? If you live on a large, heavily wooded property with lots of mature trees and feel comfortable using a chainsaw, a gas model probably makes the most sense. As a group, gas chainsaws pack more power than electrics. For a slightly more modest yard, a lighter duty gas saw, or a battery-powered electric will work just fine. Plug-in electric saws can't go much farther than 100 feet from an outlet, so they make the most sense for jobs such as clearing brush close to the house. 

How diligent are you about yard maintenance? If you're the type who stays on top of maintaining your yard by pruning and cutting up tree limbs as they fall throughout the year, a battery-powered electric chainsaw is a good choice. You'll get 30 to 40 minutes of runtime between charges, which should be enough to tackle such tasks. If you're the type who leaves an entire season of yard maintenance to tackle, say, in a single weekend, go with a gas-powered model. A gas chainsaw can run for hours on a tank, and when it runs dry you can simply refuel an keep cutting rather than waiting for a battery to recharge. 

How much maintenance are you willing to do? Electric chainsaws aren't just easier to start than their gas counterparts, they're easier to maintain. All you need to do is plug them in or charge up the battery and you're ready to go. One thing to be aware of is that the lifespan of the battery is an unknown, and batteries can be expensive to replace: They often cost more than $100. 

Gas chainsaws have costs associated with running them, however. They typically run on a mixture of gasoline and oil, which need to be mixed in a precise ratio determined by the manufacturer. You can purchase premixed gasoline, but it's more expensive than doing it yourself. You'll also periodically need to replace fuel filters and spark plugs. And you need to drain the gasoline from the tank before prolonged storage. 

How CR Tests Chainsaws

We test chainsaws for how well they cut, how easy they are to handle, and how safe they are to use.

Using 10-inch-thick oak beams, we time how long it takes for each saw to work its way through the wood. We use oak because it’s one of the hardest woods most users will encounter on their property, and it makes for a particularly demanding test that reveals differences between models. Those that cut fastest earn a higher rating for cutting speed. 

For handling, we consider a model's weight, as well as how easy the saw is to use when making horizontal and vertical cuts. We also use a vibration meter to measure how much a saw shakes during use. Models with the best ratings for handling stay stable during use, are typically lightweight, and can cut easily regardless of the saw’s position. 

In addition to testing how well a saw handles when you're using it, we also assess each model's ease of use, determined by how simple a saw is to start, adjust, and maintain. For gas saws, we look at things like the location of the choke, access to the spark plugs and filters, the average number of pulls the saw requires to start, and the ease of adding gas or oil to the saw. For all saws, including electric models, we assess how easy it is to add bar oil and adjust the cutting bar on the saw. 

We also size up safety features, looking to see if we encounter any kickback during the course of cutting. We assess the placement of exhaust parts, like a muffler, that can become hot and burn a user while cutting. Lastly, we note whether a saw comes with a protective case, or sheath, either of which can reduce the possibility that you’ll accidentally be cut by the blade when it’s not in use. 

Our chainsaw ratings include details on saws of all types, from leading brands like Craftsman, DeWalt, Echo, EGO, Husqvarna, Kobalt, Poulan Pro, Remington, Ryobi, and Stihl.

Shopping Chainsaws By Type

Here we drill down into each of the diffferent types of chainsaw. We've also included electric loppers, which are a good option for small cuts and are safer to use when cutting above shoulder level.
 

A gas-powered chainsaw.

Gas-Powered Chainsaws

These tend to cut quickly and smoothly. Their fast chain speed requires less pressure from the user to make clean cuts compared with some under-powered electric models, making them the best bet for heavy duty work like downing large limbs and trees. But most are heavier and noisier than the electric versions. They also require fueling and regular service of the engine's air filter and spark plug, and they emit exhaust fumes. Like all gas-powered tools, gas chainsaws produce potentially deadly carbon monoxide, so you should never operate them indoors. Starting one requires several hard yanks on a pull cord. Chain-bar lengths are typically 16 to 18 inches for homeowner saws, longer for pro models. 
Cost: $140-400

Chainsaws Ratings
A corded-electric chain saw.

Corded-Electric Chainsaws

Most electric saws have a plug-in power cord and cost less than gas-powered models. They typically weigh less, and they all start effortlessly: Just plug them in and squeeze the trigger. But their slower sawing speed limits them to lighter-duty chores, such as shaping hedges, or trimming the occasional small tree limb. Their power cord keeps you tethered to the nearest electrical outlet. You'll also need a 14-gauge or even heavier 12-gauge extension cord to get the amperage needed for optimal performance. Keep in mind that extension cords of that size max out around 100 feet, so you won't be able to cut any farther than that distance from an outlet, and you should never string multiple extension cords together—it poses a fire risk. 
Cost: $70-300

Chainsaws Ratings
A cordless electric chain saw.

Battery Powered Electric Chainsaws

These saws run on battery power and free you from a power cord. They cost about the same as gas saws, and our most recent tests shows that their performance can be as good—sometimes better—than that of a light-duty gas model. Run time is determined by the voltage and amp hour rating of the battery, but expect about 30 to 40 minutes of semi-continuous cutting on a single charge, and about 60 minutes to recharge the battery. These saws pack enough power to cut large tree limbs and even small trees. If you've got other battery-powered outdoor gear, you should consider buying a chainsaw from the same brand—the batteries are usually interchangeable. 
Cost: $180-330

Chainsaws Ratings
An electric lopper chain saw.

Electric Loppers

If using a chainsaw strikes fear in your heart, but you still need to cut through the occasional small limb, consider a light-duty power lopper. The cutting apparatus is mounted two feet away from the hand grips and shielded within a pair of safety jaws. We tested two models weighing between 5 and 7 pounds. The lighter model makes it easier to reach a cut, especially if you use the optional extension pole, which adds up to 10 feet of reach for higher limbs. Both models feature a 6-inch retractable blade, making them safe for storage.
Cost: $70-150

Chainsaws Ratings

Chainsaw Safety

You don’t have to watch horror movies to have a healthy fear of chainsaws. These formidable tools are involved in more than 27,000 accidents annually, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. The most common injuries are lacerations, particularly to the arms and legs, but some of the most serious injuries occur when the saw's chain snags and kicks back toward the operator's chest and head. Chainsaws now have safeguards, including an automatic chain brake, that are designed to reduce the hazard of kickbacks. But even if you have a model that's fully loaded with safety features, you need to take some safety precautions.

Dress Smart
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-decibel level at which hearing damage can occur.

Get a Grip and Stay Grounded
Grip gas-powered saws firmly when pull-starting and keep the saw on the ground; most handles include a spot for securing the saw with one foot while pulling the starter cord. Never saw while on a ladder or use the saw above shoulder height. If you must cut above shoulder height, use an electric lopper, whose encased cutting jaw make them safer to use than a chainsaw, or hire a pro. And never saw using the tip of the chain and bar, where kickback can occur.

Maintenance is Key
Upkeep is also an important factor in chain-saw safety. A chain that's properly sharpened, tensioned, and oiled speeds cutting and helps prevent kickback while reducing wear on the chain and the bar on which it rides. A chain that's too loose can also slip off the bar and toward the operator as it spins.

Remember Emissions
While most injuries associated with chainsaws are lacerations and amputations, all gasoline-powered tools produce carbon monoxide, a colorless, odorless gas, that's potentially fatal. Never run a gasoline-powered tool indoors or in any enclosed space.

Chainsaw Safety Features

Chainsaws are simple tools, essentially comprised of an engine or motor, a handle, and an oblong metal piece called the bar that guides the cutting chain. There are a lot of safety features, and the more a model has the better. We assess those features, and work them into our safety rating for every model we test. Here are the crucial safety features to look for on any saw.  

Chainsaw Brands

Craftsman is one of the leading brands of gas and electric chainsaws. Craftsman chainsaws come in a variety of bar lengths, from 10 inches to 20 inches, and are geared to the consumer market. The Craftsman electric chainsaws 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 stores.
Echo is one of the leading brands of gas-engine chainsaws. Echo chainsaws come in a variety of bar lengths, from 12 inches to upwards of 20 inches, and are marketed to consumers and professionals. Echo chainsaws can be purchased from dealers and Home Depot.
Homelite has a handful of gas and electric chainsaws. Homelite chainsaw lengths range from 14 inches to 18 inches, and all models are marketed to consumers. Electric models have smaller bar lengths than their gas counterparts. Homelite chainsaws can be purchased from dealers and Home Depot.
Husqvarna is one of the leading brands of gas-engine chainsaws. Husqvarna chainsaws come in a variety of bar lengths, from 14 inches to upwards of 20 inches, and are marketed to consumers and professionals. Husqvarna also makes chainsaws under the Poulan brand name. Husqvarna chainsaws can be purchased from dealers and Lowe's.
Stihl makes consumer and professional-grade gas and electric chainsaws. Stihl chainsaws come in a variety of bar lengths, from 12 inches to upwards of 20 inches; the electric chainsaws have smaller bar lengths than their gas counterparts. Stihl is an outdoor power equipment dealer-exclusive brand.
Other significant chainsaw brands in the market include: Poulan, Dolmar, John Deere, Efco, and Solo.
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