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Gardening Articles: Landscaping :: Trees, Shrubs, & Vines

Getting Smart About Chain Saws

by William Bryant Logan

Consider appropriate safety gear part of the cost of a chain saw, not accessories, then learn how to use the saw safely.

The first time I ever used a chain saw, I had nothing to go by but the manual. From its warnings--"Serious injury or even death," and "Danger!"--I thought using it was likely to kill me. Had it not been for the presence of an experienced friend, I might never have ventured to pull the starter cord ... or if I had, the saw would likely have slipped from my grip.

Rule number one for using a chain saw is, therefore, to relax. Using a saw properly is no more dangerous than driving a car.

Rule number two is to learn immediately how to use the saw safely. This article offers some basic rules, and the usually excellent. If frightening, user's manual that comes with every saw will provide more detailed instructions. Some manufacturers also produce videotapes demonstrating good practice.

Absent an experienced and patient friend to guide you through your first attempts and answer questions, find a knowledgeable dealer. The best bet is a supply company that deals with arborists, loggers, or woodlot owners. There, you are likely to find someone who will gladly demonstrate each saw and help you make choices. A good dealer won't sell you a saw until you show that you can tension the chain properly, start the saw safely, and hold it correctly. The dealer will also be available to tune and sharpen the saw you select.

Choosing a Chain Saw

For a first purchase, choose a chain saw that is relatively small and light. The guide bar--the grooved elliptical bar around which the chain runs--should be no longer than 18 inches; a 14- or 16-inch bar would suffice. A smaller bar is more maneuverable and less likely to get its nose (the tip of the saw) fouled in another tree or in the ground, and it will cut a tree almost as wide in diameter as a longer bar. In addition, because a shorter bar drives the chain a shorter distance, the overall power of the saw is slightly increased.

Although most homeowner saws have chains with some kickback protection, an inertial chain brake is essential. This device, which looks like a spare handle located just ahead of where you place your left hand on the saw's forward handle, will automatically stop the chain from spinning should it experience any sudden recoil. It is invaluable in reducing injury from one of the most feared chain saw incidents--kickback--the sudden rearward motion that can occur if the top of the nose touches an object.

If you are at all susceptible to the glory of engines and tools, you will be dazzled by the range of saws: everything from a 7-pound saw to a burly saw with a 24-inch bar. Though no reputable dealer will suggest you buy a saw that is dangerous for a beginner, he may tend to push you towards the higher end--in capability and price.

Only two kinds of chain saws are unsuitable: electric and top-handled models. For a homeowner, dragging an electric saw with its power cord trailing behind is a disadvantage. Top-handled saws are compact and powerful, but they are meant for use in trees and are not well balanced for ground work.

On the other hand, don't discount a "homeowner-grade" saw. While many homeowner-grade tools are inferior to "contractor" grades, it's not so with chain saws--the opposite can even be true. My first saw, a Husqvarna homeowner model, endured five years of very hard use--and broke down only once.

To some extent, the size of the saw you choose is a personal matter. If you plan to cut fairly frequently, select a saw with a larger engine than you would if you cut only two or three times per year. More power means easier cutting and less binding of the chain. Or, consider trading slightly decreased power for a saw that is lighter and easier to hold.

When it comes to brand, there are fashions, as with any other product. Once, Homelite and McCullough, the companies that practically invented the modern lightweight chain saw, were the standards. But with the development of lighter saws, more efficient engine and gearing systems, and inertial chain brakes, European manufacturers Husqvarna and Stihl have taken the lead. These are followed by second-rank brands such as Echo and Poulan, and store brands like John Deere, Sears, and Weed Eater [Editor's note: As of the 2001 season, John Deere will also offer professional-quality models.]

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