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.]

Starting the Engine

Start several saws while in the dealer's presence to help you learn how to do so correctly and to compare the ease with which different models fire up. Also, start the actual saw you have bought before taking it home so the dealer can make any necessary adjustments.

There are two safe ways to start a saw: on the ground, and holding the saw firmly between your thighs or legs. Ground starting is simpler and safer. Make sure that the area is clear and that the chain is not in contact with the ground or any stray rocks or debris. Then, engage the chain brake. (This is important, since starting a saw will always make the chain rotate until you throttle it down to idle.) Next, switch on the saw and, if the saw is cold, pull out the choke, then gently pull any slack out of the starter cord. Holding down on the front handle of the saw with one hand, pull the starter cord sharply until it is fully extended, then release. Once the saw has started, push in the choke and press the throttle once or twice to rev the saw and then let it fall to idle. While the saw is warm and idling, the chain should not rotate on the bar. If it does, have the dealer adjust it.

Reality Check

With the saw running, you hold in your hand a tool as useful, exhilarating, and dangerous as a running sports car or a loaded gun. A chain turning at full throttle passes each tooth through the wood at least 10 times in a second. There are at least 60 teeth on the average chain. Were they to pass through your leg or foot at that rate, the results would not be pretty.

When holding a running saw, keep the chain brake engaged until you are ready to cut. Always make cuts at full throttle, reducing the chances of the saw binding or kicking back. Never allow any part of the turning chain to strike the ground.

To avoid kickback, follow the paramount rule: Do not touch the upper quadrant of the nose of the bar to wood or any other obstacle. If a tooth passing this fulcrum point suddenly encounters an obstacle, it can effectively stop the chain, passing all the motion of the chain into the body of the saw, which recoils violently upward toward the operator. For this reason and because your hand may not be able to activate the chain break, it is a good idea to position your body so that, in the event of a kickback, the saw can pass relatively harmlessly to the side of your body, not straight up at your head and neck.

Dress properly, protecting your head, face, and ears. Consider buying an arborist's helmet, which combines a hard hat, face screen, and earmuffs. A pair of safety glasses and ear protection are also essential.

Wear close-fitting clothing and remove any dangly jewelry. Wear sturdy steel-toed boots. Protect hands, legs, and feet, which are the most likely targets of an errant saw blade. You can also buy special loggers' chaps and gloves made of densely woven nylon fibers.

"How will I ever remember all that?" you ask yourself. You will, just as you learned to drive a car. Meanwhile, think of how lucky you are. Buying your first saw and learning to use it is a little like starting a great book. You only get to do it once.


To start with, never try to fell a tree that has a trunk diameter greater than the bar length of your saw. Look before you cut. Make sure there is room for the falling tree, so that it won't bounce off or get hung up in any other tree, or come close to power lines or your neighbor's roof. Also, check the lean of the tree to make sure it is not tending away from the direction in which you want it to fall, and clear away any underbrush and low-growing branches. Logging is this country's most dangerous occupation, and a major reason is loggers cutting in tight stands that drop trees against other trees, which in turn drop heavy branches right onto the loggers.

There must be room not only for the tree to fall, but also for you to get away. Make sure of a clear escape path at 45 degrees to both sides of the fall line. If there's no clear path, make one, cutting away brush as needed. Once the tree begins to fall, exit quickly and calmly along one of these paths.

To make good on all your plans, however, you need to make cuts that will direct the tree to fall where you want it to. The keys to directional cutting are an open-face cut that will allow the trunk to fall gently toward the ground, and a hinge that will control the rate and direction of the fall.

Start the open-face cut by making a steeply angled slice downward, no more than a quarter of the way into the trunk, on the side toward which you want the tree to fall. Finish the face with a shallower angle cut upward, until it meets the downward cut. Face cuts used to be made at 45 degree angles, but a 90 degree open face--a 65 degree top cut and a 35 degree bottom cut--is better for controlled felling, since the top of the tree will hit the ground before the trunk breaks free of the hinge.

Next, move to the opposite side of the tree, check your escape paths, and begin to make the felling cut. It should enter straight and level, parallel to the ground, at or just above the level where the two parts of the face cut meet. The felling cut should stop 1 to 1-1/2 inches before it meets the face cut. This line of uncut wood--the hinge--is now all that holds the tree up. If there is any lean at all in the direction of the fall, the tree will fall of its own accord. If not, encourage it by driving one or two plastic wedges (available from your saw dealer) into the straight cut.

At this satisfying moment, you shout Headache!" and escape, watching the tree fold gently to the ground.

Cut off the most accessible branches first, then reposition the stump the remove tension from remaining branches.Limbing and Bucking

Felling causes a rush of adrenaline, but once the tree is on the ground, your work has just begun. Approach limbing and bucking soberly--each can produce more than just a headache.

Most kickbacks occur during limbing, the process of removing branches from a felled tree. As you travel along the trunk, often cutting amid a welter of closely spaced branches, take care not to allow the top of the saw's tip to inadvertently contact a branch near the one you are cutting.

Depending on how the tree fell, at least some limbs will be under great tension, either pinned beneath the fallen tree or wedged against neighboring trees. Remove all the nontensioned branches first, then begin on the difficult ones. Never release all the tension at once. (I made this mistake once and had eight stitches in my cheek to show for it.) You can release tension by making several shallow cuts on the tension side, and then gently cutting through from the compression side.

Bucking, cutting the main trunk into logs, requires thinking about how gravity is affecting the log, and how to release tension without binding the saw in the log. A tensioned trunk is best cut by making a shallow undercut, then cutting through from above. The undercut keeps the saw from binding as the piece comes off. Likewise, cut a trunk supported from both sides, such as on a saw horse, by first making a shallow cut above, then following with a through cut from beneath.

But what if the log is lying in the dirt? If you strike dirt, you will dull the chain. The secure method is to cut almost all the way through, then roll the log over and finish the bucking cut from on top.

William Bryant Logan is a a writer and arborist living in New York City.

Photography by Joseph de Sciose

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