Using a Chainsaw Safely and Efficiently

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Image by Bill Klase

My wife’s grandfather, who turns 100 years old this fall, has been working in the woods off and on for most of his life.  If it wasn’t cutting ties and bolts by hand in the winter to make some money, it was cutting and splitting to feed the wood stove in his home.  He has told me stories about felling trees with a crosscut saw and bucking up logs using a circular saw attached to a tractor operated by five guys.  He doesn’t wax nostalgically about those days, but instead appreciates the efficiencies advancing technology has brought to his work in the way of lighter and more powerful chainsaws.

These conversations help me to see how much easier our lives are now, and fill me with an even greater respect for my chainsaw than I had before.  For many of us, that is the only tool we have been taught to use for felling and processing trees.  Not having experienced first hand the use of a crosscut saw, we tend to take for granted our chainsaws which can lead to mistakes that will fill you with frustration and possibly cause series injuries or even death.  However, we can avoid these mistakes by treating our chainsaws with kindness and respect.

Kindness is expressed by keeping your saw in top working condition, starting with the chain.  I have worked with guys (who shall remain nameless) who believe that you have to “work” the saw to get it to function correctly.  “Work” to them meant leaning on the saw and bar or moving the saw back and forth in a sawing motion to get it to cut faster.  That is a fast way to wear out the components of your saw and is not needed if the chain is properly sharpened.  In fact, when my chain is good and sharp, I am supporting the saw just enough to allow the weight of the saw to slice through the wood.  Now some folks recommend running a file over the chain every tank full of gas or two, but that will depend on what you are cutting and if you are avoiding objects (like rocks) that will dull the chain quickly.  Regardless of how frequently you sharpen, there is no denying this fact: it is easier and more efficient to sharpen frequently to keep a sharp chain sharp than trying to restore a stone-dull chain to razor sharpness.  The size of the dust being produced is a good indication of the sharpness of the chain.  Chips mean a sharp chain, and fine dust means a dull chain.  Also, flip the bar over occasionally so that it wears evenly and lasts longer.

Keeping the air filter clean is another way to show your saw some kindness.  You can remove a lot of the debris on the filter using some compressed air, but occasionally it is good to clean the filter with soap and water and a small brush.  An old toothbrush works great.  Finally, keep the automatic oiler tank filled and use the right ratio of oil to gas as spelled out in your owners manual.  These small acts of kindness will keep your saw running at peak efficiency.

Your chainsaw can do the work of several people using hand tools, so it deserves a great deal of respect, in fact probably more than it normally gets.  I show respect to my saw by always wearing proper protective gear.  That means a helmet with a face shield, hearing protection, work gloves and boots, and chaps.  I also show respect by engaging the chain brake when I am not actively running the saw.  I have a couple of friends who did not engage their chain brake and had fallen on their saw while moving around a log, cutting themselves pretty badly (thankfully not life threatening).  Finally, I show respect by always keeping two hands on the saw while I am cutting.  It is very easy to believe that your saw isn’t going anywhere while you are cutting, but it doesn’t take much for a kick back to occur.  Remembering to respect your saw in these ways and focusing on the task at hand are the best ways to safely and efficiently run your saw.

Up to about ten years ago, my wife’s grandfather was out in the woods with me running the saw or swinging his axe.  My hope is that you also will enjoy an equally long and healthy life in your woods.

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