Guide written by:
Jeremy, construction site supervisor, Cardiff
Cutting logs for the winter, pruning, taking out that nuisance tree - for all of these, your most faithful ally will be your chainsaw! Electric or petrol-powered, small or large cutting capacity, the choice is vast. Let's cut to the chase!
- Power rating
- Chain guide length
What is the operating principle of a chainsaw?
All chainsaws work on the same operating principle. A motor, electric or petrol-powered, drives a chain equipped with teeth around a support called the "guide". The longer the guide, the more powerful the chainsaw. The more penetrating the teeth, the greater the risks - blade recoil, jumping, etc.
Recent models are generally equipped with a range of safety devices (two-handed operation, chain brake, anti-recoil etc.); but using such a potentially dangerous tool still requires a great deal of vigilance and the right safety equipment.
Are there several different types of chainsaw?
There are, indeed! Each type suits a specific use and working context, so don't get them confused!
- Height pruning chainsaw: ideal for reaching high branches without having to climb trees or go up a ladder with your chainsaw. Electric or petrol, the motor is located near the controls, while the chain and guide are on the end of a pole. You can get either rigid or telescopic poles. Generally, the orientation of the cutting head is adjustable. Power ratings vary from 600 to 1500W. Not to be confused with pole-mounted chainsaws where the entire chainsaw assembly is located at the end of the pole, making it much trickier to handle.
- Pruning chainsaw: electric or petrol, light and handy, with a guide length under 35cm (13.7"). Specific to cutting and trimming branches, it's operated with one hand, making it very practical but also dangerous for rookies. Its power is usually between 1200 and 1800W.
- All-purpose chainsaw - guide intended foreveryday use. Electric or petrol, it's perfect forcutting larger-grade wood and felling small trees. It's handled with both hands and still requires vigilance especially for the most powerful models (over 2500W).
- Felling chainsaw - guide >45cm (17.7"): more for professional use, this type is intended for intensive work, especially logging. Fairly tricky to handle and equipped with a high-power petrol motor (from 2500 to 6500W), it requires experience to be used safely. It's cutting length varies from 45 (17.7") to more than 80cm (31.4"). Due to its size, it's not practical for small-scale pruning.
What criteria are important when choosing my chainsaw?
Before investing in a chainsaw, it's important to properly assess your needs. If you cut logs once a year in preparation for winter, or if you cut down trees all day, you can imagine that the type and pattern of chainsaw you need are different. Here are some pointers to guide you in your choice:
- Electric or petrol-powered? This is the first question to ask. An electric motor starts easily, is simple to maintain and generates less noise and pollution. On the other hand, it is much less powerful, and the wire is a real handicap - limited length, gets caught in branches, limits manoeuvrability. There are battery models, but their power is even more limited and the batteries will regularly need changing. Their weight varies from about 3.5 (7.7lbs) to 5.3kg (11.6lbs). A petrol motor allows for much greater power. However, its maintenance is more intensive - oil, starter, filters - and it's heavier to handle. It's also noisier and has a greater impact on the environment in terms of pollution. The weight is around 5-7kg (11.0-15.4lbs).
- Pruning and small tree maintenance: if you only use your chainsaw to service a few trees, a few times during the year, go for a pole-mounted or height chainsaw. If use is frequent - and for greater manoeuvrability - choose a battery-powered model. You'll easily be able to reach the branches standing on the ground, and your tool will require minimal maintenance - just tension and lubrication of the chain. The power will be between 600 and 800W.
- Pruning and regular maintenance of trees: for regular use on larger trees and branches, choose a petrol height chainsaw. Its engine capacity is between 20 (1.2") and 35cm3 (2.1") (800 to 1500W), and its guide length 20 (1.2") to 35cm (2.1". For optimal use, go for a telescopic boom.
- Intensivepruning: there is no longer any question of working from the ground with a pole. For intensive and frequent pruning work, go for a specific chainsaw: apruning chainsaw. Its guide is 35cm (35") maximum and the power of its petrol motor between 25 (1.5") and 40cm3 (2.4") - or 1000 to 2000W. These machines are made to be held in one hand and are therefore relatively light - 3 (6.6lbs) to 4kg (8.8lbs") maximum. Be careful, however - even this type of chainsaw can be dangerous if used incautiously. The risks are many, especially because of use in one hand - uncontrolled recoil, chain jumps, wounding your "free hand" etc.
- Cutting and occasional felling: for small maintenance on a few trees or to cut firewood a few times a year, there's no need to buy a full-on weapon of war! An electric chainsaw is perfectly suited. Orient your choice towards a versatile guide - 35 (13.7") to 45cm (17.7") maximum - and power of at least 2000W. For a few fellings on trunks of small cross-section, this type of chainsaw does the job. Be careful though - don't take it for granted when tackling larger trees. The only necessary maintenance is chain tension and lubrication.
- Large-scale felling or logging: for regular use, electric models quickly reach their limits, so choose a petrol chainsaw. Go for a relatively powerful motor (> 35cm3 or 2.1" ) and a versatile guide (45cm or 17.7" maximum). Such work still requires some experience, both for the actual cutting and for the maintenance - oil level, starter, chain, filters, etc.
- Intensive felling: now you really need a heavyweight model! Obviously, no electric model will be suitable. Depending on the type of felling, choose a suitable guide: from 45 (17.7") to 55cm (21.6") for trees of small and medium sections, and greater than 55cm for big trunks. Same for the motor power, you'll need a cylinder capacity of 40cm3 (2.4") minimum. The felling chains available on the market are sized in line with the guide length. If you're considering this type of tool, you must really know what you're doing - you'll either be a seasoned user or a professional. And this doesn't mean you should be taking any more than the minimum level of risk, both in terms of the saw itself and the danger of falling trees. Equip yourself accordingly with protective gear.
Are there several different types of chain?
All species of wood are different. There are softwoods and hardwoods. Density being variable, there are therefore several types of chain:
- Square cutting profile: also called a "chisel" chain, this profile is found on powerful chainsaws and is specific to hardwoods. It's found especially on models with a guide length greater than 45cm (17.7").
- Semi-chisel cutting profile: an all-purpose profile, suitable for medium and high power chainsaws.
- Half-round cutting profile: designed for low and medium powers, cuts all type of wood but wears quickly.
- Round cutting profile: designed for softwoods, it can be mounted on any type of guide. Its attack is relatively soft, so it cuts badly and wears very quickly if used on hardwood.
Each type of chain is adapted to a specific context and use. Remember to regularly check the condition of the teeth, and sharpen them if necessary to get the best performance from your chainsaw.
What are the key features of a chainsaw?
What, you don't know what a chain brake is? Well, allow me to explain!
- Chain brake: a safety device for stopping the chain immediately in the event of uncontrolled recoil.
- Anti-bounce system: To prevent rebounds, the links in the chain have hooks which have the function of hooking the wood in front of the limiters. Limiters... whassatthen? You have the gouge (the sharpened tooth) and the limiter in front. The latter is used to determine the depth of the gouge in the wood. When the limiters are too low, the gouges cut too deep and that’s when they rebound! The hooks attenuate the shock of a rebound.
- Cyclinder capacity: reflects the power of the motor. The higher it is, the stronger the engine. It is expressed in cm3.
- Hand start: applies to chainsaws. Basically, you pull a handle attached to a wire (or ripcord) that starts the engine.
- 2-stroke engine: without going into details, it means you have to mix the petrol with the oil before filling the tank. It’s called "blending".
- Chain: the bit that cuts the wood of course! Composed of three types of links (in order: trainer, limiter, gouge); it must be kept sharp. The rotation speed of the chain is determined by the length of the links.
- Chain guide: the guide is what holds the chain (and as we've seen, its length gives an indication of overall cutting power).
- Speed: of chain rotation, in metres / second.
Some manufacturers will tell you all about cylinder gauge, piston function etc. A piece of advice: don't unnecessarily overwhelm yourself with all these data: the power and the length of the guide chain are the key characteristics you need to know to choose your chainsaw.
What maintenance does my chainsaw require?
For all types of chainsaws, the chain tension must be adjusted before each use. Same deal with checking the chain oil level.
When using a chainsaw for long periods of time (several consecutive hours), the tension of the chain must be checked regularly.
It's also important to remember to lubricate the chain sprocket at the top of the guide and check for burrs that could cause the chain to jump.
Same thing with the guide, check regularly that there are no burrs or snags.
For petrol-powered chainsaws, apart from the basic checks and adjustments, you have to be a little more assiduous with maintenance. Engine oil level, spark plugs, air filter and of course, petrol level must be checked regularly - at the beginning and end of the season and regularly according to use.
At the beginning of the season, a change of engine oil is required.
If in doubt, refer to the owner’s manual - each model has its own characteristics and therefore may have specific recommended maintenance.
Last words of advice
The word is safety!
A chainsaw is a relatively noisy tool - especially the petrol variety - and dangerous if misused. To limit noise problems, noise-cancelling headphones or ear plugs will be perfect.
With pruners and chainsaws, you should always wear gloves, protective footwear or safety shoes if possible, and a visor or safety goggles!
You can get protective"anti-cut" clothing, in particular trousers, which are very useful in case of handling mistakes.
Think about protecting your head against falling branches and flying splinters - a helmetis very practical and a classic piece of protective gear.
On the usage front, avoid doing a tightrope walker impression on a rickety ladder and don't make your youngest child hold the wood you're cutting! When starting the chainsaw, don't rest the chain guide between your legs - you might regret it.
Of course, before you start, check the chainsaw is in good working order (no missing screws, loose parts, etc) and check that the chain brake is engaged! If you're using your chainsaw for structural work (i.e. house renovation), be careful not to cut into metal wires... you could sharpen your chain faster than expected!
Finally, if you have sight problems, delegate the cutting to someone else!
Additional chainsaw information can be found below:
- How to choose the right clothes
- How to choose your protective clothing
- How to choose your chainsaw
Guide written by:
Jeremy, construction site supervisor, Cardiff, 131 guides
Electrician by trade, I first worked in industrial estates where I installed, wired and fixed a large number of electrical installations. After this, I managed a team of electricians for this type of work. 10 years or so ago, I turned to building and construction. From the modest family home, to gyms and theatres; I have been able to coordinate, audit and organise all sorts of construction sites. for 4 years now, I am restaoring and bulding an extrension to a bungalow in the heart of the welsh countyside. My experience in manual work and my knowledge means I am proud to be of service. Terraces, interior design, roofing, plumbing, electricty, anything goes! We have, my wife, daughter and I, built almost everything we have from scratch! So to answer all of your questions, and to orientate and advise you on coosing your tools? Easy!