Choosing a Chainsaw: Decisions, Decisions
I wanted to buy a chainsaw. I was just a regular Joe with a house and a couple of trees. I fancied myself a do-it-your-self type, and I didn’t see the point in hiring someone else to do the work. Besides, chainsaws are cool. Really cool. There is no more efficient, or more deadly, power tool in the modern handyman’s arsenal than the chainsaw. Able to tear through 24 inches of hardwood in seconds, chainsaw’s put a smile on the face of everyone using them. Part of their appeal is their deadliness. Like the unforgiving universe, a chainsaw’s teeth do not discriminate between a tree’s pulpy flesh and the weak skin, muscle, and bone of its careless operator. It is this fickleness and power that gives the chainsaw its appeal.
I made the decision, but how was I going to choose the right chainsaw? It’s the information age so I decided to do a little research online, and that’s where the trouble began. I discovered that there aren’t a lot of independent reviews. The only info I could find was on the forums. I waded through pages and pages of posts; my eyes blurred as my mind numbed only to discover the general consensus is: buy the most expensive professional chainsaw you can find. Everything else is a piece of junk that will self destruct the moment you pull the starter rope. I wasn’t planning on becoming a professional sawyer, nor was I planning on making love to a chainsaw. Can the internet be right? Are all of the so called “homeowner” or “consumer” saws total pieces of crap? Probably not.
One thing I noticed when searching the forums for information on choosing a chainsaw was a lot of talk concerning EPA certification hours. There was much chatter about certain chainsaws only being rated for a hundred hours. They will suggest that this means the saw will self destruct after 100 hours of use. This is not what the certification means. It means the manufacturer will not guarantee the saw will continue to meet the EPA requirements for that certification level of chainsaw after one hundred hours of use.
One must also take a moment to reflect on what 100 hours of chainsaw use really means. For the average homeowner, 100 hours of chainsaw use will consume approximately 125 tanks of fuel. Most homeowners will probably never use a chainsaw this much unless they are cutting firewood to heat their homes or getting a part time job as a professional Sawyer. To put this number in perspective, this past summer I felled over twenty trees with diameters in the 12-18 inch range, limbed them, and cut them into firewood. I also cut down, limbed and bucked another twenty or so smaller trees; all while consuming approximately twenty tanks of fuel. The saw in question being a Stihl 50cc ms 271 (but more on this chainsaw in a future post).
To further put it into perspective, as a rookie sawyer, I would go out into the yard in the evening and saw for one tank of fuel which took, on average, 45 minutes. After 45 minutes with a saw in my hands I would be drenched in sweat- personal protective equipment is sweaty in the summer. I would also be pretty fatigued, due in part to my body not yet learning proper, energy saving techniques, and in part to being a little nervous (which is a good thing as being too comfortable with a chainsaw in your hands, especially for a rookie, will lead you into trouble in a heartbeat). If 45 minutes does not seem like a lot, trust me, you can cut a lot of trees down and make one hell’uva mess in 45 minutes with a chainsaw.
Returning to the question of the “cheap” saws at the big box store and whether they will last you: the answer is probably. There is also the problem of poor quality control coupled with cheaper parts which lead to a greater chance of the saw being D.O.A. Of course, whether or not a saw will last you will depend on how faithful you are with maintenance, and whether you choose the right size saw for the jobs you will be subjecting it to.
Choosing the Right Size Chainsaw
When it comes to choosing the right size chainsaw, there are a three major factors that will impact your choice: the size and type of wood you will be cutting, the strength and experience of the user, and, of course, your budget. Any search of the internet will quickly reveal that the prevailing wisdom on choosing chainsaw size is bigger is better. The reasoning is that as your skill level and experience progresses, you will inevitably wish that you had purchased a bigger and better saw. I must admit that there is a certain macho logic behind this assertion, bigger saws are more powerful (insert Tim the Toolman Taylor grunting here), but that power comes at a price: more power equals more risk, more weight, and more cost. All of these tradeoffs can have serious repercussions on the decision making process.
When considering what size chainsaw will meet your needs and budget, one question that you must ask yourself concerns what type and size of wood you will be cutting. The average suburbanite is probably not going to be dropping many large trees, and therefore doesn’t need a large chainsaw. The exception to this rule would be homeowners who want to split and cut their own wood (a practice that is uncommon in the ‘burbs).
A word about choosing chainsaws. many sites, including guides by big, well known sites, advise buying chainsaws based on bar size(or the misnomer of blade size). As a general rule of thumb, it makes sense to speak about bar size as a way to judge the size of a chainsaw- presumably sellers and manufacturers would only sell saws with the appropriate sized bar and chain combination, but they don’t. Bar and chain combinations are interchangeable on saws, and while there are many legitimate reasons for putting a bar/chain combo that is oversized on a saw, the simple truth is that many sellers put larges bar/chain combos on their saws to create the impression that the saw is more powerful, i.e., bigger, than it is. Just because many saws come with a twenty inch bar/chain doesn’t mean the saw will handle burying the entire bar in a large tree. When sizing a saw the number you should be looking at is the displacement of the engine which is usually in c.c’s (cubic centimetres). You can easily change the length of the bar and chain, but you cannot easily change the displacement of the engine. A forty c.c saw is always going to be a forty c.c saw. The bigger the displacement, the more gas you can burn. The more gas you burn, the more power at your disposal.
If you are going to only be using the saw occasionally to prune limbs, fall small trees (up to 8″ in diameter), and maybe cut some occasional firewood, a small saw in the 30 to 40 c.c. range would probably be more than sufficient. These smaller saws are usually much lighter and more manoeuvrable making them less fatiguing and great starter saws for inexperienced sawyers. Lighter and more manoeuvrable saws are much easier to control which makes them generally safer. These smaller saws are also much more affordable. Today’s modern small saws also quite formidable performance wise, and most people will be quite satisfied with a saw in this class.
If you are going to be felling many medium trees, cutting firewood to heat your home, and the size of the trees and logs in question will average 16″ or less, then a saw in the 40 to 50 c.c. range would probably suit your needs. Powerful enough to handle medium sized felling tasks and most firewood chores, these saws are still light and manoeuvrable enough to handle odd pruning and other landscaping tasks. Saws in this class will be heavier than their smaller brethren, but are still light enough for an inexperienced user to handle with the proper care and attention. These saws are also readily available in the “rancher” or “farm” class which is a more rugged and powerful class that is designed to handle frequent use. These “prosumer” saws will also be easier on your budget than their pro cousins, but the trade-off will be a heavier, slightly less powerful saw.
If your chainsaw “to do list” looks like it came off of Paul Bunyan’s refrigerator, then you are going to need a serious saw in the 60 c.c. and up class. Most of these saws are going to be professional grade saws, although you will find a few in the “farm/rancher” class. These saws are bigger, more powerful, and rugged saws that are intended for heavy duty use. If you are going to be felling 20″ plus trees on a regular basis, or if you are cutting several cords of firewood every year, then you will need one of these bad boys. These aren’t the best saws for novice sawyers as they can get you into serious trouble in a heartbeat. These saws are bigger, less manoeuvrable, and heavier than their smaller cousins. They also cost substantially more.
Besides the gasoline powered chainsaws, another option for those choosing a chainsaw who will be doing their sawing close to their house or powered outer buildings would be an electric chainsaw which offers light weight, quiet operation, and substantially less maintenance. Of course these benefits come with a slight loss in power, and the real inconvenience of being tethered to the nearest outlet. Another option would be a lithium battery powered chainsaw which combines the portability of the gas powered chainsaw with the quiet operation and low maintenance of the electric. The caveat of the cordless electric is that they have limited runtime (but enough for most homeowner light duty work) and are quite expensive, especially for one that gives enough power for a long enough period of time.
In conclusion, there are many factors that must be considered when deciding on which chainsaw to purchase. There are many good brands offering many different saws at various price points. if money is no object, then I would recommend buying a professional grade Stihl or Husqvarna as they offer the latest, “cutting” edge technology with the best power to weight ratio. These pro saws are the best of the best, but you have to pay for that quality and technology and for the average homeowner it is overkill. Echo also offers a great line-up of pro-grade saws that are known for their reliability, although they utilize slightly less advanced technology (which might be a selling point as it is “tried and true” technology). Echo’s time proven technology also gives a bit of a price break to the savvy consumer. In addition to the above mentioned brands, there are many other brands and product classes that would provide good value to the consumer who accurately matches the proper size/class of saw to the tasks at hand. Regardless of your choice, proper maintenance is essential to ensuring the best chance for a satisfying purchase.