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

Getting Smart About Chain Saws (page 2 of 5)

by William Bryant Logan

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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