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GardenSMART :: The Right Way to Select a Chain Saw

The Right Way to Select a Chain Saw

By Echo
Photograph courtesy of Echo

Choosing the right chain saw primarily depends on the type of work to be performed and your level of experience. A good rule of thumb is to select a chain saw size that will be used for most of what you need to cut – both today and in the future. Most professional arborists own two or three chain saw models to perform a variety of tasks, but the typical homeowner would probably only require one. The right saw for the job is the one with the right weight, balance, and power.

There are two basic configurations of chain saws: top handle and rear handle. Top handle saws are so-named because they allow the operator to control the saw from the top of the unit and are designed primarily for use while working in a tree, either with climbing ropes and gear, or from a utility bucket. Top handle saws are primarily used by professionals, and not homeowners. Rear handle saws feature both front and rear handles that are spread apart providing greater control. This is extremely important for operations that require more control and leverage to fell large trees and cut large diameter logs. The most popular saws for all-around use are rear handle saws. Besides handle configuration, there are other factors to consider before purchasing a saw.

As mentioned earlier, first consider what the saw will be used most of the time (felling and bucking or cutting firewood, limbing, trimming, etc.). Next, what is the knowledge level of the operator (e.g. a professional arborist, an experienced user or a beginner)? Beginners should select saws in the 30-40cc range in a rear-handle configuration. Heavy-duty applications may require a 40-60cc saws and professional loggers generally use 60cc and higher displacement saws.

One of the biggest mistakes a purchaser can make is to make a purchase based on guide bar length alone. The first consideration should always be engine size and power output, and then select the appropriate bar length for the job. Manufacturers offer saws in a variety of bar lengths based on the saw’s power, but pick an appropriately powered saw that offers a bar length that is 1-2” longer than the diameter of what you will be cutting a majority of the time. Using this guideline allows the cutting of trees or limbs whose diameters are double the bar’s length (refer to the manufacturer’s Operator and/or Safety Manuals for more information). Another consideration is to not select a too heavy or too big model. This will cause the operator to tire and fatigue more quickly. Additionally, selecting a saw that is underpowered will also have the same effect, by making the work take longer than it should.

When handling a saw, feel the weight and check the balance while holding the saw by the front handle only. A well-balanced saw, with the right length bar and chain attached, will be horizontal to the ground and not back- or front-heavy.

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Chain Saw Features

Saws have many features and there are a number to look for when making a saw selection. For maximum life of the chain saw, one of the most important features is the air filtration system. Take into consideration both the physical air filters themselves and the air intake. Look for an automotive-type, pleated air filter or a felt type filter where the edges are covered with rubber to prevent dirt entering the engine. Also look for saws with a large air intake area. Chain saws run at 12,500-13,500 revolutions per minute which translates to over 200 air intakes each second – a poor air filtration system will allow dirt entry causing premature engine failure. The intake areas are usually part of the starter assembly and ignition/cylinder cover system and consist of a fan that draws air into the engine. A large amount of openings allows saws to draw in a maximum amount of cooling air thus keeping the engine running cooler without risking vapor lock, losing power, stalling, or difficult re-starts due to overheating and they also provide a longer engine life.

Other features related to longer engine life are the fuel and oil filters. Look for a saw that allows removal of and changing of the fuel filter through the fuel cap and oil cap openings. A plugged fuel filter will starve an engine from the fuel-oil mix and the saw will not run if the filter is severely clogged. Similarly, a clogged oil filter will reduce oil delivery to the bar and chain causing premature wear and costly replacement.

Select a saw with an easy-to-operate, side-access chain tensioning system. A loose chain is the second biggest culprit behind poor oil delivery to the bar and chain, and sprocket failures.

Every saw today will have an automatic oiling system. The added feature of an adjustable system allows you to increase oil output if the bar length is increased, or if you’re cutting harder wood, or sand-, dirt-, or road grime-penetrated wood. Similarly, these systems also allow you to decrease the oil output based on conditions. But keep in mind, limited oil delivery causes excessive wear to sprockets, bars, and chains, and is a costly replacement. Remember, the better a bar and chain is lubricated the longer it will last.

Choose a chain saw that features a vibration-reduction system. Saws equipped with these devices allow longer work periods and less fatigue. In addition, these systems will increase saw life, as there is a reduction in the potential loosening of components, which would cause an unsafe operating condition. The amount of engine vibration also depends on engine design, specifically the use of counter-balanced crankshafts. A single counter-balanced crankshaft will produce much more vibration than a double counter-balanced crankshaft.

Also look for professional-grade or commercial-grade saws that generally use higher-grade components and are designed to take the day-to-day punishment dished out by professional loggers – so you know they’ll last for your at-home requirements. The difference between commercial-grade and consumer-grade products is reflected in the price and warranty provided. Some manufacturers only offer a 1-year consumer warranty while professional-grade models come with up to a 5-year consumer warranty.

Ease of starting is another feature to consider and is controlled by the design of the starter assembly. Look for saws with a digital ignition system and/or a decompression valve. A digital, or electronic, ignition feature contains computerized retard and throttle advance timing mechanisms making the engines easy-to-start. Some larger saws also include a decompression valve, which opens a valve in the cylinder that creates easier start-ups.

Finally, look for saws that feature a low-tone, USDA-approved spark arresting muffler system where the spark arrester can be changed quickly.

Chain Saw Safety

Safety is a big concern in proper chain saw use. It is imperative that all operators fully read and understand the instruction and safety manual provided by the manufacturer prior to operating any saw. In addition, every operator should wear safety equipment, and learn about kickback by reading safety manuals. These manuals are designed to provide important information needed to successfully set-up, operate and maintain your chain saw safely. Users should wear hard-toe boots to protect feet from rolling logs and chaps to protect your legs. Eye protection is essential for flying wood chips, saw dust, or twigs. Ear protection is necessary due to the constant exposure to engine noise. Gloves will reduce the vibration to the operator’s hands and reduce fatigue along with protecting knuckles from bark scrapes and branches. When cutting wood, clothing should fit properly and be snug to the body to prevent snagging on branches while limbing or felling. Besides safety equipment, there are safety features on saws to also consider.

Saws should feature a chain-catcher. If the chain should come off the bar for some reason during operation, a chain catcher will stop the chain from approaching the rear handle and your hands. A safety interlock, or throttle lock, prevents accidental operation and, thus, movement of the chain. Unless this device is depressed, while the throttle is squeezed, the engine will stay in an idle state. Front and rear hand guards protect fingers, knuckles, and tops of hands from scrapes, abrasions, or accidental contact with a moving chain. Inertia-style chain brakes trip into use when the tip of the bar is thrown upward or back during cutting. These brakes stop the chain from moving under these circumstances and can also be manually operated. And finally, the use of low-kickback chains can reduce kickback intensity by as much as 75%. To eliminate rotational kickback, ECHO recommends the use of a tip guard. For further instructions on tip guard use, see Safety or Operator’s Manual included with the product.

Proper chain saw selection depends on the operation to be performed and the appropriate selection of features. With knowledge of feature information and safety measures taken, the right chain saw will make any job easy to handle.

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