How To: Use a Chainsaw
This tool is famously fast and forceful, but extreme power requires extreme care. Stick to these safety guidelines, and follow our smart usage tips to stay injury-free.
The chainsaw—a portable power tool that cuts wood via a fast-moving chain that rotates around a guide bar—can make short work of pruning, felling, limbing, and bucking trees. It also ranks as the most dangerous power tool available without a license.
While it’s designed to cut with either the top or bottom of the blade, just about anything that comes in contact with the top half of the end tip of the blade (known as the kickback zone) can change the cutting momentum and cause the saw to slam back against you. Kickback can lead to catastrophic injury, so users must take extra precaution and always follow proper form for how to use a chainsaw in order to avoid disaster.
Before you pick up any chainsaw—high power or low, gas or electric—take the risks very seriously.
Essential Safety Tips
You can operate a chainsaw more safely and minimize the chances of kickback by keeping the chain sharp and tensioned, and always cutting below shoulder height.
As well, today’s lower-powered chainsaws (including electric models)—developed not for pro lumberjacks, but for DIYers who want to get their own firewood and keep their property pruned—rely on a low-kickback chain that grabs less fiber as it rounds the kickback zone, minimizing the likelihood of kickback.
Familiarize yourself with the safety considerations reviewed here before attempting to operate a chainsaw, and then follow our practical tips for safe, effective cutting.
- Whether you’re learning how to use a chainsaw for the first time or on a routine job, never operate this power tool alone. When something goes wrong, it happens fast. Having a friend nearby can save your life. If you’re working in the woods, set a traffic safety flag by your car. Make sure someone knows where you are and when you intend to return. Have a complete first-aid kit on hand with at least one blood-clotting bandage.
- Wear all necessary personal protective equipment, including chaps, a chainsaw helmet with face guard, gloves, and either steel-toed or logging boots. Never wear loose clothing, as it can get caught in the teeth of the saw.
- Find a comfortable stance, and keep both feet firmly planted as you work. Hold the chainsaw with two hands and at an angle or a little to one side rather than directly in front of you, in case of kickback.
- Never operate a chainsaw on a ladder, and never cut limbs that are higher than your shoulder. (If you’re looking to cut something higher, consider an altogether different tool: a manual rope saw.) To remove lower branches and buttress roots prior to felling a tree, slice downward and use the pulling chain—that’s the portion of the chain as it wraps the bar’s bottom. If the tree is on an incline, always work uphill from it.
- Be aware of the location of all power lines, and never fell a tree where there are utility lines, vehicles, buildings, and especially people within two-and-a-half tree lengths.
- Use the right-size chainsaw for the job. If you’re renting a chainsaw, discuss the scope of the job with the staff to learn what size motor they recommend, as blade size is relative to engine horsepower. Generally, the blade should be two inches longer than the wood it’s cutting. Light-duty cutting of firewood and such can be accomplished by a 14-inch blade, and 16- to 20-inch blades are appropriate for medium-duty cutting. The longer a blade, the harder it is to control, so novices should stick to blades less than 20 inches in length.
- It should go without saying, but we’ll say it anyway: Always be stone cold sober when operating a chainsaw!
How to Use a Chainsaw
Familiarize yourself with your work area. Be aware of your “escape routes”—places you can safely move to once the tree begins to fall. Your tree could fall in an unexpected direction, so it’s best to be prepared for any possible scenario. Chainsaws are called “widow-makers” for good reason—they can be hazardous to operate. Be sure to have a plan and understand the terrain you’re working on.
Don all of your gear, from head to toe. Check your saw to ensure that the chain has good tension. If you can tug the chain up from the guide bar and disengage the chain links from the guide or the “nose,” it’s too loose. You’ll need to tighten the tension to prevent injury. Check your machine’s maintenance guide for instructions on tightening the chain. Most of the time, you’ll use the “scrench” (screwdriver/wrench) that comes with the machine. A properly tightened chain should give slightly when pulled but should not become disengaged from the guide.
If you have a gas machine, check the gas levels and fill the tank before you start. With a two-cycle engine, the gas and oil will likely require mixing in the tank. Buy two-stroke oil and add it to the tank at the manufacturer’s recommended ratio (usually a ratio of 50:1, or about 2.6 ounces of oil to a gallon of gas). Fill the chain lube reservoir with chain oil.
Set your chainsaw flat on the ground, with the bottom down. Push the chain brake forward until it locks. The chain brake, which is usually a separate lever located between the top handle on the chainsaw and the blade, prevents the chain from spinning until you release the brake and apply the throttle.
If you’re using a gas-powered saw and it has a choke, turn it on. If there’s a primer button, push it four to six times to pull gas into the carburetor, then turn the power switch on. If your chainsaw is electric, all you need to do is depress the safety switch and flip the power switch on.
Those with electric chainsaws can move on to Step 7. For those with gas chainsaws, put your right foot through the back handle and put your weight down on the handle to secure the saw. Use your left hand to hold the front handle firmly in place. With your right hand, pull the starter rope out sharply to its full length. It will usually take four or five pulls to start the engine. If the engine is “firing” but not engaging, adjust the choke by pulling it out halfway.
Even after the engine has started, the chain won’t be turning. You’ll need to press the trigger or throttle to get the chain moving. First, position yourself properly with feet planted firmly and a strong grip on the saw. Always cut with the saw off to the side or angled away from you to minimize injury in the event of kickback.
When you’re ready to cut, release the chain brake and fully engage the throttle. Lay the saw where you want to cut. Don’t apply pressure—the momentum of the chain and blade will draw the wood in. Never, ever force it. If you’re using a corded electric saw, always make sure you’re aware of the cord, and don’t let it get in your way.
Maintain a strong, steady grip and keep the throttle fully engaged for the duration of the cut. Release the throttle only after you have cut through or removed the blade from the cut (if you’re making carved-in cuts for tree felling).
To power off the saw, simply switch it to “off.” Let the saw cool down before storing it.
If you’re using a gas saw, before you put it away you need to decide what to do with any fuel left in the tank. If you’re planning on using the chainsaw again in the near future, it’s fine to leave leftover fuel in the tank for up to four weeks, but if you wait longer than that, the ethanol in the fuel could clog or gum up the works (meaning you’ll need to disassemble and thoroughly clean the carburetor before your next use). To empty the tank, take the chainsaw to a well-ventilated place and drain any remaining fuel into a plastic container. You can often dispose of leftover fuel at a local automotive shop, but never pour this flammable substance into the soil, storm drain, or garbage, as these practices are dangerous and illegal. Once the fuel has been drained, fire up the engine once more (as in Steps 4 and 5) and run it until it dies, just to use up the last of the fuel in the carburetor.
No matter whether your chainsaw is gas or electric, store it in a case or with a bar cover to keep it safely stowed away and to prevent dust and debris from settling on the chain.
Must-Do Chainsaw Maintenance
To keep your chainsaw running well, refer to your machine’s instruction manual to learn about two best practices:
Check the chain’s tension around the guide bar every time you use the saw, as improper tension will have an impact on the machine’s performance. A chain that’s too tight runs the risk of breaking, and one that’s too loose can come right off the bar and cause injury. Your chainsaw should come with a maintenance guide and a “scrench,” the combo screwdriver-wrench designed for adjusting the tension of the chain.
Many electric saws are self-sharpening. On gas saws, however, the chain should be sharpened if it’s not drawing itself into the wood when making cuts, if it bounces around while you’re cutting, or if it seems to cut unevenly or on an angle. Sharpening may be required every three to four tanks of gas, but exactly how often will depend on the kind of wood you’re cutting, so pay close attention to changes in performance to help you determine when to sharpen.