Unfortunately for this arborist, neither this Stihl 88 nor this little Echo with the 12-inch bar is the right saw for this job. Photo by Andrew Crosier.
Chainsaws are powerful tools, and you’ll work more quickly, safely, and efficiently if you own a good one. But with all the options out there, buying a chainsaw can be an overwhelming experience. Before you plunk down your hard earned coin, here are a few tips that will help you find the right chainsaw for your needs.
The first question to ask yourself is what you’re going to use the saw for, as a homeowner cutting up fallen branches has very different needs than a professional logger. Several chainsaw companies have handy online tools that do a good job of matching saws to the frequency of use and type of work.
You’ll need to weigh power and balance. Chainsaw power is measured by displacement, which is the volume displaced by the piston in its upward stroke. Displacement is measured in cubic inches or centimeters. The larger the displacement, the more power generated by the explosion of the compressed fuel/air mixture that drives the piston. If you’re harvesting and working up several cords of firewood a year, you’ll want a saw with between 45 and 55 cubic centimeters (cc) of displacement. A “landowner” saw in this category will cost between $300 and $450, and weigh between 11 and 13 pounds. If you are just occasionally cutting up limbs and not doing any felling or firewood, you can get a 10-pound, 40cc saw for around $250. Pro saws start at about $500 for 50cc displacement, and go up to over $1,200 for 90-plus cc displacement.
As you see, more power means a larger, heavier powerhead, and saw weight should be a consideration. A logger who works in the woods every day has the back muscles to carry a 15-pound saw for hours on end. If you don’t have these muscles, even a few hours of working with a heavy saw can leave you in pain. Purchase a saw powered for the type of work you will be doing, and your back and wallet will thank you.
As for the question of bar length, long bars have both advantages and disadvantages. A longer bar will allow you to cut a wider log or tree with one cut, and it may mean less bending to cut wood on the ground. But longer bars are more difficult to control and place more weight away from your body, which will stress your back. Longer bars also mean more sharpening time when you hit the inevitable rock. A 16- to 18-inch bar should be more than enough for most folks.
If you are going to use a saw regularly, I suggest buying from one of the companies that primarily make saws, such as Jonsered, Husqvarna, and Stihl. Service and parts will be much easier to come by, and these are companies invested in making quality, safe chainsaws, and not much else. They also manufacture a wide array of saws that are right for anyone from the casual brush-cutter to the professional arborist and logger. Buy it from your local dealer, who will also service your saw. Keep in mind that you can’t take your saw to a big box store for service, and unless you’re a mechanical whiz, sooner or later you’ll need help from a professional.
Finally, keep in mind that buying a saw is just a first step. No saw works with a dull chain, so you’ll have to learn how to properly sharpen your chain and set your depth gauges. (Editor’s Note: See Tricks of the Trade Spring 2006 for chain sharpening tips.) You’ll also have to learn how to safely and effectively use it, if you want good results. Take a training course or two, or find a mentor. You may find your saw to be one of the most productive and rewarding tools you’ve bought in a long time.