Chainsaw Buying Guide: What Are Your Needs?
Step one with any tool purchase is to be clear about what you’ll be using the chainsaw for. Will you mostly be using it to do some branch pruning around the yard? Will you be cutting down a lot of trees out in the woods? If so, how large are the trees?
Also be honest with yourself about how comfortable you are with chainsaws and how strong you are. Smaller, electric or cordless (battery) chainsaws can be comfortably and safely operated by most people while larger gas models take more strength and skill.
What Size Chainsaw Do I Need?
The key is to buy a chainsaw that’s right for your needs. There’s no need to buy a heavy, powerful and more expensive gas chainsaw if you’re just doing lighter limbing or demolition work around the yard. On the other hand, a smaller electric chainsaw may not cut it (literally!) if you’ve got a lot of large trees to fell or buck (bucking is cutting the tree up into logs).
Cordless (Battery), Electric, and Gas Chainsaws
Chainsaws come in three basic flavors – cordless (battery), electric, and gas. Cordless (battery) and electric (with a cord) chainsaws are just fine for most people that are doing light or moderate work around the yard. They tend to be less expensive, lighter, quieter, and easier to handle than gas models (you don’t need to be a lumberjack to use one).
They start and stop with a trigger just like a drill, rather than a pull cord. If you’ve got some arthritis or other injuries in your back, neck, or shoulders, believe me it’s a godsend not yanking on a pull cord. Another benefit is maintenance. You don’t have to mess with spark plugs or carburetors and you don’t have to mix gas and oil like with a gas chainsaw.
The main drawback is power. They’re not as big and beefy as gas chainsaws and won’t do the job as quickly if you’re felling larger trees. That said, they have more than enough power for most jobs if you’re a typical homeowner. Also, batteries just keep improving so the power continues to get better and better.
If you go with corded electric you obviously have to be near an outlet which limits you to within a 100 feet or so of the house. You also have to deal with the nuisance of extension cords which are a trip hazard. On the other hand, if you go with a battery model, you don’t have to worry about the cord but you do have to deal with battery life and recharging, which we talk more about below.
Cordless and Electric Pros
- Less expensive
- Less maintenance
- Easy start/stop
- Easier to handle and safer
- Batteries that keep lasting longer and longer (for cordless)
Cordless and Electric Cons
- Less power than gas (the difference is shrinking though)
- Battery life 1-2 hours (for cordless, though batteries keep improving)
- Electric cords limit distance to work and can get tangled (for electric)
Cordless chainsaws used to be very wimpy with batteries that would die fast. But batteries are improving quickly and now usually last 1-2 hours or 75-100 cuts (on 4×4 lumber) between charges. Most manufacturers offer batteries that plug into their whole line of outdoor tools and equipment such as leaf blowers, pruners, and mowers. You can usually purchase a chainsaw with one battery, no battery, or extra batteries depending on your needs.
If you do want a cordless chainsaw, the battery is important and will typically give a rating in volts (V) and ampere hours (aH). Volts are a measure of energy potential of a battery, meaning the can run larger motors with more torque.
Ampere hours is a measure of how long the battery will last giving off 1 amp continuously. So a 2.0 aH battery will last two hours giving off 1 amp continuously and a 4.0aH battery will last 4 hours. That doesn’t mean it will always last 2 hours while you’re using it because you may be using more or less than 1 amp. And no one cuts for two hours straight without their arms falling off!
The trade-off is weight and price. Batteries with higher voltage aH are heavier and more expensive. If you’re cutting up a few branches in the yard at a time, a 20V, 2.0 aH battery will be just fine but if you’re heading to the woods to cut smaller trees for a few hours, opt for a higher rated battery (or more than 1).
Brushless Versus Brushed Motors
Brushless electric motors have been around for a long time in things like conveyor belts but have recently started showing up in power tools. Basically, brushless motors adjust to draw just the current they need for the job. So, if you’re cutting a small branch, it will pull less juice than if you’re cutting a large log. This means your battery will last longer.
Also, since there aren’t rubbing parts like a traditional brush motor, they tend to last longer. The downside is they’re more expensive to make and add to the cost of the chainsaw. Overall, we’re seeing more and more brushless motors and they’re worth it if you’re willing to spend a little extra. If you want all the details on the differences, Popular Mechanics has a great write up here.
Chainsaw weights vary greatly from as low as 6 pounds to more than 20. This might not sound like a big difference, but believe me it is when you’ve been using it for an hour or more. For comparison, a gallon of milk is about 9 pounds.
Listed weights can be a little confusing for a few reasons. First, they sometimes don’t included the “cutting equipment” which is the bar and chain (roughly 1-2 lbs depending on length). If it’s a battery model, they usually don’t include the battery, also another 1-2 pounds. If you’re looking for really light, electric models are usually your best bet, though some cordless are pretty close.
The bar is the part of the chainsaw the chain wraps around. Bars come in a wide variety of lengths ranging from 10 inches all the way up to a whopping 59 inches for extreme felling use (really for professoinals).
For most light or moderate uses, a 12-14 inch bar is plenty. Even if you’re only pruning and a 10” blade would work, you might be glad to have the extra couple of inches of reach. The general rule of thumb is to take the largest tree or limb you’re planning on cutting and add 2 inches to get your bar length. So, if the largest tree you plan to cut is 10 inches across, get a chainsaw with a 12 inch blade.
All new chainsaws come with chains so it’s not generally something you need to think about unless you’re going to be doing a lot of cutting. They come in different lengths to match the bar length, different pitches (3/8 inch is most common) and different gauges. The important thing to know here is to match all of these to your old chain when you need to buy a new one. For the amount of cutting most of us non-professionals use, it will be a long time before you need to do that.
Chain brakes are basically safety levers located just in front of your front handle, where your front hand holds the chainsaw. If the chainsaw kicks back suddenly, the movement or the pressure from your hand will push the lever forward and make the chain stop immediately. It’s an essential safety device. But don’t worry too much about it as they’re included on every chainsaw made these days
Maintaining the right tension on your chain is also important to keep it cutting at its best and also to keep the chain from coming off. Some models still require a wrench to do this but many newer cordless and electric models let you do this by simply turning a knob. Much more convenient, believe me.