Chainsaw 101: Uses, Electric Vs. Gasoline & More

Every farm and homestead needs a chainsaw (or more)—whether gasoline and electric, these time-saving tools are for more than just cutting firewood.

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by Daniel JohnsonNovember 9, 2021
PHOTO: Daniel Johnson

If you live in a rural area with self-sufficient neighbors around you, chances are you’ll often hear the whining drone of chainsaws in the distance, felling trees and processing the timber into firewood. Perhaps you’re interested in purchasing a chainsaw and harvesting your own firewood as well. But chainsaws can do even more than that around your farm. 

As an almost universal homesteading tool, chainsaws can help with pruning, take down unwanted trees, aid with storm cleanup and even find use in construction projects or farm fencing. (How else should you shorten a 6-by-6 post when you’re out in the far reaches of your property?)

Chainsaws can do all of this in addition to maintaining that all-important woodpile for the chilly winter evenings to come.

If you’re interested in getting onboard for all of the chainsaw fun, you’ll need to do a bit of research to determine the exact type of saw you need for your tasks. We’ll take a look at the two major classes of chainsaws (gasoline and electric), as well as some other important factors when it comes to shopping for the chainsaw that will be the workhorse of your property for years to come. 

Gas-Powered Chainsaws

This is the traditional type of machine that everyone thinks of when they hear “chainsaw,” and there is a lot to be said about them.

Positives

Heavy Duty

Gasoline-powered chainsaws are strong machines, capable of revving up quickly and putting out a lot of power in a hurry. This is partly because two-stroke engines, which—pound for pound—deliver more power in a lighter package than four-stroke engines, drive them.

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Two-stroke engines aren’t as fuel-efficient as their larger four-stroke cousins. But it’s a necessary trade-off to keep the chainsaw at a manageable weight.

Power for All Day

Gasoline chainsaws are a necessity for professional loggers and landscapers. And they’re important for any homesteader who owns a woodlot or processes their own firewood.

The reason is that gasoline chainsaws can truly last as long as you can—even all day if needed. As long as you have fuel on hand to keep filling the tank, your saw won’t let you down.

Versatile

You’ll be able to find a gasoline chainsaw in just the right size and engine power you need for the job.


Read more: Check out this video with additional tips for selecting a chainsaw.


Negatives

More Maintenance

All things being equal, your gasoline chainsaw needs more upkeep than an electric chainsaw. It’s nothing that a confident DIYer can’t handle. But you do need to know how to mix a proper fuel/oil ratio for the two-stroke engine, change the occasional spark plug, and clean the fuel and air filters.

Electric chainsaw maintenance is limited to things such as managing chain tension and sharpness.

Loud

No question, gas-powered chainsaws make a lot of noise, and you’ll need proper ear protection rated to the decibels that your machine puts out.

Weight

A serious gasoline chainsaw with the power and length to tackle big projects is a heavy machine that can be fatiguing to use after a while.

Expense

Initially, the cost of a gasoline chainsaw is higher than some electric versions.

Electric Chainsaws

Electric chainsaws are another viable option. While some of these models are tethered with a power cord, the advent of strong and long-lasting lithium-ion batteries have made cordless electric chainsaws a possibility as well.

Electric chainsaws have some very good positive benefits, and few downsides as well.

Positives

Clean

Electric chainsaws don’t emit exhaust, so they’re a bit more environmentally friendly (at least locally) than two-stroke gas chainsaws. You won’t see or smell chainsaw exhaust in your immediate vicinity while using an electric version.

Easy to Use

While it’s not particularly difficult to start a properly-maintained gas chainsaw, electric chainsaws are easy to start. There is no cord pulling, no primer bubble nor a choke switch. Just attach a battery (or cord), and flick the switch. 

Lightweight

A heavy-duty gasoline chainsaw is also heavy to hold and use. Electric chainsaws are generally smaller and lighter, good for beginners or for long periods of easy work. 

Good for Light Work

Speaking of easy work, electric chainsaws are great for pruning, trimming, cutting small logs and doing light construction jobs. 

Quiet

Well, perhaps quiet is too strong a word. “Quieter” might be more appropriate. But electric chainsaws definitely make less noise than gasoline models.

chainsaw pole gasoline electric battery
Daniel Johnson

Negatives

Limited Run Time

Lithium-ion batteries aren’t inexpensive, so you likely won’t have more than a couple on hand. And when the batteries are exhausted and you don’t have another one to swap out, you may find yourself waiting on charging times before you can complete the job.

Corded versions can eliminate this, but then you have limited mobility.

Less Power

You’re probably not going to be hiking to the woodlot and felling large trees with an electric chainsaw. And you won’t be processing a winter’s worth of firewood or doing heavy construction work with an electric. There just isn’t the horsepower for those types of jobs.


Read more: Do you need an electric chainsaw? Yes—and here are 6 reasons why.


Choosing a Chainsaw

Even after you’ve decided on the type of chainsaw, you still have some shopping decisions to make. 

Bar length

The bar is the part of the chainsaw that the chain rotates around. Its length dictates (to some extent) what jobs the chainsaw can do.

For major tasks involving felling trees and cutting through large logs, look for a bar length about 16 inches or longer. Professional chainsaws may reach well past 20 inches in length. 

For a smaller, more general-use chainsaw that can still handle the occasional tree or log, perhaps something around 12 to 14 inches will get the job done for you. Anything shorter than that puts you firmly in the pruning/shrub category, and you might seriously look at an electric chainsaw in that length. 

Your chainsaw’s bar should be at least 2 inches longer than the width of your log or tree. So to safely manage a 10-inch log, it would require at least a 12-inch chainsaw. The chainsaw’s power rating and bar length tend to go hand in hand.

Engine Power

The power of a gasoline chainsaw is often measured by a “cc” rating, which stands for “cubic centimeters” and refers to the volume of space the piston displaces. Generally, the higher the cc rating, the more power the engine has.

For light-duty chainsaws, about 32 cc is adequate. For the average homesteader, a 45-to 55-cc engine may be adequate. Pro models may feature engines as high as 65 cc.

Motor Power

For electric chainsaws, volts and amps are important factors for comparison and work in tandem to determine the saw’s capabilities. As with a cc rating, “more is better” certainly applies here.

Another key shopping point for electric chainsaws is the amp hour rating of the battery. This key measurement determines the capacity of the battery and how long it can run between charges. 

And if you can afford an electric chainsaw with a brushless motor, go for it! The brushless motor may help reduce friction and give your saw an extra edge.

In the end, the type of chainsaw you select will primarily depend on the type of work you intend to do with it. In fact, there’s a good chance you’ll want more than one! For example, a working setup might include:

  • a solid, hardworking gas chainsaw in the 45-cc (or higher) range for serious homesteading work, with a bar perhaps 14 to 16 inches long
  • a handy electric chainsaw on hand for quick and light jobs
  • a pole saw as something of a supplemental chainsaw to tackle the hard-to-reach places but not as a substitute for the other two

Remember to always stay safe with your machine. Follow the manufacturer’s guidelines and wear ear, eye, head, hand and limb protection (your limbs—not the tree’s!). 

Understanding how the saw works is key, as is the knowledge of how trees and logs react under different circumstances—a branch under tension, a leaning tree or a log laying over a hump or across a depression. You can’t be too careful, and you’ll enjoy years of productive and safe work on your homestead with your new chainsaw.


More Information

Basic Chain Maintenance

Besides maintenance for the engine or batteries, all chainsaws need some general care to keep their actual chains cutting like new. You’ll want to check the chain’s tension frequently, and sharpen or replace the chain when it becomes too dull.

If you don’t, the machine’s performance will begin to suffer. 

Try not to saw into the ground, as this can rapidly dull the blades! You’ll also need to keep the chain lubricated (this oil is in a separate reserve from the fuel). For pruning purposes, you might try a vegetable oil-based chain lubricant that is healthy for living trees. 

Pole Chainsaws

Standing 8 feet high on a ladder while trying to balance a chainsaw—and yourself—is a very bad idea. Instead, opt for a pole chainsaw for hard-to-reach branches. 

chainsaw pole gasoline electric
Daniel Johnson

Pole chainsaws are also available in electric or gasoline models, and typically feature a fairly short bar (often less than a foot long). They generally don’t have the power of a standard chainsaw, but they can get through branches for easy and safe trimming.

Keep both feet on the ground and let the pole saw do the heights!

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2021 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.

 

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