How to use a chainsaw safely

Our guide for using chainsaws in your garden.

Man cutting tree with chainsaw

Using a chainsaw can be the most fun you can have in the garden. However, things can go wrong in an instant if you throw caution to the wind and go all Texas Chainsaw Massacre on your trees.

Here’s our guide on how you should use your chainsaw and what you can, and can’t, do in your garden.

What are you cutting?

The guide bar (the bit the chain spins around) determines what size trees or branches your chainsaw can handle. In general, you need a bar slightly longer than the width of the trees or branches you’ll be attacking.

For typical garden tasks, such as pruning or taking down smaller trees, anything about the 30cm mark will suit.

If you’re tackling larger jobs, you’ll need to go bigger. Anything above 45cm will require a grunty engine to drive the chain.

Types of chainsaw

Petrol

These models offer portability and all-day running, as long as you have fuel and chain oil ready for top-ups.

Petrol models can be hard to start and require more maintenance than electric motors.

Their engines can offer the most power and the longest guide bars for chopping larger trees. Smaller models might be only 30cc, while professionals may opt for something upwards of 120cc. Petrol models can be hard to start and require more maintenance than electric motors. They’re also the loudest of the bunch – you might’ve heard the neighbour’s old two-stroke screaming on a Sunday morning.

Electric

Electric models start instantly, are quieter and vibrate less than petrol ones. The downsides are less grunt and a trailing power cord that can get caught on things in the garden. To avoid cord-related mishaps, electric models are best suited to smaller jobs, such as light pruning and chopping firewood.

Battery-electric

Battery chainsaws offer the portability of petrol saws with the benefits of electric models. The downsides? Their batteries usually cost a pretty penny and they have a limited running time. Once your battery runs out of juice, you’ll have to wait at least half an hour for it to recharge – or have another one charged and ready to go. Batteries have a finite lifespan, and their charge dwindles over time. That said, one should last you a good few years.

Maintenance

Servicing the chain

You’ll need to adjust the chain tension on a chainsaw to make sure everything stays in one piece. You might need to do this after using the saw for a few minutes, as the chain expands when it gets hot. It can be a fiddly process, involving a few bolts and screws – although some models now allow tool-less adjustments.

Petrol chainsaws need regular maintenance, like a car, to keep them running well. Consult the user manual to see how often you need to service your beast. No matter the power source, you need to monitor chain oil levels to ensure the chain stays lubricated. The teeth also dull over time, making cutting through anything a chore. You can get them sharpened or file them up yourself.

Weight

Electric models are the lightest of the bunch. Battery models can be weighed down by their battery, while heavy-duty petrol chainsaws are the heaviest. Before you buy one, pick it up and have a good play with it in store. Choose one that feels well balanced – it’s an important consideration if you’re going to be using it for hours on end.

Noise

There’s no such thing as a quiet chainsaw, and you should wear earmuffs when using one. While battery and electric models are much quieter than petrol chainsaws, they still drone quite loudly (about 90 decibels, similar to a petrol lawnmower). In comparison, petrol models can reach upwards of 120 decibels (about the same as a rock concert).

Chainsaw safety

Safety considerations when using a chainsaw.

What you can, and can’t, cut

Chainsaws work best on live or recently felled trees. Brittle, rotten and dead wood can pose problems when being cut. You don’t know how the wood will respond. In some cases, old wood can pinch the chain, leading to kickbacks or chain breakages.

Tip: Never cut branches above head height. You’ll have less control of your chainsaw, and the branches need to fall somewhere.

What’s a kickback?

A kickback is where the chainsaw comes flying back at you, sometimes at an uncontrollable pace. It can happen if you try cutting with the nose of the saw, or if wood pinches the chain. Your saw’s chain brake might trigger when a kickback occurs, which lessens the chance of injury, but you can still cause a lot of damage.

You can minimise the dangers of a kickback by standing slightly to the side of any cut you’re making, rather than in-line directly behind the saw. Visualise where the saw could travel after you make a cut and always keep a firm grip on the handles.

Check before you chop

Not all trees are created equal and there may be some protected specimens in your area that you can’t touch, even if they’re blocking your million-dollar views of the harbour. Your council’s website will have information about which trees you can and can’t cut down or trim – you could even be living in an ecologically significant area where they’re all protected. It’s a good idea to call and get clearance before you get into it, because fines can run into six figures.

What gear do you need?

Before you get into the fun, you need the right gear for the job.

  • Safety boots
  • Sturdy gloves
  • Safety chaps or trousers
  • Earmuffs
  • Safety helmet
  • Face visor

Is the job too big?

Since 2011, WorkSafe figures show 42 people have died while doing forestry-related work. It’s a dangerous profession, which shows it’s also a dangerous undertaking at home. Sometimes the trees you’re looking at tackling might be too big or too risky for you to handle. If you’ve got a large job on your property, or if it’s anything near power lines, seek professional guidance. Sometimes it’s better to sip tea and watch the pros tackle things, rather than putting yourself in danger.

Stihl chainsaw trial: battery-electric vs petrol

Stihl chainsaw trial: battery-electric vs petrol

Stihl chainsaw trial: battery-electric vs petrol

In the market for a chainsaw? We trialled a battery model against a petrol one to see which one came up trumps.

Read the results

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