Buyers' guide - Chainsaws

Chainsaw sales are buoyant at the moment; it's that time of year. Winter gale damage needs clearing and firewood preparing.

Battery power: often cheaper to purchase and easier to start and operate - image: Husqvarna
Battery power: often cheaper to purchase and easier to start and operate - image: Husqvarna

But if you are in the market for a chainsaw, how do you pick the best out of the hundreds of options available?

A couple of weeks ago I was standing in the repairs workshop of a garden machinery manufacturer when the phone rang. The head mechanic answered it. Now I never meant to listen into the conversation but the customer at the end of the line had a loud voice. The conversation went like this:

Mechanic: "Good morning, can I help you?"
Customer: "I hope so. I have bought one of your chainsaws
Mechanic: "Yes, which model?"
Customer: "It’s your biggest one."
Mechanic: "You must mean the 52cc with an 18-inch bar?"
Customer: "Yes, well I was wondering if you could tell me which way round the chain fits?"

WHAT? If the customer doesn’t know how to fit the chain, should she have bought the saw at all? A chainsaw is a brilliant piece of kit; really productive if you have trees to prune or fell, or firewood to cut. They are the tools of the trade for foresters, woodland managers and, of course, tree surgeons. If you are a landscaper or professional gardener, there may be times when a chainsaw will be the tool for the job.

And if you fall into this last category you will, hopefully, know which way round the chain goes. If you don’t, then get trained or send a member of your team on a chainsaw user’s course so you have a dedicated worker who does the cutting and felling and who can attend updates as necessary.

Unless you are working in the depths of a forest or are contracted to maintain street trees in a town or city, you will not necessarily need a high-powered or specialist forestry or tree care chainsaw. In fact, the first question should be whether you need to use a chainsaw at all. Anyone with little or no training in the use of chainsaw might be better sticking to hand tools or calling in a specialist to do the job.

Where the chainsaw will come in handy for the professional gardener and landscaper is when there are trees to fell, winter damage to clear, firewood to cut or a lot of fencing to construct. But again, when choosing a chainsaw, it is essential to ask how often a saw will be used. And will it be mostly be used on softwood or hardwood; and what size of timber requires cutting.

Chainsaw size is measured by piston displacement – that’s the cc – and engine power, which is quoted in hp or kW. Clearly a fair amount of oomph is going to be needed where there are large trees to fell and lots of hardwood to cut.

Professional chainsaws offer maximum performance and are intended for full-time or regular part-time use.

All-round or farmer chainsaws will provide the same features but with slightly lower performance and are ideal for part-time use, especially preparing firewood. It is best to have two lengths of guide bar; one for the bigger jobs and a smaller, lighter one when more manoeuvrability is needed.

User experience

Powerful chainsaws require user experience and proficiency. Anyone new to using a chainsaw should look at small chainsaws – consumer or domestic models – as these are lighter in weight, easier to start and handle and tend to be less tiring to use. They are sufficient for trimming trees, thinning bushes and cutting fire wood. Indeed, anyone with little experience should seriously consider using either an electric chainsaw or ones powered by batteries.

Electric and battery-powered machines offer excellent advantages. They are less expensive to purchase than their petrol counterparts, they are easier to start and operate, simpler to maintain, quieter and less smelly and there is no risk of fuel spillage or the fuel going off between infrequent operations.

Electric does mean you need a handy power source, either mains or generator, and if that is not too restrictive then you will find models that offer decent levels of performance. For instance there is the Mantis Pro with 2.5KW motor and 40cm bar. It is made in Germany, weighs 5.2kg and has good power transmission. Or there is the Stihl MSE 210 C-BQ (2.1kW). This one is packed with features to make operation comfortable and easy. It has soft handles, QuickStop Super chain brake, Quick Chain Tensioning for safe and easy tensioning without tools, overload protection, tool-less oil tank cap, transparent oil tank, Ematic chain lubrication, a sturdy clamp end stop and comes with a 40cm bar and 10m of cable.

Makita offers five electric models with 35cm or 40cm bars and chain speeds up to 14.5m/s. Tool-less chain change and adjustment, soft start and overload protection are just some of the features from Makita.

Husqvarna’s most powerful electric chainsaw, the 2kW 321 EL, has the power equivalent to a 2.8hp petrol-driven model and is suited to fairly frequent work such as cutting firewood, small tree felling and general property maintenance duties. With high torque and chain speed of 15.2m/s it is also suitable for woodwork. It weighs just 4.4kg, has a slim model and boasts soft start to gently engage the chain. The standard bar is a 16in, but a 14in can be used.

But it is the battery powered where we see most development, and where the market is growing. New entrants come to market each year – Echo Tools among the latest – and the choice of saw, battery and charger is continues to increase. Today using a battery chainsaw does not necessarily mean compromising on performance. The advantages of low vibration, no emissions, low noise, no messing with fuel, easy starting and simple operation and maintenance appeal to landscapers and professional gardeners.

There are plenty of battery-powered models to choose from: Husqvarna, Stihl, Makita, Pellenc, Echo, Greenworks, Bosch, EGO, Cobra and Ryobi, to name a few. Some companies offer backpack batteries, others carry the battery on the tool. Husqvarna recently introduced the 536Li XP high-performance battery chainsaw for commercial and utility applications. Powered by an integrated or backpack 36V Li-ion battery, this saw has a class-leading chain speed of 20m/s. The bar is 14in. Other features include a flip-up chain oil port.

Run times

Stihl offers three models of cordless chainsaw with run times of 35 minutes to 230 minutes depending on battery used, the MSA 200 C-BQ being the most powerful and boasting many of the features of its electric and petrol models, such as Quick Chain Tensioning, Ematic lubrication and tool-less oil filler cap. Bar length recommended for these units is 12in.

There are numerous models of petrol-powered chainsaw suitable for landscapers and professional gardeners and the most suitable will match the user’s experience and the task in hand. Stihl recommends its 55.5cc MS 291 (2.8kW) as an all-rounder for landscapers and gardeners. It weighs 5.6kg and has an economical 2-MIX engine with advanced combustion technology to reduce fuel consumption and emissions. It comes with a 16in or 18in bar.

For ease of operation, all important functions on the 291, such as start, choke, throttle and stop, are operated via a single lever and the tensioning screw is located on the side of the chainsaw where it is reached through the sprocket cover, so removing the need for contact with the chain. For more demanding situations, take a look at the Stihl MS 271.

One of the most popular petrol chainsaws in the Husqvarna line-up is the 40.9cc 435. Another all-rounder, this saw is suited to heavy-duty firewood cutting, felling small trees, pruning and general maintenance works yet only weighs 4.2kg. It features Smart Start, so only a gentle pull is needed to fire it into action, and comes with a 15in bar.

Makita offers several models for general use, including the EA3601F35B 35.3cc saw with 35cm bar. This unit features a spring assisted recoil starting mechanism and has tool-less tensioning. But whichever chainsaw you opt to use, the best advice is to keep your training up-to-date.

User guide: safety measures needed when using a chainsaw

Accidents do happen. While it might be ideal to work in twos, threes or small teams, it simply is not always possible, so if you do find yourself working alone with a chainsaw make sure you follow the lon-worker rules:

  • Plan the work in advance.
  • Mark your work position on a map and make sure someone knows where you are working, what work you are doing and how long you expect to be
  • Take a fully-charged mobile phone with you.
  • Keep in regular contact with your ‘base’, reporting in at least every couple 
  • of hours.
  • It might sound a bit ‘boy scout’ but a whistle is a useful item to keep in your pocket.
  • Small injuries can be treated with a first aid kit – but only if you have it with you.
  • Park your vehicle close to the work area and facing the exit in case you need to make a mad dash for help.


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