Originally published on zerogov.com
Village Praxis: Chainsaws for the Homestead
In continuing with Buppert’s series on tools and with the Lumber-Sexual craze still in full swing, I offer this essay about chainsaws. I’m not a professional timber faller, but I’ve cut firewood my whole life and been an amateur logger and arborist for just as long. So others mileage may vary, this is just one mans advice from his own experience and from interactions with true professionals.
It’s been said that a man never loans out 2 things, his wife or his chainsaw. The chainsaw(s) is a vital component of any homestead big or small, suburban or rural. It can be used to cut firewood to heat your house self sufficiently, clear brush, clear a tree of a road, house, outbuilding or fence. It can be used quite extensively on rough timber frame construction, barn building and clearing pasture or a building lot or fence or road right of way. Every homestead should have at least one capable of these tasks and at least one back up.
I live in the backwoods of the Southern Appalachian region surrounded by thousands of miles of improved and unimproved roads through it all. Rarely do I venture without a saw to cut my way out or my way home.
We’ll get this out of the way right away. As far as I’m concerned there are only 2 brands of saws. Husqvarna and Stihl. Others exist but are less prolific and less than desirable in my experience.
Stihl or Husky is usually a debate like the Glock or Smith and Wesson M+P debate. Both work. They are just about equals and what isn’t, generally amounts to user preference. Do you like solid orange or white with orange trim?
In general I’m a Stihl user simply because it was the first saw I bought. But I’m not dogmatic. Husky’s run and they are just as reliable. I became used to the parts and the inner workings of Stihl and there were more Stihl dealers locally than Husky dealers for the Husky pro line saws. This is no different than why I have more Glocks than any other handgun. Because I bought them first, got used to them, got used to the parts and got a crap ton of extra mags. I still see no reason for me to step away from them now.
Pick Stihl or pick Husky and you’ll be good to go.
As with most things, we need to understand the context and usage. What will this be used for? If we live in a suburban neighborhood and generally will be trimming small peach trees for instance and that’s about it, we can get away with a homeowner type small chainsaw. I have not used a homeowner line of chainsaw in probably 20 years, so I wont be commenting much on them.
For the more serious user, who will be cutting firewood to heat their house or for their supplemental heat, or someone who wants to be capable of cutting a tree out of the road or off their garage, I’d suggest the Farm and Ranch line of saws from both Husky or Stihl at minimum. For the more serious user, the pro series of saws are the way to go, especially if anyone would possibly be falling timber or bucking logs into firewood blocks above a 20” diameter or if they ever entertain the idea of ever using a chainsaw milling attachment like the Granberg Alaskan Chainsaw mill.
Casual user: who cuts a little bit of firewood needs it to trim trees, or cut a tree out of the road or off a fence: Stihl or Husky Farm/ranch line of saws. Stihl MS290/291 or Husqvarna 460 Rancher. A homeowner series saw from either company would suffice as a back up if you can’t afford 2 of the saws above.
Semi serious homesteader who heats primarily with firewood and cuts it themselves, is clearing fence line right of ways or lots, felling, or dealing with wood over 20” diameter on a regular basis and other such uses: Stihl or Husky pro line saws. Stihl MS260/261/026 series is as small as I’d go, MS360 series size saw is more ideal. It will run a slightly bigger bar and will pull chain fast. A perfect combination may be a Stihl MS440 or 460 saw with 20” and 25” bars, and a back up MS260 or MS290/291/029 with 16-18” bar. Or equivalent the Husky 372xp.
Full bore homesteader in a rural area with acreage, who may be falling marketable timber, clearing new ground, heating primarily with wood, may run an Alaskan Chainsaw Mill, burns 3-5+ cords of wood per year that they cut themselves and bucking big wood: Stihl MS660/661/066 or Husky 390/395XP series saw. A secondary saw may be a MS440/MS460 type series saw or 360. If one can afford a 1300$ retail chainsaw, I’d assume they can afford and extra saw or 2 smaller saws for lighter duty like all day cutting of small firewood or arborist work. (I’ll leave out top handle saws, as they are fairly niche for the topic at hand.)
Why professional saw vs. ‘farm’ line of saws? The pro saws from either company are lighter and carry more power than the farm line of saws. Power to weight is an important variable. The parts are also built for more durability and higher performance. Consider ‘over buying’ when it comes to the grade of saw you need. (Be careful on over buying the SIZE of saw for your intended use, it may just wear you out if you have only a small task and you bought a 100cc saw) You’ll never regret it, as long as your wallet can take the hit.
A few words about bars and chains are in order. For any of the user categories above, I’d recommend 3/8’s .050 chain as a base for all. I like to try to run it on all my saws to have compatibility and the same files to sharpen all. If running 80-90cc saws and up, requiring longer bars 28”-32”+, .404 .063 chain is great. Keep plenty of spare rim sprockets on hand though to easily switch back to 3/8 when going back to shorter bars.
Round file chisel, square file chisel, full comp, skip tooth, semi skip tooth, semi-chisel, ad infinitum. These are important choices, but don’t get to caught up on it. If you are cutting clean wood or felling timber, there is nothing like full chisel chain. Square chisel is a dream to cut with, but particularly hard to hand file with repeatable performance in mine and many other folks experience. It generally requires a 1200$ Simington or Silvey chain grinder to sharpen, which most shops in the East do not have. I generally stick to round file chisel for these purposes but keep several square grind chains on hand. For what its worth, you can send them to Baileys Logging Supply and they will grind for you.
Semi-Chisel is probably the category of chain that best suits the casual user category above. It does however have more hardcore uses such as cutting dirty firewood that has been skidded through the mud and has rocks and debris in the bark. That is hell on a full chisel chain. Semi-chisel stays sharp much longer in these conditions. Keep a few of these on hand.
I’d recommend a minimum of 3 extra chains per bar that you have. Its great to be able to throw on a new chain quickly if you hit a rock or metal instead of having to slow production to file it.
Skip tooth or full comp chain? This refers to the number of cutters on the chain. A full comp chain has 1 link between each tooth. A skip chain has 2 links between each tooth. There is great debate on which one is better. It’s a pretty generally held consensus that skip chains are best for 28”+ bars. Some argue that skip chains dull quicker than full comp chain. Others comment that skip chains are twice as fast to sharpen due to less teeth, hence if you have to file in the field, you’ll be back to work quicker. Still others argue that full comp chain stays sharper longer than skip, so the timesaving is a wash on sharpening skip’s. This is probably only really relevant to serious or professional users. Most probably won’t use the chain enough in the same conditions to come to a strong opinion on the matter.
I will say personally after cutting 15+ cords of wood each year for the past 5 years or so, I have been noticing that full comp chain does tend to stay sharper slightly longer than skip, which I had previously ran almost exclusively, mostly due to the fact of using it in dirty wood and having to sharpen extensively and needing to cut down on down time.
Buying chain by the loop or by the reel is a decision as well. One could invest 50-200$ (depending on which type of tools you get) in the tools required to break and mend chain to form their own loops from chain you buy in reels and save quite a bit of coin. You’ll generally save at least 1/3 if you buy by the reel, not factoring in the price of the tools. You could save up to half if you start comparing different quality chain like Stihl vs. Carlton in reel pricing. Unless you are buying 10+ chains a season, you are probably better off just buying loops. You can catch sales at Bailey’s or find good deals on loops on eBay by sellers who buy reels and sell a few loops to make some of their money back. Or if money is no object, reels are the way to go. More is always better than less when it comes to chain.
Lastly on the brand of chain, pick a reputable one. As I see it Stihl and Oregon are the top two. Carlton comes in a distant 3 and I’ve used it quite a bit as well. I prefer Stihl chain overall. It is noticeably sharper out of the box and definitely stays sharper longer. Oregon has quality control issues often, even to include improper depth gauge height, which as you’ll come to find out if you start filing or grinding your own chain, makes or breaks your sharpening job. Some professional full time loggers have commented to me that they sometimes have to re-grind Oregon right out of the box to get it to cut right. Again this is for full time fellers or timber cutters, so it may not be as big an issue to a more casual user.
Bar length is probably the first consideration. It also dictates the size of chain needed so I generally stick to 3/8 .050 for most bars and .404 on longer bars.
With a 20” bar, the casual user to semi-pro user can cover most bases. With a 20” bar, you can fell 32”+ timber with ease if you know what you are doing. And its small enough to wield in situations where smaller bar length is fine.
If I had my druthers, the casual user would have a 16” and a 20” bar. The semi-serious homesteader would have 16”, 20” and 25” bars. The full bore homesteader would probably replace the 16” bar on their main saws, with an arborist top handle saw like the Husky 435 or Stihl 200T. The main saws would have 20”, 25” and 32”+ bars to run.
Husky and Stihl bars generally aren’t interchangeable, so be cognizant when purchasing bars, particularly after market ones. The full-bore homesteader may consider lightweight options from Stihl or aftermarket companies like Sugihara or Oregon. If you have to run a saw all day, you’ll appreciate it.
Be sure to turn your bar every time you sharpen or change a chain. It’s also a good idea to file the burr off. If you ever encounter any bar issues, sometimes they can be re-ground or the channel reworked.
Accessories and extras
The woodcutter’s kit is the subject of great debate. I’ve settled on what works for my use. I keep a small tool box in my truck or other conveyance that has my fallers tool belt with several wedges, a bar greaser, screnches, several files and handles, a stump vise and depth/raker gauge and file.
I keep a trauma kit with me at all times when running a saw, just like if I’m at the range. It is either a Dark Angel Medical DARK kit or a kit with the same or very similar contents. PPE is also a must and mine includes Bugz eye pro (bug eyes), a hard hat if felling, and chainsaw chaps. Ear protection consists of either the Surefire plugs, foam plugs or sometimes Peltor electronic ear protection if I’m working with several people and we need to talk over the sound of machinery. Those Atlas rubber faced gloves are great and White Ox riggers gloves are prime for cooler weather or when dealing with chokers, cable or chain that may have burrs.
Extra spark plugs, oil/fuel caps, screws, bar nuts, fuel filters, oiler worm gears, nut and torx drivers, misc. parts, sprockets, a coil or two, and an air filter stay in the box as well. As well as any necessary tools for field repairs.
A Spencer’s logger’s tape is nice to have if dealing with marketable timber. A good axe to pound wedges is a must. A small sledge will also work.
It’s also good to have a selection of peaveys on hand for moving logs. Ideally one would have a 6’ and a 3’. A pickeroon is great for handling firewood and moving logs or cants. It’s a great length extender for your arms. The same goes for logging chokers, cables and chains for skidding and snatch blocks for re-directs. The more the merrier.
Fuel and bar oil are obviously essential. I tend to run quality 2-cycle oil, but I’ll use whatever cheap bar oil I can get. I don’t recommend used motor oil and such as some people use. A piggyback fuel can with a smaller tank on the back for bar oil really works great, most folks in the industry refer to these as “Dolmar’s.” If stocking up for the homestead inventory, plenty of bar oil and plenty of 2-cycle oil is a must. You can stock 500 gal of gas and no bar oil or 2 cycle oil and when the grid goes down, you’ll burn up your saw in short order.
This is not intended to be an exhaustive treatise, but merely a brief over view if one is looking to enter into the world of the power saw.