How To Safely Use A Chainsaw
by Joseph Truini
If you've ever used a chainsaw to cut down a tree, trim branches, or cut firewood, then you know two things: first, chainsaws are awesome. A sharp chainsaw can slice through the gnarliest tree in a matter of minutes. And second, chainsaws are extremely powerful and lightning fast, which makes them potentially dangerous.
The good news is that anyone—even novice DIYers—can learn to use a chainsaw safely and confidently. Here, I'll share some very simple chainsawing tips and techniques that can greatly reduce the risk of injury.
Chainsaw Safety Features
Chainsaw manufacturers have gone to great lengths to make chainsaws as safe as possible by including the following features:
- Chain Brake: This large paddle-shaped guard on the front of saw will automatically and instantaneously stop the chain should the saw kick back toward the user.
- Bar-Tip Guard: A metal plate that partially covers the rounded tip of the bar to prevent dangerous kickback. If your chainsaw doesn't have a bar-tip guard, buy one and install it.
- Throttle Interlock: A safety trigger that requires your hand to be fully inserted into the saw's handle before you can accelerate the chain.
- Chain Oiler: The chain oiler automatically delivers lubricating oil to the bar and chain and prevents overheating, which could cause the saw to bind and stutter.
- Chain Catcher: Prevents a broken chain from lashing back at the operator.
- Bumper Spikes: This series of sharp metal spikes protruding from the saw near the base of the bar provide leverage for easier, more controlled sawing. Jab the spikes into the log, then pivot the bar downward to guide the chain through the cut. If the bumper spikes on your saw don't work well, replace them with larger spikes. If the spikes are bent or broken, replace them.
- Vibration-Dampening Systems: Although these features aren't specifically designed for safety, they absorb and deaden vibrations to help reduce fatigue and hand weakness, which can lead to accidents and injuries.
You can also dramatically reduce the chance of injuries by wearing proper clothing and safety gear every time you use a chainsaw.
- Proper Clothing: Always wear a long-sleeved shirt, long pants, gloves and work boots, preferably with steel toes. You should also wear chainsaw chaps to protect your legs. Modern chaps are made of resilient polyester or ballistic nylon, not leather, which makes them lightweight and comfortable.
- Safety Helmet: Protect your hearing, eyes, face, and head with an all-in-one chainsaw helmet. This safety item combines an impact-resistant hardhat, earmuff hearing protectors and flip-up metal-mesh face shield
- Owner's Manual: Although it's not technically a piece of safety gear, the owner's manual provides invaluable information regarding the proper and safe chainsaw operation. Be sure to read the entire manual before using the chainsaw for the first time and go back and re-read it occasionally to confirm you're following the recommended safety procedures.
Safe Cutting Techniques
Practice is the best way to become proficient at using a chainsaw. Therefore, it's important to start small until you feel comfortable and confident. Start by slicing up some firewood or taking down a few small trees. Or try trimming some low-hanging branches at shoulder height or lower. Never reach overhead to cut with a chainsaw or climb into a tree with a chainsaw.
Here are some tips and techniques for three common chainsawing chores: felling, limbing, and bucking.
Felling refers to the act of cutting down a tree, a job that's incredibly easy to do with a chainsaw. However, there's a lot that can go wrong if felling is done incorrectly. Keep the following suggestions in mind:
- Look at the top of the tree to see if it is leaning in a particular direction. If so, that's the direction it's going to fall.
- Check for any overhead wires that might be caught as the tree falls.
- Make sure there's a clearing for the tree to drop all the way down to the ground. Never cut down a tree that looks like it might get stuck in an adjacent tree or other obstacle.
- If a fallen tree does get hung up in another tree, don't attempt to cut it down -- it's just too dangerous. Call an experienced arborist.
- Confirm that there's a clear, unobstructed escape route leading away from the direction the tree is going to fall.
- Keep people, pets, and belongings away from the area when felling a tree.
To fell a tree, follow these steps:
- Start by cutting a 90-degree notch about halfway into the tree, facing the direction you want it to fall.
- Next, saw straight into the opposite side of the tree, directly behind and slightly above the notch. (This is known as the felling cut.) Don't try to cut all the way through the tree. Cut just deep enough until the tree starts to fall. Then pull out the saw and quickly back away along your escape route.
- Wait a minute or so for the tree to come fully to rest before approaching it.
Once the tree is on the ground, the next step is to cut off all the branches and limbs, known as "limbing." Again, be careful. The tree can suddenly roll, and there are a lot of tripping hazards when working around a fallen tree.
- Use the chainsaw to remove branches protruding from the top of the tree and any loose branches—meaning those not stuck in the ground—from the sides of the tree.
- Trim off the top of the tree to a size that you can easily drag or carry away.
- As you cut, be careful not to hit the ground with the saw; nothing dulls a chainsaw faster than cutting into dirt and rocks.
- To avoid dangerous kickback, never cut with the tip of the chain and don't allow it to make contact with one branch while cutting another. Get into the habit of standing slightly to one side of the saw chain; don't hover directly over the bar. That way, if the saw does kick back, it's less likely to hit you.
- As you begin to saw into the remaining branches, including those pressed against the ground, make a note of where pressure is being applied to the branch. To avoid getting the saw pinched in the cut, saw a small notch into the top of the branch, then saw straight up into the underside of the branch. As pressure forces the branch down, the undercut will open, releasing the saw.
- When carrying a running chainsaw, grasp the top handle and keep your hand well away from the trigger. As an extra safety precaution, engage the chain brake when walking around with a running saw.
- Once most of the branches have been trimmed away, roll the tree over and saw off the remaining branches.
Bucking simply means cutting a tree into smaller, more manageable pieces. This is typically done after limbing and when sawing logs into firewood.
- Start by confirming that the log is stable and can't roll away from you or, more importantly, toward you. If necessary, chock the log with some stones or wood wedges.
- If you're cutting the log into firewood, use chalk to mark cut lines on the log. Most firewood is 16 to 20 inches long.
- Saw about three-quarters of the way through the log at each cut line. Don't try to cut all the way through the log -- you'll end up sawing into the ground.
- Roll the log over and cut through the final few inches of wood to sever the log into shorter pieces.
- To prevent the saw from binding, roll the log pieces out of the way after each cut.
- Note that it's much more comfortable and safer to buck a log while kneeling on the ground vs. standing up and prevents strain on your back muscles.
Chainsaw maintenance tips
Maintaining your chainsaw is important because a well-maintained chainsaw is much safer to use than a neglected one. The owner's manual will provide specific instructions for maintaining your particular saw, but here are a few tips to make any chainsaw run smoother.
- Check the engine oil level and chain lube level before starting the saw.
- Mix fresh oil and gas for each use to the proportions recommended by the manufacturer (usually 40:1 or 50:1).
- Test the saw-chain tension before each use. If it's loose, follow the manufacturer's instructions for tightening the chain.
- Clean the air filter every month or so and replace it annually.
- Start the saw, then engage the brake to ensure it stops the chain.
- Sharpen the saw chain at the very first sign of dulling. Replace the chain if any of the teeth or rakers are chipped or damaged.
- After each use, wipe down the saw and brush away all wood chips, especially those packed in behind the chain-sprocket cover.
So there you have it: a few simple rules and precautions to keep you safe while using a chainsaw. As mentioned earlier, there's no substitute for practice. Take your time, be careful, and welcome to the awesome world of chainsawing!
About the Author: Joe Truini is a home improvement expert who writes about home remodeling and repair, woodworking projects, and tools for homeowners and professionals. He has authored six books and his work has appeared in several national magazines. Joe also writes for The Home Depot, where they carry a wide selection of chainsaws and sharpeners.
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