Some of the earliest gas-powered chain saws were so big that they required two people to operate, and so heavy that they had to be wheeled around. Obviously, that isn’t the type of saw that you’d pick to take out on a job these days. So what should you be looking for when choosing a chain saw?
Well, if you haven’t bought a saw in the last several years, there’s some new technology on the market that you should be aware of. Beyond that, some of the same old factors still apply: look for low weight, high power, comfort, reliability, dealer support and so on. This isn’t a buying guide, per se, and there are many reputable manufacturers and high-quality models of chain saws beyond those mentioned in this article, but the general background and guidance should give you some things to think about when shopping for a new saw.
New king of chips
Within the last several years, both of the major manufacturers of chain saws for the commercial tree care market have introduced new technologies on certain saws that help automatically (and constantly) adjust carburetor settings for optimal performance. Stihl’s M-Tronic and Husqvarna’s AutoTune systems are examples of technology that was unimaginable on chain saws even five or 10 years ago.
“M-Tronic is the intelligent engine management system that we have on many of our professional chain saws,” explains Kent Hall, product manager with STIHL. “It has a computer chip inside the ignition module that monitors the running of the engine multiple times per second, and then sends a digital signal to a solenoid on the carburetor.” That means there’s no longer a need to manually adjust the carburetor; the intelligent solenoid opens or closes to adjust the air fuel mixture entering the engine depending on the requirements presented by the cutting environment.
One advantage to the user is that you get optimal performance across the whole power range, Hall notes. Another benefit is realized not only by the user, but by the tree care company that purchases the saw. “One of the issues facing tree care companies these days is fuel quality, and where to buy fuel. This technology senses if the fuel isn’t up to the right quality and it’ll make adjustments for that,” says Hall. It’s not going to completely solve ethanol problems, “but it does sense, for example, if the fuel has a little bit higher percentage of ethanol, or a little bit lower, than 10 percent, and it can adjust for that,” he adds.
“It also helps in the area of longevity from a maintenance standpoint on the air filtration; as the air filter gets clogged, you can run a little bit longer between maintenance periods with the M-Tronic because it’s sensing that it needs to make an adjustment to the air-fuel mixture and the amount of fuel that’s going in,” says Hall.
Husqvarna’s AutoTune system also features elements unheard of in chain saw technology a few years back.
“With AutoTune, you don’t have to do anything with the carburetor,” states Christian Johnsson, product manager with Husqvarna. “Normally, when you work with a chain saw, you have to adjust the carburetor depending on the fuel you’re using and elevation you’re at and how many hours the saw has been run,” says Johnsson. With AutoTune, a chip inside constantly monitors conditions and adjusts the carburetor as needed, he explains. “It’s looking basically at three things: different climates (humidity, for example), the fuel you’re using (percentage of ethanol) and altitude (how much oxygen is in the air.”
It’s not only less work for the crew member using the saw, but the technology offers some peace of mind for the company that owns the saw that there’s no longer a need for employees in the field to be tinkering with the carburetor, and possibly damaging the saw by making it run too lean, etc. And the AutoTune technology can take advantage of any further advances from the manufacturer. “The dealer can hook his computer up to the chain saw and, if there’s been a new firmware update that’s been released, he can update the saw and it’s ready to go,” says Johnsson.
John DelRosso is head arborist at Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum and teaches classes on how to select, safely use and maintain a chain saw. He thinks this technology is going to spread to other saw brands. “Eventually, you won’t be able to buy any saw without it,” he predicts.
That would be fine with Dean Brockway, who operates Dean Brockway Tree and Landscape in New York. “I think this technology is the best thing that both companies [Stihl and Husqvarna] have done,” says Brockway. “I love it – you don’t have to worry about adjusting the fuel mixture screw based on your elevation.” The downside, he says, “is that the carburetors are expensive.” As someone who services his own saws, they can be a little trickier and time-consuming to work on, Brockway adds. He says that for anyone who doesn’t work on their own saws, a good warranty is a must when buying any new, high-tech saw. Still, he feels the benefits of an auto-adjusting carburetor are worth it.
Problems with New Technology?
Despite all the new technical advancements some users might see drawbacks in modern chain saws. Tree care professionals, as Stihl’s Kent Hall observes from talking to arborists and monitoring online forums, often want to tweak their saws to improve performance — whether it’s something simplistic like drilling a hole in the muffl er to get more power, or some other more sophisticated modifi cation. But new chain saws are, in many ways, just as complicated as new cars and trucks. And, like with automobiles, chain saw components often serve multiple functions.
“For example, a muffl er doesn’t just reduce noise anymore; it’s designed to control spark emissions and to create a certain amount of back-pressure to keep the fuel in the cylinder longer and more effi ciently burn the fuel,” Hall explains. “That actually creates a little bit more power, but also a little bit more heat — there’s a balance between what all of these components are doing.” So when a user starts making aftermarket modifi cations, there may be unforeseen consequences. “In the short term, you might get a little bit more power. But in the long term, you’re jeopardizing the durability and life of the product,” says Hall.
Hall says that one area that many chain saw manufacturers have focused on recently is reduced emissions technologies – and that poses engineering and production challenges. “From a manufacturing standpoint, the manufacturing process has become more sophisticated, particularly in the development of certain components like the cylinders and carburetors,” Hall says. While the primary reason companies are developing these new technologies is to meet tightening emissions regulations, there are also payoffs for those using the saws. “The advantage to the user is that these saws are more fuel efficient, so they get run times on a tank of fuel. There’s also a savings in fuel costs to a company over the long run with some of these newer saws,” he explains.
Of course, the design of new components and processes to meet emissions regulations does come with some added costs, Hall notes. As just one example, because more testing is required of each individual unit, fewer saws can be rolled off the assembly line in a given amount of time, adding to production costs. The bottom line is, no matter the manufacturer, expect a new saw to be a little more expensive than past models due to the new technology – seen and unseen – that’s built into them.
Computerized chips are not the only design advancement to consider when choosing a saw. Sometimes these changes aren’t easily apparent in just looking at the saw, so some research is required.
The Stihl MS 193 T top-handle saw was recently tweaked to improve acceleration – a factor that’s particularly important in climbing saws. And two of the company’s rear-handle, mid-range saws, the MS 361 and MS 362, have also been tweaked. “These are good, all-around saws that have had some improvements made to them to reduce the weights a little bit, as well as a redesign of the sprocket cover to help with chip discharge, so you don’t have as much clogging in the sprocket and clutch area,” Hall says.
Stihl has also redesigned the bumper spikes on these models to provide better leverage when cutting. And together these are examples of the type of features that, though not necessarily high-tech, should be considered when choosing a saw because they can have an impact on efficiency on the job.
Some new features are higher-tech and are easier to spot. A prime example would be Husqvarna’s relatively new battery-powered top-handle saw, the T536Li XP (also available as a rear-handle version, the 536Li XP). “We see battery top-handle saws gaining a lot of ground,” says Johnsson. “They’re lightweight, and they have a lot of power. A lot of people think that battery saws are just for consumers, but we see a lot of arborists and climbers who love these chain saws.”
A common concern with battery-powered saws is limited run times, but Johnsson notes that this is less of a concern with a climbing saw than it might be with a ground saw that’s running constantly. “Since you’re not running it all the time; you’re doing a lot of climbing; you’re moving around in the tree, doing some cuts here and some cuts there, you can use a battery for half a day. Plus, there’s the convenience of just pushing a button and the chain saw starts – that’s one of the big benefits, as opposed to trying to pull the starter to crank it up, which can be awkward, depending on where you’re sitting in the tree.”
There also may be safety advantages to using a battery-powered saw in a tree, where cutting often must be done in tight quarters or at odd angles; and there’s no fumes to contend with either. And Johnsson points out that battery-powered saws also offer advantages in working close to homes, offices, schools, or anywhere where there are noise ordinances.
It’s a common mistake among residential purchasers, but one that some commercial buyers also make: picking out a chain saw that’s too big, says Johnsson. Or buying a particular saw because it’s got a bigger bar. “A longer bar might make it look like a more powerful saw, but that’s not always the case,” he notes. Taking the time to compare actual specs is important. “Depending on what you’re using the chain saw for, the size of the trees you’re cutting, whether you’re climbing or working in a bucket – make sure to choose an appropriately sized chain saw for that task. It’s all about balance and performance; a long bar equals a long chain, and that requires more power to drive that chain.”
Another buying tip: get your hands on some different saws so that you can feel differences in weight, balance, size, comfort and ergonomics. And then run the saws you’re considering. “A lot of dealers have log piles at their dealerships where you can go out and make some cuts to try out the chain saw. Some dealers might even be willing to lend you a saw over a day or two,” says Johnsson.
DelRosso, at Arnold Arboretum, says it’s often the seemingly small details of a saw that will make a big difference when using it every day.
For example, he uses a Husqvarna climbing saw because he likes the narrow shape of the tip of the bar. Another arborist at the Arnold Arboretum uses a Stihl climbing saw because he has larger hands and finds the handle a better fit for him. When you’re running a saw for many hours every day, these sorts of details matter, says DelRosso.
Dealer support should also be a primary consideration in choosing a chain saw. “If you work with a good dealer that provides you with good service and has all the parts in stock need…I think that’s one of the keys to having a successful tree care company,” says Johnsson.
“I think most tree care professionals know what they’re looking for in a saw when they go to buy,” says Hall. Mostly, he says, the purchase process is a matter of finding a dealer that they feel comfortable with, “and who has a good supply of parts for the particular models that they’re purchasing, and the technical knowledge to support those products down the road.”
How important is it to have a relationship with a dealer who will take care of you? “I have dealers right here in town but I drive an hour to my dealer,” says Brockway, of Dean Brockway Tree and Landscape.
Brockway says that in his experience, as a user and as a mechanic, the professional saws available from the major companies are all good. He happens to prefer the smaller Stihl saws and the larger Husqvarna saws, but says that getting unbiased feedback about different models from those in the tree care business can be difficult. “It’s hard to talk with anyone on the online forums about this because so many people tend to be loyal to using one brand and not the other!” he says.
Brockway encourages those looking for a saw to shop around, do their research, and keep an open mind.
Tips to Consider When Purchasing a Chain Saw
- Shop around and do your research — take the time to compare actual model specifications.
- Get your hands on some different saws so that you can feel differences in weight, balance, size, comfort and ergonomics. And then run the saws you’re considering.
- Dealer support is crucial — good service and parts that are readily available pay dividends down the line.
- Don’t automatically choose the chain saw with the longest bar.
- Familiarize yourself with the latest technology available on the market.
- Make sure the saw you choose has a good warranty.