If you were one of those kids who always tried to force the square peg into the round hole, listen up: Things go a lot smoother when you choose the right tool for the job. Be sure you apply that wisdom when it comes to picking the right chain saw for every given application. Selecting the right saw can make the work more efficient and safer.

“Picking the right saw absolutely makes a big difference,” says Richard Gatlin, certified arborist and foreman with Rowe Tree Service in Georgia. He conducts regular safety trainings with the company’s crews and says that saw selection frequently enters the discussion. “I encounter these decisions all the time, because I’m cutting in such a variety of circumstances, whether it’s on the ground on different terrain, or especially climbing or working out of the bucket truck,” Gatlin explains.

It’s important that you have choices; no one saw will be right for every application. “We have an inventory of saws that we take on every job,” says Gatlin, “because you never know exactly what you’re going to encounter.” That inventory includes everything from small snips to a basic handsaw to pole pruners, pole saws, climbing saws (Stihl 020’s) and then larger saws (Stihl 046’s and 066’s). There’s even one extremely large saw that Gatlin says might only be used once a month but is essential to have for the really big jobs.

Tim Ard, who runs Forest Applications Training, says that tree care professionals often focus too much on the size of the powerhead and forget that different bar/chain combinations can be used to customize the size of the saw for a given job. Photo: Forest Applications Training

“We go to every job with our full arsenal of saws to be able to handle every situation,” he notes. Gatlin says that bringing only the equipment you think you might need can lead to dangerous situations if the circumstances change while the job is underway. Having all the saws available also allows the crews to take care of other work the customer (or a neighbor) might inquire about on the job site. Especially in this economy, you want to be able to respond to other requests, so you need to have all your saws with you, he emphasizes.

Once on the job, Gatlin has a strategy to ensure that the right saw is chosen for each aspect of the project. “I tell the crew, when we get to a job, the first thing I want you to do is get the trash barrel out and rakes, and then set the limbing saw [a climbing saw is used for this] next to it,” says Gatlin. “If you don’t have everything all set out, you’re just going to grab whatever saw is closest to you, and it’s probably going to be one of the bigger saws. That will tire you out quickly, plus it’s more dangerous.”

Another benefit to having the crew use a smaller saw for limbing is that if they hit a rock or other hard surface, there are fewer teeth to re-sharpen than if using a larger saw, he notes. “In terms of the ground crew, I have them use the smallest saw necessary to get the job done,” Gatlin says.

As the person who works up in the tree, Gatlin follows a similar strategy. “When I first climb a tree, I don’t even go up with a chain saw; I start with just a hand saw,” he says. “My goal is just to get to the top of the tree, get a good tie-in point and get comfortable. The handsaw allows me to get anything small out of my way, and it hardly weighs anything at all. But I treat it like any other kind of saw: You want to make every cut away from you, never toward you.”

STIHL’s MS 201 T features scavenging engine technology to reduce fuel consumption and emissions. Photo: STIHL

Even after the crew sends up his climbing saw, Gatlin keeps the hand saw to use if, for example, he needs to hinge a limb over. “I’ll use the climbing saw to make the notch, and then the back cut only to a certain point, then I hook that saw to my saddle. Then I pull out my hand saw to finish the cut,” he explains. “When you’re cutting with a hand saw, it’s just so much safer, because it’s easier to get out of the way quickly if you need to. You have to always assume that something could go wrong.”

When it comes time to chunk pieces of the tree down to the ground, Gatlin again will use the smallest saw he can that will get the job done effectively. So he uses his climbing saw as far down the tree as possible before switching to one of the larger saws. “If you take good care of your climbing saw and you have it really sharp and running good, you can work down a long way before you have to get a big saw out,” he states.

Gatlin says this method limits the amount of time a large saw is hooked to his saddle, reducing the stress put on his body. It also means less weight he has to wield when actually using the saw. “When you get tired, that’s when mistakes get made,” he says. “You don’t want to be tired up there; you want to be comfortable so you can work according to the plan.” Even if the added weight of a larger saw doesn’t seem to make a difference for one day, the effects can add up when it’s used day after day, year after year, notes Gatlin.

When he reaches a point on the tree when a larger saw is needed, Gatlin selects one with a bar long enough to get him all the way down. “You don’t want to waste time sending saws up and down,” he explains. “If you have, say, a 24-inch bar in a 28-inch diameter tree, you end up taking the time to make extra cuts. That’s unnecessary work.” Instead, he sizes up the tree before he starts climbing to be sure the right bar/chain combo is attached to the saw, so it’s ready when he needs it. “The guys on the crew have no idea how much I analyze everything before I go up in the tree, but taking that time makes things run more efficiently,” Gatlin states.

If he has the option, Gatlin prefers to work out of the bucket truck as much as possible. In these situations, he also recommends using a climbing saw as much as possible. Using the lighter saw allows him greater maneuverability and allows him the best chance to get the bucket out of the way to avoid it being struck by branches or tops. Lighter saws also pay off in tricky situations, such as cutting on steep slopes, says Gatlin.

Gatlin constantly tries to impart these lessons to his crew. “When the crew is bucking up trees on the ground, they have a bad habit of using a saw that’s too big; they’ll be using one of our big saws to cut off a 3-inch limb. That’s just insane. Or they’ll just use the one that’s closest to them. That’s just a fact,” says Gatlin. “That’s why I emphasize to them to get the right saw out and set up. We put it right there by our rakes and bucket. We even put a cone there to designate that area.”

That way, the nearest saw is the right saw, he says. “I think it’s up to the foreman to think ahead and have a plan like that to be sure the crew is using the right saw,” says Gatlin. He’s also quick to point out to them that just because they’re using a smaller saw or cutting up a smaller tree, doesn’t mean there isn’t big danger. “The two worst chain saw injuries I’ve ever seen both occurred on the ground,” says Gatlin. “I think there’s a misconception that those kinds of things only happen when you’re taking down really big trees. To me, the accidents happen more commonly on the ground when most of the big work has been done and people get lackadaisical about what they’re doing, or they’re using a saw that’s just too big for the job.”

Tim Ard runs Forest Applications Training and conducts safety classes for tree care professionals and utility crews around the country. Ard says he frequently gets questions about saw sizes. “People ask all the time what the best size saw is. I think many times they’re only looking at the power head and not the different combinations of bars and chains that can be used. There may be two or three or more bar/chain combinations for a particular cc-size saw,” he explains.

Ard conducts most of his trainings with just two different cc-size saws: a 30 to 40cc unit and a 65 to 72cc unit. He says tree care pros might also be able to get by with just two different size saws if they have a range of bar/chain combinations that can be switched in the field. “For example, you could have one saw that could go from a 20-inch to a 36-inch bar in 4-inch increments. That way you just have to buy different bar/chain combinations rather than three different power heads,” Ard advises. “Bar/chain combos ranging from maybe 14 inches to 18 inches on a smaller saw could let you handle anything from bucket work to limbing or brushing.”

Richard Gatlin, certified arborist and foreman with Rowe Tree Services, says he brings a complete arsenal of chain saws to every job. This means the right saw gets chosen for every aspect of the project, rather than picking a saw that’s too big or just the closest one. Photo: Richard Gatlin

Ard says he often sees tree care pros using saws that are too big when working up in trees or out of a bucket. “Sometimes it’s understandable because they’re dealing with some pretty good size stems and limbs, but that’s a lot of weight to be lifting up and holding out. I think many times they’d be better using a little smaller saw,” he says. “Fatigue is the number one problem; you get complacent when you get tired, and a lot of the reactive forces of the saw become more prevalent when you’re not in full control of it.” As a demonstration, he has students pick up their saws and hold them out with their arms straight to show them how quickly their arms will get tired.

There is one circumstance, though, when Ard prefers using larger saws. “For training purposes, I generally try to get [those new to using chain saws] started on a larger saw, as long as they are physically able,” says Ard. It might sound counterintuitive, but he points out, “They can’t throw it around the way they can with a smaller saw, and I think that having a substantial saw makes people pay a little more attention and maybe be a little timid of it. It makes them take better control of the saw,” he explains. “When they start with a lighter weight saw, they don’t pay quite as much attention.”

Pole saws are another useful tool for many tree care pros, but they’re not the best choice for every application. “I wouldn’t get into felling trees with a pole saw, but for line clearance or even limbing work, a pole saw can work well,” says Ard. He emphasizes that when using a pole saw, all of the same cutting techniques and safety practices apply as when using a chain saw. People have a little more leverage with the pole saw, so they sometimes think they can just cut straight through limbs without making the proper cuts, which leads to pinched bars. He adds, “I call them pole saw swings; people get them stuck and then swing on them trying to get them out.” He says that proper hard hats and other personal protective equipment (PPE) is especially important when working beneath trees with a pole saw.

Regardless of saw size or type, ergonomics of the saw can play a role in safety, says Cary Shepherd, national training specialist with Husqvarna. He cites design features utilized by that manufacturer, such as a 7-degree offset handle, high center of gravity, narrow body and inboard versus outboard clutch, which all can make a difference in how easy a saw is to use. Also, whether it’s a big saw or small, “overall, maintenance plays a big role in safety and productivity,” Shepherd emphasizes.