Sometimes it’s easy to get too caught up in buying something just because it’s the right color. Especially when it comes to something so essential to the business of tree care as a chain saw, it can pay off to consider a broad range of factors when selecting your saws. We asked a few tree care professionals who devote a lot of time and thought to their saws what they look for when selecting their weapons of choice.
“Power-to-weight ratio is the whole trick. You want the most power with the least weight,” declares Ryman McLane, a certified arborist who operates Saco Tree Works in New Hampshire. “It’s hard because there’s a balance: More power is always better, but lighter weight is also always better.”
McLane’s commitment to light weight leads him to select saws that are generally a bit smaller than would typically be used in the business. “They’re still professional-grade saws, but they’re saws that most guys might just use for limbing. I push the envelope a little bit and use them for all-around uses: felling, limbing and bucking.” He frequently uses 50cc saws for these types of tasks.
McLane uses both Husqvarna and STIHL saws in his business. “They’re both very good; I don’t think you could go wrong with either one,” he reports, adding that he tries to use each to its best potential. “I typically use Husqvarna saws for limbing and STIHL for bucking,” says McLane.
In part to save weight, he also prefers to use a shorter than average bar, reporting that he uses a 16-inch bar for 90 percent of his saw work. “You see a lot of guys who think bigger is better, but if you’re lugging the thing around all day, sometimes bigger just means more expense and more weight and more time to sharpen and less control. A lot of people don’t realize you can cut a 32-inch tree with a 16-inch bar if you cut from both sides,” says McLane, noting that rarely in his work in the Northeast does he encounter trees much bigger than that.
Mark Chisholm, an arborist whose family operates Aspen Tree Expert Co., Inc., in New Jersey is another arborist who prefers shorter bars, not only for the weight savings but also because it allows for better overall performance. “Longer bars will slow down your chain speed,” he explains. “On my STIHL MS 461 for example, which is a really good medium to large ground saw, most people like to push a 25-inch bar or longer. I prefer to use a 20-inch bar, because if you know good cutting procedures you can easily cut down a tree that’s 40 inches in diameter.”
In effect, a shorter bar makes a saw more powerful to use, says Chisholm: “There’s less draw on the power with a shorter bar because you’re not trying to push that much chain and that many teeth over the surface, so it’s going to cut faster.” Similarly, with his MS 200 T and MS 201 T climbing saws, he opts for a 14-inch bar rather than the more commonly used 16-inch length. “I even sometimes go down from there and switch to a chain with a narrower kerf because I get faster cutting speeds,” he explains.
Modern saws include so many features designed to make them more safe and efficient, but it’s important to regularly confirm that these features are working properly, states Chisholm. He also is co-founder of TreeBuzz.com and conducts a variety of arborist education programs, including on the subject of chain saw safety. He advises daily checks to ensure that the saw is in good working order. To check that the chain brake is functioning, activate it with the engine off, then use a scrench tool to attempt to spin the chain in the direction that it cuts. If the chain won’t spin, then the brake is functioning.
He also recommends inspecting to make sure the throttle interlock mechanism is working so that the saw won’t rev unintentionally. “If those aren’t functioning properly it can cause the throttle to kick up without you wanting it to,” he stresses. Finally, he recommends checking the catch peg on the underside of the saw designed to protect the operator in the event a chain is thrown off. “Some guys never look at that — you need to make sure you replace it if it gets chewed up or damage,” he states.
Chisholm says he appreciates time-saving features found on some newer saws, such as captive bar nuts and posts that use a coarser thread pattern so fewer turns are required to tighten the nut. “That makes them much easier to work with in the field,” he states. “Technology is giving us a lot of options. I like the decompression features that make saws easier to start. And I also like the possibilities the future holds with electric saws — I know that battery-powered saws are going to be very big in the tree business in the future.”
Chisholm says one modern saw option tree care pros should be aware of is the additional chain brake sometimes included on the rear handle. He says sometimes operators release it under full throttle, which is hard on the chain brake and other components. That force can lead to premature wear. “It’s not a problem with the mechanism — it’s more an issue of training. Some saws have that feature and some don’t, so the guys forget if they’re using one that has it and they’ll release it too quickly,” Chisholm notes. When running saws with this feature, he trains his crew to let the chain get down to an idle speed before they release the rear handle. Training is critical, because when the feature is not used properly, operators may find their saws need additional maintenance or repairs.
Not all arborists can rely on shorter bars to do their jobs. Working in Colorado, Charley Wagner frequently encounters large-diameter trees and keeps a 46-inch bar on one of his STIHL saws. Wagner, a certified arborist, operates Cutting Edge Tree Care based in Lafayette, Colorado. He too is concerned with weight when it comes to chain saws. “I want the most bang for my buck. So I look for the lightest weight with the greatest chain speed,” says Wagner. RPMs are one big factor for him when evaluating power. “I really don’t have a brand loyalty; different saws all can serve a different purpose,” he reports.
For most jobs, Wagner relies on a pair of midsize Husqvarna saws: an older 372 XP (“my all-time favorite saw,” he says) and a new generation 576 XP AutoTune. “I don’t let people use that one on the ground; that one is for me when I’m doing a removal,” Wagner explains. While observing that it has yet to completely match the performance of pre-regulated saws, he credits Husqvarna for the AutoTune technology, which optimizes engine performance without the need for manual carburetor adjustments to help meet regulations. He expects to see more such efforts in the future from manufacturers. Wagner also praises a less technological but nonetheless helpful innovation on the newer Husqvarna model: bar nuts that can’t fall off when removing the clutch cover. “I wish all manufacturers would move to that,” he urges.
Wagner says that EPA regulations definitely have added weight and robbed saws of power in recent years. “I know the chain saw manufacturers have very strict rules that they have to comply with,” he notes, comparing it to the situation facing auto manufacturers where regulations result in newer generation truck models that don’t produce all the power they’re capable of.
For this reason, Wagner continues to use his collection of older STIHL MS 200 T climbing saws rather than purchasing newer models. “I’ve been in kind of a holding pattern, trying to refurbish my MS 200 Ts, getting them bored out and get new carburetors on them and get them cleaned up. I’m putting the money into them because I’ve been hesitant about going with new EPA model climbing saws,” explains Wagner. “On a climbing saw, if a saw is 2 or 3 pounds heavier, it makes a big difference by the end of the day. It’s a lot more comfortable to have a super light saw that just rips. And it’s a lot more productive.”
He’s also a fan of smaller, general-purpose Echo saws for jobs such as cutting junipers on the ground. Wagner outfits his ground crews with these saws because they work well for limbing and putting trees into the chipper. They’re also less expensive than some of his other saws, which makes it less of a financial hit if a crew member accidentally drops a log on a saw. “As a business owner, there’s definitely a lot of value there for what I can get for the money,” he explains. “If you drop a log on a $650 climbing saw, that’s hard to take.”
For the bigger jobs, Wagner runs his 46-inch bar on a STIHL 066, a 92cc saw. “If the chain is sharp, it works fine. That powerhead will push it. Here in Colorado, we have big cottonwoods and trees like that, so there’s a lot of times when you’re 30 or 40 feet in the air and you need that much bar,” he explains. Wagner prefers to run skip-tooth chain on the large saw, in large part to reduce the sharpening time involved. “I really rely on my ability to sharpen a chain in order to get the most out of my saws,” he adds.
McLane agrees that a sharp chain is perhaps the most significant factor, regardless of where you work or what size or type of saw you’re using. “No matter what brand saw you buy, the most important thing is to keep the chain sharp. You could have the most powerful, fanciest saw on earth, but if the chain isn’t sharp it’s not going to do you much good,” says McLane. And, he observes that few people know how to sharpen a chain well. He offers one quick tip even for those who understand proper filing techniques: “Buy new files. Files wear out, just like sandpaper or any other abrasive. They only cost about $1, so don’t try to use the same file for 10 years.”
While new technology and new features are impressive, it’s sometimes still the simple things that will ultimately affect how a chain saw performs on the job.