Gas or electric: power or convenience? Here’s how to decide. Gasoline powered chain saws are more capable: powerful, portable and able to operate the whole day. However, electric chain saws can be better for casual users.
Chain saws are measured by the length of the saw: the flat guide bar that supports the chain. 16, 18 and 20 inches are typical for full sized models.
The longer the saw, the thicker the trees that can be cut, and the more powerful the engine needs to be. Theoretically, a saw can cut down a tree twice its length (by cutting around the tree, a 16 inch saw can cut through 32 inches of wood) but this isn’t always practical.
The chain and bar need to be lubricated every few minutes (even for electric chain saws) with bar oil:
- Automatic oilers are built into the saw and oil the chain automatically, only requiring that the tank be kept full. They can over or under oil, and need to be drained before storage.
- Manual oilers are also built into the saw but need to be manually pumped by the operator every few minutes.
- Small, cheap saws may come without oilers. They need to be manually oiled from a separate oil bottle, or wiped with an oily rag.
The chain will get loose after use and will need to be tightened. Failure to do so can cause the chain to slip off the bar. Fragile chain tensioners that don’t work, are a common source of complaints from owners of cheap chain saws.
Quick Content Navigation
Gas Chain Saws
Traditional 16 to 20 inch gas chain saws still rule the forest.
- Powerful, capable of driving 20 inch bars.
- Portable, independent power supply. For use far away from main electricity and after storms or natural disasters have disrupted power supplies.
- Heavy duty, can keep on running as long as there is a supply of bar oil and gas.
- Noisy, can disturb the neighbors.
- Can be difficult to start reliably. No electric start, needs a hard yank on a cord. Operators may need to fool around with the choke, worry about vapor lock, flooded engines, spark plugs.
- Gasoline engine needs maintenance, has to be drained before storage.
- Engine needs to be adjusted for high altitudes, and will still lose some power in the thinner air.
Two-stroke engines are popular for their light weight. The engine oil needs to be measured out by the operator and mixed manually with the gasoline.
Electric Chain Saws
Electric chain saws are less powerful but are lighter and are easier to maintain.
- Limited size and power, about 16 inches maximum.
- Extension cord and high voltage motor can be hazardous in wet environments.
- Power cord can get in the way and get cut by the saw.
- Need to be near power socket, unless portable generator is used.
Cordless Chain Saws
Cordless (rechargeable battery) chain saws are even lighter, and less powerful.
- Light and portable.
- Low maintenance.
- Limited size and power, 4 to 8 inches maximum.
- Limited endurance, 15 to 30 minutes on one battery charge.
Chain Saws versus Hand Saws
The CDC’s web page on chain saw safety reports that “Each year, approximately 36,000 people are treated in hospital emergency departments for injuries from using chain saws” (http://www.bt.cdc.gov/disasters/chainsaws.asp).
Chain saws are not for the faint-hearted. They are heavy, dangerous, noisy and dirty. Even electric chain saws can leak bar oil and even the best brands can throw their chains.
Those willing to put up with these quirks should still keep a good hand saw close by as a backup and for small jobs not suitable for chain saws.