The Definitive Chainsaw Buying Guide
Purchasing a chainsaw may seem like a daunting task for the typical homeowner or beginning professional, and if you’re just beginning to sift through the wealth of information online you’ll quickly realize that there are a lot of variables and options to consider when buying a chainsaw. That’s why I decided to sit down and spend the time to write you a chainsaw buying guide to provide you with clarity and direction so you can hone on on the correct chainsaw suitable for your needs.
If you’re wanting to buy a chainsaw but don’t know how to start then you’ve come to the right place because I’m here to help you get the information you need and guide you towards buying the right chainsaw. If you’re like me, you’ve probably been a little frustrated with finding one source of information to answer all your questions centered around buying a chainsaw. So out of frustrations I decided to channel my energy and create the ultimate informational chainsaw buying guide with the goal of making the process of buying a chainsaw as easy as possible for the average homeowner.
If you’re looking for some excellent chainsaws to choose from then I recommend reading my article on the Best Chainsaw for Homeowners. I have something in there for everyone, in all the different power types — gas, electric and battery. You can also select from a long list of chainsaw feature articles at the end of this chainsaw buying guide. Happy researching!
Okay, now back to the guide…
Chainsaw Buying Guide | The Details
The one thing I want to stress before we get started is that buying a chainsaw is based entirely on your specific project requirements, budget, and your physical stature. It’s a not a guessing game or a matter of opinion as to what chainsaw you should buy. There are some hard and fast rules to apply and my intention is to clear up some of the confusion with this chainsaw buying guide.
A chainsaw isn’t a toy, it’s a tool used to cut wood so knowing your needs is the first step in the process. My aim is to help you narrow down your needs and give you a basic understanding of what a chainsaw is while providing you guidelines to speed up your buying decision. By the time you finish this guide I’m confident that you’ll have all the information you need in order to choose the right chainsaw for your project. Now, let’s get started and delve into the art of buying a chainsaw.
What is a chainsaw and what’s it used for?
What is a chainsaw?
The chainsaw is a highly effective and efficient tree and branch cutting power tool. It works with an engine, referred to as a power head; powering a metal chain, driven by a centrifugal clutch, with a chain moving around a groove in the guide bar at fast speeds. When the moving chain makes contact with wood, its sharp teeth are dragged across the surface, cutting the wood. The chain can’t be guarded and thus the reason why chainsaws are the most dangerous hand-held power tool in the world.
How does a chainsaw work?
Gas chainsaws typically have a two-stroke engine, which incidentally is what lawnmowers, snowmobiles and outboard engines use, and the reason why they are noisy, but with the proper hearing protection you’ll be well protected from the noise. More on that later.
Who uses a chainsaw?
Chainsaws are used by a wide range of people including: homeowners, arborists, gardeners, landscapers, loggers, firefighters, carpenters, chainsaw artists and people just like you. If you have a need to cut or trim trees, then you probably need a chainsaw.
Questions to ask yourself when buying a chainsaw:
What will you primarily be using a chainsaw for?
If you’re a typical homeowner with an occasional need for a chainsaw, only doing light cutting a few times a year, then an electric chainsaw should suit you just fine. On the other hand, if you’re felling medium sized trees or working in the woods then you’ll definitely need a gas chainsaw with at least a 45cc engine or larger. See the chart in this guide.
What’s your experience with using a chainsaw?
If you’re buying your first chainsaw and you’ve never used one before then you want the smallest chainsaw that will accomplish your project goals. For beginners, I would recommend you use a guide bar of 18″ or less – but you may only only need a 12″ bar. Again, it depends on your needs which I’ll help you determine shortly. The point being is that 20″ and up is only appropriate for experienced chainsaw users.
What type of trees will you be cutting? Soft or hard wood?
You’ll need a powerful gas chainsaw if you’re cutting hard woods, such as: dogwood, hard maple, hickory, birch, beech, oak or ash.
How often will you use the chainsaw?
If you only intend to use it for a few days of the year then I highly recommend you purchase an electric chainsaw as you won’t have to worry about maintenance. Gas chainsaws require far more maintenance, but there are people who love to get their hands dirty and tinker so if you’re a tinkerer then gas is probably the way to go.
Where will you be cutting?
If you own a large piece of land and need to roam freely or you plan on working deep in the woods then a gas chainsaw will be the right choice for you as it will allow you complete freedom of mobility. Electric chainsaws are limited by cord length or battery life.
What time of year will you be using your chainsaw?
If Winter, consider a chainsaw with a heated handle and a heated carburetor.
What’s the diameter of the wood you’ll be cutting?
See the section on guide bar length to determine the guide bar length you need.
What environment will you be using your chainsaw in?
If you’ll be working in an environment that requires you to be relatively quiet, such as: indoors, an environmentally sensitive area, within any areas with noise bylaws or you simply live with neighbors that may become your enemy if you create noise pollution then an electric chainsaw is the way to go.
What are the safety features you want?
Safety is essential when working with a chainsaw. The more safety features the better. We’ll talk more about safety later.
Four Factors to Consider when buying A Chainsaw
Four of most important attributes to consider when buying a chainsaw are: guide bar length, power type (gas or electric), engine power (cc, Volts, or Amps), safety features, and your fitness/strength level.
1. Guide Bar length
Guide bar length is measured from the tip of the chain to where it enters the housing. Bar length represents the active cutting area and represents the largest size length of wood the chainsaw can cut in a single pass. For homeowners, you should know that you can still cut large pieces of wood with a smaller chainsaw. You’ll just have to do it in two passes.
For example, a 16” guide bar can cut almost twice its length – that’s a whopping 32”. But it’s more than just the bar length that determines the size of wood you can cut. Is the engine powerful enough to cut through a 32″ log? Size does matter when it comes to chainsaws.
For the safest cutting, the bar length should be 2″ longer than the wood you want to cut, so if you want to cut a 14″ tree in one pass then a 16″ (or bigger) guide bar is ideal.
If you need to cut a larger tree with a small chainsaw then you can do so in two passes. For example, a 16” bar length will cut a 32 inch tree. But if you have the need to cut 32” trees on a regular basis then a 16” bar length will be the wrong choice. I’d recommend a professional heavy duty chainsaw for trees that large.
If you’re a typical homeowner primarily doing light cutting then I recommend a bar length under 14”. For medium duty cutting then you’ll want a bar length between 16” to 20”. And for heavy duty cutting, you’re in professional territory and typically you’d need a bar length between 22” to 36”.
Electric chainsaws typically range in size from 14” to 20”. Also, the manufacturer has recommended bar length sizes for each chainsaw model they sell, so stick with their guidelines and consult with your local authorized seller when making your final purchase.
The larger the bar length, the more difficult it is to handle the chainsaw and the greater the risk of injury because the chainsaw becomes unbalanced and fatigue becomes a factor as the chainsaw feels heavy over long periods of usage. Also, a common danger of chainsaws is the occurrence of kickback, which is more likely to occur with a longer bar length.
So, what’s kickback?
When it comes to chainsaws you’ll hear the term “kickback” a lot, and it’s critical that you understand what the term means. One of the causes of kickback is when the tip of the guide bar hits another object. While the saw chain is moving in a circular motion, it rotates forward and away from you, and goes around the tip of the bar where it changes direction, and starts moving back towards you. The top quarter of the nose, or tip, where the change in direction occurs is called the kickback zone.
The second cause of kickback is when the bar gets pinched by the wood on either side of the guide bar. Sometimes as you’re cutting, the wood closes in and pinches the saw chain inside the cut. In some cases, this incidental contact can cause a super fast reverse reaction, ‘kicking back’ the guide bar, up and back towards the operator.
The degree of force coupled with how fast the chain stops, and where the stop occurs, all determine how severe and what direction the kickback will be. If the chain is stopped abruptly and instantly, the kickback would be significant.
To avoid kickback follow these important rules:
- Avoid touching the bar guide tip to logs, branches, or the ground.
- Never cut more than one piece of wood at a time.
- Keep the saw at full power when cutting.
- Keep your chain sharpened to specification and maintain correct chain tension.
- Check that the safety devices are working before using the saw.
- Use an anti-kickback chain meant for consumer-grade chainsaws.
If you’re uncomfortable with the idea of using chainsaw and you have a serious project to tackle with a lot of large trees to fell or cut then maybe you should consider hiring a professional or take a course first. Most cities or towns offer chainsaw safety courses.
Guide Bar Length Recommendations
|Chainsaw Task||Guide Bar Length|
|Trimming||No larger than 16”|
|Pruning||12” or smaller|
|Limbing||12” to 14”|
|Felling small tree||12” to 14”|
|Felling medium tree||16” to 18”|
|Light firewood cutting||14” to 16”|
|Medium firewood cutting||16” to 18”|
|Bucking||18” or larger|
2. Engine Power Type
Power is a measure of engine size in cubic centimeters (cc) or cubic inches (cu. in.). The higher the number, the more powerful the engine, but with great power comes more weight. Most homeowner chainsaws are typically between 24cc to 46cc.
Power in an electric chainsaw is referred to as Amperage or Amps (A), for short. The higher the Amps the more powerful the chainsaw.
Battery Powered Chainsaws
The Power in a battery operated chainsaw is referred to as Voltage or Volts (V), for short. The higher the Volts, the more powerful the chainsaw. Battery powered chainsaws are the smallest and weakest class of chainsaws but perfect for very light cutting and pruning.
The most common and superior battery type is lithium-ion (Li-ion), but you may still come across the older battery type called nickel-cadmium (NiCad). NiCad chainsaws are cheaper and take longer to charge but for small projects they’ll be just fine. If you intend to do bigger projects then definitely buy a chainsaw with lithium-ion batteries. It will be lighter, last longer and charge quickly.
Power Size Recommendations
|Task||Gas Chainsaw Required||Electric Chainsaw Required|
|Small tree felling||30cc to 40cc||Medium to large electric|
|Moderate tree felling||45cc and higher||Medium to large electric|
|Large logs (bucking)||50cc and higher||Not appropriate|
|Light firewood (under 10”)||35cc to 45cc||Large electric|
|Medium firewood (10”-16”)||40 to 50cc||Large electric|
|Heavy duty cutting||Call a professional||Call a professional|
Unless you’re an experienced chainsaw user stick with an anti-kickback chain meant for consumer-grade chainsaws
Buying a chainsaw isn’t like buying most other consumer products. The difference with chainsaws is how dangerous they can be if not used properly. The risk of injury is a constant threat but also completely avoidable if you follow some basic rules and wear the proper protective equipment.
There are over 100,000 chainsaw injuries every year in the United States, so don’t become a statistic. Respect the power of your chainsaw because they are the most dangerous home power tool and injuries can be prevented through education. But knowledge is not enough, you have to practice it every time you turn on your chainsaw. Not only is It important to buy the right chainsaw for your needs, but equally important is ensuring the quality and safety features of the particular model you are considering to buy. Don’t base your decision solely on price; your health and safety are priceless. So get educated and make an informed decision.
Protective gear is not optional when using your chainsaw so be prepared to buy the gear you need to keep yourself safe from the moment you turn on your chainsaw. The protective equipment you need is as follows:
- safety pants or chaps
- Cut-resistant safety boots
- Safety glasses
- Head Protection
- hearing protection
A great way to simplify your safety gear is to buy a head protection system, which combines a hard hat, hearing protection and a visor for eye protection.
Read the chainsaw safety section of this site to learn more.
4. Personal Fitness/Strength
Why does your fitness/strength level matter? Well, your ability to handle, hold, control and manipulate the chainsaw is dependent on your personal fitness/strength levels – as well as the balance and ergonomics of the chainsaw itself. There’s a synergy between you and the chainsaw. Like it or not, the chainsaw becomes an extension of you when you start using it and it’s imperative that you’re capable of controlling it. As I’ve already said: it’s a dangerous tool that you need to respect.
A 12 pound chainsaw may not seem like much but if you’re not physically fit, you’ll have trouble controlling it as you fatigue, which increases your risk of injury. I want you to be safe so never use a chainsaw that’s too big, too heavy or unbalanced, unless you’re experienced and/or a professional. It’s that simple.
Gas vs Electric Chainsaw
Gas Chainsaw | Pros and Cons
|Superior bar oiling system||Heavy|
|Mobility. No cord to worry about.||Noisy|
|Suited for heavy-duty usage||Fuel costs|
|Fast cutting speed|
|Greater bar length sizes (12" to 60")|
Electric Chainsaw | Pros and Cons
|Fast and easy start||Limited mobility if corded|
|Portability (if battery operated)||Limited to light to medium duties|
|Much quieter than gas||Less power than gas|
|Easy to maintain||Limited bar length range (20" and under)|
|Economical to operate||No chain brake|
|No fuel & oil to mix||Not appropriate to fell large trees|
|Lighter and safer||Electric shock hazard if working in wet condition|
|No exhaust or fumes to inhale|
|Can be used indoors|
Although the same points from the electric chainsaw list are true for cordless (battery) chainsaws, there are a few additional cons of cordless operated chainsaws.
- Limited time usage as battery may only last 20 to 60 minutes, depending on specific model and workload.
- Less power than gas or corded chainsaw.
What are gas chainsaws best for?
Serious wood cutting, especially if you’re deep in the forest and you want to be as efficient and as fast as possible. Best if you have big projects and large sized trees to cut. Gas chainsaws can’t be beat when it comes to power and versatility. Sure, they’re a little noisy but you’ll get a lot more done in less time, and you’re guaranteed to cut through any type of wood you encounter.
What are electric chainsaws best for?
Ideal for pruning and cutting small trees. If you live in the suburbs and you want to be respectful of your neighbors and/or you’ll be working around hospital, schools, churches, golf courses, or simply landscaping maintenance in your backyard then the electric wins hands down. But if you’re working in the forest then you need a quality gas chainsaw.
When using an electric chainsaw you must use a heavy-gauge weatherproof extension cord, no longer than required because the longer the cord, the more your voltage will drop. Shorter is always better. Certainly no longer than 100 feet. Read my article on buying the right outdoor extension cord for your chainsaw, and other power tools.
Common Features on Gas Chainsaws
Note: Manufacturers will often have their own terms and trademarked names for some of these features but they are similar across all brands.
- Anti-Vibration Features: Dampens vibration allowing you to work longer while minimizing any potential discomfort, without this feature your hands will likely become numb, or worse, long-term ramifications could be Hand-arm vibration syndrome (HAVS).
- Spring Assist Starting: Requires far less effort to start
- Automatic Chain Oiler: Lubricates for safe and efficient cutting.
- Chain brake: Manual and inertial. The front hand acts as the engine brake if the saw kicks back and guard hits your hand, forcing the chain to stop in milliseconds. Now that’s fast, but the chain can move around 60 mph so having an inertial brake is what you really need. The inertial brake is engaged when a kickback occurs by sensing the rotation of a typical kickback so it’s automatic and much faster than your reflexes can pull off.
- Tool-Less Chain Adjustment: Easy chain tension adjustments or bar and chain replacements without a scrench or tightening tool.
- Muffler: Reduces noise so you can preserve your hearing. Typically a spark arrestor screen is included to prevent sparks from escaping and reducing the chance of starting a forest fire.
- Exhaust Air-Cleaning System: Cleans the air before it gets to the air filter to help extend filter life.
- Carrying Case or Scabbard: Provides convenience and helps protect the saw.
- Bumper Spikes: Aid in pivoting and stabilizing the chainsaw
- Throttle Lock: Prevents accidental throttle operation by forcing you to operate the throttle lock before allowing you to push the throttle.
- Stop Control: A button allowing you to stop the chain quickly
- Right Hand Guard: Designed to protect your fingers if the chain derails or breaks.
- Heated Handles: If you’re going to be using the chainsaw for long periods of time in Winter then you want the heated handles typically found on higher end professional models.
- Tool-Less Air Filter and Spark Plug Cover Plate: allows quick and easy access to the air filter and spark plug.
- Quick Release Gas and Oil Filler Caps: Saves you lots of time and hassle by allowing you to easily refuel and add oil without the use of tools.
- Heated Carburetor: Essential if you plan on using your chainsaw in freezing temperatures as a heated carburetors will prevent your chainsaw from freezing up.
- Adjustable Oil Pump: Enables you to adjust the oil system for the guide bar and chain allowing for optimal lubrication and reduction of waste.
- Built-In Circuit Breaker: Prevents you from burning out the motor if you push it beyond its limits.
Other Factors to Consider
Ergonomics: How easy is it to hold and how comfortable does it feel in your hands? Is it balanced? How much vibration is there? A well designed chainsaw will make a big difference in how you feel when doing the work you need to do so don’t overlook this. People love Apple products because they’re well designed, and the same applies to chainsaws. Design matters.
Weight: What’s the right weight for you? An 11 pound chainsaw might seem light but how will that feel after 20 minutes of use. Know your limitations.
How easy is it to maintain? Is it easy to access the air filter and spark plug? How easy is it to tighten the chain? How easy is it to replace a chain catcher stud when it breaks off?
Safety Features: How easy is it to initiate the chain break?
Top Handle vs Rear Handle Chainsaws
There are two handle-types for chainsaws and they’re rather self-explanatory: rear handle and top handle.
Rear handle chainsaws are used for any cutting you do on the ground, and if you’re reading this guide, you’ll almost certainly need a rear handle chainsaw. These are by far the most common type you’ll find when shopping.
Top handle chainsaws, or sometimes referred to as in-tree chainsaws, are designed to be used up in a tree while on an elevated work platform (EWP) or in a harness. It’s a specialized chainsaw which can best be summed up from STIHL, a major chainsaw manufacturer:
“These chainsaws may be used only by persons trained in special cutting and working techniques and who are properly secured while working in a tree (lift bucket, safety harness). Normal chainsaws (with wider spaced handles) are recommended for all other cutting work at ground level.”
In short, you need a conventional chainsaw (or rear handle) for anything on the ground.
The Invaluable Pole Saw
Full Review: Husqvarna 327PT5S pole saw
I’ve decided to include pole saws in my chainsaw buying guide because, well, they’re basically a small chainsaw with a metal pole between the guide bar/chain and the powerhead. To say that pole saws are convenient is an understatement. They’re essential when it comes to cutting branches too high to comfortably reach.
Pole saws, pole pruners, or power pruner, whatever you want to call them, they all refer to the same tool. Essentially, a pole saw allows you to cut and trim difficult-to-reach branches while standing firmly on the ground. Pole saws are like having a mini-chainsaw securely attached to the end of metal pole, and their only purpose is to prune from a distance. Climbing trees is for professionals, so if you need to reach high and cut, then a pole saw is exactly what you need to tackle the job.
Pole saws are perfect for the typical homeowner who needs to prune while ensuring the safety of the operator, namely you. These are perfect around the home, allowing you to work from an ergonomic position to prevent strain or injury on your body.
Typically, pole saws have a reach between 6’ to 20’ and can be adjusted according to your needs. The same principles of chainsaws apply to pole saws as well and thus the reason I’ve included them in this guide. Most poles saws have a guide bar between 8” to 12” and can also be powered by gas, electric, battery and manual operated as well.
The Husqvarna 327PT5S is a great example of a commercial grade pole saw.
All chainsaws are made for right-handed use, so left-handed people may have some difficulties adjusting and finding a comfortable grip and stance. It would be wise to practice using the chainsaw the same way a right-handed person would use it, and by “practice,” I mean simply holding it in your hands and going through the motions, but with the power off.
I recommend practicing as long as reasonably possible. It would be best to do this over a period of days, as though you were exercising. The goal is to get comfortable with the chainsaw and that takes time, so be patient and approach it like exercise – a little bit each day.
Chainsaw Maintenance & Safety
Gas chainsaws: Fuel, Oil and lubricants
Gas chainsaws obviously use gas to give it power. This is the same gas that you use in your car. Your owner’s manual will specify the minimum octane level of gas but most likely it will use “regular” fuel. Check your manual.
Two-Stroke Engine Oil
Example of bar & chain oil: Oregon 54-026
There are two types of oil used in chainsaws, one is the oil used to lubricate the bar and chain, conveniently called bar and chain oil. The other type is mixed with the gasoline in order to lubricate the engine. Bar and chain oil and two-stroke engine oil are not interchangeable – they are not the same thing so please don’t confuse the two.
Two-stroke engines require the oil to be mixed directly with the fuel in a certain ratio specified in your user manual. When buying engine oil make sure it’s labeled appropriately, typically it’s marked as “two-cycle” or “two-stroke mix oil,” and perhaps even “premix oil.” Make sure the oil is approved for chainsaws.
Steps to mix the gas and oil
- Use a fuel container (with a cap) and place it flat on the ground
- Fill your container with half the gas you want to mix
- Add the full amount of two-stroke engine oil you plan on mixing
- Close the cap and shake the container
- Add the remainder of your gas
- Close the cap and shake the container again
- Label your container clearly so you don’t mistake it for regular gasoline
Remember to shake the container before you refuel your chainsaw.
If you don’t intend to use the gas within 2 to 3 months then I recommend you add a fuel stabilizer to lengthen the life of your mixed fuel. Over time, your fuel will deteriorate, which will leave engine deposits and gum-up the carburetor. Some two-stroke oils already have stabilizers added to them so make sure you check the label before you buy.
If you find that all this mixing is too much hassle for you then you’re in luck because you can buy premixed fuels right off the shelf. They are sold in childproof containers, premixed with gasoline, containing both two-stroke engine oil and fuel stabilizer. Voila! Everything you need without the fuss, mess and extra time of mixing your own fuel mixture. This would be my personal preference because I’m lazy when it comes to tedious, and potentially messy tasks.
Chainsaw Buying Guide Video from Consumer Reports
Did you find this chainsaw buying guide helpful?
Please let me know if my chainsaw buying guide was useful to you. My goal is continually improve upon it so it’s important to hear your feedback so I can continue to grow, edit and expand upon this chainsaw buying guide over time. It’s not written for the expert chainsaw user as they don’t need a chainsaw buying guide. It’s geared toward the average homeowner who has either never used a chainsaw or perhaps they have used a chainsaw but they haven’t taken the time to educate themselves properly.
I hope you found something useful or insightful within this chainsaw buying guide. My intention in writing it was to empower you with information and give you enough details and facts about buying a chainsaw to make you feel confident when making a decision; but not so much information that you feel overwhelmed. I want you to decide what makes sense for you and allow you with the tools to make an educated buying decision.
Keep in mind that your personal needs will determine the right chainsaw for you, as well as your physical strength, fitness and budget. Make sure the chainsaw you choose has enough power to cut the size of wood you need to cut; make sure it’s the right type of chainsaw (electric, battery or gas); make sure it has great safety features; make sure it’s not too heavy for you personally — and make sure you learn about chainsaw safety before you actually start using it.
No matter what model you buy, the first thing you need to do before using it is to read the owner’s manual thoroughly, assemble the chainsaw (if it needs assembly), put on your safety gear, make sure your safety equipment is working properly, make sure the chain correctly tensioned. After that, decide what project you want to do and educate yourself on the proper steps to take before you start.
Thank-you so much for taking the time to read this chainsaw buying guide. I’m constantly updating it and new articles are published on Chainsaw Journal every week so keep checking back for more informative guides and recommendations.
Now that you know all the basics when it comes to chainsaw go visit my recommendations for the best chainsaw models in a variety of categories:
- Best Electric Chainsaws for light-duty cutting
- Best Gas Chainsaws for around the home
- Black & Decker Alligator Lopper guide
- Best Top Handle Chainsaw for pruning
- Cheap Chainsaws that won’t break the bank
- Powerful Concrete Chainsaws
- Pocket Chainsaws for on the go
- Best Chainsaws that homeowners love (All power types)
- Efficient Battery Powered Chainsaw
- Husqvarna 455 Rancher Review
- WORX JawSaw – the safer chainsaw
- The affordable Poulan Pro PP5020AV
- WORX Chainsaws buying guide
- Underrated Oregon PowerNow CS1500
- Best Chainsaw for the Money
- What to look for in a chainsaw | How to buy
- The compact and powerful Husqvarna 445
- Husqvarna K760 and other Concrete Chainsaws
- WORX Chainsaw WG303.1
- Makita UC4030A / UC3530A | Corded Electric Chainsaws
- Blue Max Chainsaw | Affordable Gas Power