What are the Best Chains for Your Chainsaw?
Chainsaws are extremely versatile tools, used in all sorts of woodcutting work from felling giant trees to ripping and resizing lumber. Homeowners use them for pruning ornamental trees, cutting overgrown branches, or firewood collection. The average user probably doesn’t use their chainsaw more than a couple times per year, so they don’t put much thought into the type of chain that they put on it. With occasional use, most modern chainsaw chains can last a fairly long time. And when they do get dull, you can always take them into a shop where they will charge you a small sum of 12 to 20 dollars to sharpen and refit the chain.
Table of Contents...
Best Chains for Your Chainsaw
Spending 20 dollars once or twice a year doesn’t sound like much, but you can pay a little more and get yourself a new chain for your 18” or 20” chainsaw. If you use the chainsaw regularly for collecting and processing firewood, it is much more economically viable to sharpen your own chains at home. People who cut wood for a living own several chainsaws. They can’t afford to spend 30 minutes sharpening the chain twice every day in the middle of work (time is money). So, they keep multiple chains with them as backup in case the current one dulls out or breaks. Remember that most default chainsaw chains fitted from the factory are designed to make crosscuts through clean wood, and the chain can wear down pretty fast depending on the type of wood that you are cutting.
For instance, your saw chain will probably last longer if all you primarily use it for cutting aspen, basswood, or soft maple. Try cutting hickory or maple however, and you will find that the chain dulls out much quicker. Different chain types are meant to accomplish different goals. As a DIYer, you will want to cut all sorts of hard timber for making your own furniture pieces, and it is important to know which chain will be best suited to the job you want to do. If you are ripping lumber on a chainsaw mill, the default chain provided by your chainsaw manufacturer won’t be good enough for the task (cutting along the grain of the wood). It will slow you down and could even snap in the middle of work.
Cutting through dirty wood will also dull your chain pretty fast. Frozen wood is especially tough to cut through, and you need the right chain for the job. If you are cutting reclaimed lumber, it may have nails hidden inside which will damage your saw chain. A whole lot of factors need to be considered before you purchase a new saw chain. It is not as simple as reading out the chain measurements in front of the dealer, you also have to know which chain is right for the job that you need to do. In this article we shall discuss a lot of things regarding the process of replacing and sharpening your saw chain. How do you know when the chain is dull? What do pitch, gauge, and drive links mean? How to remove and reseat the chain on the bar? What is a low profile chain? How do low- kickback chains work? We’ll talk about all of these, and much more.
How Does A Chainsaw Chain Work?
Before we discuss the best type of chain for each job, it is important to first understand how a saw chain works. As the cutting element of a chainsaw, the chain is subjected to incredible levels of stress as it spins around the bar at extremely high speed. On a Husqvarna 455 Rancher, the chain speed at maximum power is 65.6 feet per second or 44.7 miles per hour. At that speed, each cutter travels the length of a football field in just under 5.5 seconds. What is a cutter? Well, it is one of those L- shaped teeth on the chain that is responsible for doing all the cutting. Unlike the blade on a bandsaw, a chainsaw chain isn’t one single strip of metal. It may look like a bicycle chain but doesn’t have rollers between each link. Chainsaws use leaf chains, which consist of multiple links held together by tie straps and rivets. When you take apart a chainsaw chain, these are the components you will find-
- Drive Link: Sitting in the middle, this is the part that rides in the groove of the chainsaw bar. It is the only part of the chain that comes in contact with the drive sprocket and is the lowest sitting link.
- Preset: This is what holds all the links together in place. It is similar to a regular tie strap but has two rivets on either end. The cutters and drive links have holes to slide onto these rivets.
- Left Cutter: A chainsaw chain doesn’t exactly slice through wood like a handsaw, instead it chips away at the wood much like a hand planer. Hence the name “chipper chain”. The left and right cutters are placed in an alternating pattern.
- Right Cutter: This is the cutter link with a right facing tooth. Both the left and right cutter act like tiny chisels, scraping away at the wood from both sides. Combined with the fast rotating chain, this creates a smooth cutting effect that makes it seem as though the chainsaw is slicing through wood.
- Tie Strap: It goes on the other end of the rivets, securing them onto the preset. A chain rivet tool is needed to join the tie strap with the preset. You can see how it is done in this video that shows you how to repair a chainsaw chain.
- Bumper Link: Found only on low kickback chains, it is simply a drive link with a hump on the top. In a low kickback chain, every 2nd drive link is a bumper link. When the cutter is travelling in a straight line on either side of the bar this hump stays flush with the depth gauge, but as the cutter approaches the nose of the bar, it separates from the depth gauge and creates a taller profile preventing the chain from digging too deep and getting pinched. It doesn’t affect the performance of the chainsaw and makes it much safer to use for beginners.
The Different Types of Chains
Chains can be differentiated from one another based on several characteristics- tooth design, how it has been sharpened, measurements, arrangement of teeth, etc. We will discuss how to measure your saw chain in the next section. But first let us talk about the various tooth designs and arrangements. All modern chainsaws use chipper chains, invented by Joseph Buford Cox back in 1947. He took his inspiration for the curved cutter teeth from the C- shaped jaws of timber beetle larvae.
Unlike the older square-toothed “scratcher” chains, the new chipper chains were much more effective at cutting through wood and needed less maintenance because they didn’t dull as quickly. And since chipper chains need less teeth compared to scratchers, sharpening takes less time. Since the 1950’s, a few changes have been made to suit the requirements of professional woodworkers and lumberjacks. Here are the 3 main types of cutters you will find on today’s saw chains:
Full Chisel: The most aggressive of the 3, only to be used by professional lumberjacks and sawmill operators. It will cut effortlessly through both soft and hard wood, great for ripping lumber and gets the job done slightly quicker compared to a semi- chisel chain. But it also wears out faster, so you will have to spend more time sharpening. Not recommended for muddy or frozen wood. And you shouldn’t use it for limbing or brushing because the potential for kickback is higher.
Semi-Chisel: This is the most commonly found cutter design in modern chainsaws, especially the ones sold to homeowners and casual users. The top plate is rounded off and the side plate is slightly curved as well, unlike the full chisel cutter which has a 90° angle between the top and side plates. It cuts slightly slower compared to full chisel because there is less space for sawdust and wood chips to exit the cut. Since the leading edge on the cutting corner is rounded off to reduce dulling, the tooth has a larger surface area and faces more resistance while going through the material. This type of cutter stays sharp longer and can be used to cut slightly dirty logs. It is a versatile tooth design.
Chipper: This is an extremely old cutter design, and is the original variant invented by Joseph Cox. If this was the 50’s, all chainsaws would have a chipper chain in them. These days they are hard to find, and some manufacturers are selling semi-chisels but calling them chippers. Chippers have fully rounded teeth and are the least aggressive of the three.
A true chipper tooth when viewed from the side will look like a question mark (?), as opposed to a chisel cutter which looks like the number 7. If you are cutting through dirty wood or reclaimed lumber most of the time, it might be worth investing in one of these since they don’t dull as easily as square chisel or even semi- chisel. But it won’t cut very fast through clean wood and is slower than both semi- chisel and full chisel. Not recommend for ripping but is also less likely to kickback. Some log cabin builders use these for notching.
Types of Ground
Next, we can categorize chains based on the type of ground. There are two types — round ground and square ground. Round ground is done with a round file, and square ground is done with a special beveled file. For most of you reading this article, you don’t have to concern yourself with square ground chains since those are mainly intended for lumber production and professional arborists. Both full and semi-chisel cutters can be filed into round or square configurations.
The fastest combination for cutting clean wood is full chisel with a square grind. Square ground chisel chains will be around 10 to 15 percent faster than round ground chisel chains. But in exchange, you will have to sharpen them more frequently and their lifespan is also lower, so they will have to be replaced sooner compared to round ground chains. The process of sharpening a square ground chain takes longer, and you have to know what you’re doing.
Complement of a chain refers to the pattern in which the teeth are arranged along the chain. You have 3 configurations :
- Standard: When you purchase a chainsaw for trimming, pruning, limbing, or DIY work at home, it is almost always going to be equipped with a standard chain. Meaning there is one tie strap link between each consecutive cutter. The pattern goes as follows- tie strap, left cutter, tie strap, right cutter, tie strap…
- Semi-Skip: Designed for professional use, meant for longer bars (24” and above) that are going through logs bigger than a meter in diameter. Here you have a repeating pattern of- left cutter, tie strap, tie strap, right cutter, tie strap, left cutter, tie strap, tie strap… A semi skip chain will really start showing its benefits once you get a bar over 30 inches and will also take less time to sharpen compared to a regular chain of same length (since you have fewer cutters).
- Full Skip: The pattern is- left cutter, tie strap, tie strap, right cutter, tie strap, tie strap… Found on the longest bars (28” and above) and used on chainsaws like the Stihl MS880, Husqvarna 3120XP, etc. Note that those chainsaws come with standard chains from the factory, you will have to purchase the full skip chain of your choice. On a full skip chain, there is plenty of room for waste material to exit the cut and because the tooth count is lower your chainsaw will face less resistance while cutting through giant logs. You need full skip chain for ripping lumber, which is why you will find these being used on chainsaw mills. An example of a full skip chain would be the OILOMATIC STIHL RAPID Super Full Skip (RSF) which is a 91 drive link chain for 28” bars, it has a pitch of 3/8” and a gauge of 0.050”.
In summary, full chisel is the most aggressive cutter type and square ground full chisel is the fastest for heavy duty work like ripping lumber, bucking giant logs, felling trees, etc. But the more aggressive a chain is, the more time you spend sharpening it since square ground full chisel dulls very fast. It is also bad at cutting through dirty wood. If you are working with reclaimed lumber, try round ground semi- chisel. Chippers are the best for dirty wood, but they are an old design and very hard to find these days since so few companies are still making them.
Half skip and full skip chains put less strain on the chainsaw engine, so it won’t bog down while you are trying to cut through a giant 20” log of red oak. If you put a standard chain on a Husqvarna 372XP that is running a 30” bar, the engine won’t be able to pull the chain smoothly through larger logs. A full skip chain allows chainsaws to punch above their weight class but remember to use a longer bar if you go with full skip chains. There are plenty of stories about people who own large displacement chainsaws and run them with the engine hitting its rev limiter all the time even with a 42” bar. And while it takes less time overall to sharpen a skip tooth chain, each individual tooth will experience more wear over time.
Full skip chains are often used to cut wet and gummy wood, since there is plenty of room between the widely spaced cutters for all the extra debris to flow out of the kerf. Another thing to keep in mind is the fact that skip tooth chains will grip wood harder than standard chains, increasing the risk of kickback. They are good for falling giant trees and ripping lumber in chainsaw mills, but don’t try any limbing with them because it would be too risky. For amateur woodcutters who want to fell trees with boring cuts, DO NOT use skip tooth chains of any kind (full or semi). They grip the wood way too hard on entry and kick out of it.
Selecting the right one
Now that you are familiar with the various types of cutters and chain configurations, it is time to understand how you can measure your chain. Every chainsaw chain has three basic measurements :
- Pitch: Calculated by taking the distance between any three consecutive rivets on the saw chain and dividing by 2 to get average distance between 2 rivets. The distance is measured from the center of the first rivet to the center of the third rivet, and they must all be in a straight line.
- Gauge: It is the thickness of the drive link and will decide if a chain is going to fit inside the rails of a chainsaw bar. If the gauge of a saw chain is too big it won’t fit inside the bar, and if the gauge is too small it will flop around from side to side with the possibility of derailing and whipping around back at the user.
- Drive link count/ Length of Chain: This will decide if a chain is going to be tensioned properly around the bar and ensures a snug fit. Even if you get the pitch and gauge right, the chain will not fit unless it is the right length. You can get the length of the chain by removing it from the bar and counting the number of drive links manually. Usually this number is etched into the chain itself or can be found on the side of the bar.
Low profile chains
Originally introduced back in the 1970’s, low profile saw chains were designed to fit on small chainsaws with engine sizes up to 42cc and comply with ANSI regulated low-kickback standards. These chains are available in two different pitch sizes- 0.25” and 1/8”. When you compare a 3/8” x 0.050” low profile chain to a regular profile 3/8” x 0.050” chain, you will notice a couple of differences. Primarily, there is a height difference between the two when you view them from the side. A standard profile 3/8” x 0.050” (pitch x gauge) chain will stand roughly 0.75 tall, whereas a low profile 3/8” x 0.050” chain will be around 0.5” in height.
The individual links are shorter in height on a low profile chain, and the tie straps are skinnier. These chains are low- kickback from the factory and can be found on several consumer chainsaws with guide bar lengths under 16”. They are lighter than regular profile chains, so the centrifugal forces generated as they spin around the bar is much lesser. This means the bar will last longer before you have to file its rails, and the chainsaw will weigh less with the bar and chain attached. Low profile chains are intended for light duty work such as pruning, limbing branches up to 6” in diameter, and cutting 2 x 4 wood for DIY projects.
Many people ask if they can fit a low profile chain on a bar that is designed to accept regular profile chains. Well technically, if the measurements (pitch, gauge and length) for the low profile and regular chain are similar then the answer is yes. But we don’t recommend it, since the low profile chain will have drive links that are shorter in height, leaving more space for debris to accumulate between the drive link and guide bar rails.
Your chainsaw bar will eventually clog up, and you will have to take it apart and clean it much more frequently. Not only that, but there is a chance of the low profile chain slipping from the sprocket and damaging the bar. On the contrary, you cannot fit a regular profile chain into a bar designed for standard profile even if the pitch, gauge, and drive link count match that of the previous low profile chain that you were using. On a bar designed exclusively for low profile chains, the standard profile chain is going to sit way taller than it should and there will be a gap between the chain and bar which makes it extremely dangerous to operate.
How to measure a saw chain?
We know what pitch, gauge, and drive link count mean on a saw chain. Now let’s create a hypothetical scenario. Say you are cutting through some dirty used lumber that was previously part of a barn door or something like that. And while you are making a nice crosscut across the board, you hear a sharp noise and the saw suddenly kicks out of the wood. You stop it, and notice that one of the cutters struck a steel nail embedded within the wood. That cutter is now ruined, and no amount of sharpening will restore it, so it is time to get a new chain. First you release the throttle and activate the chain brake.
Then you turn off the saw and set it down to cool with the chain brake still active. Then you pull out your scrench, take apart the side cover and remove the bar. You search either side of the bar for engravings that tell you the pitch, gauge, and length of the chain. But since your bar is pretty old and has been through a lot of wood, those engravings have either worn off completely or are very hard to read. Now what do you do?
Well, the next step involves cleaning the chain and examining its links for clues on crucial measurements. On some chains you fill find more than just the brand name etched into the links. For instance, Stihl saw chains have a couple numbers that are laser etched on both the drive links and cutters. For example, the drive link will have the number 6 on it. And the cutter tooth will have the number 3 on it. What does this mean? If you are familiar with Stihl saw chains, it means that this is a 3/8” pitch x 0.063” gauge chain. And you can then count the number of drive links yourself to get the length.
Sounds pretty simple right? Well it is not always the case, and there are several chains that don’t have etchings on the links. If you have lost the box it came in, you have no way of knowing the measurements. What do you do then? There is this nifty little tool that looks like a plastic card with holes and slots cut in, it is designed to help you measure all sorts of stuff on the bar and chain such as pitch, gauge, file size, etc. It is the Oregon 556418 Bar and Chain measuring tool. You can see how a certified professional uses this tool to identify chain pitch, gauge, and file size. The most common chain pitch measurements are- 0.325”, 0.375” (available in both low and standard profile), and 0.404” (found on harvester chainsaws and felling saws). There is also the ¼” pitch low profile chain. As for chain gauge, there are 4 common sizes measured in thousands of an inch- 0.043”, 0.050”, 0.058”, and 0.063”.
VIDEO | How to Measure Bar & Chain Size
What if you don’t have any measuring tools at hand? Well in that case, you better hope you have some money in your pockets. No, we are not telling you to go out and buy a measuring tool from your nearby hardware shop. You see, coins like the quarter, penny, and dime have fixed thicknesses. For instance, a Quarter is about 0.069” thick. A Penny is about 0.059” inches thick. And a Dime is nearly 0.053” thick. Those numbers sound familiar? Yes, because they are very close to 3 of the most commonly used gauge numbers on modern saw chains. What a coincidence right? You can tell the gauge of your chainsaw chain by seeing which one of these coins fits the best inside the rails of your guide bar. There should be no wiggle room, but it doesn’t have to be an extremely tight fit either. For 0.063” gauge bars, it is going to be the quarter. For 0.050” inch bars it is going to be the dime, and for 0.058” gauge guide bars, you will find the best fit with a penny.
If nothing works and you aren’t sure about the measurements of your chain, check the owner’s manual of your chainsaw or the official website. Usually they will have a chart with the correct gauge, pitch, and drive link count for various models of chainsaws. Or, you can take your chain over to the local chainsaw dealer/ repair shop and get more information.
Problems with running a dull chain
How do you know if your chainsaw chain is getting dull? What will happen if you keep using a dull chain? The first sign of a dull chain is going to be the type of debris that is produced when the chain is going through wood. With a sharp chisel chain, you will get little wooden chips whereas with a dull chain you get finer particles similar to sawdust. The second sign of a dull chain is the amount of pressure that you have to apply on the chainsaw to force it into the cut, because it doesn’t want to dig in.
A chainsaw running a freshly sharpened chain will pull itself into the wood, you won’t have to push it in or apply too much pressure. All you have to do is control its motion and keep a secure grip. The issue with forcing a chainsaw into the wood is twofold- first you are tiring yourself out much quicker, it is impossible to cut firewood or buck logs for extended periods of time with a dull chain. Secondly, the force you are applying on the chainsaw will force the line of chain running on the opposite end of the bar to grind closer and scrape against the rails of the bar. This will damage the chain and wear out the bar.
The engine also has to work harder when you are cutting with a dull chain, because it is facing increased resistance as the blunt cutters slam into the wood instead of chipping away at it. And this takes its toll on the clutch too, if you constantly run a dull chain you are going to wear out the clutch faster. So, don’t waste precious time and fuel, make sure the chain is sharp before you start cutting wood. A typical semi- chisel chain will go through 2 or 3 sharpening cycles before you have to replace it. Many people ask, “how often should I sharpen my chainsaw chain?” Honestly, the answer can vary a lot depending on the type of wood you are cutting, how regularly you are using the saw, and the type of chain that you are using (semi or full chisel, square or round ground). There is no definitive answer to this question, people cutting aspen or basswood once or twice a week won’t sharpen their chains as often as a professional lumberjack who is cutting through oak and maple logs on a daily basis.
If the chainsaw is spitting out fine sawdust instead of spiraled woodchips and you have to force it into the wood, it is time to either sharpen or replace the chain. You will notice that each cutter has a diagonal line (known as witness mark) running across the rear end. It serves two purposes- firstly, it tells you the angle at which you want to sharpen the face of the cutter (30° for most chains). Secondly, it signals the end of the cutter’s life. As you sharpen the cutter you file away material and it keeps getting shorter and shorter until there isn’t enough tooth left to make cuts.
How to change the chain on a chainsaw?
First you want to make sure the chainsaw isn’t running (obviously). If you’re on the field, take your finger off the throttle and activate the anti- kickback chain brake. Set it down on a flat surface and turn off the engine. Next, you need to take off the side cover which is usually secured to the body of the chainsaw with a couple of nuts. You will need a T- wrench for this one, most people carry a combination socket tool (scrench) with them while working. An important thing to note here is that some chainsaws have their chain brake integrated into the side cover. Even after you remove the nuts, you will find it hard to remove the side cover. Deactivate the chain brake, and then remove the cover. If you simply yank it off by force, with the chain brake still on, you will never be able to get it back on.
Once the cover is off, grab the nose of the bar and gently pull it sideways to outside in order to release the chain tensioner which will remove the tension from the chain. Now the chain will droop down, and you can safely remove it. Make sure you are wearing gloves, because even a stationary chain can cut your fingers if you grab one of the sharp cutters. Locate the chain tension adjustment screw, on most modern chainsaws it will be on the side, but some models have it located between the bar and bucking spikes.
Take the tension down further, then seat your new saw chain carefully onto the drive sprocket which is located next to the clutch drum. Stretch the chain out and loop it around the guide bar, while making sure that the leading edges on the cutters are facing forward. This is very important, you don’t want the cutters to be pointing in the wrong direction as it will severely hamper the performance of your saw. The cutter tooth is slanted at an angle from front to back, the back is lower and blunt while the face is tall and sharp with an angled edge. That edge needs to be facing forward, and away from the engine. It faces away from the chainsaw at the top of the bar and as it goes around the nose and down the bar, it starts facing into the chainsaw.
VIDEO | Putting on the Chainsaw Chain Correctly
When you put the bar back on in its regular position, make sure that the tension adjuster pin is sticking out through the hole in the base of the guide bar. Now you can mount the side cover and loosely screw in the securing nuts with your fingers. On all chainsaws, the guide bar will have a bit of room for vertical movement. When you are cutting through wood it will try to move up, so pull it up by holding the nose before you tension the chain. You know the chain tension is just right when you tug on it with your fingers and it snaps back. Don’t tension it too much or you will wear down the bar. You don’t want it to be too loose either, or else it will hang off the bottom of the bar and swing around when you are cutting, forcing the saw to make cut sideways (in the worst case, a loose chain may derail and hit you). Once the chain is tensioned, you can use your T- wrench or combination tool to securely tighten the nuts.