Saw Like a Lumberjack Champ

Learn safe chain saw operation from a seven-time world lumberjack champion.

If you own a chain saw (or simply want one), you know how useful they are for felling trees, clearing deadfall and preparing firewood. But along with their usefulness comes the potential for injury. According to the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission, there were more than 30,000 chain saw injuries last year alone. But fear not - by following proper operating and maintenance procedures, you can achieve years of safe, reliable service from your chain saw.

To better instruct you in proper chain saw etiquette, we sought out renowned chain saw authority Ron Hartill, seven-time world lumberjack champion (shown in the lead photo). We sat down with Ron for some hands-on instruction and, in the process, discovered that even if you're an old hand at using a chain saw, there's always a tip or two you can learn when it comes to safety and proper operation.

To work confidently and safely, it's important to familiarize yourself with your chain saw's parts and controls.

Know Your Chain Saw,br> Though it's the chain that does the work during the cutting process, every part of your chain saw is designed with efficient operation and safety in mind (see photo). To operate your chain saw as safely as possible, it's important to understand what these components do and how they function.

  • Chain catcher - located on the bottom of the saw; catches the chain if it breaks or derails
  • Throttle lock - located on the top of the handle; prevents accidental throttle advance
  • Stop control - located near the rear handle; allows you to quickly shut off the engine
  • Right-hand guard - located on the bottom of the rear handle; protects your right hand from a broken chain
  • Chain brake - located above the rear of the bar; stops the chain in the event of a kickback

Proper Operation
Though different brands and individual models may have specific operating instructions in respect to their engine designs, all chain saws share the same basic safe-operating requirements.

Before you start the saw, carry it at least 10 ft. from the refueling area, and make sure that other people and animals are well away from the working area. Activate the chain brake by pushing the front hand guard forward. Grip the front handle with your left hand. Hold the chain saw firmly on the ground by place your right foot through the rear handle - make sure the chain is not making contact with anything (see photo, below). Grasp the starter rope with your right hand and slowly pull until you feel resistance. As the starter pawls engage, pull on the rope firmly and rapidly.

To safely start a chain saw, hold the saw firmly on the ground by placing your right foot through the rear handle.

To safely make cuts, start by positioning the workpiece (if possible) so that the saw will neither jam in the cut nor cause the workpiece to dangerously split or release tension. In cases where you can't move the workpiece, carefully examine it to determine in which direction the tension will be released, and position yourself accordingly.

Take a wide stance, with your feet squarely and firmly planted on the ground. (Ron refers to this as a boxer's stance; see photo, below) As you feed the saw through the workpiece, make sure the chain will not make contact with the ground or any other object. Position the bar of the saw evenly on the workpiece, with the bucking spikes against the face of the log, and slowly feed the saw through the wood.

When running a chain saw, take a wide boxer's stance. Do not allow the kickback zone of the bar to engage the workpiece in any way, and fully wrap your fingers and thumb around the handle.

As you operate the saw, don't let the upper quadrant of the bar's nose (known as the kickback zone) make contact with any object - if it does, the saw can suddenly and violently be thrown backward and can cause serious or fatal injuries. Though the inertia chain brake should shut off the chain in the event of a kickback, the best safety measure is to simply never use the saw in a way that can cause a kickback.

Always hold the saw firmly with your right hand on the rear handle and your left hand on the front handle, regardless of whether you're right- or left-handed. Wrap your fingers and thumbs around the handles to minimize the effect of kickback and keep the saw under better control.

Chain saws are powerful tools, and therefore potentially dangerous. Safety always comes first, and it starts with wearing the proper attire. Never saw without a helmet, safety glasses or a full-coverage visor and hearing protection. Protect your hands with a pair of heavy gloves and your feet with a pair of boots that have a protective toe-cap and heavy treads. In addition , wear trousers or chaps that are designed for chain saw work and incorporate saw and abrasion protection. (The best chaps meet American Society for Testing and Materials standards, which require them to stop a chain saw running at 2,600 fpm under controlled laboratory conditions.) And if you'll be working in the field with other people, wear a bright-colored jacket so you can easily be spotted.

Sharpening the chain
A chain saw's ability to cut wood comes from the sharp, opposing cutters evenly spaced along the chain. Cutters are made up of two components: a ramp-like depth gauge that controls the depth of the cut and a dual-profile cutting element. These two profiles (referred to as the top plate and side plate) contain three different angles that, when combined, cut through wood like a chisel and scoop out the chips. But like any cutting device, the chain can become dull. It's time to sharpen the chain when you see these signs:

  • The chain no longer self-feeds, and you find yourself pushing on the saw to make it cut.
  • The saw's discharge is dusty. A sharp chain expels small wood chips, not dust.

You'll need only a few inexpensive items to sharpen a saw chain (see photo, below). Many chain saw manufacturers offer sharpening tools specific to their brand, but most chains can be sharpened with generic tools available wherever chain saws are sold.

The proper tools for sharpening a chain include a round file, a sharpening guide, a 6-in. flat file and a stump vise.

First you'll need a round file. Different-size chains and different cutter styles call for specific file diameters. You'll need a file guide to help you consistently hold the file at the correct height and orientation within each cutter. Other items you'll need include a depth-gauge filing guide, a stump vise (if you plan to do any sharpening in the field) and a pair of heavy gloves.

Sharpening The Cutters
Secure the saw with either a stump vise (as Ron does) or on a workbench. Place the file guide over the cutter, and lay the file across the guide and within the cutter. File from inside the cutter to outside using full strokes. Apply pressure against the cutter rather than down, and let up on the return stroke (see photo, below). File all of the cutters on one side of the chain; then file the cutters on the other side.

Place the sharpening guide over the chain and position the file over the rollers and into the cutter. File every other tooth with an even, pushing stroke; then turn the saw around and file the remaining teeth.

Maintaining Depth Gauges
As you sharpen the cutters, the clearance between their cutting elements and the chain's depth gauges slowly becomes smaller. To offset this gradual reduction, you must also file the depth gauges. Some sharpening guides double as depth-gauge guides and are set for the recommended clearance; if yours doesn't do double-duty, you can use a separate depth-gauge filing guide.

Place the guide over the chain, making sure its top surface rests squarely on the chain's top plates (see photo, below). Using a 6-in. flat file, stroke from inside the cutter to outside until the depth gauge is flush with the top of the slot. Repeat this sequence until all of the depth gauges are the correct height.

Hold the depth-gauge filing guide against the cutter and over the depth gauge. Use a flat file to file the cutters' depth gauge until the file makes contact with the filing guide.

If you own a Dremel rotary tool, you can quickly sharpen a chain with the No. 1453 chain saw-sharpening attachment. The sharpener attaches to many of Dremel's rotary tool models and includes sharpening stones, sharpening guides and complete instructions. To use the Dremel sharpener, begin on the near-side teeth, keeping the line on the guide parallel to the chain (see photo, below). A few light strokes on each tooth are enough. Next, sharpen the far side, keeping the back edge of the guide parallel to the chain. Use the same number of strokes on each tooth to maintain proper chain balance. After completing all of the cutters on the top of the bar, advance the chain with a gloved hand and sharpen the rest of the cutters.

General maintenance
There are a few other basic steps Ron recommends you take to ensure your chain saw operates as efficiently as possible.

  • Check the chain tension and adjust as necessary. As a chain wears, it can stretch and lose its proper tension. Check the tension by performing a "snap test." At the center of the bar, grasp the chain with two fingers. Lift the chain away from the bar and release (see photo, below). A properly tensioned chain will quickly snap back into position. If the chain loosely falls into position or sags, you'll need to adjust the bar. Each brand of saw has different provisions for adjustment, so consult the owner's manual for the proper procedure.
  • Remove the clutch cover and clean the chain brake band and the chain bar. Dirt and debris can keep the chain brake from functioning properly. Remove the cylinder cover, clean any debris from the air filter, and clean off the cooling fins and air intake to keep the engine from overheating during normal operation.
  • Inspect the chain brake, throttle control and chain catcher. Make sure that all of the saw's safety features work as designed and are not damaged in any way. Check that the chain lubrication system is functioning properly, inspect the drive wheel to make sure that it's not worn, and tighten any loose nuts, bolts and screws.

To perform a snap test, grasp the chain, lift it away from the bar and release. A properly tensioned chain will quickly snap back into position. A loose chain will visibly sag.

Remove the cylinder cover and clean any debris from the air filter and cylinder cooling fins.

Regularly check the saw's safety features such as the chain catcher (shown here). If the saw has a damaged plastic catcher, replace it with a metal version.

Following these maintenance tips and operating procedures will enhance your safety and help you get years of service out of your saw.