Know Your Saw Chain

While different chains have different uses, all chains need to be properly sharpened and adjusted for top performance. “When it’s cutting, a good, sharp chain will produce large chips of wood. You can see the difference,” says Stihl’s John Allen. Photo courtesy of Stihl.

Chain-saw professionals talk shop about a valuable component that might be more complicated than you think.

When John Allen was growing up, his parents owned a Stihl dealership in southwest Virginia. As dealers, they were well versed in the details of the equipment and about local conditions that might favor one saw chain over the other. They often were called upon to use that knowledge to help a customer. So, when he joined Stihl 15 years ago, Allen already understood there was a lot to know about chain-saw chain.

“I had an idea, because I’d been around Stihl ever since I was a teenager,” says Allen, chain-saw product manager for the company. “Being around my folks in the Stihl dealership, I’d seen people come in and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got this particular saw, and I need a chain for it,’ or, ‘I need a bar for it.’ Just helping them with questions like that.

If we are going to talk chains, it helps to know the various features. “For most cutting, semi-chisel chains will provide great all-around performance and require less sharpening than a full-chisel chain,” says TriLink Saw Chains’ Terry Melen. Graphic courtesy of TriLink.

“I know it’s a vastly complicated topic, and even for me, as a product manager, some days it feels like it’s overwhelming how many different options are out there for bars and chains and pitches and gauges and chain saws and all of that. But in the end, I can still call the folks at the Stihl dealership and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got this old chain saw that I’ve never seen before. Can you help me find the right bar and chain for it?’”

This month, we queried representatives from some of the tree care industry’s leading chain-saw or chain manufacturers (not every chain-saw company makes its own chain) and found out just how much there is to know about an important component in the tree-care-equipment kit. They were asked the same questions (some via email), and their answers provide some valuable insight into a tool that’s used every day.

Take, for example, a breakdown of three Stihl chains.

“Our chain-saw chain is set up to work well with both hardwoods and softwoods,” Allen says. “There are three main types of cutters that Stihl offers in the marketplace. There is the Rapid Micro (RM) Chain, the Rapid Super (RS) Chain and the Duro Chain, which is a carbide chain. The Rapid Micro Chain is a semi-chisel cutter, and typically it stays sharp longer and requires less maintenance than our RS chain, which is a full-chisel cutter and typically performs better. However, that (RS) chain requires sharpening more frequently. The Duro Chain has a carbide piece that is braised onto the chain, and it stays sharp longer than our standard chain. However, to sharpen the chain, it requires special diamond grinding wheels for the sharpening system. Those are the three chains we offer.”

While two of the three chains can be sharpened in the field with a hand file, Allen reiterates, the Duro Chain is typically sharpened in the shop with a grinding wheel. How much sharpening it requires is determined by a variety of factors, including the wood being cut (including how dirty it is after being dragged), whether it hits a nail or other object as it’s cutting and the style of its handler.

“What I tell chain-saw users is, as they’re using the chain saw, watch the chips that the saw is producing,” Allen says. “When it’s cutting, a good, sharp chain will produce large chips of wood. You can see the difference. When you’re cutting with a sharp chain, it’s pulling out big pieces of wood. However, when a chain starts to get dull, it produces flour, almost; it produces fine dust, it starts getting hot, it starts smoking, things like that.”

In the field, you can touch up some chain types with a file, but a Stihl dealer will have the correct equipment to professionally sharpen it and get it back to precisely the right angle that the chain needs to perform at its best, Allen says.

For obvious reasons, Allen points a chain-saw user in the direction of their local Stihl dealer, who brings solid knowledge of both the product and the local conditions.

“They’re a valuable asset to have available if a chain saw needs repairs or if it needs an accessory, a spare part, fuel or protective equipment,” Allen says. “Your Stihl dealer can supply all of these things.”

Ben McDermott, Husqvarna

Ben McDermott, product manager for professional chain saws and chain-saw accessories at Husqvarna, has been with Husqvarna for seven years and in the outdoor-power-equipment field for 17. He knows that tree care professionals know their equipment and carry different saws for different operations. “They’re pretty in tune to what they like and what chain types they need for their equipment.

Husqvarna’s X-Cut C-85 is a full-chisel, high-performance 3/8-inch, 1.5-mm chain designed for professional saws. “If you’re talking hardwood, your full-chisel cutter is going to be a more aggressive cutter,” says Ben McDermott. Photo courtesy of Husqvarna.

“If you’re doing an in-tree or arborist job where you’re doing maintenance or crown reduction or pruning, you’re not going to need a 90-cc or 70-cc chain saw that makes those smaller, finer cuts,” McDermott says. “You’re going to that part of your toolbox with a smaller cc, or even now our battery-powered chain saw that gives you the power you need to make those small cuts. Now, if you’re on the ground and you’re felling large timber, you’re going to need the chain saw with the power that can cut through those massive trees, which will get you into your higher-cc chain-saw categories … even a 100- or 120-cc chain saw. It depends on what job is being done, the size of the wood, the types of cuts you’re making. Often for professionals, there’s a need for more than one saw to get the job done.”

Similarly, the chain on those saws will differ. Smaller saws will have a smaller-pitch and likely smaller-gauge chain, to keep it light and optimize the power of the saw, McDermott says.

How does the type of wood make a difference?

“If you’re talking hardwood, your full-chisel cutter is going to be a more aggressive cutter. It’s going to have a square angle, a 90-degree angle. The problem with using a full-chisel chain on hard wood or even in dirty cutting conditions is that cutting edge is not going to last as long, because it is so aggressive. So what you’ll find in that type of cutting environment is that you’ll have to stop and maintain that chain. Often, in those types of environments, a user would prefer a semi-chisel chain, because it does have a better stay-sharp property and will stay sharper longer.”

Does bar length matter?

“On the longer bar, 32 inches and longer, you’re often going to find what we call a skip-tooth chain. It’s popular for milling and cross cutting. It has a reduced number of cutters, and that improves the chain’s ability to clear the chip running through the saw. With a chain with the standard number of cutters, it would tend to get bogged down and drag due to the amount of chips it’s pulling through. If you reduce that number of cutters, you reduce the amount of drag, which also reduces the amount of power needed to get through that cut.”

“The thicker-gauge or heavier-pitch and -gauge chain, and the longer bar and length of chain, will factor into the chain speed. You’re going to require more power to pull that longer and thicker, heavier gauge through the wood.”

Does it make a difference if the saw is powered by battery or gas?

“The main difference is going to be what that cc equivalence is. For example, our new T540 IXP battery-powered chain saw is equivalent to 40-cc, gas-powered chain saws. It really depends on the amount of power that chain saw has, and you want to pair up and match a lighter-weight or lower-profile chain to be sure you’re optimizing that power efficiency. In general, battery power is going to be on the lower-
cc spectrum, so you are generally going to find lower-pitch and small-gauge chain types on those products.”

Are they made of different metals?

“Each chain manufacturer has its own proprietary metal treatments and coding specifications. There are not that many components. The complexity is the speed in which it needs to produce and the linkages you need to form those chains. Each component – the cutter, the drive link and the rivet – is going to have different specifications and likely will require different modifications to its recipe, if you will (involving different heat treatments, coating and plating operations). It’s a very complicated process to produce a saw chain, which probably explains why there are only a handful of manufacturers in the world that actually do it.”

Does chain speed or torque matter?

Scott Ferguson, Blount International

Scott Ferguson is the OEM (original equipment manufacturer) sales manager for Blount International, a leader in manufacturing saw chain and guide bars under the brand names Oregon, Carlton and KOX. As such, he works with Echo and many other chain-saw manufacturers in both North America and globally. Ferguson has been in the outdoor power-
equipment (OPE) business since 1975 and in the chain-saw business for 34 years, more than 13 with Blount. Oregon is the world’s leading brand of saw chain, according to Ferguson, who explains that founder Joe Cox invented the modern-day saw-chain tooth by observing a timber beetle boring through a stump in 1947.

“There have been a myriad of advancements and improvements in saw-chain and cutting technology since then, but all saw chains being built today are based on Joe Cox’s idea,” says Ferguson, who offered the following observations on chains.

Does the type of wood matter?

“Yes and no. By type of wood, do you mean the type of tree? Hard or soft wood? Clean wood or dirty? Fresh-cut or dry wood? Cutting conditions/temperatures – frozen wood creates additional challenges. Oregon does not make chains for cutting particular species of trees/wood but rather for the type/style of cutting, the desired result or the size and type of saw.”

Are chains made of different materials?

“Yes. Depending on the chain family (size and applications), we use different materials, or the chain chassis is of different sizes (for durability/strength) and the cutter may have different thicknesses of chrome. For our professional chains, we use a patented steel, OCS-01, that better withstands the stresses of thermal shock in extreme-cold weather conditions.”

Does bar length matter?

“This is often a function of the power of the chain saw, personal preference and what you are trying to cut. If you are up in a tree, you might want a short, lightweight bar for maneuverability. If you are felling a tree, you would want a longer bar to cut your hinge.

Blount’s new SpeedCut Nano is a 325-inch pitch, .043-inch gauge, narrow-kerf chain designed specifically for battery and smaller-petrol saws. Greenworks Commercial, a manufacturer of battery-powered outdoor equipment, sources all its saw chain from Blount/Oregon. Photo courtesy of Blount International.

“Loggers in Europe typically run shorter bars than their North American counterparts. In the Nordic countries, 13-, 15- and 18-inch bars are the most common. In the U.S., you will see 12-, 14- and 16-inch bars on smaller saws and 20-inch, 24-inch and up on larger saws.”

Does chain speed/torque and battery vs. petrol matter?

“Blount/Oregon works with our OEM partners when they are developing new saws to try to find the best cutting system based on the saw’s power range/torque curve. We can run numerous tests based on feed load (force), engine RPM and the engine or motor torque. We share chain-
efficiency data – the amount of material removed – and can offer recommendations.

“The battery-saw revolution has radically changed our design and testing processes. We had to develop new test equipment to replicate the different torque curves and power ranges of the battery saws. Until recently, almost all battery saws were using chains originally designed for petrol saws. Blount’s engineering team developed a new chain designed specifically for battery and smaller-petrol saws, SpeedCut
Nano, a .325-inch pitch, a .043-inch guage, narrow-kerf saw chain. This completely new chain family is available on select saws today. You will see it on a number of saws by late 2021 and early 2022.”

What are the advantages and disadvantages of different types of chain?

“Selecting the right chain to match your saw’s power and/or bar length is critical. Carpenters or carvers often use ‘full-house’-sequence chains (which have a cutting tooth on every link, twice as many as standard chain) for a better finish and smoother cut. If speed/
production is your top priority, chisel cutters are preferred. The problem with the chisel is that, as it cuts with the leading corner, if it gets impacted or dulled, you need to resharpen your chain to get any work done.

“I personally recommend micro- or semi-chisel-style cutters whenever possible for a variety of applications. These cutter styles are both fast and easy to maintain.”

Terry Melen, TriLink Saw Chains

Terry Melen is the national distribution accounts manager for TriLink Saw Chains. He’s a big believer in user education, which is the reason his company hands out product-knowledge guides at trade shows. Simply put, Melen says, “We believe an informed user is a safer user.”

Does the type of wood matter?

“Yes. The hardness of the wood affects the cutting speed. Many operators lower their depth gauges when cutting softer woods, like pine, only to find they have lowered them too far when cutting a harder wood, like maple. Incorrect depth-gauge height causes the chain to overwork, leading to dangerous conditions, like kickback, which can harm the operator. Following the manufacturer’s recommended settings for sharpening and depth-gauge height will ensure a safer cut.

“For most cutting, semi-chisel chains will provide great all-around performance and require less sharpening than a full-chisel chain. Chisel chains are faster, have a sharper edge and provide a more aggressive, quicker cut. Chisel chains work great for professional and experienced users in clean conditions. However, if the wood is dirty from mud or sand, the chisel performance degrades quickly and will need more frequent sharpening. When cutting in these dirty conditions, a semi-chisel chain is recommended.”

Does the bar length matter?

“Bar length only affects the saw-chain performance if the bar is longer than the manufacturer’s recommendation. In this case, your saw chain is too long and likely slowing down the saw’s engine speed and saw-chain speed, essentially slowing your cut. This presents a situation where operators have to overexert themselves, pushing down on the saw, forcing the cut and causing premature wear of the bar, chain and sprocket. Overexerted operators are also more prone to injury.”

Does the chain speed or torque make a difference?

“As noted (previously), chain speed is important to complete the job efficiently and safely.”

Does it make a difference if the saw is battery-powered vs. gas?

The main difference is to use the right chain saw for the right job. For instance, when felling a large, 30-inch trunk, a gas-powered saw with a greater bar length would be more appropriate than a 12-inch, battery-powered saw. Smaller battery-powered saws are designed for jobs when you’re climbing and cutting limbs, as the saw weighs less and is more balanced. Both saw types have their place.

Ego’s CS1804 Bucking Saw, as with all Ego saws, uses Oregon chain. Photo courtesy of Ego.

Are chains made of different metals?

“Most manufacturers use similar metals in the manufacturing of saw chains and bars. If the metal is too soft, you will have premature dulling and possible chain failure. If the metal is too hard, it will be difficult to sharpen, will wear out the bar and sprocket prematurely and will possibly cause chain failure. The right composition is important so that the chain performs well, doesn’t damage other components and performs safely.”

Mike DeMaira, Ego/Chervon

Mike DeMaira, OPE product manager for Ego (trademarked “EGO”)/Chervon, is still learning but knows there’s a big universe of chain saws and chains. Ego has had chain saws in its lineup since 2014, and currently sources its bar and chain from Oregon.

“I started with Ego/Chervon back in 2014 but did not really start working on the category until very recently, so I would consider myself far from being an expert,” he says. “There’s still a lot to learn.”

What are the options and when is it best to use which chain?

“The most common chain has chrome-tipped cutters, which helps keep then sharp and resistant to corrosion. There are also carbide-tipped chains, which are more expensive, stronger and not affected by heat.”

Does the type of wood matter?

“Harder woods will obviously dull chain tips more quickly.”

Does the bar length matter?

“Ego currently offers 14-, 16- and 18-inch bars and chain. We also offer a 10-inch bar and chain for a pole saw.”

Conclusion

Many factors determine the best chain to use in any given situation. Be sure to include the manufacturer’s recommendations when choosing the right chain for your saw.

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