How to Use a Chainsaw | Master Sawing With the Help of Our Guide

Cutting trees or wood can be very dangerous, so it is important to learn how to use a chainsaw before you try to channel your inner Paul Bunyan. Safety should be your number one priority no matter your need for a chainsaw.

If you have never used a chainsaw before and are considering it for just one job, your best bet might be to hire a professional. But if you’re determined, you need to first know the basics of safety and handling a chainsaw. Your main goal will be making sure only the wood gets cut, not anything (or anyone) else.

How to Use a Chainsaw

chainsaw chains feature razor sharp teeth

Chainsaw chains feature razor sharp teeth, which can be dangerous enough even on their own. When a chainsaw is on, those teeth spin at an alarmingly fast rate that can just as easily saw an arm or leg off as a limb of wood.

Therefore, before you start cutting anything, you must first understand how to safely use a chainsaw. Not just for your own safety, but for anyone around you. As with learning any skill, the more you use your chainsaw in a variety of situations, the better your skill is. 

And if you learn how to be safe, you’ll also remain alive and in one piece. Furthermore, as you grow in your confidence, it’s essential you don’t get complacent with your skills, as that can be just as dangerous as using a gas powered chainsaw without training. Go here for information on electric chainsaws.

Chainsaw Safety Basics

Before starting your chainsaw, you first must make sure you have the proper Personal Protective Equipment (PPE):

  • Hard hat with a face guard
  • Ear protection like muffs. Some hard hats will have earmuffs built-in
  • Sturdy boots (preferably with steel toes)
  • Long pants & sleeves
  • Gloves
  • Chainsaw chaps. Made with multiple layers of Kevlar, these come in various shapes, sizes, and features. The basic idea is to provide protection to your lower torso while handling a live chainsaw.

Any hardware store that sells chainsaw will sell the appropriate safety equipment that you’ll need.

chainsaw appropriate equipment that you'll need

In addition to wearing full PPE when you work with a chainsaw, you need to also make sure the environment you’re working in is safe. Make yourself away of structures in and around your hard that could be damaged should the tree or limbs fall the wrong way (your house, a doghouse, garden, shed, power lines, etc.).

Check the tree and note any possible escape routes you could take should something go wrong.

Also check for any diseases in the tree or insect infestations, as they could have factors in how the tree falls.

Lastly, ask yourself if you’re comfortable with the required task. Using a chainsaw is not for everyone, so if your answer is “no”, that’s perfectly fine. Again, safety should be your number one concern. Do it when you feel ready or call a professional if the job needs immediate attention.

The below advice assumes you’re using a gas chainsaw and that you want to know how to use a chainsaw to cut down a tree (or how to use a chainsaw to cut logs). 

How to Start a Chainsaw

Before you start the chainsaw, do a quick maintenance check to make sure there’s enough oil and fuel. Then, make sure your chain break is engaged to keep the chain from rotating until you’re ready to cut stuff. Also, if you have a sheath over your chainsaw, take that off before starting.

Place the chainsaw flat on the ground. If your chainsaw has a decompression valve, press it down. This will relieve any pressure in the combustion chamber and make it easier to fire up.

man starting a chainsaw

You also should close the choke to block the air flow into the engine, allowing for the most concentration of fuel to get things started. Additionally, press the primer bulb a few times (four to six pushes) to send fuel into the carburetor.

Now, with your saw firmly on the ground, place one hand on the handle, and your right foot into the rear handle. This will keep the chainsaw stable while you pull the starter cord.

Using your right hand, slowly pull the starter cord until you meet some resistance. Then pull it up hard several times in a row until you hear something like a pop or a cough, then shut off.

Move the choke lever to the run or on position, then pull the cord again. This time the engine will rumble to life and stay there.

Let it run for a bit than pull back on the throttle once (releasing it quickly) to put it in low idle.

If you’re starting the chainsaw after it has already been running for a bit, but was turned off, the process is roughly the same, except you won’t need to do anything with the choke.

Handling Your Chainsaw

A little bit of common sense will go a long way while handling your chainsaw. Be sure to keep your legs apart for stability, don’t overreach yourself or contort yourself at weird angles, and look out for any tripping hazards. Furthermore, don’t operate your chainsaw when drunk, tired, or angry.

As your handling it, be sure to keep your left hand firmly wrapped around the handle, including your thumb. Don’t tuck the thumb underneath your palm like you might do while driving, as you won’t have the proper control that way.

A few other things to consider while using your chainsaw:

  • Cut away from the tip of your chainsaw’s bar to prevent kickbacks
  • Cut at waist level
  • Avoid cutting too close to the ground, as the chainsaw could bounce up towards your head
  • Stand to the side of the saw when cutting, not hovering over top
  • Work at least 15 feet away from other people, more if you’re felling trees

Dealing with Kickback & Pinching

The most common cause of kickbacks is when the chainsaw bar hits an unforgiving force, throwing the saw (which has a bunch of sharp teeth rotating at high speeds) towards you, the operator. As you can guess, this is highly dangerous, and it is important to know how to assess your situation to avoid as many kickbacks as possible.

Good practice to avoid kickbacks is to not saw anything using the tip, if possible. Also be careful when you’re limbing, as you could hit other branches on the tree with the tip. You should also learn how to clean a chainsaw after each use.

Other factors that can lead to kickbacks are:

  • A dull chain
  • Improper maintenance
  • Loose rivets
  • Parts installed wrong
  • Chain tension is loose

Pinching is what’s called when the saw bar gets violently trapped in the wood, causing everything to stop suddenly. This could also be dangerous if you’re not paying attention, and it can be difficult to free your chainsaw from the wood.

Trees are always going to be under various degrees or tension or compression, depending on how they’ve grown, and the conditions present around them. If you understand how these certain pressures work in trees, you can easily avoid pinching just by studying the tree.

High tension will often cause the opening you make in the wood (called “the kerf”) to open wider. This is good—just keep going. High amounts of compression, however, will have the opposite effect. If you the opening begins to narrow, you’re well on your way to the chainsaw getting pinched if you don’t pull it out immediately. Then just try cutting from a different side.

Making the Cuts the Right Way

It’s important that you don’t just randomly start cutting. As you’ve seen thus far, handling a chainsaw improperly can be extremely dangerous and lead to serious injuries, or worse. You need to first make sure you have the right chainsaw for the job (gas vs. electric, size, type of chain, etc.).

Make sure to prune any branches around the tree trunk, as they could get in the way of your work and be potential causes of kickbacks.

Determine which direction the tree is going to fall and prepare your working area accordingly, including clearing your escape route. To assist with the fall, tie a safety rope around the tree (above where you’re going to cut). This will help guide the tree where you want it to go.

Don’t cut straight through the tree. You first want to cut out a wedge (do this at waist height) on the side of the tree that’s going to fall.

Once you have your wedge, go to the other side and cut a straight line that meets the upper edge of the wedge, but don’t cut all the way through. If all goes well, the tree will start to fall now, and you need to get out of the way.

How Does a Chainsaw Brake Work?

The chainsaw brake essentially locks the chain in place and stops it from spinning. The way this is done is using a steel brake band around the clutch drum, which is engaged by a powerful spring.

chainsaw brake essentially locks the chain in place

The break is essential for a few reasons. First, you want to make sure it’s engaged whenever you’re starting your chainsaw, especially if it’s a cold start. It’s also useful in between cuts or whenever you must change positions, as doing so without the brake could be hazardous and risk kickbacks or worse.

In the event of a kickback, the chain brake is also handy to keep the moving chain from hitting you in the face, neck, shoulders, etc.

The brake isn’t activated automatically, though, so you need to be aware of what’s going on so that if the chainsaw starts flying backwards you can immediately pop the brake into action. You might still get hit, but it won’t be fatal.

Useful Chainsaw Features You Need to Master

If you’re serious about learning how to use a chainsaw, you need to be able to master all the features available to you. This will not only help you learn but will keep you and others safe while you use it.

  • Chain brake: This is important for safety, as we’ve already discussed.
  • Anti-vibration: some chainsaws have this feature to help you saw more comfortably so you don’t tire as easily.
  • Automatic oiler: Automatically oils the chains while you work. Just make sure to fill the oil reservoir before starting.
  • Low/anti-kickback bars or chains: these are designed to limit the amount of kickbacks.