Prepping: Chainsaws 101

I know what you’re thinking:  “George, how can you think of something like a chainsaw as a prepping tool???”

Well, the answer is simple:  Once you leave the “call 9-1-1 for any problems – or the water department – or whatever – and you get back to Nature, you finds that nature isn’t going to be all neatly arranged like people living in the people-coops (apartments) think in their ridiculous visions of what to prep for.

Given $200 bucks to spend, it is hard to find something that can empower more work in a remote, wilderness (meaning no other dangerous people around) than a couple of long guns and a chainsaw.  Let me give you some examples:

  • Downed trees:  You have that bug-out spot in the country but there’s a problem with your evac route:  A major storm has downed trees and there’s no easy way around ’em.
  • Fire:  Think about California:  How many of the people there with a little head’s up and a chainsaw might have been able to help their homes survive – if they’d had a chainsaw and the foresight to put on a metal roof and keep low-lying brush cleared?
  • Emergency Shelters:  I can guarantee you that with a four-wheel drive vehicle, 100-feet of 5/8ths good rope and a CHAINSAW, I can whip up a pretty decent emergency shelter any time.
  • Long Term Shelter:  If you have a ton of trees like we do, there’s an easy way to build an underground house:  Dig a deep hole (something around 8 feet deep ought to do it, and then cut down and move in logs as overhead beams.  Then, with an inexpensive pool liner and sloping for drainage, cover with 5-8 feet of dirt.  How you have a basic shelter that will be almost impervious to many of the coming threats.

Sure, $200 worth of freeze-dried food is great, but a) someone’s going to try and steal if from you if you’re around other people and b) where are you going when it rains.  You know, that Maslow Hierarchy of Needs stuff.

Which Chainsaw is “Right?”

OMG, this is a tough one.  Depends what you mean by “right.”

Cheap: If you’re willing to gamble, there are some great Chinese-made saws on the market (and on the Zon) for well under $200.  These come with some risk, however, based on the reviews of the $129 Meditool 52CC Chainsaw, 3.5HP Gas Chainsaw, Gas Powered Chainsaw Handed Petrol Chainsaw with Smart Start Super Air Filter System and Automatic Oiling and Tool Kit.  Read around ther web and realize parts may not be easy to find.

Mid-Range Saws:   Since we are (nominally) a tree farm operation when we’re not trying to get by otherwise, we need a saw.  We need something more dependable than the imports, too, since at least half a dozen times a year a tree (min. 12″ diameter) will fall over our access roads and block us in.  We went with a $190 Poulan Pro PP5020AV 20-Inch 50cc 2 Stroke Gas Powered Chain Saw With Carrying Case.  Great saw – some of the time – which we’ll get into in a minute…

Great Saws:  If you have money to burn there are only a couple of choices.  On the Zon, something like the $467 Husqvarna 460 Rancher 20-Inch 60.3cc 2-Stoke X-Torq Gas Powered Chain Saw will keep you cutting all day and with care, it’s a good basic professional woodsman saw.  Going up from here?  Well, the German name Stihl saws are very well-regarded in the woods but now you’re into something sold only through a dealer network and you can buy somewhere between 2 and 10 of the cheap and mid-range saws to pay for one Stihl.  Again, this is a “You get what you pay for deal” so common in life.

Set Up and Assembly

Since I have a Poulan that was on the workbench this week, you may be interested in a tour de saw for some idea if you’re a newbie at tree-falling.

Let’s look at mine (with the recoil starter removed which we’ll get to in a sec.):

Here’s what you are looking at:

  • That fan in the middle is how 2-cycle chainsaws are cooled.  The air comes in from the recoil starter side *(generally the left) and cross-cools the saw.  Simple centrifugal fan.
  • On the left, the targer of 2 liquid ports is where the gasoline goes.  Because these are 2-cycle saws, you need to mix oil and gas per the manufacturer’s directions.  The mixture may be oil-heavy (16:1, gas to oil mix), somewhere in the middle (20:1 or 24:1), or a less oily (30:1 or 32:1).  It is EXTREMELY important to get the oil mixture right.  If you don’t – say by putting in too much – the motor will “crud-up” with carbon and, oh yeah, won’t make full power.  On the other hand, if you don’t put enough in, then there won’t be enough lubricity in the fuel and then you;ll get great performance – right up to when the piston seizes up!!!
  • On the right is a smaller liquid port for chain bar oil.  Yes, I have used 30-weight motor oil in a pinch, but it’s not the right stuff.

Chainsaw Technique

Next thing to understand is (most) saws are built to right-handed users.  Read the instruction manual  for details on how the chain-brake works.  This will disengage the chainsaw in event of a kick-back.

NEVER cut with the wood on the top side of the chain.  If it “grabs” you will have a snarling saw coming your way – out of control – and that doesn’t end happily.

NEVER stand with the saw between your legs, either.  If the chain breaks – which they all do if used long enough – they will come flying toward yours femoral artery.  You can’t wear too much protective gear:  Saw chaps and a face guard.

As to the cutting, take a good look at the teeth shown below;  They are generally on the left side of the chain bar – some saws have them on both sides.

These guys make chain-sawing easy as hell.

You just gently lower the running saw onto a tree and move it away from yourself (and down slightly) until it runs into these teeth.  Pull the trigger to rull on the power and now just rock the saw gently to cut at a decent clip.

How fast?  Depends on the wood, the saw, and conditions, of course.  But if the saw RPMs are screaming, with the teeth dug in, left the handle of the saw slightly.  You see, with the teeth dug-in, you will leverage the blade into taking a meaner “bite.”  On the other hand, if the saw is bogging down, rock back by pressing the operate side of the saw down a bit.

If you’re lightening up the blade loading (pressing down on the handle to raise the blade) and it doesn’t pop right back up to speed, you may be in a piece of wood that is “binding” the blade.

I could go on all day about “blade binding” but the general concept is that if you support a good sized tree at the root end, and the only other support point is the tippy-top part of the tree, you will have a long wood span.  If you go back to engineering spans (one of our earlier courses, lol) you’ll know that on the top of the span there is a COMPRESSION load.  So when you cut at the top and you go put in a quarter-inch wide saw “kerf” (the slit left by the blade) compression may reduce this to zero.

Ah, how to solve this?

Three ways:  Try to fall your tree so that it’s about supported in the middle.  This way, compression loads are small and you cut from both ends toward the fulcrum tree in the middle that you felled on.

Next choice is to mechanically “buck.”  Which is why we have big teeth on the tractor’s load bucket.  Easy to get these under damn near anything and lift.

When the brother-in-law (Panama Bates) and I did some sawing (a good while back) I’d run the tractor – and using the bucket I’d lift one end of the tree so he’d have a decent section just under waist-high.  We’d make two or three cuts (ab out 18″:: each for firewood for the neighbors – and then I’d re-buck for the next section.  Only downside to this is it’s a two man operation.

Third choice is what?  Cut a series of “Vee’s” in the tree.  You make one 45-degree cut down until you just feel binding begin, then quickly remove the blade and come at it from the other 45.  It’s more cutting, but hell, that’s half the fun of chainsaws – making all those chips and noise.

While you’re doing all this, the blade will get hot and hot blades dull faster than cold ones.  There are two ways to tension a blade.  Mainly, upper right with my grimly drawn arrow, you want to only be able to pull the blade (hard pull, too) not more than 1/2″ or so.  An other way is to pull on the nose of the blade (left) but here there should be almost no play.  If there is, the chair can come out of the blade guides and now we have a problem.

Great!  What Can Go Wrong?

Assuming you come away with 10-digits and your legs intact?

Here’s the worst case:  The recoil starter breaks.  And while you’re trying to put on the new starter cord, the recoil spring flies out.  The resulting rannygazoo looks like this:

Another one of my Picasso-like arrows points to the 2-1/2″ circle where you supposedly can rewind the recoil starter spring which has obviously sprung.   There is a TINY little area where the spring is supposed to hook.

At this point your choices are:

  • Buy a new saw ($200).
  • Buy the “impossible recoil spring rewinder” tool on eBay for $40.
  • Turn on the milling machine and lathe and make an old-school rope starter pulled – ending the problem forever, but leaving a spinning fan exposed… OR
  • If you get REALLY LUCKY as I did, you’ll find the whole assembly for sale on eBay for $36 including free shipping.

Other pointers?  Dump all the gas out when you’re not using the saw or it will gum up everything.  Consider an aviation-grade fuel additive like AvBlend or other to help with the life of the engine.  Buy a half-dozen Oregon saw blades on the ‘Zon for whatever saw you get…and brush after every meal!

Write when you get rich or run out of trees…

Paul Bunyan

author avatar
George Ure
Amazon Author Page: UrbanSurvival Bio:

23 thoughts on “Prepping: Chainsaws 101”

  1. Having climbed around in trees with a running chainsaw, broken all the rules and survived I do agree that a chainsaw is a very good item to have around, but it does require gas and oil. It also makes a hell of a lot of noise which can attract evil doers. Backup? I have several bucksaws of various sizes with spare blades. I also have a 4 foot 2 person (must be politically correct ya know) saw for the big jobs. I use the chainsaw for mostly felling trees and the buck saws for fire wood. Using the buck saws is quieter and maintains the muscles along with a cardio vascular workout. Sawdust to the compost pile or mulch. Be cautious as I have seen about 120 stitches on my propane delivery man. Kickback to the head while up in the apple tree trimming limbs!

  2. Um…I realize this sounds like snark, but why not have a couple of ‘human powered’ saws, ‘just in case’? (I have an old book that supposedly tells how to make hydrocarbon fuels from wood, but gas can be scarce . . .)

  3. look on the side of the box, esp. poulan, and it gives a life hour for the product. my “wild thing’s” lasted about 90 hours. best saw i’ve found is an ” echo” brand. the carbs. are interchangeable with the large line trimmer heads which is a good pick to use with the extendable pruner attachment. Also, a good wedge and hammer is a must.

  4. Thanks so much for the Eastern Front analysis this morning. I have completely been underestimating this happening. Kinda funny (not ha ha) how things keep repeating themselves over the years.

  5. I can agree on the fun of chips flying, but not the noise! Chainsaws are among the worst tools for maintenance hours vs. work hours, though they are essential tools for firewood and property maintenance. I’ll use a gas powered saw when I need high power(20″ and above on a bar), but when possible, I always use an electric chainsaw. The “pros” turn their nose up, but they’re well behaved compared to the gas units, and the maintenance is usually just tensioning and sharpening chains. Eventually they burn out and you buy another one, since the corded ones are cheap. I’ve intended to try out the new Harbor Fright 40 volt Li-ion 14″ saw here, but I won’t buy it unless it’s on sale. It’s something you can keep in a car or truck, along with a spare chain and bar oil. A 14″ saw can cut a two foot diameter log if you’re careful and don’t overheat it, and I’ve felled many a tree with such a thing. Obviously, it won’t work for the really large ones, but it could clear a road most of the time. I have several gas saws and generally never use them, including a Poulan 18″ and Stihl 16″. Two cycle engines are just too much of a PIA. George is right on the chain – use an Oregon or the knockoff sold at Home Despot(with the more aggressive teeth), but the real cheapie chains are not worth bothering with.

  6. G. , you should look in to battery powered chainsaw.. I have a Green-w__ks ,40volt with 2-4amp-hr bats. 16″ bar. BEST SAW EVER….it’s 2yr old now still runs like new…..ALWAYS runs….does not give me a heart attack trying to start it…A funny fact is the chain last for ever..just sharpened it for the 1st time..for real…!!! I have gas saws..need to sharpen every 2-3 uses….2 batterys gives u 2 full size truck loads & juice to spare…add solar-chgr/inverter…u are never out of fuel. I am 57 & been cuttin’ here in penn’s woods for as long…lol PEACE&LOVE TO ALL

  7. Good article, George. When I spent my one weekend in a tent in the backyard with the grandkids to build our survivor skills, I cut all the fire wood with a Pocket Chain Saw, Pruning Saw, & an axe. Way too much work.

    I gave up prepping, & decided to wing it when the time comes. At 70, I already lived longer than many. The grandkids are on their own.

  8. Good advice, George. I never had good luck with Poulans, make mine a Husqvarna. I know they’re more expensive, but I’ve never had one fail to start. Not so much with Poulans.

  9. Never run a chainsaw with any part of your body over where the chain could possibly fly if it broke–always stay off to the side as much as possible.

    An excellent axe, well sharpened and in capable hands is a skill and wonder worth having and knowing. Just saying…

  10. I taught my boys how to run a chain saw the same way i was taught. They said the same exact things i said when i was there age.

    Before they even touch the chain saw..

    I bring them into the kitchen tell them to get a butter knife. They ask ehy, just as i did. I said dont ask why? Just pay attention. We crank up a burner on the stove. They say what are we doing????? Same as i did. I say do you wanna run a chain saw or what? They say yes, just like i did. I say pay attention, just like my Dad said to me.

    We put the knife on the burner until it gets orange hot. And i tell them to grab a cube of butter. Confused they look at me. Then i say grab that knife and put the sharp edge on the cube of butter. They do and it goes right through it like nothing.

    I look at them and they look at me, just like i looked at my Dad. Any questions? Still looking confused. I say, you are the butter. Any questions? They say nope. Same as me.

    And then i take them out and we grab the chainsaw and then start going over things like choke and chain and all that.

    Ant nobody lost a limb in my family yet. ;)

  11. After your new saw is broken in use the best synthetic 2-stroke oil you can buy you will just about triple the life of the motor and that more than out ways the cost of the oil. You know George you livin’ in Texas and talking about chainsaws………………..

  12. One other thing on the synthetic oil is if the dealer or the salesman give you any grief on the oil just remember they are in the business of selling chainsaws not making them last!

  13. The first thing I explained to my son when I taught him how to use a chainsaw, was to ALWAYS, 100% of the time, be aware of the tool and the fact it will plow through muscle and bone a lot faster than, even soft pine. Proper holding/cutting position is essential, and is found by holding the chainsaw next to your head (with the saw NOT RUNNING, duh!) Your right forearm should rest on your bicep and your left should touch your forehead. Trace a perpendicular arc down from this point, and where the saw comes level should be your ideal cutting position. When the saw kicks, which will eventually happen, it will kick beside your torso, not through your head.

    I generally use just the weight of the saw when cutting down. The saw should produce shavings, not chips (too much pressure), or sawdust (dull blade), and I gauge the pressure for horizontal(ish) cuts by the saw’s waste. Too much pressure generates heat and dulls blades QUICKLY. I have twice used a blade to drop and dice multiple hardwoods without needing to resharpen. My brother, who uses brute force with a chainsaw, rarely has a sharp blade for more than 10 minutes of sawing, and carries 6-10 sharp spares to get himself through a single tree. I work 20% slower than he, get twice as much accomplished, and don’t need Icy-Hot at the end of the day. Our “different styles” were a really good teaching aid, when instructing my kids.

    I NEVER make a horizontal cut in a standing tree! To fell one, the first cut is at about a 30°angle, down; the second cut is at about a 10° angle up, into the first cut. The cuts are made about 60% through the trunk, and the wedge-shaped piece, when it comes out, should dictate the direction you wish the tree to fall. The felling cut is at about a 10° angle down, on the side away from the side in which the first and second cuts were made.

    N.B. the tree may decide to not fall where you wish, or fall where you absolutely cannot have it fall. It may decide to kickback (backwards) through a spectator or a nearby concrete wall, or fall on your head — this is why loggers make lotsabucks when someone hires them to remove a residential tree.

    NEVER drop a tree where it can land on anything of value, within the radius of its height in any direction, until you know exactly what you’re doing, and maybe not even then, cuz all it takes is one unexpected wind-gust to ruin your plans, your day, and possibly your life…

  14. “George, how can you think of something like a chainsaw as a prepping tool???”

    My father was a tree man. He heated with wood and coal since I could remember. He made his own chains.. He would buy it by the spool..he had all the tree toys. Split wood..sounded like shotgun going off..yet he had splitters. Maybe ten chainsaws..lay a tree down precision.
    I seen many a lot closer.. He swore by Stihl as his saw of choice. His biggest was over three foot long .. My point.. I trust my fathers choice..
    Now .. SHTF.. Oley and sven decided to go into the tree cutting business.. The salesman tells them..lookey see this one.. All the professionals use this..guaranteed twenty trees day..
    They bought it. w/o weeks later..this thing isn’t working right..the first week we got twenty trees a day..the second week started with five and yesterday we barely got one the salesman checks it out fuel..check…chain properly adjusted sharp check..sparkplug.. Nice shape..check..he primed it..pulls the does right up…oley and Sven look up startled and says…what’s that noise..
    So a truck is nice chainsaw is useful..peevy etc..IF you have true SHTF scenario fuel may not be available.remember the last few catastrophic hurricanes fuel was not available..any excess will be confiscated by homeland security and FEMA .. I have two man cross cut lol

  15. My first chainsaw was the 60s vintage Homelite XL-12 I inherited from my Dad. Good saw, on a par with the StihlSaws of the day quality-wise, but heavy. Second was a Lombard (Canadian Homelite clone) of the same vintage – not quite as good, and even heavier. When I bought my first Husky, I was sold.

    Stihl, Husqvarna, and Jonserd are today’s top-shelf saws, with Echo only a half-step behind. I’d be pleased to use any of the four.

    MTD is an amazing company. They make some of the cheapest Chinese junk power tools on the planet, and also some of the best name-brand tools which exist today (Homelite and Poulan have been MTD companies for several years.) Husky is now an MTD brand, and as such, have three distinct product lines: Chinese, American, and Swedish. I don’t believe a lumberjack today could do better than a German Stihl or Swedish Husqvarna. They are amazing tools. I’m not a fan of the non-Scandinavian Husky though, and would caution people looking for a really good saw to learn its manufacturing point of origin before plunking down some serious cash.

    I’m also not sold on any electric. Electric power profiles are less-than optimum for either a direct-drive or centrifugal-clutch saw. However, I’ve a pole-saw in my sights, so that opinion is subject to change…

    If I ever needed stealth, I have an inherited 3′ bowsaw and an 8′ 2-man crosscut, to go with my [Council Tools] Dayton and Michigan axes and Dad’s hand-forged wedges & 8-pounder…

  16. Rural King is a TSC clone — started in Mattoon, Illinois back in the 1960s or ’70s, and now spans Missery to Pennsylvalie and ranges south to the Keys. Rural King sells Husqvarna and Echo at a discount, and they sell Stihl for considerably less than the Stihl Dealer Network. Unfortunately for some, they don’t seem to have a store in the South, west of Martin, TN or Muscle Shoals, Alabammie. ‘Shame, since they also sell $179 Rugers and $500 Kimbers…

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  17. If you are a truly dedicated prepper, then you might consider getting a carbide tipped chainsaw chain from Rapco Industries. Keep in mind that you will need a diamond file or diamond wheel for your motorized chain sharpening rig, since carbide is extremely hard. These are expensive but stay sharp longer in case of dirt or nails in the wood. Carbide chains can even be used to cut most anything (including most building materials), should the need arise. Downside is that they are not cheap.

  18. I have 3 Stihl saws, 12″, 16″, 20″, and a 24″ Husky for gas and have used them for 3 decades. Gave up on the Pulans and others. I have recently been using a Dewalt 60V 16″ that is really decent. Of course, it is not going to run for hours on one battery nor run all day. However, it always starts, no gas, is really a lot quieter, and doesn’t stink.

    For most usage except for really large diameters the electric is really better even though not quite as fast if pushed hard. I do have 4, 60 volt batteries along with about 25, 20 V batteries and probably about 30+ Dewalt 20 & 60V tool as a general contractor. We ( myself and 2 sons), grab the battery tools for almost all but the most sustained or hard work.
    Of course, the 60V Dewalt and associated batteries do cost some real money.
    The new 60V stuff is pretty recent and pretty powerful. Can fell and cut up a pretty decent sized tree on less than one battery of soft wood.

  19. I have 2 Stihls. Both are similar in size and power with 20″ bars. One is a 20 year old R 34 and is very dependable. The other is a MS 291 that is couple of years old and less reliable. I would look for a used in decent condition R34 before buying a new MS 291. Also I only run 100% unleaded 91 octane in all my 2 and 4 stroke small engines. It starts much easier and smells better than 10% Ethanol fuel. It is a buck more per gallon but worth it. If you don’t have access to 100% Unleaded I think the premixed TruFuel brand fuel is Ethanol free and uses synthetic oil. My Ace carries it in both 40:1 and 50:1 and they advertise it’s long term storage properties.

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