A friend of mine grew up with chainsaws all his life and still managed to get caught and confused by a new chain type. He was given a spare chain that fit his saw by an acquaintance who had purchased the wrong length. When his old chain wore down he switched it out in favour of this free chain. He noted that it looked a bit different, but nothing. For weeks while we were getting firewood he was cursing how slow his saw was cutting. After several days of tinkering with file angles, throttle settings, fuel mixtures etc., he set his saw next to mine on a log. That was when it became glaringly obvious what was different. His chain had significantly more teeth than mine. We both usually ran standard skip-tooth chains and this was a full house. Nearly a third more teeth! Skip-tooth chains require less frequent sharpening, but are far slower at cutting. The real treat was that he had been sharpening all those extra teeth at the same rate I had sharpened my saw!
For any chainsaw operator, choosing the right (or best) chain can be a daunting task. There are many options and considerations. Many amateurs simply walk into a store and order a “chainsaw chain.” This may well get the job done, but having the wrong kind, or even a different style than you are used to, can have some interesting consequences. While some things, such as pitch and length, are non-negotiable, there are many, many other possibilities to consider when selecting a chain.
The Unavoidable Decision: Chain Aggressiveness
There are three basic levels of aggressiveness in saw chains. No matter what other considerations you look into, you must eventually make this choice.
Full House: A full house chain has the largest number of teeth; one cutting tooth for each link of chain. In addition, full house chains are often equipped with anti-kickback features. Because the teeth are closer together, more cutting teeth are contacting the wood at any given time. This means that each tooth is prevented from biting too deep by the support of the teeth on either side. For this reason, full house chains tend to produce very fine sawdust and cut slower than the alternatives. Increased friction contributes to slower cut times as well. It requires less frequent sharpening, but sharpening takes longer as there are more teeth to file.
Skip Tooth: These chains have a third less teeth than a full house with a full link between teeth. This means less support for the teeth allowing them to bite deeper. This often translates to higher vibration rates and rougher cut ends, but is a much faster cutting chain.
Full Skip: This chain has two full links between the cutting teeth. With even less support each tooth takes out large amounts of material and the chain creates less resistance resulting in the fastest cutting speed. This chain is best kept for professionals with some training and who need the extra speed for their career.
There are several things to consider when selecting the aggressiveness of your chain. How powerful is your saw? The more aggressive the chain the more powerful your saw needs to be. How experienced are you with chainsaws? More aggressive chains also tend to be more dangerous. There are more instances of kickbacks and associated injuries. Beginners will want to start with a full house, anti-kickback chain for safety reasons if nothing else. This is recommended by most manufacturers. What are you using your saw for? If you are doing large amounts of cutting you may want to have a more aggressive chain to increase your output. This needs to be balanced against the increased vibration, which can cause health problems over extended periods of use. If you are going to be milling with your saw, less aggressive chains cut a smoother board, so consider where you plan on using the lumber. These are only a few of the considerations, but as a general rule, experienced, non-professionals using their saws regularly for firewood etc. will run a skip- tooth chain as a compromise.
What Do you Really Want? Optional Considerations…
Aside from choosing how aggressive a chain you want to operate on your saw, there are a plethora of other options to be considered. Chain manufacturers are always coming up with new refinements, gadgets, and gimmicks to improve on chain performance. Only a few of these options can be discussed here.
Carbide-Tipped Chains: Tungsten-carbide has been used with great success in woodworking tools and has now been applied to chainsaw chains. Carbide-tipped chains, like any other tool, have their pros and cons. One major consideration is that they are much more expensive; however, they are known for their longevity. Carbide-tipped chains are not as sharp as standard chains and, as a result, cut more slowly. Sharpening these chains is a major undertaking, requiring special diamond tools, a significant amount of time, and more than a little sweat.
At the end of the day, carbide chains are designed for professional use in specific situations that value durability over sharpness. Increased durability allows carbide-tipped chains to continue to cut in situations that would rapidly convert a standard chain into a smooth metal loop. Non-professionals may want to consider carbide-tipped chains for longevity or if they will be working with particularly dirty/tough lumber. But if they are only cutting recently fallen timber the trade-offs are likely too great. In most cases, a standard chain is faster, even with regular stops to sharpen.
Ripping Chain: The teeth of a ripping chain are ground at a much lower angle than those on a standard cross cutting chain. In addition, the rakers are left much higher to prevent the teeth from biting too much and bogging down the saw in larger trees. These chains have relatively limited applications and are used primarily for chainsaw milling operations. If you will only be doing occasional ripping, you are better off to stay with a standard cross-cut chain.
Mini Sawchain: Mini sawchain is a narrower gauge of chain that increases cutting speed by reducing resistance. Because the chain itself is narrower, each pass removes less wood and has less surface area in contact with the wood, reducing resistance. However, this lighter chain is also more prone to breakage and for this reason it is not recommended for use on saws over 60cc. In fact, most experts feel that the increase in speed is negligible enough that it is a better choice to use a full size chain with a more aggressive tooth pattern.
In addition to the options above, chainsaw users can consider chains that facilitate increased oil flow for lubrication, self-sharpening models, low vibration chains, and a host of other options. Regardless, of what options you are looking for, be sure to research them well. Know what applications you want to use your saw for, and be sure that you have a chain that allows for all of those applications without compromising safety.
Happy cutting and remember to always be safe.