Have you ever had a bar or chain wear out too quickly? Had a bar suddenly discolour along the edges? This is likely due to an issue with your chainsaw oil, either the flow rate or the oil itself. Every chainsaw – I mean every single one – requires a constant application of chain oil.

Bar and Chain Oil’s Purpose – Busting Myths!

Let’s start with what chainsaw oil is not used for. Contrary to some beliefs, chain oil is not about providing lubrication between the saw and the wood. This friction is where the cutting happens. Instead, oil is used to lubricate the groove in the bar and help minimize the friction and resistance as the chain spins at such an incredibly high rpm. Too much friction can damage the bar and/or chain, increasing the chance of breakage and reducing the lifespan of the equipment. Beyond equipment longevity, less resistance means a faster chain and faster cutting. For these reasons it is important that the bar and chain be properly lubricated.

Brand Name or Knock-Off: An Ongoing Debate

There is always an ongoing debate about the merits of various brands and styles of lubricants. You can find endless online forums where chainsaw enthusiasts debate the advantages of a given brand of bar and chain oil or complain about the expense associated with purchasing products made by Stihl, Husky, etc. Purists tend to argue that brand name oil is more expensive because it has fewer contaminants. Because bar and chain oils are often made from recycled oils with additives to make them thicker, it is a legitimate point that the level of treatment before the oil reaches the saw could affect the purity of the product. Many saw users are extremely loyal to a single brand and will argue that anything except that brand is a waste of time and an abuse of the saw. Having said that, the distinction between brand name and knock-offs is not necessarily that significant. So here are a few general points about brand name vs. knock-off. Brand name oils seem to last a bit longer in the saw. This is likely because they have more additives, especially tackifiers that hold the oil in the groove and chain longer. Knock-offs tend to be slightly cheaper, but after the trade-off for shorter lifespan you may not be saving that much money. At the end of the day, the distinction is not significant enough to concern an amateur saw owner.

The Environment: Bio-Oils and Vegetable Oil Lubricants

Bar and chain lubrication is a system that results in the total loss of the oil. No oil is recovered from the chain and recycled. All of it enters the environment in one form or another, whether it is misted off the bar and into the air or sprayed across the general vicinity, including the operator. Increasingly, there is concern about the environmental effects of chainsaw oil in areas where significant amounts of cutting is done. Many organisations, including some government departments, are demanding that an environmentally friendly alternative be used when working on their projects. Chain oil can have very negative effects on ornamental garden areas that contain water features and live fish (it can kill the fish if it coats a pond), so it is best to be cautious when using a saw to prune in these areas. Beyond the negative effects on the environment, bar and chain oil, any oil really, has the potential to have some significant health consequences for anyone in regular contact with it. Because the oil is misted off the chain, operators not only get it on their skin, but also inhale is on a regular basis. This can cause respiratory problems as well as skin irritations. Some studies have linked regular contact with petroleum products to increased cancer risks, although none specifically address bar and chain saw oil.

Bio Chain Oil by Stihl

Bio Chain Oil by Stihl

In response to all of these factors, many companies are starting to produce bio-oil varieties of bar and chain oil. These lubricants tend to be based on cold pressed vegetable oils with some additives to increase their ability to adhere to the chain. Several companies advertise their bio-oils as being highly biodegradable with over 90% of the oil degraded in three weeks. Most users are having great success using these products and the reviews suggest that they are just as effective and long lasting as petroleum based lubricants. However, they are more expensive than the regular versions of bar and chain oil.

Is Vegetable Oil a good idea?

For those users wanting to not only cut costs, but also protect the environment and their own health, using simple vegetable oil is a good alternative. Vegetable oil, especially canola oil, serves as the base for several industrial lubricants. When using vegetable oil in your saw be sure to keep an eye on your reservoir. In warmer weather vegetable oil is thinner than most of the off the shelf varieties (no additives or tackifiers) so it will flow more quickly. It is a good idea to run a few tanks and then adjust your flow screw if the saw weeps oils when not running. Some users who switched to vegetable oil noted that they were using more bar and chain oil than previously, but this problem should be largely mitigated by proper tuning of the saw. A few words of caution: vegetable oil has no added anti-freeze and you may start to run into problems with it thickening, or even hardening completely, at temperatures below minus 10-15 degrees Celsius. Don’t leave saws containing vegetable oil out in the cold. Also, vegetable oil can thicken over time, so if you do not plan on using your saw for several months you should drain the oil reservoir. Beyond these cautions, vegetable oil is a cheap, readily-available, environmentally friendly, biodegradable, more healthy & renewable alternative to petroleum based bar and chain oils.

General

Petroleum-based bar and chain oils come in a variety of weights. At the most basic level, there are winter and summer oils. For those chainsaw users living in colder areas, the winter oil is lighter to facilitate pouring and circulation at low temperatures. Summer oil is thicker to help it cling to the bar and chain longer in the heat. Some people argue for the use of motor oil instead of bar and chain oil. Their arguments tend to centre on cost rather than effectiveness and, as a general rule, most professional saw users oppose this as an abuse of the equipment. If you are that worried about the cost of bar and chain oil, consider switching to vegetable oil. Feeding your saw used oil of any kind is almost universally condemned as serious abuse of your equipment. Beyond that, most of the decision about bar and chain oil comes down to personal preference.

Hopefully this article gave you some idea of what your options are. Good luck with your selection and please work safely!