Purchasing a good chainsaw positions your operation on the cutting edge of technology. The challenge is keeping the saw sharp and working well. Woodlot managers who use a chainsaw regularly know the struggle of trying to figure out the logistics of sharpening and replacing the chain and bar. This can be a confusing process – without proper technique, the resulting job will yield poor results.

It is not necessarily the timber that creates wear and tear on a chain and bar. “What dulls the chain more than anything is the contact of the chain with the ground underneath the log you are cutting,” said Jake Brandspigel, product service supervisor for Stihl, Inc.

The dirt, rocks and soil that make up the ground are highly abrasive and will knock off the sharp edges of a chain pretty quickly.

This happens because of how fast the chain is moving when it comes in contact with the ground, Brandspigel said. “The chain is moving 60 to 70 mph, so when the chain touches the ground, even for just a millisecond, all of the cutters on the chain hit the ground multiple times.” To prevent this, he suggests making a conscious effort to keep the chain from touching the ground at all costs, even if the chain is not moving.

Getting into a habit of keeping the chain off the ground will extend the life of the chain while also maximizing the amount of time between sharpenings.

Perhaps surprisingly, the actual cutting of trees does not dull the chain so much. Brandspigel said, “99 percent of the dulling of the chain does not come from wood cutting,” instead it is the soil. Additionally, there is no specific wood that will wear out the chain quicker than another. Again, it depends on how much contact the chain has with the ground and, perhaps, how much sand is on the tree that is being cut.

Even the most careful worker will still need to sharpen the saw blade regularly. Experts recommend that the chain be sharpened by the user on a stump or tailgate of a pickup truck. Use a round file or a file guide tool. Companies like Stihl offer up to four types of file guides. A file guide will be helpful when a worker is trying to achieve the correct angles and will make the process much easier.

“Using round files with no assistance is possible but will only make the process harder,” Brandspigel said. “File guides will help do a much better job,” he said, adding that they are also cheap and durable.

Read more: Wood splitting 101

Indoor sharpening

If neither the round file nor file guide are appealing or are giving the outcome required, there are two more ways to sharpen a chain. The first is to use a grinding wheel. This option is generally used in workshops that sharpen chains daily and have power available to run the wheel.

A second alternative and easiest of all the options is to take the chain to a dealer or repair shop and have them do it. Most of the time your chain will be sharpened quickly and will come back in great condition.

One final, but rare, way to sharpen a chain is to use a dremel tool. A dremel is a stone in the shape of a round file that spins like any other drill tip when placed in a drill, Brandspigel said. This method is uncommon in woodlot operations because it needs a drill, spacers and other equipment to do the job. This sort of toolbox and power is unlikely to be in the typical chainsaw kit.

If taking it to a professional for sharpening sounds like the best plan – and in most cases it is, Brandspigel said – it is likely that the professionals sharpening your chain will use semiautomatic machines to do the job.

These machines only require the person operating the sharpener to set up the machine with the saw. The rest is done by the machine.

Read more: Staying safe in the woodlot

Wear and tear

After multiple sharpenings, any chain will start to get smaller and will eventually need to be changed.

Knowing when to change the chain is not rocket science but many loggers have a tough time balancing dollars with technique.

As the cutter is sharpened it will get shorter and eventually will reach a line that is laser-etched onto the chain.

That line is put there by the manufacturer to help users determine when a new chain is needed, Brandspigel said.

Once the cutter is sharpened back to the line, it is time for a new chain.

Brandspigel has a handy rule of thumb that a woodlot operator can use to determine when a chain replacement is necessary.

“Replace one sprocket for every two chains and replace one bar for every two sprockets and four chains,” he said.

Chain sharpening and bar replacement are not the only two maintenance jobs a chainsaw requires, though. Extend a chainsaw’s life by keeping all chainsaws properly oiled and lubricated so they perform at their best.

When an operator oils a chainsaw, Brandspigel suggested they use only brand name bar and chain oil that is intended for chainsaw use. If motor oil or transmission fluid is used in place of good chainsaw oil, the chain and bar will not receive the high quality of lubrication that they need to function at their best.

Brandspigel warns users that using motor oil as a lubricant will cost money in the long run by shortening the life of the tool. “A lot of contamination is being introduced into the oil pump inside of the chainsaw, which will wear out the oil pump at a rapid rate,” he said. The oil will not only accelerate wear of the oil pump, but also cause more wear to the bar and chain. This happens because motor oil is designed to circulate and fling things off instead of causing them to cling to objects. Good oil for a bar and chain oil is made to do just the opposite.

Brandspigel said that almost all other brands of chainsaws offer an automatic oiling feature.

“Just top off the oil tank every time the fuel tank is refilled, and the bar and chain will remain well-oiled for the remainder of its life,” he said.

If all of the sharpening and chain replacement rules are followed and proper oil is used, the chainsaw will last a lifetime.

Next month, we will go into detail on the actual sharpening and maintenance of the chain itself.

Read more: Maintaining the portable sawmill


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