The Complete and Utter Beginner’s Guide to Chainsaws

Chainsaw. It is a tool I need on the croft. It’s also the favorite weapon of many a psychopathic villain in horror movies. I had never used a chainsaw and knew nothing about them until about 4 weeks ago. That means the tips I’ll be giving below are from this perspective; that of a complete noob that is a little terrified of the whirring blade of death.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year….for chainsaws

Fall is a good time to saw some wood. From a wildlife perspective, it’s a transitional season, so fewer animals are using trees, shrubs or downed wood and nesting or winter shelter. It’s also the best time to cut down and treat woody invasive species with herbicide to get a good kill. Finally, WINTER IS COMING, so you know, you might want to stock up on fire wood.

One NOTE: Pruning trees is usually best done in winter, particularly for oaks. Common tree diseases are dormant during the winter so won’t be able to take advantage of the trees “wounds”. Here’s a helpful little article from ISU extension about it.

Vera in the middle of a hard day’s work
Why Chainsaw?

I’ve been kind of a drama queen over buying and using my first chainsaw. It’s a dangerous tool and it has this very masculine mystique. Which is BS. I was afraid of using a chainsaw and I was afraid of buying one and looking like an idiot because of he 101 questions I needed to ask. However, as a single, middle-aged woman, trying to be self-sufficient and take care of my little corner of the world, I needed to overcome my fear and embarrassment and get the dang tool.

Keeper’s Croft is almost half woodland. The woodland has a metric ton of downed trees and branches and the predominant under story are invasive species. A chainsaw is flat out a necessity and I needed tolearn how to use one. I work with about 500 expert level chainsaw users so I hoped to get some in person training but the pandemic put the kibbosh on that.

The final straw that made me take the plunge was the Derecho that blew through middle America in August. It was devastating to any and all trees in it’s way. I could no longer procrastinate. Training or not, I needed a chainsaw.

Anatomy of a Chainsaw

First things first. Introductions are in order! Chainsaws are powered in three major ways: gas, battery or corded electric. Most common is gas powered, but I elected for a battery-powered model, which is pictured below.

The pros and cons I weighed for each variety were thus. Gas powered units are more powerful, are slightly cheaper and there is a greater variety of bar lengths available widely. Battery powered saws are a little more eco-friendly, lighter weight and are less complicated to start and stop. They are superior to the corded electric units because obviously they are not limited by cord length and there’s no chance you could cut the cord in a clumsy mistake.

I bought a battery powered saw because: 1) I wanted something lightweight and easy to use, 2) I try to make environmentally friendly choices whenever my pocketbook will allow and 3) For my first chainsaw I didn’t need something with overwhelming power!

Bar Length

Bar length is also a major consideration in which saw to buy. Mine, which I’ve named Vera, is pretty tiny at 12 inches (30 cm) but they do come shorter! On the other end of the spectrum, you can apparently get bars that are up to 5 feet in length! That’s almost as tall as me! This is obviously for heavy duty saws used by professionals.

I am happy with the 12 inch bar. It’s a good size to ease in to using a chainsaw and it keep me from getting to cocky and tackling things I’m not ready for. The rule of thumb is you want the bar to be about 2 inches longer than the diameter of the log you are cutting. In my case, Vera can easily handle a 10 inch diameter log.

There are also two models of the saw I purchased, one with more power but I chose the most basic unit. As I get more comfortable with using a chainsaw, and want more power, I’ll buy a bigger saw.

There are definitely a lot of jobs on the croft my little saw can’t handle but I’ve been impressed by what she can handle.


I bought a Stihl mostly because I wanted to support my local power tool supplier and they are a Stihl dealer. This is actually my most strenuous recommendation! Go to a local and knowledgeable dealer if you aren’t sure what to buy. My dealer spent a ton of time with me answering questions and showing me how to service and operate the saw. They didn’t make me feel dumb for asking a million, likely dumb, questions. They also hooked me up with all the safety gear.

Stihl has a good reputation as a trustworthy, safe and durable saw. All the chainsaw wielding men I work with, gave my choice the thumbs up. However, Stihl is on the expensive side and there are a lot of other brands out there. The Family Handyman website has a nice post of reviews that also goes into the differences between brands. Along with obvious things like durability and ease of operation, pay attention to components such as a tool-less chain tensioner, chain durability, weight at various sizes and of course safety features!

Safety Equipment

Appropriate safety equipment is very important and helped with my confidence using the chainsaw:

  • Chaps to protect legs
  • Wrap around eye protection
  • Hard hat
  • Ear protection
  • Gloves
Operation and Safety

There is a lot more strategy to wielding a chainsaw than I thought! I was most concerned about the chainsaw whirring out of control and cutting a body part off. Avoiding severing a limb is important but the chainsaw feels less out of control than I expected. The trigger has a two step process with a safety-like button plus the trigger both of which must be depressed. It stops dead when I remove my finger. I feel in control which is important.

I was warned a few times about binding the saw. Binding is when the saw gets pinched and stuck in the middle of the log being cut. It happens most often when gravity pulls the log on either side of the cut to fall in towards one another pinching the saw. This is where the strategy comes in! I’ve been cutting mostly downed wood and cutting suspended branches or pieces of wood is one way to avoid binding. This way gravity makes the piece fall away instead if in towards the saw. If you have to, cutting up from below is another alternative but it is obviously a little riskier. There is also an ideal pressure to exert – not pushing the saw too hard through the branch.

Suspended Branch which is a perfect target for cutting

I haven’t felled a tree yet but my understanding from watching several videos is that this requires the use of wedges.

The safety issue I heard about the most was kick-back. This is when the blade catches on something and flies back at the saw wielder. The chain break/hand guard is to protect from this. Also, having a sharp chain will help prevent kick back. Finally and most crucially, use the base of the bar to cut not the tip because the tip is the most frequent culprit to kickback.

Time for saw adventures…

I have no expertise but I hope my experience as a noobie chainsaw useful will help you to purchase a great tool and start using it. You won’t be sorry and it’s one more step to being self-sufficient and a good caretaker of your land.

Book Recommendation

I love books and reading, so I can’t resist including a book recommendation with each post. The book will, in some way, correspond to the post.

Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice is the story of a remote Anishinaabe community in Northern Canada which suddenly loses power and connection to the outside world. In time, they learn that the issues they are experiencing are widespread and no help will be coming for them. The novel focuses on the first winter under this new normal where technology is no longer useful and follows how the community responds. It’s a surprisingly quiet story given the circumstances but it does also have a lot of underlying tension.

It also made me think seriously about getting more prepared for emergencies! Most “power” tools, like a chainsaw, will be useless if we ever lose our electrical grid. Looks like I need to learn how to use a pull saw:). Click the title below for more information about this great book!

I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for me to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites. Buying the book below from amazon will earn me a commission.  

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