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Farm tips: Keeping your chainsaws in top condition

From felling to trimming, a chainsaw can be a handy and versatile tool in the right hands.


However, they need to be properly maintained to ensure they are safe to use. To tackle this issue, Richard Bradley seeks out expert advice.

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Offering a fast and simple way to clear gateways, knock back some overgrown hedgerow, or fell the odd tree, chainsaws are increasingly easy to get hold of.


This is a cause for concern however, according to Bruce James, arboriculture manager and lecturer at Myerscough College, Lancashire.


His concern, he says, falls back to the simple point a budget saw can be picked up from the likes of Aldi or Lidl without any prior training knowledge or personal protective equipment.


He says: “It is criminal you are allowed to buy a saw without this, where buyers have little or no understanding of how to operate them safely. Safety is of paramount importance, something I drum into all students.”

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And he says big jumps in safety can be made by users carrying out simple maintenance and understanding the workings of a chainsaw.


“Maintenance ensures the saw is safe to use, minimises downtime waiting for broken items to be fixed, and keeps your saw cutting efficiently.”


To get a guide on what you can be doing, we went through the whole process, from sharpening a chain so as to maintain an effective cut, to stripping the saw down to fix problems.


While we looked at a Stihl saw, the same principals and techniques apply to any brand and, if using a chainsaw is a regular task, you should look at getting proper training.

10 necessary safety features

  • Before a saw is even considered for use, you should check these 10 safety features:
  • On/off switch – Ensure you can quickly switch this off in the event of an emergency
  • Safety stickers – These show the saw is certified as a safe product
  • Anti-vibration mounts – These sit in the handle to reduce effects of vibration to the operator
  • Throttle lock – Prevents accidental operation
  • Chain brake – Stops the chain from turning when not in use. Can also act as a hand guard.
  • Chain catcher – Catches the chain in the event of it becoming derailed to stop it hitting the operator
  • Rear hand guard – Designed to protect your hand on the throttle
  • Exhaust silencer – Directs fumes away from the operator and will be next to engine
  • Scabbard (plastic chain cover) – This should be used when the saw is not in operation
  • Low-kickback chain – Designed to improve safety while in use

Personal protective equipment (PPE)

Personal protective equipment (PPE)

The first point for any saw work is PPE. If all other safety features and training fail to reduce the risk, it is there to minimise the damage the saw does to you.


Be sure to wear:


  1. Chainsaw protective boots
  2. Chainsaw specific trousers
  3. Helmet with ear defenders and visor
  4. Chainsaw gloves
  5. Non-snag clothing
  6. Personal first-aid kit


Mr James explains: “Chainsaw boots and trousers are woven with material designed to stop a blade spinning if it comes into contact with you.


"If you damage them they must be thrown away as their structure is damaged on impact. For your upper-body, be sure nothing can flap about and get caught by the saw.”

Sharpening the chain

Sharpening the chain

While it may sound simple, a properly sharpened saw will help get your cuts done quicker and safer.


And, while electrically powered sharpeners are available, Mr James says he favours traditional methods.


“I find you get satisfaction out of sharpening a chain by hand when it cuts through a log like butter. It is not difficult, but it needs to be done correctly. I have seen a lot of badly sharpened saws over the years.


“There is no way of saying how often to sharpen a saw as foreign objects can damage chains, but for intensive use it will likely be a daily job.”


Firstly, identify the chain model to pick out your file size, if you did not get a sharpening kit with your saw. This will be stamped on the chain, or indicated on the chain box.


The chain bar, still fitted to the saw, should be clamped into a vice so the chain still spins freely. Mark up the smallest cutter on your chain with a marker pen as a reference and file down your next cutter to match its length.


Remember the number of strokes required, as you need to do this to each following cutter to match.


Mr James says most saws require a 30-degree filling angle to the guide bar, and the file should only be used with a forward stroke.


Once each cutter has been sharpened a piece of wood should run along the back of the cutters to remove any sharp burrs.


Depth gauges should also be checked, he says, as these dictate how much or little of a cut the saw can make.


Again, the tool is specific to a chain size, and should be in your kit. A flat file should be used to reduce its depth accordingly.


To simplify this, he says Stihl produces a handy three-in-one tool, which files the cutter and depth gauge in one, although it carries a hefty price tag.


Chain tension should then be checked. Mr James says you should lift the chain roughly in the middle of the guide bar and be able to see one full drive link.


Too much or too little on show and you will need to loosen the guide bar nuts and use the adjuster accordingly, remembering to lift the nose of the bar as you retighten the nuts.

Guide bar and drive sprocket

Guide bar and drive sprocket

As the chain wears, so does the guide bar it runs in. To ensure this wears even, the guide bar should be flipped, ideally each time you sharpen the saw.


With the chain removed, the bar can be inspected for burrs, which should be filled off, and the nose sprocket should spin freely.


The grove should also be cleaned out of muck and the oiling holes, at the rear of the bar, should be cleaned out to ensure the chain is being lubricated properly.


At the driving end of the chain, the sprocket should be replaced once every two new chains.

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The amount of maintenance required will vary depending on use, from daily strip downs for hard used machines, to simple checks if something does not seem to be running as it should.


Naturally working in a dusty environment, the air filter can easily become clogged. This is pretty straightforward to get at by removing the top covers.


Mr James says you should make sure your saw is on ‘full choke’ before removing the filter to prevent any dust getting into the cylinder. The filter can then be removed and blown with an airline from the inside out.


The fuel tank has another filter prone to dirty conditions. Pulling this out allows it to be replaced. Emptying the tank beforehand does make for a cleaner job. Even if only partially blocked, Mr James says it can make your saw ‘run like a bag of spanners’, and costs little to replace.


The final simple check under the saw’s bodywork is the spark plug. Removing it should reveal a biscuit-brown coloured end. A white plug indicates under fuelling, while a wet, black plug says too much oil is present in the fuel.

Once maintenance is completed, the saw is ready for use. However, before and during use several features must be checked.




Before use, ensure you have sufficient fuel and chain oil, check all 10 safety features are present, check chain tension, and be sure you have not left out any nuts or covers when reassembling the saw.


Mr James says: “Saws should not be drop started, and done by kneeling at first, or with the saw body between the legs once warmed up.”


Once started, the safety features should be checked.


The chain brake should stop and hold the saw, the chain should be stationary at idle, the oiler can be checked by running the saw up and checking for oil splatter, and the on/off switch should stop the saw.

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