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Using a Chain Saw Safely

In this article, we’ll show you how to cut trees and branches with a chain saw. The story features the tips and techniques that experts use, but we explain them so DIYers can use them as well. If you need to cut up a fallen tree or large branches, these how-to photos show you how to do it safely and effectively.

By the DIY experts of The Family Handyman Magazine

Using a chain saw

Chain saws are the perfect tool for cutting up fallen trees and large branches. But figuring out where to start and how to go about the job safely is a challenge. We enlisted a chain saw expert to walk us through the process of cutting up a large fallen tree.

We'll show you what we learned, including techniques for removing branches and cutting up the trunk. Of course, safety is the most important consideration when you're using a chain saw. See “Safety Tips” for key precautions I've taken to heart. But in addition to these tips, be sure to read and follow the safety precautions listed in your chain saw owner's manual.

Cut with the top or bottom of the bar and chain, but avoid the kickback zone

Cutting with the chain on the bottom of the bar is the most common and natural-feeling way to cut. The saw pulls slightly and is easy to control by maintaining a firm grip. Cutting from the underside of a branch requires you to cut with the top of the bar. This is a little unnerving at first because the saw pushes toward you. But it's safe as long as you're well braced and follow all other precautions.

However, there's one spot on the bar that you should carefully avoid. This spot, called the kickback zone, is the top half of the bar's tip. If the kickback zone comes in contact with something while the chain is moving, the saw will kick up and back toward you. That's why modern chain saws are equipped with a chain brake designed to stop the chain if a kickback occurs. It's also the reason you should always maintain an encircling grip with your thumb around the front handle. But the best defense is to avoid the kickback zone.

Wrap your thumb around the handle while using the
saw. It helps you control the saw during kickback.

Chain Saw Safety

The most common chain saw injuries to the thigh and left arm can be virtually eliminated with just a few simple precautions. First, always wrap the thumb of your left hand around the front handle while you're cutting. This encircling grip keeps the saw under control in the event of a kickback.

Second, when you move from place to place with the saw running, even if it's only to the next branch, always remove your right hand from the back handle and carry the saw at your side with your left hand holding the front handle. Then if you trip or stumble, there's no way the saw's engine can accelerate and start the chain spinning.

And finally, buy safety gear and wear it. Special chaps will often stop a moving chain and save your thigh. A helmet with a face screen and ear protection is a convenient way to keep head, eye and ear protection handy in one comfortable package. Wear steel-toed, cut-resistant boots to complete your head-to-toe protection. You'll find this gear at chain saw dealers.

Plan a strategy for cutting up the tree

Before you even start your saw, stand back and size up the situation. Think about how you'll cut each branch and what will happen when you do. Obviously branches facing up will fall.

Make sure the fall path is open. It's not so clear what will happen when you cut branches trapped under the fallen tree. They'll be under pressure, and in some cases removing them will cause the tree to drop. Even seasoned pros can't always predict how far the trunk will drop, or whether the tree will roll.

But you should always imagine the worst-case scenario and be prepared for it. Take a few minutes to clear a path behind you and to the side for a quick retreat. And always work with a partner so that if you become trapped or injured, you'll have someone to call for help.

Start by removing branches closest to the lower end of the trunk, and work toward the top of the tree. Whenever possible, stand on the uphill side of the tree. Photos 1 – 3 show techniques for removing branches from the top side of the trunk and branches under pressure.

Work from the left side of the trunk (as you face toward the top of the tree). This allows the safest and most efficient use of the chain saw because you can rest the side or bottom of the saw on the trunk and slice off the branches with a pivoting motion (Photo 1).

Cutting the tree trunk

As you cut branches out from under the trunk, it will settle to the ground. Finally the trunk will either rest entirely on the ground or hang suspended. If it's suspended, cut the trunk loose from the stump and carefully roll it to the ground. If you try to cut straight down through a trunk that's supported on both ends, the weight of the trunk will pinch the bar and stop the saw. Instead use the technique shown in Photos 4 and 5 to avoid binding.

The saw can also become pinched if you cut too far through a branch that supports the trunk. If this happens, stop the engine and use a stout branch as a lever to lift the trunk and free the saw (Photo 6).

After the trunk is free of branches and resting safely on the ground, cut it into manageable pieces, usually about 16 in. long for firewood. Start by cutting the trunk into 8-ft. long sections, a length short enough to roll over. Pick a spot on the trunk that has about a 3- to 6-in. gap under it. Otherwise your chain will hit the ground and quickly dull as you finish the cut.

Keep the bar parallel to the ground as you near the end of the cut, and finish with the bottom of the saw engine resting flat on the ground. That'll prevent the chain from accidentally hitting the dirt. Now use the process shown in Photo 7 to cut the longer sections into 16-in. lengths. With this method, you don't have to worry about your chain hitting the ground.

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Required Tools for this Project

Have the necessary tools for this DIY project lined up before you start—you’ll save time and frustration.

    • Hearing protection
    • Safety glasses

You'll need a chainsaw (!) and instead of safety glasses and earmuffs, you can wear a helmet with a face screen and built-in ear protection.

Comments from DIY Community Members

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October 17, 4:20 AM [GMT -5]

Could you show how to properly sharpen the chainsaw blades. I bought a bar mounted sharping guide and thought it would be safe way to get the correct angle sharpened. I then found the instructions to be for a more advance lumberjack than I since this was my first one. I have also searched the internet and can't find good advice on how to use it including the manufacture.

May 16, 7:45 PM [GMT -5]

Most people don't realize how often a chainsaw needs to be sharpened. Professional and loggers usually do a touch up on their saw every time they refuel. I just bought this new sharpener from www.timberlinesharpener.com which is hands down the best sharpener on the market. Highly recommended.

September 21, 9:58 AM [GMT -5]

Think your chainsaw is dull because it isn't cutting. Think again.

Three years ago I was clearing some trees and had a tree on the ground and was cutting the little 1" branches off the trunk. Some cut easily but sometimes it wouldn't cut through a silly 1" branch very easily. Thinking the chainsaw was very dull and couldn't cut through butter. So I would push a little harder to get it to cut. In bracing myself, I apparently put my left foot in the follow-through. The chainsaw cut through the branch and proceeded to clip my foot. I thought it only hit my shoe (tennis shoe by the way). I looked and saw a huge gash in my foot. Couldn't believe how quickly it happened. Cutting off a long story, I got lucky. Cut a tendon only 50% and didn't need surgery. Sounds silly, but I have a new found respect for chainsaws. Oh, and wear good shoes.

May 31, 8:12 AM [GMT -5]

Though I have been using a chain saw for years, it never hurts to review safety (and smart) procedures. The description is clear and straightforward and the pictures very useful.
Emphasizing the safety equipment to have is critical. A logger friend of mine also always carries a plastic wedge that assist him with stuck saws or tricky cuts.
Living in a hilly area, our big challenge is doing this stuff safely , often on a challenging slant. Changes the geometry a whole lot!

April 29, 9:49 AM [GMT -5]

this is a nice project!

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Using a Chain Saw Safely

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