How to Use a Chainsaw (& Sharpen It): A Comprehensive Guide

The idea of using a “how to use a chainsaw” guide to properly use and sharpen a chainsaw may seem like a ridiculous notion. However, to someone who has never used such a tool before, the prospect seems incredibly difficult, possibly dangerous, and like a process that is better off being handled by experienced professionals.

The actual truth is one of the most common causes of chainsaw injury is the improper use of the machine and/or a blunt cutting chain. Dull chainsaw blades bite and get caught in the wood or other material as they are being used. This causes the chainsaw to aggressively kickback, leading to serious injuries.

Keeping that in mind, sharpening a chainsaw and keeping it in top form is actually an essential skill for anyone using one to learn or master. In this guide, I have targeted both professionals and beginners. Pros will find out what they may be doing wrong and beginners will learn the art of using a chainsaw and how to maintain it like a true craftsman.

I have divided this guide into two sections: first up is the how to use a chainsaw part followed by how to keep your chainsaw in top form through proper maintenance. So, without any further ado, let’s get down to business…

How To Safely Use Your Chainsaw

The idea of starting a chainsaw for the first time sounds exciting to many enthusiasts. However, you should always remember that chainsaws are extremely dangerous and not to be taken as toys.

Close to 28,000 people suffer from injuries from operating chainsaws every year. The majority of these injuries occur to amateur chainsaw operators, but pros are not all-safe either.

This is a big number and a big reason to learn how to use a chainsaw properly. Below are 10 important tips and guidelines of using a chainsaw properly:

  1. Thoroughly read the user guide that comes with your equipment and follow the manufacturers recommendations when using your chainsaw.
  2. Wear all the necessary personal protective gear.. This includes chaps, a chainsaw helmet with face guard, gloves, and either steel-toed or logging boots (discussed in more detail below).
  3. Never wear loose clothing. It can get caught in the teeth of the saw.
  4. Never operate this power tool completely alone, especially if you’re a beginner. When something goes wrong, it happens fast. Having a friend nearby can save your life.
  5. Have a complete first-aid kit handy with at least one blood-clotting bandage.
  6. Maintain a comfortable stance. Relax your shoulders. Keep both feet firmly planted as you work and don’t spread them too far apart. Remember, balance is key.
  7. Hold the chainsaw with two hands and at an angle or a little to one side rather than directly in front of you.
  8. Do not attempt to use a chainsaw on a ladder. Generally, as a rule, never cut anything that is higher than your shoulder.
  9. Be aware of the location of all power lines.
  10. Use the right-size and type of chainsaw for the job. Generally, the blade should be two inches longer than the wood it’s cutting.

Protective Gear For Your Chainsaw

In order to safely use a chainsaw, this section is very important.

Every single time you use a chainsaw, ensure you are wearing as much personal protection equipment or gear as possible. The key points of the body you want to be shielded from harm are your eyes, ears, legs, and your head. Afterall, most chainsaw-related injuries are to your hands and lower extremities.

Here is a list of protective gear you need:

  • Chainsaw hard hat or helmet
  • Safety goggles
  • Non-slip gloves
  • Steel toed sturdy work boots
  • Earmuffs for ear protection
  • Work chaps

Special mention has to be made in regard to the chaps that you must always ensure you are wearing when using a chainsaw. The chaps are made of kevlar and can resist the cutting action of a high-speed chainsaw, hence preventing you from serious injury and maybe even from losing a limb (or your life).

No matter how experienced you are, don’t start your chainsaw if you don’t have the above listed protective gear.

Preparing Your Chainsaw

Get into the habit of checking all the components of your chainsaw before you start any cutting. Check the handle, controls, bar, and chain sharpness and whether it is tight. A loose chain or a handle is not easy to spot but may result in some serious injuries. Attention to detail is the key here, especially if you are new in the field.

After so many years, I still do a physical check of all the parts before starting my chainsaw.

Fill both your gas and oil tanks to full and remember to do this every time even if you are not using the machine too heavily. This helps to ensure that the chainsaw chain is always lubricated.

Starting Your Chainsaw

There are two methods to start a chainsaw safely. The first is placing it on the ground, and second, is holding the chainsaw between your legs.

On The Ground

Place the chainsaw flat and parallel to the ground, facing bottom down. Push the chain brake forward until it locks. The chain brake is usually a separate lever located between the top handle on the chainsaw and the blade, preventing the chain from spinning until you release the brake and apply the throttle.

If you’re using a gas-powered saw and it has a choke, turn it on. If there’s a primer button, push it four to six times to pull gas into the carburetor, then turn the power switch on.

If your chainsaw is electric, all you need to do is depress the safety switch and flip the power switch on.

This method is probably the most common when it comes to starting a chainsaw. It is also the most suitable for beginners. However, professionals, at times, have to shut down the machine and restart it quickly – they need speed and precision for this and, thus, tend to hold the machine between their legs to start it.

Between Your Legs

This method is more suitable for professionals and beginners should, at first, avoid it.

The rear handle should go between your left thigh and at the back of your right knee. Before starting the chainsaw, the front handle should be held firmly with one hand.

As the engine is usually hot when you try to start the chainsaw like this, it doesn’t choke and starts comparatively easier.

Using Your Chainsaw

When handling a chainsaw, maintain solid and good footing. Keep an eye out for tripping hazards and remember to always keep a good balance. Never overreach with the saw running or twist your body into extreme angles.

Keep your left hand firmly around the front handle, including the thumb, wrapping around it.

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.

The kickback zone is the top half of the bar’s tip. If the kickback zone comes in contact with an object while the chain is running, the saw will kick up and back towards you. Most modern chainsaws are equipped with a chain brake designed to stop the chain in case this happens.

However, you should always keep the kickback and the kickback zone in mind while using a chainsaw.

Always wrap the thumb of your left hand around the front handle while you’re cutting. This encircling grip keeps the saw under your control in the event of kickback.

When you move from place to place with the saw running, always remove your right hand from the back handle and carry the saw at your side with your left hand holding the front handle. Should you trip or stumble, there’s no way the saw’s engine can accelerate and start the chain spinning.

These two small precautions can prevent the most common forms of chainsaw injury.

Chainsaw Operational Safety

Always check the environment around you before you start the process of cutting. Look up and down, left and right, and identify potential hazards. Plan out an escape in the case a tree does not fall where expected.

Try to visualize the fall as much as possible and keep a clear path for the tree to fall. Consider other factors such as wind direction, the condition of the tree, and potential damage in a worst case scenario.

Most accidents that occur in relation to chainsaws or power tools are a result of not being able to plan for an unexpected outcome or blatant recklessness and negligence. Try to work as smartly as you can to prevent even the slightest chance of an accident. Check out this video to find out more about the chainsaw basics using specifically an Echo chainsaw.

Powering Off And Storing The Chainsaw

To power off the saw, simply switch it to “off.” Let the saw cool down before storing it.

If you’re using a gas saw, before you put it away, you need to decide what to do with any fuel left in the tank. If you’re planning on using the chainsaw again in the near future, it’s fine to leave leftover fuel in the tank for up to four weeks.

Whether your chainsaw is gas or electric, store it in a case or with a bar cover to keep it safely stowed away and to prevent dust and debris from settling on the chain.

Refer to your manufacturer guidelines or user manual for more information on the best way to store your chainsaw.

Maintaining Your Chainsaw

I believe, if you can’t maintain your chainsaw, you won’t be able to use it properly. All the above guidelines and tips will work if the chainsaw in use is properly maintained and is in top shape. Here are some of the basics to keep your machine performing at its best:

Checking Chain Tension

To make adjustments, you must loosen the bar nuts that hold the bar. The next step is to lift the bar while tightening the adjusting screw until the chain is snug against the bar.

The tension is optimal when you can’t lift the chain drivers past the bar groove but still drag the chain easily along the bar. Retighten once done.

Checking Chain Sharpness

Carefully examine the entire length of the chainsaw chain, looking for any broken cutting links that need to be replaced.

One of the best methods to gauge the condition of the cutting edge and the sharpness of the chainsaw chain itself is to examine the shavings it produces when used.

The shavings should be long curls and most should be the same length. Any signs of chips, varying levels of thickness to the shavings, twigs, or etc. means the cutting edge of the chainsaw is getting worn out.

The question of how often the chain cutting links should be sharpened is not so clear and is up for debate. However, one thing that is recommended is to sharpen your chainsaw chain before it becomes dull and dangerous to use.

You can train yourself to get a feel for this by carefully taking note of the amount of pressure you need to cut into the wood. As soon as the blades start to dull, the chainsaw will start to bite and kickback, needing greater force to maintain control.

Some guides may tell you to sharpen after cutting a certain number of trees. Others recommend sharpening after 10 uses, while others recommend you do it after a certain number of hours of use.

Personally, I would recommend sharpening your chain after 40 hours of use. Another guideline I can endorse is to sharpen after every full tank of gas is used. You must sharpen your chain when you hit a rock, soil, or you cut a hardwood tree. Those three can make your chain dull easily.

Overall, you should keep a watchful eye on your chain. Keep in mind what it looked like when it was new since that was when the manufacturer optimized it for cutting.

How To Sharpen Your Chainsaw

The traditional method of sharpening a chainsaw is by hand and file. Till today, most professionals still use this method to sharpen a chainsaw chain. It has the advantages of being the most reliable method and also the most cost-effective.

The drawbacks of using this method is that it is a complicated and difficult skill to master, sometimes taking weeks and months to get down right. There are no shortcuts. Only practice and repetition of the process will lead to more positive results.

The second method involves using an electric chain sharpener to sharpen the chainsaw chain. The electric sharpener has a motor that runs continuously and has a very high level of accuracy.

This method offers obvious advantages as it is much quicker and easier than filing the chainsaw by hand. However, it has a huge drawback as the motor of the sharpener can shred too much metal away from the chainsaw chain, severely reducing the lifespan of the machine.

When and if using one, it is always a good idea to refer to the user manual of your particular chainsaw. Look to follow its suggestions about electric sharpening. Always refer to the manufacturer and their guidelines when in any form of doubt.


The familiarity with your machine is important when it comes to maintenance and replacement of parts. You should have a feel of the equipment when it was new and cutting properly compared to when it begins to lose its charm.

If you could develop that feel, you can easily tell if there is something wrong with your chainsaw and get it inspected and also when you need to sharpen the chain or get a new one.

I hope this guide has provided you with all the useful information you have been looking for in relation to using and maintaining your chainsaws.

On a closing note, please always remember to refer to your chainsaws user manual and the guidelines set out by the manufacturer in case your machine doesn’t start or acts weirdly.

Good luck and remember to be safe.

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