Handle with care
Mike Clark stresses the need to maintain chainsaws and treat them with respect
Once upon a time, we only had scythes and sickles. As a bairn, I remember a local farmer clearing a swathe around the outside of his cornfields with a scythe, to make room for the binder pulled by an old grey Fergie tractor (no, not a horse, I’m not quite that old!). Nothing wrong with that, of course, but my most vivid memory is of him cycling between fields with the scythe over his shoulder. As young as I was, I remember thinking this was perhaps a little risky. These days, we have a host of powered tools to assist us and, I think it’s fair to say, none of the modern additions to our armoury is as potentially dangerous as a scythe. The chainsaw, however, comes close.
Now I know you can’t fell trees with a scythe, so don’t write in to complain. I begin with the scythe simply to grab your attention – it’s a hook in more ways than one.
If you got someone in to do a bit of strimming or grass-cutting, you probably wouldn’t ask to see their certificate of competence. Which is just as well, as certificates in strimmer or lawnmower operation are thin on the ground. The one powered tool (in the gardening context) for which a contractor is legally required to be certificated is the chainsaw. And it’s worth noting that, in legal terms, regardless of whether you’re paid or not, working with a chainsaw on a property other than your own requires you to be certificated and third-party insured.
Having had a love/hate relationship with chainsaws throughout my working life, this is one of the few nanny-state regulations with which I agree. Of course, anyone can buy a chainsaw, and use it to inadvertently dismember themselves, without the burden of legislation, and rightly so. It isn’t the government’s duty to protect the individual from him/herself – or at any rate, it shouldn’t be.
No, the duty of protection lies with the individual, in respect of others. And I would urge anyone thinking of buying a chainsaw, to take a course on chainsaw operation and maintenance. A basic course lasts typically two or three days, and is time well spent.
I realise that not everyone will take that advice, but what follows is intended as general advice, and doesn’t replace a proper course. I could regurgitate all the advice churned out by official bodies, but anyone can do that. This is just my take on a serious subject, born of personal experience. So don’t sue, ok?Protect yourself
Safety begins a long way from the saw – it begins with attitude and apparel. Attitude is critical. Humility is the key. Bravado and ignorance have no place here. This is no ordinary garden tool – this one can maim and kill. Remember that, and treat the saw with respect.
Apparel is equally critical – face, hands, legs and feet are all at risk. Before you even think about starting up a chainsaw, have these things in place:
- Helmet – with ear defenders and visor. And use the visor. I know it reduces your vision, but it also reduces the risk of losing an eye.
- Gloves – although you can buy expensive Kevlar jobs, good rigger gloves will do, because your hands are behind the saw, and therefore at a lesser risk, assuming your chain-catcher and chain brake are intact and functional.
- Leggings, or better still proper chainsaw bib-and-brace. I confess, I take risks with the gloves and the boots, but I never fire up the saw without the Kevlar trousers. I have several patches in mine, which you mustn’t do. One cut, and you must throw them away and buy new – do as I say, not as I do – because the integrity of the Kevlar (the same stuff as in bullet proof vests) is compromised if it has been used. Sorry if that sounds pretentious. I just mean that Kevlar stops the chain before it takes your leg off, by winding itself around the mechanism in a split second. And it works. When it works, it seems like a miracle has happened. The slight scar on my left thigh is testimony to the efficacy of Kevlar, as is the 45 minutes it took me to remove all the Kevlar fibres from the working parts of the saw after an incident I prefer to forget.
- Steel toe-cap boots are the final necessity. I used to think my toes were the least of my worries, and certainly face and knees-to-waist (and the bits in between) are the most vulnerable parts. But my left wellie leaks. It’s a miserable reminder of the day I worked with the saw, and chose rubber boots for dry feet over steel-toecap boots. A stumble over a stump nearly lost a few toes, and I have never repeated the wellies-with-chainsaw scenario.
Last winter, two crofter friends asked me to help convert a wind-blown beech tree to firewood, and I was only too happy to help them out. But they both turned up in boiler-suits, wellies and flat caps, carrying a chainsaw with the chain so loose you could put your finger between it and the underside of the bar. Initially, they laughed at me in my full armour – isn’t that always the way? – and they derided my suggestion that their chain wasn’t correctly tensioned.
I borrowed their saw, faced up to a log in a cross-cutting position, and put another log vertically by my right leg. Standing clear to the left, I just twisted the saw ever so slightly in the cut, and the loose chain flew off, and embedded itself in the log next to my right knee. For some reason, they now keep buying me drinks.
In summary, don’t start up a chainsaw without donning the necessary protective gear, which comprises steel-toecap boots, Kevlar leggings, helmet with ear defenders and visor, and sturdy gloves.
Much of the risk is reduced by proper maintenance of the saw, but I’ll deal with that later. There are many things you should be aware of in the working situation, which will minimise risk to you and others. Let’s start with others.
Get rid of any bystanders – this is not a spectator sport. No responsible adult would ever allow children or pets to be within 50 metres of a working chainsaw. In many situations, though, a helper is required. Your primary responsibility is to make that person aware of the risks.
If you need help close at hand, the first rule is to ensure that, when felling, even your helper is a tree-length away. When cross-cutting or snedding, allow no-one either in front of or behind the saw. The safest place is at right angles to the operator. A broken chain will fly forwards or backwards, but not sideways. Behind the saw is almost as dangerous as in front of it. Not quite, perhaps, because the chain-catcher and your right leg are in the front line, but neither are guaranteed to stop a broken chain.
Never allow anyone to hold the piece of timber you’re cutting. The most experienced operator can have a brief lapse of concentration, and kick-back can break the wrist or even the jaw of the helper. Cross-cut on your own. Your chainsaw course will have shown you how to use your foot, but if you haven’t been on one yet, only ever use your left foot to hold a log. Your right is your brace, and it should always be left of the cut. You have to bear with me here, and try to visualise this. Your left foot is on the log, your right is behind you, and your whole body is to the left of the saw. No part of your anatomy should ever be behind the saw.
Of course, kick-back can occur in many situations, so perhaps I should try to explain it. Kick-back occurs when the cutting bar recoils from the subject. The saw then bounces back with all the power and velocity you’ve put into it with your trigger finger, and it can be frightening and lethal. It most commonly occurs if the tip of the saw is offered to the subject. In normal circumstances, you should always begin your cut with that part of the bar nearest to the body of the saw.
That’s easy at ground level, but higher working tempts you to lead with the tip. Resist that temptation, and never work above shoulder height. Ideally, never work above waist height, but I know that’s impractical. Take great care between waist and shoulder, and never go above that.
By the way, did you think chainsaws were safe when they weren’t running? Always carry a chainsaw with the bar pointing backwards. If you trip and fall, with the bar pointing forwards, you’ll land on the chain. Believe me, you don’t want to do that.
Safety by maintenance
A correctly sharpened chain, properly tensioned, with the guide teeth set appropriately, will never break or fly off. Therefore, safety begins in the workshop. If you have to push down on the bar, the chain is not sharp. A chainsaw should cut under it’s own weight. If you have to push, you have an accident waiting to happen.
Forget the chainsaw-sharpening gizmos advertised on the internet. All you need is a bench vice, the correct file for the pitch of your chain, and a file guide. That’s all.
That may be all, but every component is essential. The bench vice needs no further explanation, but I despair when I reflect on the people I’ve known who have tried to sharpen their chain with a ‘round file’. Yes, they are round. All round files are round. But every chain has it’s own pitch, and has a file to suit. The angle of cut is crucial to performance and safety. If in doubt, take your chain (or entire saw) to your local dealer, and ask for a box of files to suit the chain. Note that I say ‘box of files’. One file is no use. I discard a file after three ‘sharpens’. Polishing the chain with a worn file does not help.
Clamp the saw, by the bar, in the bench vice, ensuring that you haven’t trapped the chain. The chain should be free to turn by hand. Forget anything you may have read in good books on this subject, about not sharpening on the bar. The best practice is to remove the chain from the saw, and put it on a sharpening jig. But neither you nor I have a sharpening jig. The argument is that the filings lodge in the bar, and create wear. I accept that argument for tree surgeons working with one-handed, top-handled saws, who are earning £200 an hour, but in the real world, you will knacker your chain on stones or wire long before the adverse effect of a few stray filings.
When sharpening, there are two key factors – angle and depth. Both are error-prone. It shouldn’t be difficult to get the angle right, since most chain manufacturers stamp the angle on the back of the tooth. So all you have to do is keep your file parallel to this mark. That’s where the file guide comes in. Mount your file in a file guide. It’s not a soft option, it’s a very helpful tool. Hardened foresters who claim never to have used a file guide in their lives usually have fingers or limbs missing.
A common misconception is the idea that a sharper angle will cut better. It won’t – the width of the chain is the critical factor, and if the tooth is sharpened too acutely, it leaves an uncut centre. The non-cutting parts of the chain therefore have to chew through this, causing unnecessary wear, and seriously slowed-down cutting.
So much for angle, but depth is equally important. But depth comes in two guises. First, those bits between the teeth are the depth gauges. They regulate the depth of cut, but so many people don’t recognise their purpose, or how to deal with them. They regulate the depth of cut for the simple reason that if they weren’t there, the cutting teeth would bite off more than they could chew, bite in too deeply, and die. Choke, take on too much, stop in tracks.
Every time you sharpen the teeth, you reduce the depth of cut, because of the angle of the teeth to the chain. As sharpening reduces the difference between the cutting edge of the tooth and the depth gauge, you have to shave a bit off the depth gauge. Do this in the same way, angle and motion as you would when sharpening, but using a flat file. Don’t be heavy handed. Try to maintain the proportionate space between cutting tooth and depth gauge.
Whether sharpening teeth or refining depth gauges (assuming you’re working on the bar), keep the tension up. A loose chain will throw your filing all over the place. Over-tension for sharpening, keep it taut, then loosen off a little before going back to work.
Now, before we leave sharpening, remember that the likeliest cause of a broken chain (remember, broken chain equals serious injury) is sharpening too deeply. Always sharpen with a sideways pressure, not a downward one. Sharpening with a downward pressure not only reduces the effectiveness, but erodes the link in the chain. Downwards pressure on the file buffs through the link, and is an accident waiting to happen.
Respect, not fear
Be aware, always, of the potential danger of a chainsaw. Do not treat it lightly. But it is only a tool, and like all tools, it’s only a hazard if it’s not maintained correctly, and you’re not wearing the appropriate safety gear. And remember, nothing I’ve written here replaces a chainsaw course. These are just a few hints and tips I’ve learned from experience over many years. So please, if you have one or you are thinking of getting one, take a course. Your life could depend on it.
This article is from the May 2006 issue of Country Smallholding magazine.
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