Chainsaw Training

by David Hathaway

This past spring I took a “Game of Logging” (GOL) chainsaw class that the GMC provided for some of the volunteers who have been using chainsaws for trail maintenance. Although I had been using a chainsaw for over 20 years and had learned a lot over that time, the course definitely improved my safety and skill and I very highly recommend it to anyone who wants to use a chainsaw. But when I started using a chainsaw, I was a menace!

My wife, Carolyn, and I live on 15 wooded acres in Underhill, and when we added chimney for a wood stove in 1999, I decided I should get a chainsaw and cut my own firewood. I had seen a chainsaw in use and it didn’t seem too complicated, so I got a relatively cheap Poulan saw from our local home store and started cutting up blowdowns on our land. I didn’t have chainsaw chaps, a face shield, or hearing protection, and didn’t know what the brake on my chainsaw was or how to use it.

I also didn’t know how to sharpen my chain. I’d seen very complicated looking jigs for sharpening a chain, but they looked difficult and time consuming to use. I brought my chains back to our home store for sharpening. But that was costly and took a while, so I didn’t do it often enough. And because I waited until a chain was very dull, they had to remove a lot of metal from each tooth to get them back to sharp, which meant the chain didn’t last very long. After I had cut for a while with a once-sharp chain and had probably gotten the running blade into the dirt a few times (which can dull them instantly!), the saw was cutting very slowly and poorly and pulling to one side as it cut. It turns out that the difference between a sharp chain and a dull one can be obvious not only to the saw operator, but also to someone listening to it. My neighbor, who’d been using a chainsaw for at least 30 years and lives several hundred feet away through the woods, wandered over as I was struggling to get the saw through a large log. “Cutting some firewood?” he asked. “Yes,” I replied. “When did you last sharpen your chain?” he asked. “I haven’t,” I replied. “Yep, I could tell,” he said. He then showed me how to use a simple round file with a very simple metal guide to quickly sharpen a chain. I now touch up the chain with a few strokes of the file on each tooth every time I fill the saw with gas.

Starting a chainsaw safely is also an important skill. Most manuals tell you to place the chainsaw on the ground, and step or kneel on it to stabilize it as you pull the starter cord. But this can be hard to do when the ground is very uneven or very wet. I’d seen people hold the saw with their left hand and pull the started cord with the right. This is called a “drop start” and many people do it. The problem is that as you pull the cord the force required varies unpredictably as the cylinder moves and varies the compression force required to turn the engine. You can get used to it and compensate for it, but you have very little control to prevent the saw from swinging back and forth. But in GOL I learned that you can safely start a saw while standing with a “leg lock” start, where you hold the saw with your left hand (as in a drop start), but also “lock” the rear handle between your legs, and thus prevent it from swinging uncontrollably and unpredictably when you start it.

Safety equipment is also crucial. Chainsaw chaps cover your legs in case you slip and hit them with a running saw. A chainsaw helmet with hearing protection and a face shield should always be used. You should know how to use the chainsaw brake (that thing sticking up in front of the top handle) and engage it every time you start the saw or move more than three steps with a running saw. This stops the chain from moving even if you press the trigger. The first time I (accidentally) engaged the chain break, I thought I’d broken my saw, and almost took it apart to fix it!

And you need to be aware of the dangers of what you’re cutting, and not just of the saw. Stuff can fall from above, so look up, and wear your helmet. A tree coming down can hit other trees. Cutting a blowdown might seem safer, but a downed tree may be under tension or compression and can spring suddenly when you cut and release it. Spring-poles (trees that are bent down) can release their energy explosively if cut incorrectly, hitting you or others or throwing large and dangerous pieces of wood. It is also easy to get a saw stuck in a cut when the wood bends and pinches the saw. Proper cutting and use of wedges can prevent this, but even experienced people sometimes read the situation wrong. That’s how I ended up buying my second chainsaw. I’d gotten the bar of the chainsaw stuck in a tree I was felling when it leaned back on the saw unexpectedly. I got a hand saw to free it but failed to remove the saw from the bar before doing so. When I finally cut enough to free the trunk, it slid just enough to let the saw drop to the ground … and then slid off the stump onto the chainsaw, smashing it to pieces. Realize that logging and fishing are the two most dangerous occupations according to OSHA.

We do not teach chainsaw use and safety in the GMC, and this article should not make you feel like you can safely run a chainsaw. For that, take a class or at least learn from someone experienced (don’t do as I did!). But if you want to see a chainsaw in (hopefully) safe use, come join us on our trail work outings every Saturday in May.