Heating With Wood Part V: Zen and the Art of Chainsaw


Nice little alder left by cutters clearing under the power lines.

In Alaska running a chainsaw is a social skill. You go out with the gang, buck up some downed trees, bring them somewhere, pitch them off. It’s a good day. The thing is, with a few exceptions,* if you don’t know how to use a chain saw standardized how-to instructors can be hard to find.

Before everything was online we had the owner’s manual, a book called ‘Chainsaw Savvy’ and articles from the Cooperative Extension and Forestry Schools. People without a mentor read up on it (or not), climbed a steep learning curve, gained that confidence that comes from experience and, by and large, did fine. Nothing replaces a good in-person instructor but if you don’t have one there are some excellent instructors on YouTube videos. These run the spectrum from Zen and the Art of Chainsaw loggers who make it look like magic, to Darwin Award candidates trying to cut their way out of the gene pool.

Even the most expert wood cutters get some thumbs down on these videos but if there are a hundred thousand views and fifty people didn’t like it, no big deal. On the other hand, if there are more thumbs down than up that person may be so dazzled by his own aura that he can’t see what he’s doing wrong. Here are some practices pretty much all the experts agree with:

Starting the saw: Check your gas, bar oil reservoir and the chain tension. To start a cold saw; engage brake, press throttle trigger and interlock on back handle while engaging the choke. (If you choke a warm saw you may flood it. If a warm saw doesn’t start, use the choke.) Two common ways to start the saw safely are: 1) place saw on the ground, hold top handle bar with left hand, put your right foot in the back handle, pull starter cord with right hand. 2) hold top handle with left hand, lock back handle of saw between your legs just above your knees, pull starter cord with right hand. The saw will turn over then stop before you close the choke. Close the choke (or you’ll flood it) and give it a pull. The saw says, Bwwaaaaaaam! Cool. Release the brake. Press the interlock to engage the trigger. You’re in business. When the saw is running: always wrap your thumbs around the handles to meet your fingers. This gives better control than having your thumb on the same side of the handle as your fingers. To carry the saw, shut it off, hold it at your side with the chain pointing back behind you.

Cutting: First thing is to consider what forces are on the tree. That is, if the tree is resting on its root wad at one end and resting on its branches at the other while unsupported in the middle, the wood fibers running lengthwise up the tree are being compressed along the top of the log (compression wood) while the fibers on the underside of the trunk are being pulled apart (tension wood). Big forces are on the branches holding the tree up. As you cut them or the trunk, things will move. Likewise, if the tree fell against another tree it may be bent under pressure—this is called spring loaded. A crown can land is such a way that it pushes back toward the trunk. The ‘Wildland Fires Chainsaws Bucking Videos listed below show ways to cut various hazards safely. If a big tree is loaded or leaning against another tree, hire an expert to get it to the ground.

A wind thrown tree may even have enough tension in the still-attached roots to stand back up when the crown is cut off. Yup, there’s a video of that on YouTube. It’s pretty dramatic, actually. If the tree is on a slope part of it could roll so make sure there’s no one below and cut from the uphill side.

After assessing the site make a place for yourself to work. Cut away branches and brush that might trip you up or catch the saw. Limb the tree. When bucking up a log the rule of thumb is to cut compression wood first then the tension wood. As you cut deeper into compression wood the tree will try to close your kerf (gap the saw makes as it cuts) which will pinch the bar and you may not be able to get it out. It’s good to have a couple wedges to keep the kerf open. It’s also a good idea to bring a second bar, chain and chainsaw wrench so that, if you do stick the bar, you can take the saw off it, put on the second bar and cut the stuck bar free.

The number one hazard with chainsaw operation is kickback. Kickbacks happen when the top side of the nose of the bar nose contacts something and the bar jerks up and back. To avoid kickback, maintain a firm grip—not a death grip, just firm—on the handles, thumbs all the way around, and pay attention to where the nose of the bar is at all times. Just in case, its good form to stand slightly to the left side of the bar instead of directly behind it.

Consistent cuts and branches

Cutting rounds to a consistent length makes stacking easier. If you’re not used to eyeballing it you can measure the length of your saw body, say it’s sixteen inches long, and use that for a gauge. Ideally, new cutters should start by bucking small trees and work their way up.

Generally you want to cut using the end of the blade closest to the saw body rather than with the tip. The saw should cut straight, feed itself and confetti size chips will fly out the back. If you find yourself pushing on it or it’s spitting out sawdust, stop and sharpen the chain. Likewise, if your saw your cuts are going off at angles you don’t want it probably means the chain is dull. Bars wear out eventually and need to be replaced.

As far as branches go most wood cutters around here don’t want to mess with them. Instead they bring home rounds and split them into pieces as big as branches. It’s a shame. Branches are dense wood with a lot of BTU’s. Anything larger than your wrist is worth thinking about. They’re easier transport if you cut them into longer lengths, say eight feet, then cut them to stove size at home.

Chainsaw Fails

Michael Moore’s 2004 documentary ‘Fahrenheit 911’ has an instructive chainsaw moment. I remember almost nothing about that film except when G.W. Bush, in a few seconds of staged photo op, how-not-to glory, tries to buck up a log. The 43rd leader of the free world in a cowboy hat and apparently without chainsaw chaps is distracted and looking away from the saw while it’s running. To be fair most of us, when we’re out in the woods, aren’t in front of a TV camera and we’re not flanked by three guys in sun glasses. For some reason one of those guys is standing on the log being cut. What is that about? And where is that cloud of confetti size chips that are supposed to fly off the back of the saw? There aren’t any. Come on handlers! If you’re going to set the guy up for a manly chainsaw moment at least sharpen the chain. He is the President, after all. We try not to get political here at Woodshed Kings so it must be said this wasn’t half as funny as the idea of Bill Clinton, Barak Obama, Donald Trump, or any President since Jimmy Carter with a chainsaw.

‘Chainsaw Fails’ are popular on YouTube. Since we often learn more from failure than success it’s worth watching a few. Here are some ‘Don’ts’ from the web:

Don’t cut trees while you’re standing on a ladder leaning against that tree. Really.
Don’t run the chainsaw when you’re half in the bag.
Don’t run the saw with one hand while you’re pushing the tree with the other to keep it from falling on your car.
Don’t drop start the saw by holding it out in front of you with the starter cord in one hand and yanking the saw downward with the other hand.
Don’t sit in a tree while you’re cutting the branch that’s leaning against a building.
Don’t cut while standing on the down hill side of the log.
Don’t cut with the chainsaw above your shoulders.
Don’t put the chain on backwards and post a video of yourself trying to figure out why it’s not cutting.

Like putting up fish, putting the wood supply is a satisfying part of this time of year. The vast majority of wood cutters never get hurt. If you’re up for it but have doubts about learning how to run a chainsaw, relax. You can do this.

Some better than average basic bucking videos:

Wildland Fire Chain Saws-Parts 1 through 6. How to take tension off loaded limbs, how to cut top bind, bottom bind, blow downs, angle cuts, situation analysis.

Cut A Tree Down Safely Part 2. Bucking and Cutting, Tim Ard of Forest Training Applications.

‘Danger: Chain Saw’ Is a good beginner video with an unfortunate title. The part you can use starts nine minutes into the film.

Stihl and Husqvarna, the industry standards, have good videos for starting and using their respective saws.

*Two notable exceptions are Fish and Game’s annual ‘Becoming an Outdoor Woman’ chainsaw workshop and, Fish and Game’s Alaskan’s Afield program which sometimes runs a chainsaw workshop in spring. You can call Outdoors Education Coordinator Kristen Romanoff at 907-465-8547 for details.