By Sandra Murphy, VFF Forest Community Outreach and Rewilding
This past summer, I bought my first chainsaw. I’m 58, and I was pretty sure until last spring that I would never use—never mind own—a chainsaw. They were, I thought, noisy, dangerous, smelly, and for the mechanically inclined. I’d leave the tree felling and firewood bucking to other people.
But every year, I organize Game of Logging chainsaw training courses for Vermont Family Forests—in 2021 we had nearly 100 participants in 10 courses over the year—and people interested in participating invariably ask me about the nuances of the courses. Should they take the Basic course, or just jump right into Level 1? What exactly will they learn? I could and did tell them what the instructors told me. But since there’s nothing like firsthand experience to answer those questions well, and since the Basic course doesn’t involve cutting down a tree, it seemed like manageable job training.
I could spend the blog waxing poetic about the course itself, which I took last April. It’s a humbling thing to try to start a chainsaw for the first time in front of 10 strangers, and daunting to hunker close to a whirring chain that cuts through hardwoods like a knife through butter, engine roaring, wood chips flying. Our incredibly skillful teacher, John Adler of Northeast Woodland Training, helped us move beyond varied levels of trepidation and awkwardness to make our first cuts.
I learned a whole lot that day—what to do right and why things can go badly wrong if you don’t. I learned what to wear and how to wear it correctly to stay safe, what to bring into the woods and why. How to anticipate the tensions that wood is under and use the saw with those forces in mind. Basically, I made the carefully chaperoned acquaintance of a powerful, edgy tool, and I gained enough knowledge and confidence to continue practicing on my own.
During the decades John Adler has worked in the woods, he has used a gas-powered chainsaw. When we talked about gas versus battery saws, he was quick to say that he’s interested in battery-powered saws, but didn’t have a lot of experience with them. A few people had brought their own saws to practice with, and all were gas-powered. So when we explored the saw’s anatomy, we looked at the gas tank, the choke and throttle, the pull-cord, the carburetor, and all the other parts that particularly make up a gas saw, plus parts that every saw has, no matter how it’s powered, like a chain, bar, oil tank, and chain brake.
I came away from the day knowing that I wanted to become skilled with a chainsaw, and knowing just as clearly that I wanted a battery-powered saw. I bought my saw in June, and it’s fair to say I’m smitten. I didn’t just buy a chainsaw, of course, because one of the biggest takeaways from the Basic course is that good protective gear is a key part of keeping your body parts intact. I bought Kevlar-lined chainsaw boots, apron chaps with ankle wraps, a hardhat with earmuffs and face shield, vegetable-oil bar oil (Stihl’s BioPlus, which has been great), a chain file, and a Makita chainsaw with a 14-inch bar. (There are undoubtedly many great brands out there—this is just what I bought.)
The saw uses two batteries, but came with four, which is really convenient. I’ve discovered that, with 4 charged batteries on hand, the saw and I have about the same amount of energy for wood cutting—we both poop out at about the same time. That’s actually a pretty nice safety feature, since I’m not tempted to keep working when I’m tired.
It’s hard to say which aspects of working with my battery-powered saw I like best. It turns on with the push of a button. No yanking on a pull cord. No risk of flooding the engine. No toting a gas can into the woods. No gas. It’s silent except for the duration of a cut. No idling. Once the cut is complete, the beautiful quiet of the forest returns. Even when cutting, its noise is a fraction of that of a gas saw. I know it doesn’t have the same power as a gas saw, but that hasn’t limited me yet. I’m looking forward to taking Level 1, in which I’ll learn how to safely fell bigger trees, which is when I expect I might encounter limitations. Stay tuned for the follow-up post!
Because I use a vegetable oil lubricant, I’m not contaminating forest soils or water. A chainsaw kicks off a lot of oil in the process of keeping the chain lubricated, and if you’re using a petroleum oil, you’re sprinkling that around the forest as you work, and the chances of that oil making its way into surface water is significant. When I get home from cutting in the forest, I bring my saw right into my kitchen. I take off the sprocket cover, which secures the bar to the saw and protects that end of the bar and chain. This area accumulates quite a bit of saw dust and chips by the end of the day. I use a wooden skewer (the kind you make kebabs with) and an old toothbrush to clean all the nooks and crannies. Then—and this is the best thing of all—I gather up the veggie-oil infused wood shavings and put them in my compost bucket.
During the Basic course, we talked about vegetable-based bar oil versus petroleum-based oil, and John voiced some concern that veggie oil thickens when stored in cold weather, though he added the caveat that he hasn’t used it much. Here’s the thing I’ve found. The battery-powered chainsaw is odorless and clean. Because of that, I don’t store it outside. It hangs out in my basement, tuned up and ready for action, in a storage box with the rest of my gear. I charge the batteries right after I use them, so they’re ready when I need them. I’ve used my saw regularly through the fall and into the current winter season, and it has performed like a champ every time.
I have a hunch that some of the gumminess issues were in the early years of veggie bar oil, when manufacturers were still working out the kinks. It’s come a long way since then. The Stihl BioPlus oil lists a shelf life, after opening, of four years. Even a weekend warrior like me goes through oil way faster than that, which again points to the importance of using veggie oil. I’ve used about half of my one-gallon jug since June. Where are those two quarts of oil? A good part of it is in the forest.
Before I got the battery-powered saw, I wondered if its quietness would make me less careful—if the din of a gas-powered saw conveys potential danger and commands attention and respect. I have not found that to be the case at all. For me the ritual of putting on all the protective gear attunes me to the inherent dangers of using a chainsaw and fully gets my attention.
Since I’ve only taken the Basic course so far, I’m only cutting trees less than about seven inches in diameter—too small for employing the iconic plunge cut that’s taught in Game of Logging level 1. With each outing, I learn more about the dynamics of wood and how to cut efficiently and carefully. Level 1, here I come!