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When to Replace a Chainsaw Chain: How To Tell When It’s Worn Out

Size of work

Chainsaws are useful things to have around if you’ve got a lot of trees. They can bring big ones down to provide firewood, they can cut up fallen ones, and they can prune limbs to keep trees still standing healthy.

The key to this is the chain. If your chain is worn out and dull, it’s dangerous. It can slip or kick back, resulting in unwanted woodcuts or injury. The first step in using a chainsaw safely is keeping its chain in tip-top shape, and the first step to that is recognizing when the chain is dull. From there, it’s a matter of choice. Do you sharpen the chain or do you buy a replacement?

divider 1 What kind of work are you doing?

In general, a top-quality chain backed by a powerful engine is going to cut through softwoods such as pine like a flaming sword through warm butter. It’ll be able to do that for a much longer time, too, than a smaller engine with an inferior chain cutting hard, dense wood.

Chainsaw cutting log
Image Credit: Parilov, Shutterstock

Stay aware of what kind of work you’re asking your chainsaw to do. It’ll eventually go dull regardless, but if you’re cutting a lot of softwood, it’ll stay sharp for longer. If you’re taxing the engine’s limits, it’ll wear your chain out a little faster, too.

While it’s in use and after you’re done working, make sure the chainsaw is properly lubricated, cleaned, and stored. This is true of anything, but it’s especially important given the inherently dangerous nature of using a chainsaw.

Symptoms of a dull chain

Reminding yourself of the work you do with it will make you a little more aware of symptoms of a dull chain when they present themselves. The biggest clue is that the chainsaw is just harder to use. It doesn’t cut as easily or as quickly. Since wear and tear can happen gradually, you might not notice these things until they get pronounced. If you’re watching for them, however, you’ll probably notice them earlier.

When chainsaws cut, the teeth dig into the wood and pull the chain into it, setting up the work for the next tooth. Here are some clear symptoms that your chain is getting dull.

  • A dull chain is going to start slipping more often.
  • The chain starts pulling itself in a specific direction. That happens when some of the teeth are dulled and others are still gripping as intended.
  • It might also start spitting out dust instead of wood chips. Instead of ripping wood apart, it starts sawing it as the chain starts to dull.
  • One final symptom is if a chainsaw starts to smoke during operation, it’s the result of friction. There are generally two reasons this will happen. The first is that the chain is under-lubricated. If it’s properly lubricated, however, it’s probably happening because the chain is dull.

To replace or to sharpen

When your chainsaw starts to show signs of a dull chain, inspect the bar and chain carefully. You don’t necessarily need to replace a dull chain. There is a chance that you can sharpen the existing chain to get the most for your money.

Sharpening a chainsaw close up
Image Credit: sonsart, Shutterstock

If the chain has missing or damaged teeth, unfortunately, you’ll need to replace the chain. You want chains with full sets of teeth in pretty good condition to use a chainsaw safely.

If the chain sags when you turn the chainsaw on, turn it off immediately, then replace the chain. The ties that hold it on might be damaged, and this is potentially very dangerous.

Maximize the chain’s life

Just because your chain is dull doesn’t mean you need to replace it. Depending on the kind of work you do with it, you can sharpen a chainsaw chain anywhere between three and five times before it’s just exhausted.

You can either sharpen the chain by hand or with an electric sharpening tool. Sharpening by hand can either involve an unpowered hand tool or an attachment to a rotary tool like a Dremel. It costs less than buying a standalone tool, and if you only use a chainsaw occasionally, it’s also more economical. Electric sharpeners are faster and better at getting a chain with teeth of consistent size and sharpness.

Oregon Professional Compact 120-Volt Bench Grinder, Universal Saw Chain Sharpener, for All Chainsaw...
  • Bench or wall mounted Professional grinder: Perfect for semi-professional and home users who regularly saw wood
  • Save time & money: Sharpen your own chainsaw chains. Grinder easily mounts to a bench or wall with two included bolts - ideal for a...
  • Universal sharpener: Sharpens up to .404” pitch chain. Sharpen almost saw any chain from manufacturers such as Oregon, Stihl,...

When sharpening, you only want to take off as much as you need to prolong the chain’s life. Eventually, you run out of blades and sharpening will start cutting into the chain itself. When that happens, it’s time to get a new chain.

divider 1 Conclusion

Safe use of a chainsaw starts with a properly maintained chain. Knowing the signs of a chain that’s wearing out is key to staying alert for signs that your chain is starting to dull. Some of those signs include smoking, more difficulty using it, or having a hard time gripping the wood.

Just because it’s dull doesn’t mean you have to replace it. You can extend the life of your chainsaw chain by sharpening it if possible. If it has damaged or missing teeth or the chain is just flat-out exhausted, you’ll need to replace it.

Header and featured image credit: 5617024, Pixabay


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