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The Best Chainsaw

The best chainsaw for most people is the cordless Ego Power+ 16″ Chainsaw, a decision we reached after spending five days in the New Hampshire woods with six chainsaws, and having a pro tree worker with 14 years’ experience use them on the job for an additional three days this summer.

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Our pick
Ego Power+ 16″ Chainsaw
The cordless Ego is the best combination of convenience, power, run time, and price.

The Ego is powered by a battery, so compared to a gas chainsaw, it’s far simpler to start, easier to maintain, quieter, and doesn’t emit exhaust. For power, it’s comparable to a 30cc to 40cc saw, which is small on the chainsaw spectrum, but is the recommended size for general property maintenance, storm cleanup, and light firewood work. Unlike many of the other cordless saws we tested, the Ego had little problem cutting through oak, maple, or even a 17-inch-thick pine. The battery has a long run time, giving us over 60 cuts through a 7-by-7 block of fir—the only other cordless tool this capable costs about $150 more. For ease of use, it has a tool-free chain tensioner, a feature usually found on premium gas saws. Last, the battery included with the Ego is compatible with the company’s mower and string trimmer, both of which we also recommend.

Runner-up
DeWalt 40V Max XR 16″ Chainsaw (DCCS690H1)
The DeWalt has similar run time to our pick and it felt a little more powerful. Unfortunately, it typically costs about $150 more.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $370.

If the Ego isn’t available, we also like the DeWalt 40V Max XR 16″ Chainsaw (DCCS690H1). It has the same run time as the Ego and it cut just as fast. But it had a little more power when going through hardwood like oak and maple, and it rarely stalled out, which the Ego did from time to time. This saw typically costs a whopping $450, which is a lot, considering the Ego is currently around $300. The DeWalt also has a tool-free chain tensioner, but the saw is hindered by an awkward safety switch and a poorly designed bar oil cap.

Also great
Stihl MS 181 C-BE
With no battery or charger, the Stihl can run all day without pause. It starts easy and works great—it just needs more maintenance.

If you want nonstop run time and don’t mind the noise and added maintenance of a gas saw, we like the Stihl MS 181 C-BE. It’s a 31.8cc saw, so it has similar performance to our cordless picks. It also has Stihl’s Easy2Start system, which means getting it going takes only two or three light pulls on the starter cord. Rounding out its features are excellent vibration control and a tool-free chain tensioner.

Table of contents

Why you should trust us

As part of research for this guide, I spoke with three experienced chainsaw users: Eric Grimshaw, a New Hampshire-based logger with 23 years of experience; Jon Lounsbury, a tree worker who has cut trees professionally since 2002; and Michael Springer, tool writer, former editor of Tools of the Trade, and part-time tree worker. Springer has been professionally using a chainsaw off and on for 21 years. In addition to tree work, he carves, mills lumber, and makes specialty furniture with chainsaws, all of which, as he says, “involve many more hours of trigger time than most tree felling jobs.” In addition, he has written about chainsaws, most notably, a cordless-chainsaw roundup at Pro Tool Reviews. Beyond this, I read everything I could about chainsaws, getting information mostly from the large rundown at Consumer Reports and the individual reviews of various chainsaws from reputable reviewers such as Pro Tool Reviews and HomeFixated.

In the cold months, I run three woodstoves and a fireplace daily.
For my own experience, I’ve used chainsaws regularly for well over a decade. I live in New Hampshire and rely extensively on wood heat during the winter. In the cold months, I run three woodstoves and a fireplace daily, with a fourth woodstove and a second fireplace getting intermittent use. That amount of heat takes a lot of wood, some of which I collect on my own property. There’s a reason I currently own three chainsaws.

I also have a construction background and have written about and reviewed tools since 2007, with articles appearing in Fine Homebuilding, Popular Mechanics, and This Old House. For the past three years I’ve covered outdoor power equipment for The Sweethome, writing guides for lawn mowers, snow blowers, leaf blowers and string trimmers.

Who should get this

Chainsaws are expensive and dangerous and not everybody needs one. In fact, it’s hard to overstate the danger of a chainsaw, regardless of if you have experience using one or not. A number of factors contribute to this, including the handheld nature of the tool, the completely exposed cutting chain, the way it can get out of control in a split second, and the physical difficulty and fatigue you feel when using one. We have more thoughts on chainsaw safety, as well as some details on the protective gear you must wear any time you pick one up, below. If you’re undecided on whether you do need one, start out doing your lighter pruning work and tree maintenance with the peace and quiet of a well-made, sharp, quick-cutting pruning saw. Although we haven’t fully vetted the category yet, we have had a lot of success with both the Vaughan Bear Saw and the more compact Silky Pocketboy.1

It’s hard to overstate the danger of a chainsaw.
If a pruning saw isn’t cutting it and you need to do work on a larger scale, a chainsaw becomes essential. The saws we’re recommending are general-purpose, light-duty saws for regular property maintenance, storm cleanup, and light firewood work. These are quality saws, but they’re on the small side of the chainsaw spectrum, so they’re not designed to spend day after day, week after week felling 40-foot trees. They have solid capabilities and can take down a fairly large tree (during testing we had success felling and cutting a 17-inch-thick pine), but they’re really designed for lighter yard work. Because of their smaller size, they’re also safer and easier to maneuver than larger saws.

How we picked

The tested saws.

The tested saws.

The best chainsaw for most is a cordless battery-powered saw. These have power equivalent to a gas saw in the 30cc to 40cc range, which is on the small side for a chainsaw, but more than adequate for general home use.2 Cordless chainsaws avoid the hassles inherent with a gas-powered tool, including starting and maintenance. They’re also considerably quieter and don’t emit exhaust, and the weight is roughly the same (usually between 12 and 14 pounds). Though there is an added cost for going cordless over gas, we feel that it’s a trade-off worth making due to the long-term simplicity inherent in a cordless tool. “I’m a big believer in cordless chainsaws,” Springer told us. In fact, he uses cordless saws for the majority of his tree work and said that he “wouldn’t be surprised if in five or so years, they became a major factor in pro tree work.”

Battery-powered chainsaws sidestep all of the upkeep that is needed with a small engine. As Springer told us, “A two-stroke engine requires so much fussy maintenance.” With a battery saw, there’s no mixing gas and oil, no spark plug, no choke, no cleaning the air filter, no stabilizing gas, and no pull cord. Cordless saws start with the simple pull of a trigger, rather than multiple tugs to a starter cord, and you don’t have to prime the engine or fiddle with the choke. Springer, noting the simplicity of a cordless chainsaw, said “there is no engine maintenance, it’s just like your cordless drill.”

Don’t choose a chainsaw with substantially more power than you need.
For power, cordless saws are comparable to gas saws with engine displacement in the 30cc range. This puts them at a power level that’s ideal for general yard work. This video from Stihl, a prominent chainsaw manufacturer, says it’s important to match up the saw size with the task at hand, and that “it’s best that you don’t choose one with substantially more power than you need.” For occasional use, property maintenance, and storm cleanup, the man in the video recommends a 30cc saw. Another video from Echo, also a major chainsaw manufacturer, tells us “beginners should select a saw in the 30 to 40cc range.”

Battery life is a concern with any cordless tool, but a decent cordless saw should handle a considerable amount of light cutting. With the saws he uses, Springer gets about “20 minutes of actual cutting time. That’s a lot,” he said. Considering all of the non-saw time inherent in tree work (e.g., shifting logs, choosing branches to prune, short breaks), he “can do two and a half hours of work on a battery charge.” Putting this into another context, he said he can “take a 26-foot elm and turn it into firewood on two batteries.” Our own testing fell in line with this. The better cordless saws could make over 60 cuts through a 7-by-7 fir beam on a single charge. For larger logs, run time is reduced, but with a couple saws, we were able to make 17 cuts through a 17-inch pine on a single charge (which is a task that really pushes the outer limits of what these tools are designed to do). For taking down branches, cutting small to medium logs for firewood, and clearing brush, cordless has more than enough run time.

A drawback to cordless saws is that they’re not cheap. A good one with nice features and a single battery currently costs at minimum $300, and in many cases more. Cheap gas models can be had for about half that, but they have the drawback of gas engines, minimal convenience features, and generally poor customer feedback at the various retailers. When we looked at gas saws from high-end manufacturers with similar features and power, we saw that the costs were actually comparable with cordless. Basically, a very nice cordless costs about the same as a high-end gas saw.

Tool-free chain tensioners all work the same despite slight differences from model to model; a large dial loosens the assembly and a smaller dial (top) tightens the chain.

Tool-free chain tensioners all work the same despite slight differences from model to model; a large dial loosens the assembly and a smaller dial (top) tightens the chain.

In choosing saws to test, we zeroed in on ones with a tool-free chain tensioner. This is a premium feature highly recommended by Springer who told us that, “Tool-free adjustments make a big difference.” This feature alone is a major reason we steered clear of a very-low-priced gas model as a potential pick. In fact, we were surprised how few saws come with this feature. Using this criteria, we dismissed tools from Husqvarna, Ryobi, Greenworks, and Echo.

Here’s what a chain tensioner does: As a saw is used, the chain slowly loosens on the bar (it’s more significant with a new chain) and needs to be constantly tightened. In his Pro Tool Reviews piece, Springer writes that, “A new chain or a cold chain heating up may become loose after just a few minutes and may require adjustment a few times an hour.” With an adjustment like this that needs constant attention, “If you have to go and look for a tool, you’re less likely to do it,” he said. During testing, particularly while out in the woods, we really felt the benefits of the tool-free adjustment and found ourselves monitoring the chain more closely than we would with the traditional setup, which involves keeping a tool in your back pocket, loosening two nuts, turning a screw, and retightening the nuts.

We also avoided top-handled saws, which are smaller saws and have only a single handle in line with the bar. Springer told us they’re “really uncomfortable for general use and are meant for being up in a tree or in a bucket.” Jon Lounsbury of Westmoreland, New Hampshire, who has done professional tree work since 2002, pointed out that because of the one-handed configuration, controlling potential kickback is much more difficult.3

We also dismissed corded electric saws. Because they need to be tethered to an outlet, they have limitations that will make them inconvenient for most people. Springer told us that they’re good in a shop or a small yard, but “a chainsaw really should be portable,” so corded is not a good primary saw. We did end up testing one, the Oregon CS1500, to see where it stood against the test. Our thoughts are in The competition below.

How we tested

Out in the woods testing the saws.

Out in the woods testing the saws.

We evaluated the saws in a number of settings. First, we looked at battery life by making cuts through a block of fir 4-by-4s (totaling a 7-inch-thick square) until the batteries emptied. During this test, we also timed five cuts from each saw and averaged them to get a sense of comparable cutting speed.

Second, we took the saws into the woods of New Hampshire and spent five days getting a jump on next year’s firewood situation. As part of this, we took down a number of small, medium, and large trees, limbed them and cut them into 16-inch log lengths. We also cleaned up a lot of deadwood and did some lighter brush clearing. This process had us testing the saws on softwoods like pine and fir as well as more dense wood like oak and maple. While using the saws, we kept an eye on ergonomics, maneuverability, and overall ease of use.

We took the saws into the woods of New Hampshire and spent five days getting a jump on next year’s firewood situation.
After this, we put the saws in Lounsbury’s hands. He used the saws for three days on a clearing project where he and his crew worked with trees up to 7 inches in diameter. He also spent time cutting up firewood with each saw.

Prior to his testing, Lounsbury did not have much experience with cordless chainsaws, but by the end he was very impressed and felt that they would perfectly fit the needs of a homeowner. Even for someone as experienced with gas chainsaws as he is, he said that it was nice not having to fiddle with a saw to get it started. He also liked how quickly they all achieved top speed without having to wait for the engine to warm up.

We did all of our testing with the factory chains on the saws. In most cases they were manufactured by Oregon, and in all cases, they were anti-kickback chains. (Anti-kickback chains are designed to reduce the chances of the chain catching on the wood, which can cause the bar to very quickly jerk back toward the user’s head.) Other chains are available that can alter and increase performance, but as Springer told us, with an entry-level saw no one is going to take off the chain. Regular chains have a much deeper bite and though they remove more material, they’re more prone to kickback—a situation worth avoiding.

Our pick

The best chainsaw for most people, the Ego Power+ 16″ Chainsaw.

The best chainsaw for most people, the Ego Power+ 16″ Chainsaw.

Our pick
Ego Power+ 16″ Chainsaw
The cordless Ego is the best combination of convenience, power, run time, and price.
After all the tests were done, all of the trees were down, and all the sawdust mushed into the mud, we recommend the cordless Ego Power+ 16 Chainsaw, as the best option for yard maintenance, light firewood work, and storm cleanup. It’s a great combination of power, run time, convenience, and cost. It’s a cordless saw, so it has none of the upkeep, noise, or exhaust of a gas engine, but it doesn’t skimp on power, cutting just as well as a high-end gas model of similar size.

Of the tested saws, the Ego’s battery had the best run time and fastest cuts (tied with a saw typically priced $150 more) and is compatible with a number of other tools we recommend. On a single charge, it made considerably more cuts than the majority of the tested saws. The Ego has a convenient tool-free chain-tensioning system with oversized dials that was easy to use even while wearing gloves, which wasn’t the case with many of the other saws we tested. It’s also among the least expensive cordless saws with a tool-free tensioner (and priced about the same as a high-end gas saw). All of these reasons are why Lounsbury told us, “The Ego is definitely the best one.”

The cordless nature of the Ego translates into an unheard-of level of convenience for a chainsaw. It doesn’t require gas, emit exhaust, or require any engine maintenance or fussy winterizing. As Clint DeBoer of Pro Tool Reviews wrote in his review, homeowners “may appreciate the ease-of-use afforded by a tool that will never require a spark plug change or special fuel stabilizers to carry it through winter.”

The saw has a simple two-part start (press a safety button and pull the trigger), which is far easier than even the nicest of pull cords and requires no priming or choking. When the Ego is running, it’s quieter than a gas saw. Because starting it is so simple, each time we stopped cutting to adjust a log or move to another position, we shut the Ego off. In the same situation with a gas saw, we’d just leave it running, which sips gas and makes noise. And it stinks.

The Ego is equivalent in size and power to a 30cc saw, which is small for a chainsaw, but plenty for the person looking for an effective way to prune some trees, help with storm cleanup, or stock the woodshed. It comes with a 16-inch bar, which is a size that, as Springer said, can take down a 30-inch tree, cutting from both sides (not recommended for an inexperienced user).

Even though it is on the small side for a chainsaw, the Ego can still cut decent-size logs.

Even though it is on the small side for a chainsaw, the Ego can still cut decent-size logs.

For power, we found the Ego to be more than adequate for our intended use. In our controlled test, the Ego made 62 cuts through the 7-by-7 block of Douglas fir and it made the cuts in about eight seconds each. The only other saw that matched this was the DeWalt, which is considerably more expensive. The other cordless saws each made less than 40 cuts and made them in 11 to 30 seconds. Out in the woods, the Ego made 17 cuts through a 17-inch-thick pine on a single charge, which is a really big task for a saw this size. The 17 cuts may not sound like a lot, but it’s tiring work and by the time the Ego’s battery was dead, ours was too and we were in need of a break, which allowed us time to partially recharge the saw’s battery.

This all said, we feel the Ego’s battery life should be plenty for general work around a property. It shouldn’t have any problems taking down a small tree, limbing it and cutting to log lengths on a single charge. The charger takes about 90 minutes to fully fill the battery, but, obviously, less to partially charge it.

The Ego made 17 cuts through a 17-inch-thick pine on a single charge.
The Ego has a nice tool-free chain tensioner, which is important because, as Springer writes, a chain “may require adjustment a few times an hour.” Both the unlocking dial and the tensioning dial are oversized and easy to maneuver with gloves on. The tensioners on the cordless DeWalt and gas Stihl were harder to use while wearing gloves, which was a bit of a nuisance. The cap to the Ego’s bar oil reservoir is also large and textured and, again, easy to put on and take off with gloves.

The Ego currently costs about $300, which is actually on the low side for a quality cordless saw with a tool-free chain tensioner. The price makes it a little pricier than the Stihl, our pick for a gas saw.

Ego makes a number of other highly regarded outdoor power tools, such as its mower and string trimmer (both of which we currently recommend). So it’s possible to get one tool with a battery and pick up the rest as bare tools (no battery or charger). This method offers significant per-tool savings, as the chainsaw is currently only about $220 as a bare tool. If you pursue this course of action, we recommend getting a tool with a 5.0Ah battery, such as the mower or the chainsaw. The string trimmer comes with only a 2.5Ah battery and it will have half the run time of the 5.0Ah battery, which will be frustrating with high-drain tools like the mower and chainsaw.

We asked Ego about the longevity of its battery and the company informed us that its internal testing gets it about 2,000 cycles. Granted, this is under ideal lab conditions, so the number should be taken with a grain of salt. But still, even if the results were cut in half and the real-world result is 1,000 cycles, the result would be that the battery could be charged once a week (every week) for over 19 years. This is considerable, given that a homeowner’s saw won’t be used with anything even remotely close to that frequency. Ego is a relatively new company (its tools started appearing in late 2013), and we have yet to find any substantial complaints regarding battery failure. In fact, we have had one of its batteries since early 2014 and it still works fine with no reduced capability. The batteries carry a three-year warranty.

The Ego has gotten very high marks from a number of reputable reviewers. Consumer Reports (subscription required) hasn’t reviewed the 16-inch model yet, but the publication currently has the older 14-inch version of the saw as its number-one pick in the cordless category, giving it especially high marks for safety and ease of use. This is notable because the 14-inch version has the same body as the 16-inch, but is bundled with the smaller bar and a less powerful 2.0Ah battery, whereas the 16-inch saw comes with a 5.0Ah battery. So if the 2.0 battery tops Consumer Reports’s charts, it’s logical to assume that the 5.0Ah would score even higher.

Phil Brind’Amour of HomeFixated also reviewed the 14-inch saw and said, “Are you going to take this saw to the northern forests and cut down mighty oaks all day? Nope. But if you’re a homeowner with trees and bushes to maintain, the EGO 56V Cordless Chainsaw should be capable of handling any cutting and trimming tasks you’re likely to take on.” On the smaller 2.0Ah battery he was able to heavily prune one tree, then take down a 16-foot tree (9 inches wide at the bottom) and cut it up into firewood, then he took down a number of small (2 to 3 inches thick) saplings. Keep in mind that the 16-inch saw comes with a 5.0Ah battery and has a run time more than twice that of the 2.0. Brind’Amour also notes that, “The saw was very quiet, and it was quick and easy to adjust chain tension.”

Clint DeBoer of Pro Tool Reviews reviewed the 14-inch version but tested it with a 4.0Ah battery. He found that the Ego saw “has enough power to tackle any job an average homeowner is likely to run into—and make that job a whole lot easier.” He also notes that, “When running the EGO cordless chainsaw, you’ll first be amazed by the sound—it’s really quiet.” He concludes, “The power, ease-of-use, and sheer convenience of this tool makes it a real winner. There are no winterization issues, and you don’t need to worry about mixing fuel.”

Like all of the tools in Ego’s cordless platform, its chainsaw has very high marks in the user reviews at Home Depot. It currently has 4.8 stars (out of five) across 68 reviews.4 Its older version, which comes with a less powerful battery, maintains a 4.7-star rating across 166 reviews. The most common theme running through the reviews is how happy people are having made the switch from gas to cordless.

Flaws but not dealbreakers

The Ego had a few aspects that we weren’t thrilled with, but together, they didn’t offset the power, run time, and value of the tool.

The one thing that Lounsbury didn’t like about the Ego is that the bar oil reservoir has a small filter on it, which really slows down the filling process. The filter is meant to catch any gunk or debris from falling into the reservoir, so it has a good reason for being there, but Lounsbury said that he’s in the habit of just wiping the area clean before taking the cap off. We tested the saws in the middle of summer, but Lounsbury said that using cold-weather bar oil is going to compound the problem because it’s so thick. “Imagine pouring honey through that filter.” He said, “If this was my saw, I’d cut the filter right out of there.” The good news is that the filter can be removed along with the cap.

The Ego also stalled out from time to time, especially when we were pushing the saw through thicker, harder wood. Among the cordless tools tested, the Sun Joe, Oregon, and Ryobi saws stalled more often, but the more expensive DeWalt hardly ever stalled out. It’s easy enough to start the Ego back up, so it’s more of a nuisance than anything else, but it is a reminder that the saw does have an upper power limit.

A little more power for a lot more money

Our runner-up: The DeWalt 40V Max Xr 16″ Chainsaw (DCCS690H1).

Our runner-up: The DeWalt 40V Max XR 16″ Chainsaw (DCCS690H1).

Runner-up
DeWalt 40V Max XR 16″ Chainsaw (DCCS690H1)
The DeWalt has similar run time to our pick and it felt a little more powerful. Unfortunately, it typically costs about $150 more.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $370.

If the Ego isn’t available, we also like the DeWalt 40V Max XR 16″ Chainsaw (DCCS690H1). It offers similar run time and cutting speed as the Ego, but it didn’t stall out as much in denser wood. We also liked how the chain got up to its top speed faster than the others. On the downside, the safety switch is awkward to use, the cap to the bar oil is poorly designed, and, unlike the competition, it usually ran out of bar oil before the battery died, which had us constantly checking the level while we worked. It’s also a very expensive saw, typically about $150 more than the Ego.

Both the DeWalt and Ego made the same number of cuts through the fir beam (62) and the large pine out in the woods (17). They also matched results during the timed cuts through the fir (8 seconds). With lighter cuts, like tree limbs, and smaller-diameter trees, the two saws felt equal, but during more aggressive work, like the 17-inch pine, the DeWalt stalled less often.

The cap dips into the reservoir, displacing the oil and making it overflow all over the side of the saw.
Again, the DeWalt has some annoyances, the most prominent being the design of the safety switch, which you must activate every time you pull the trigger to make a cut. On the other saws, this is a button that is pressed into the handle, making it very easy to activate while naturally gripping the saw. On the DeWalt, the switch is a toggle that needs to be pressed downward, making it awkward to use. Lounsbury didn’t like this design at all and, in fact, this is the first thing he pointed out about the DeWalt after using it.

The safety switch on the Ego (left) is a button that is pressed in toward the handle. On the DeWalt, the switch is a toggle that is pressed downward, which was more awkward to use.

The safety switch on the Ego (left) is a button that is pressed in toward the handle. On the DeWalt (right), the switch is a toggle that is pressed downward, which was more awkward to use.

Second in the annoyance category: The bar oil cap is inset into the reservoir, so sawdust and debris can easily fall in while filling the saw. The other saws all have threaded caps that protrude from the body of the saw and naturally create a lip that guards against this. Lounsbury told us, “I always brush away the debris before opening the cap, but here it’s really difficult to do.” So every time we poured in bar oil, we ended up knocking sawdust into the reservoir. A final inconvenience of this design is that, because the cap is inset, if you fill the reservoir all the way up and put the cap back on, the cap dips into the reservoir, displacing the oil and making it overflow all over the side of the saw. Other saws just have a screw-top, so this doesn’t happen. We saw a number of Amazon reviews that mentioned the DeWalt oiler malfunctioning, and we can see how the system could get stopped up given that it’s so easy for gunk to get in the reservoir.

The bar oil cap on the DeWalt (right) is inset into the body of the tool, so we had a constant issue with gunk falling in the reservoir. The caps on the other saws, like the Ego (left), are threaded and stand above the saw body, so this didn’t happen.

The bar oil cap on the DeWalt (right) is inset into the body of the tool, so we had a constant issue with gunk falling in the reservoir. The caps on the other saws, like the Ego (left), are threaded and stand above the saw body, so this didn’t happen.

Yet another issue with the bar oil is that the DeWalt’s battery-to-bar-oil ratio is off. Lounsbury told us, “A common thing with saws is that when you run out of gas, you still have bar oil.” The other cordless saws worked on this principle, with the bar oil lasting at least as long as the battery, but the DeWalt didn’t. Because of this, Lounsbury said he constantly had to check the oil level while working, something he usually doesn’t have to do. The DeWalt saw is also available with a 4.0Ah battery (we tested with the company’s 6.0Ah battery), so we’re guessing that the bar oil is more synced up with the run time of that smaller battery.

But even with these negatives, the DeWalt delivers when it comes to power and run time, but it’s just too expensive to be our primary recommendation. With the battery life and power being so similar to the Ego’s, we feel that the needs of most people would be satisfied with the less expensive saw.

Consumer Reports hasn’t covered the DeWalt yet, but Jack Plating reviewed it at Pro Tool Reviews and wrote that, “I made about 115 [cuts] through pine and hickory of various diameters before needing to charge the battery pack. All in all, I was able to work for a solid 2-1/2 hours before taking a battery break.” He concludes his review by saying, “DeWalt’s first foray into the battery powered chainsaw market is excellent.”

DeWalt also sells the nearly identical DCCS690M1 that comes with a 4.0Ah battery instead of the 6.0. Because of the battery, this one is less expensive, typically in the $350 range. The downside is that the performance will be reduced by about a third.

Better run time and portability (but not as easy to use)

A gas option: The Stihl MS 181 C-BE.

A gas option: The Stihl MS 181 C-BE.

Also great
Stihl MS 181 C-BE
With no battery or charger, the Stihl can run all day without pause. It starts easy and works great—it just needs more maintenance.
In spite of all of the accolades that we’re giving to cordless saws, they are limited by the battery’s charge. Some people still need a chainsaw that can run all day without stopping, or go places where you won’t have electricity for a charger. They’ll need a gas-powered chainsaw, and in that category we recommend the Stihl MS 181 C-BE.

This saw has a 30.1cc engine and typically comes with a 16-inch bar, giving it power and cutting ability comparable to that of our cordless picks. The Stihl tops the light-duty category at Consumer Reports (subscription required), and the company has a great reputation for chainsaws. When we asked Eric Grimshaw, a New Hampshire-based logger with 23 years of experience, if he would recommend any brands, he told us, “Stihl is probably the best.” This saw currently costs about $270, so it’s just a little less expensive than the Ego. It is also sold only at authorized service dealers, which can be inconvenient, but could make any warranty issues easier to deal with.

Starting the Stihl is really simple and very different from a typical shoulder-dislocating chainsaw start.
With this saw, Stihl minimized all of the hassles that come with a 2-stroke engine, making it an ideal tool for the occasional user. The pull cord takes hardly any effort at all, and the spark plug and air filter are easily accessible (by removing a tool-free rear cover). The tool-free chain tensioner works well—even though it can be a little tricky to use with gloves on—and the handles are simple and comfortable.

Starting the Stihl requires little force thanks to a feature called the Easy2Start System. It takes only two or three slow, low-effort pulls to get the tool going. It’s really simple and very different from a typical shoulder-dislocating chainsaw start. The only problem, as Lounsbury pointed out, is that if you’re used to a regular start and give the cord a standard pull worthy of The Hulk, you can damage the mechanism.

The vibration control on the saw is very nice as well (cordless chainsaws hardly vibrate at all). Three springs and a trigger wire are all that connect the handle to the saw’s body. On some other saws, the buffers are rubber and not springs, but Grimshaw said that those break easier.

Even with the small engine, the power of the Stihl was plenty for the work we were doing. Consumer Reports puts it at the top of its light-duty category—giving it an “excellent” rating for cutting speed—even though the rest of the saws in the category have larger engines. The site’s write-up (which is actually of the nearly identical MS 180 C-BE) also gives the saw high marks for ease of use and states, “Ultrafast cutting and relatively light weight help justify this 16-inch Stihl gas saw’s higher price.”

Stihl sells its chainsaws only through authorized service dealers, so they are not available online or at the box stores. This obviously means a loss of convenience in the buying process, but the upside is that, upon purchase, the saw will not only be gassed up and ready to go but someone at the store will walk you through the specific features of your saw and answer any questions that you may have. Also, as Grimshaw told us, a dealer will be much better with warranty issues, which is worth it, he said, even if the initial price of the saw is a little higher at a service dealer. He specifically recommends against buying a gas chainsaw at a box store for this reason.

The cheapest chainsaws go for as little as $150 to $200, but we avoided recommending them for a few reasons.
The Stihl is a premium saw, but we think if you’re going with a gas saw, it’s worth it to invest, even if the saw won’t see all much regular use. The cheapest chainsaws go for as little as $150 to $200, but we avoided recommending them for a few reasons. Saws that go beyond the bare-bones features tend to be built better, weigh less, last longer, and offer convenient features like Stihl’s Easy2Start and the tool-free tensioner. Springer told us that with the higher-end saws “there is more anti-vibration” and that they “get more out of their engines.” Less-expensive saws generally have lower customer feedback at retailers (that usually stems from maintenance issues), and at Consumer Reports they’re not ranked anywhere near as high as the premium brands.

Like we said, Stihl chainsaws have an excellent reputation. In this video from PowerToolAdvisor, a Canadian forester looks at four small, consumer-grade chainsaws (Echo, Husqvarna, Stihl, and Poulan) and picks the Stihl as his favorite (he’s specifically discussing the MS 170, which is a slightly lower-grade saw than our recommended MS 181). He likes it for a number of reasons. First, he says the dealer gassed, oiled, and started the saw when it was purchased. Second, he says “it cuts well for its size.” He also calls it out for being lightweight and having nice balance. Even though he’s talking about a different saw, we feel that his general conclusions can also be applied to the MS 181 C-BE compared with the competition.

Stihl offers a wide variety of saws, and if you want the overall quality of the MS 181 C-BE, but are looking to shave off as many dollars as you can, the MS 180 C-BE is also worth a look. It’s a little lighter (due in part to a smaller gas and bar oil tank) and it has a different design for the gas and oil caps, but it does have the tool-free tensioner and the easy start. It’s typically in the $230 range, and by all accounts, is a very nice saw.

If this saw sounds too small for your needs—say, for example, you own a very large wooded property, you have plenty of experience using chainsaws, or you’re comfortable wielding a bigger, beefier engine—we suggest upgrading to the Stihl MS 251 C-BE. It has all the same convenience features as the MS 181 C-BE (Easy2Start and tool-free tensioner) but it has a 45.6cc engine, as opposed to a 30.1cc engine. It also has slightly more fuel capacity than our pick. And like the other Stihl saws, it has the benefits of being sold at an authorized service dealer.

Chainsaw safety and equipment

The safety gear that we feel is mandatory: boots, chaps, gloves, eye protection, face shield, helmet, and ear protection.

The safety gear that we feel is mandatory: boots, chaps, gloves, eye protection, face shield, helmet, and ear protection.

Chainsaws, regardless of engine size or bar length, are very dangerous tools. “These things really don’t have guards,” said Springer. In his Pro Tool Reviews piece on cordless saws, he writes that “the average chainsaw injury requires 110 stitches” (emphasis ours). According to him, most injuries occur to the lower legs, followed by the left hand.5

“The average chainsaw injury requires 110 stitches” -Michael Springer
Springer’s advice: “You should really have chainsaw chaps.” Given the danger to the legs, chaps are essential for even light-duty use. A good pair is roughly $100 (a fraction of the cost of a serious leg injury) and a number of styles are available, depending on the amount of coverage you feel comfortable with. We used the Labonville Full Wrap Safety Chaps, which provide full coverage to the front of the legs and fully wrap around the lower legs (ones that cover just the front are available too). We chose Labonville because we found a very convincing video showing the chain of an 88cc chainsaw (which is huge) hitting them but not cutting through. Long pants should be worn underneath the chaps, so things can get hot in the summer (imagine wearing snow pants in August). Some of our testing days got into the high 80s and the added weight and heat of the chaps wasn’t exactly comfortable, but the alternative was going without, and we weren’t going to do that.

Springer is also a “big believer in using a forestry helmet.” The best models combine some sort of face shield, a hard hat, and ear protection. The face shields can be either a solid clear plastic or mesh. For our testing, we used the Husqvarna ProForest Chain Saw Helmet System, which costs about $50 and has a mesh face shield, but we wore safety glasses as well. It’s still possible for wood chips and debris to fly up under the shield, so we recommend the additional level of eye protection. A plastic hard hat may not seem like much, and the majority of the protection is oriented toward debris falling from above, like tree limbs, but Springer told us that “a saw kicking back is coming straight up towards your face, with a forestry helmet or a hard hat, it’ll hit the brim first.” Really anything to slow down the speed of the saw is going to be beneficial.

A good pair of gloves is also mandatory. Ones designed specifically for chainsaw use are available, with added cut resistance on the left glove, but any high-end work gloves will afford some protection; both with gripping the tool and in the event a chain makes impact.

Along with gloves, a good pair of boots should be worn—ones with deep tread preferably. Slipping while holding an active chainsaw will likely result in bad things.

For specific info on how to use a saw and how to approach a cut, all of the saws we looked at come with manuals that cover the basics. Our primary advice is to take your time and treat each cut individually, thinking about each one; how you’re going to make the cut, how you’re standing, and what you’re going to do if things start to go bad. Accidents happen with repetitive cuts when the user starts to zone out into complacency.

Care and maintenance

Any chainsaw requires a little bit of upkeep, even a cordless one. But as Springer said, “Unlike a lawnmower, a chainsaw requires constant attention, you don’t just deal with maintenance once the work is over.” By this, he’s talking about chain tensioning and bar oil. “Chainsaws are easy to figure out, but there are things to keep checking.”

Bar oil is poured into a reservoir in the saw and it slowly “leaks” onto the chain. This lubricates and cools the chain as it’s cutting. We found that with the cordless saws, a tank of oil ran out at about the same time the battery did. Springer’s advice is to not only keep the tank filled, but to also “make sure the hole is clear enough that it’s actually oiling.” Sawdust and gunk can block up the delivery hole, shutting off the flow of oil. The owners manual should have specifics on this.

One swipe against the dirt and rocks can really destroy the chain’s cutting edges.
Also, the chain needs to be kept at the correct tension for efficient cutting. New chains do stretch, so this is something to keep a close eye on when you first get a saw. The owners manuals all go into the specifics of adjusting the chain tension.

Lastly, keep your chain sharp. This means keeping it away from the ground, as one swipe against the dirt and rocks can really destroy the chain’s cutting edges. Files and sharpening kits are available, or another option is to get two or three chains and rotate in a new one when one gets dull. Most hardware stores and service dealers have sharpening services if you don’t want to do it yourself.

The competition

The Oregon 40 Volt MAX CS300-A6 was well-liked by Lounsbury, but it just didn’t have the run time or power of the Ego or DeWalt. It made 37 cuts through the fir beam, but averaged about 11 seconds per cut during the timed portion. Of the cordless saws, Lounsbury said that the Oregon felt the most similar to a traditional chainsaw as far as body design goes. He also was impressed with the unique built-in sharpening system (while the saw is running, you pull a lever that presses a sharpening stone against the chain). “We ran the saw in the dirt, then sharpened it right up,” he said. The Oregon currently costs about $375, which is less than the DeWalt, so it’s an option if the Ego isn’t available and the DeWalt is too expensive. Just know that it will struggle with tougher cuts and you’ll be heading back to the charger more often.

As Lounsbury put it, the Sun Joe iON16CS 16-Inch 4-Amp 40-Volt Cordless Chain Saw is “a decent saw, but it just doesn’t have the get up and go of the others.” It made 35 cuts through the Douglas fir beam, just more than half of what the Ego and DeWalt did, and during our timed tests it averaged about 20 seconds per cut, which was more than twice that of the Ego and DeWalt. For price, it presently hovers around $300, which is the same as the Ego, so we feel the investment is better made with the stronger, longer-lasting saw.

We also tested the Ryobi RY40510B 12 in. 40-Volt Lithium-Ion Electric Cordless Chainsaw, which currently costs about half the Ego’s price. The Ryobi comes with a tool-free tensioner, but only a 12-inch bar, so it’s much smaller than the rest. During our testing, it didn’t have anywhere near the power or run time of the others, making only about 11 cuts through the block of fir. It also doesn’t have a traditional chain-brake hand guard, opting instead for a tip guard on the bar. Though the tip guard adds safety, it limits the saw’s cutting ability because you can’t embed the last few inches of the bar in wood. This saw is a very light-duty one and its strike zone is pruning or small-brush clearing, with nothing exceeding ankle thickness. In general, we recommend investing in the more capable Ego.

The Ryobi comes with a tip guard, which adds to the safety, but limits the saw.

The Ryobi comes with a tip guard, which adds to the safety, but limits the saw.

The cordless Stihl MSA 200 C-BQ is ranked lower than the Ego at Consumer Reports and is priced considerably higher—the bare tool is currently sold for around $375 and once you get a battery and charger, you’re closing in on $600.

The Husqvarna 536Li XP was dismissed due to the lack of a tool-free tensioner.

The GreenWorks GCS80420 80V 18-Inch Cordless Chainsaw is priced just a little more than the Ego and has a number of good reviews. On the downside, it does not have the tool-free tensioner and has an activation button that needs to be pressed in addition to the safety switch and power trigger. We’ve used the Kobalt lineup of tools (which are basically the same), and we feel this additional step is tedious and really unnecessary.

The GreenWorks 20312 DigiPro G-MAX 40V also has the awkward activation button. And in Pro Tool Review’s look at the Ego chainsaw, they compared the two (using the smaller version of the Ego with a smaller battery) and wrote that the Ego was a little more powerful and didn’t stall out as much.

For corded saws, we researched the Husqvarna 440E, but found that Consumer Reports ranked it lower than the gas Stihl. Also in the video from PowerToolAdvisor, the reviewer likes the small Husqvarna saw, but ultimately chooses a small Stihl as his overall favorite, in part because of the service he received at the dealer.

The Echo CS 370F is comparable in size and features to the recommended Stihl. It is not reviewed by Consumer Reports, but another Echo (the slightly smaller CS 352) is and it places below the Stihl. Again, the video reviewer at PowerToolAdvisor recommends a Stihl over an Echo due to the service at the point of purchase.

The Makita EA3201S35B is a very nice saw. It has features and a price similar to the Stihl’s, but as with the Echo and the Husqvarna, the Stihl gains the edge through the service upon purchase. It also typically comes with a 14-inch bar, which is okay, but why not have the added benefit of the Stihl’s 16-inch bar?

Finally, we tested the Oregon CS1500 Self Sharpening Electric Chainsaw. Like we said above, we didn’t look deeply in the category of electric saws, but wanted to get a sense of where they stood compared with cordless. We found this saw to have the cutting speed of the Ego and DeWalt and we liked how the chain has a very fast start and stop, much quicker than the cordless models. Like the Oregon CS300, this saw comes with a self-sharpening system. It’s also priced at about $135, putting it in the midrange of electric saws. Because it’s electric, it doesn’t have the portability of the cordless saws, but if this style of tool fits your needs, the Oregon is a nice one to consider.

(Photos by Doug Mahoney.)

Footnotes:

1. No matter what you do, do not mention the Silky Pocketboy to Sweethome editor Harry Sawyers. He’s obsessed. All day long, it’s “Pocketboy this … Pocketboy that …”Jump back.

2. Saws are categorized by engine size, not bar length. Springer told us, “It’s a mistake to refer to a saw’s bar length as a category of saw. Bar length has nothing to do with actual performance of the saw. Don’t be suckered into thinking, ‘this is a 20-inch chainsaw.’”
Jump back.

3. An occupation that would sometimes be called an “arborist” in more formal parts of the world is simply known as “tree guy” in rural New England. Jump back.

4. We noticed that a good number of these reviews are the result of Home Depot’s Seeds Program, which exchanges free products for customer reviews. We’re not confident in the objectivity of these reviews, but Home Depot does clearly mark them. We read through the majority of the non-Seeds reviews and feel assured that the product is very well-received by reviewers who actually purchased the saw themselves. Jump back.

5. The left hand is often injured because if the saw kicks back, a natural reaction is for the left hand to release the handle and move to protect the face. This reflex eliminates a chainsaw’s most effective safety feature, the chain brake, which activates when the hand guard is pushed forward, which occurs during a kickback, but only if the left hand is properly gripping the forward handle. Springer told us that it’s very important to maintain a “death grip” on the front handle in order to activate the brake. Jump back.

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Originally published: August 24, 2016

Please don't overwater the ficus.