Don’t buy a chain saw based on bar length and power alone. I believe in purchasing the biggest saw you can safely control but don’t buy a big saw just to stroke your ego.
The saw I use most is a Stihl with a 24-inch bar. The extra power and bar length make quick work of large trees and limbs. But big saws have their disadvantages also. The handles are usually larger and spaced farther apart. The longer bar adds extra weight to the front and makes the saw harder to control when cutting. Professional quality saws also use more aggressive chains that cut faster but make them more susceptible to kickback. Plus, they’re expensive.
Small saws have some very real advantages. They cost less than professional saws and they’re much lighter than full size models designed for either professional or home use.
One thing most of us men fail to consider is what will happen if we are injured and can’t cut wood. Will our wife or older children be able to cut it while we recover? This is a serious matter if you heat only with wood and can’t afford to buy it from a vendor.
My wife’s saw is a Homelite with a 16-inch bar. She loves it. It’s light, fits her well, and she can control it. I used a McCullough Mini-Mac with a 14-inch bar for more than 10 years. I’ve cut more than 100 cords of wood with it and it’s still working great. Small saws are quite capable of cutting a year’s supply of firewood. They just take longer.
As long as you stay with a major brand, reliability is not usually a problem. While it’s true that you get what you pay for, even lower priced saws tend to last a long time with careful use and maintenance. Professional saws are built with better materials and engineering, but the difference is not usually going to be a factor for the homeowner cutting his own firewood.
Regular maintenance goes a long way to keep your saw fit for duty. Clean or replace the air filter often. Replace the spark plug annually or according to manufacturer’s recommendations. Use a high quality two cycle oil for the gasoline mixture, and a good bar and chain oil to get the longest life out of your bar and chain. Lube the roller sprocket often.
A chain saw should fit you. What I mean by fit is that it should be comfortable to hold and work with. Try different saws and you’ll see what I mean.
Handle sizes and the spacing between the rear and front handles may vary significantly. Lean over in a position similar to how you’ll stand when cutting wood. Does the saw balance well or is too much of the weight forward? How does the saw feel with the bar in both vertical and horizontal positions? How about with it held high as when cutting overhead limbs? Is your forward hand too far forward or too far back? Can you reach the trigger easily?
You’re going to be using this thing for hours. Heft a lot of different saws so that you can tell the difference between a good and bad fit.
This is a mindless machine with dozens of razor sharp teeth racing around a long steel bar within inches of your hands, feet, legs, and sometimes, face. It doesn’t care whether it’s cutting through downed trees or flesh and bone. Can you control it?
It’s vital that the saw fit you. Put on some leather work gloves. Do your fingers wrap around the handles completely? Can you use the throttle trigger while maintaining a good grip? Can you shut it off without taking your hand off the handle? When the saw slices all the way through the limb can you keep the tip from falling to the ground?
Is the saw too heavy or the balance point so far forward that when you begin your cut you drop the saw on the limb because you don’t have the strength to hold it up? Is fatigue going to be a problem? Can you hold the saw with the motor in front of your body, or is it so heavy or are the handles so far apart you must hold the motor next to your side when cutting?
Is the chain too aggressive or the saw so powerful that you’re afraid of it? Should you start with a smaller saw until you gain more experience?
While any chain saw is inherently dangerous, modern saws are much safer than they were 40 years ago. The first saw I ever used had no chain brake, no handle vibration dampers (not even rubber cushions on the handles!), and a chain and bar design that screamed out the words “kickback.” Thank God those days are long gone.