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Homemade Maple Syrup Evaporator

April 23rd, 2014 2 comments

I needed another metalworking project for this Spring. For the past several years, I have tapped several maple trees in my yard and made maple syrup. After a few years of boiling the sap in pots on a turkey fryer burner, I decided I needed something a little bit bigger. And I decided that something wood-fired would be the most appropriate, and the most fun to build.

After looking online for ideas it seemed like the easiest plan would be t convert an old 55 gallon drum to a wood-burning evaporator. With a used olive-oil drum bought on Craigslist, a couple of cheap steam table pans, a barrel stove kit, some black iron pipe for a frame, an oxy-acetylene cutting torch, grinder, and some tools, I slapped one together in a day.

In maple-syrup speak, the big pan you use to evaporate the water from sap to turn it into syrup is called,  simply enough, an evaporator. But the burner is called an “arch.” (Don’t believe me? Look here for an example.) Presumably named after the shape that early wood-fired evaporators took, if you search the Internet for “maple syrup arch” you’ll come up with a host of plans and descriptions. So, technically, I made a wood-fired arch out of an olive oil barrel to hold a steam table pan evaporator. No matter the terms though – here’s what it looks like when done:

Homemade Maple Syrup EvaporatorThe design has a few notable features:

  • The black iron pipe frame and barrel can be separated to make movement and storage easier.
  • Two pans allow the sap to be warmed in the upper pan before being moved to the lower pan.
  • The chimney is completely removable.

Materials & Tools

This project used these materials:

  • Used steel drum. This one contained olive oil and I bought it for $10 on Craigslist.
  • 1/2″ ID black iron pipe. I used about 20 feet of it. Cost about $50 at Lowe’s.
  • A barrel stove kit for the door and chimney collar. ($40 – $60. Got mine on Amazon.com).
  • One full-size and one half-size steam-table pans. I bought mine new for about $30 with shipping from an online restaurant supply company. But you might find cheaper at a local auction or on EBay.

Total cost: about $130.

Most of this project was accomplished with the basic metal-working tools I already owned. The pipe base was cut on a basic chopsaw, fitted with an angle grinder, and MIG welded together. The barrel was cut with my oxy-acetylene torch (using a fine #000 tip). A lot of grinding was done with a 4 1/2″ angle grinder.

Construction Steps

First, build the base. A very simple welded frame that was done using only a MIG welder and a few magnetic welding squares.

Frame

 

Next the barrel was fitted to the frame.

Barrel+Frame

 

After some bracing was added t the frame, I started to cut the holes for the evaporator pan with a torch.

TorchCut

I fitted the pans and then went to work on the door and chimney collar following the barrel stove kit’s directions.

Complete

Finally I fired it up the next day.

BoilingPan

Impressions

Overall the whole thing was fin to build and worked well enough. One thing that proved tougher than I expected was getting the fire close enough to the bottom of the pans t really get a good boil going. I ultimately ended up adding a couple of half concrete blocks to the barrel to elevate the fire. But the whole system did work faster then the old turkey fryer.

If you are at all handy with metal I encourage you to try and make one of these.

Categories: Tools Tags: , ,

New Harbor Freight 4000 Watt Predator Generator

January 4th, 2014 6 comments
This entry is part 9 of 9 in the series Generator
HFT 4KW Generator

Image from Harborfreight.com

A couple of years ago I bought a cheap 800 watt HFT generator. The whole $79 generator experiment didn’t work out so well. After the first one seized right out of the box and the second one died and wouldn’t start after only a few months I was ready to give up. Unfortunately, I had promised to have my generator available for some volunteer work the morning after the POS died, so I really didn’t have much time to think things through if I wanted to meet my commitment. Like a sucker, ran right back to my local Harbor Freight store and talked myself into a 4 kW peak / 3.2 kW running generator. I’ve had it for a year now and I have to say I’m impressed. This line of Predator generators might just be a winner for Harbor Freight.

First Impressions

I brought the generator home, opened the box, poured in some gas, and then something happened that I never expected. The thing started on the first pull. Seriously. One pull. My wife said the look of shock on my face was priceless. The Predator generators, and indeed all the engines Harbor Freight sells, are widely described in Internet forums as copies of Honda designs. If they are, they did a good job copying them, because first-pull starting has always been a Honda hallmark.

Once the generator was running everything else worked fine. It was reasonably quiet and seemed to handle the limited loads I gave it on its first run with no problem. I let it run for about thirty minutes and shut it down. The next day I took it to work and it started and ran fine while powering electric sanders, saws, and other tools.

Ongoing Performance

Over the last year I’ve used this generator for a variety of projects, from powering a vacuum in the driveway while cleaning cars to running an electric shredder for leaves and small branches. The shredder pushed the generator towards its limit, but the unit handled the sudden load without trouble. Although I didn’t break out an oscilloscope to look at the power, the basic measurements with my multimeter showed that the generator was holding voltage and frequency even as the load varied. Can’t really ask for more than that.

Other Notes

This generator, like most, provides a variety of outlets, including 4 110 V sockets. But it’s important to understand that these outlets are actually each providing one half of the generator’s center-tapped 220V output. So each 110V outlet bank can actually support only ½ of the total wattage of the generator. Thus one can only power 1600 watts per 110 V outlet, not the full 3200 watt rating.

Otherwise, this generator has continued to provide reliable service, easily handling the odd jobs and loads that I’ve thrown at it. It still starts on the first pull every time, even after sitting for a month or more between uses. I did buy the optional wheel and handle kit and find them pretty valuable, though the handle could be longer – I’m 5′ 10″ tall and when I drag the generator behind me I am often bumping the back of my feet into it. But they are sturdy and useful for moving the generator around.

Final Words

I am not using this generator to power a house or to run appliances during a power failure – I have a 12 kW Kohler for that – so I haven’t tested the total runtime of this unit. But for the odd jobs I need, it works great. Interestingly, Consumer Reports rated generators recently and the Predator line did pretty well in their tests. You need to be a member to see the review, but the overall ratings of the Predator model they tested were near the top of the rankings even if the price was well below the competition. I was impressed. Notably, the generator got high marks for power quality.

So after a year I am much more impressed with this little unit than I was with the 800 watt generator. I recommend you check it out if you’re looking for portable power.

Categories: Technology, Tools Tags: ,

One of the Most Useful Tools Ever…

December 3rd, 2013 1 comment
Speedy Stitcher

The Speedy Stitcher

Back in 1991 I needed to ad some lash points to a backpack I was using. In my local outdoor shop (the Kittery Trading Post) I found the tabs I needed, but there was no apparent way

to attach them to the pack. I asked the sales guy and he said that they needed to be sewn on and sold me one of these: a Model 200 Speedy Stitcher sewing awl kit. The package still has the $8.95 price tag on it, and I can’t think of a better $8.95 that I ever spent. 22 years later I still have this tool and I still use it. Just this Spring I had a new wedge pouch for my chainsaw wedges arrive, only to have the cheap Chinese stitching fall apart in less than a week of use. Basically, the loop that was bar tacked to form a place for the belt to slide through ripped out. But 10 minutes with the Speedy Stitcher and I was back in business, even in heavy nylon fabric.
This tool has been around since 1909 according to the company website and was made in my home state of Massachusetts until the year 2000 when the company moved production to New York State. Wait, what?! Not China? Nope … this thing has been made in America for more than 104 years and apparently is still selling well.

The company has a website where you can find links to videos and other information at: http://www.speedystitcher.com/main.html. If you are the kind of person that repairs things rather than just chucking it and buying new, then this deserves to be in your toolbox. There are very few tools that have lasted me for over 20 years. That should tell you something about this one.

For what it’s worth, the last points I added to my pack, sewing through the plastic flanges, stayed in place for more than 16 weeks of backcountry hiking in Wyoming, and were still on the pack when I sold it on EBay ten years later. They hadn’t loosened at all.

You need to get yourself one of these.

Categories: Tools Tags:

The End of my 800W HFT Generator …

April 22nd, 2013 No comments
This entry is part 8 of 9 in the series Generator

I officially take back all the good things I said about the 800W Harbor Freight generator.

It worked well enough while it worked, but as you might expect from HFT, it just didn’t last very long. Nine months after first putting it into service, it came out of my garage two days ago and simply wouldn’t start. The engine gave all the symptoms of an ignition problem, including a weak spark, but no matter what I tried, the little POS just wouldn’t run. And of course I discovered this in the evening, the day before I actually needed the generator for some work.

Many will say that the problems I had might have been prevented. I’m not 100% certain the ignition was the problem, but I didn’t have a lot of time for troubleshooting either. And I freely admit that I didn’t follow the recommended procedure of emptying the gas tank after every use, so this could very well have been a fuel issue in addition to or instead of an ignition problem. But seriously, how valuable is a generator that needs to be completely emptied of fuel after every use? Who the hell has the time and patience to get all smelly from gas while pumping/dumping the tank after every use, no matter how short? Not me – that’s for sure.

In the end, I guess I really can’t complain too loudly. Bought on sale for $79, this ultimately ended up being a disposable tool (this was the blue version, the new red version has had a price increase). It gave me some good BBQ at a racetrack when I wouldn’t have been able to make it, and it made a couple of other projects easier. But in the end, the old adage came true: “You get what you pay for, and usually less.”

So, goodbye HFT 800W generator. You were useful for six whole months.

So what did I end up using for my work? Well, I’m such a sucker, I rushed out to my local Haror Freight store and brought home a new 4000 watt generator! That’s right – I went back to HFT. Only this time, I got the extended service plan. And after the first 3 or 4 hours, the new generator seems to work just fine. We’ll see if it lasts.

A match made in heaven

September 16th, 2012 No comments

image

So today I had a quick project where I needed to secure a couple of things to the side of my foundation using some Tapcon screws. I would have had to run an extension cord about 150 feet from one side of my house to the other. Instead I just grabbed my little 800 W generator, checked to make sure my drill wouldn’t overpower it, and plugged it in. The specifications plate on the drill says it draws about 800 W peak – just at the top range of the generator. Sure enough, I plugged it in and it all works fine. I drilled 4 holes without having to unroll and wind back up 150 feet of extension cord. And the generator still runs fine. I’m still glad I bought it, and this is exactly the kind of use I had in mind for it.

Categories: Tools Tags: , ,

Giving the Harbor Freight 800 W Generator a Workout

August 12th, 2012 No comments
This entry is part 7 of 9 in the series Generator

In my original post about this little generator, I mentioned that I was going to hook it up to my Bradley Smoker and see if the pair worked well together. I’ll cut to the chase: they do.

Two friends and I headed to the Mid Ohio Sports Car Course in Lexington, OH for the Honda Indy 200 over the weekend of August 4th and 5th. It was a fantastic weekend of racing. But I figured that slow-smoked ribs would be the perfect meal, since I could just set up my smoker near our RV and leave it for 5 hours. The plan worked perfectly.

The generator runs the smoker perfectly.

The Harbor Freight 800 W Generator Powering a Bradley Smoker

Right around noon on Saturday I set up the smoker for ribs (12 hickory bisquettes – 4 hours of smoke – followed by my 3 aluminum spacer pucks, oven at 230° F, timer set for 5 hours. I filled the little generator with gas, as much as I could fit into it, and fired it up. At this point it was running the original Bonon spark plug that it came with (#F5TC) because I only had the generator for a couple of days prior to the trip and didn’t have time to replace it. (As a side note – if you Google “Bonon spark plug” you get pretty much nothing except hits about this generator and how people replace this plug with something decent, so who the hell knows how good a Bonon spark plug is.) With the original plug, the generator idled pretty rough but started and ran decently. (I have since replaced it with an Autolite #64 plug from my local Auto Zone store. Others have reported good luck with an NGK #BP5ES plug.) I let it run for about 5 minutes, then switched on the 500 Watt draw of the main Bradley heater. The generator adjusted to the load quickly. At this point I grabbed my Fluke DVM amd took a voltage reading: 110.5 V AC. Great. The frequency was holding steady at 60.2 Hz also. Perfect. I gave the generator a minute or two to get used to the new load and then switched on the additional 150 Watt load of the smoker. Again it took a second to adjust but stabilized again at 110.5 V and 60.2 Hz.

Then I walked away. With my fingers crossed that I wouldn’t come back to two racks of raw ribs because the second generator had seized up like my first one did. My friends and I took off to walk the paddock at the race for the next four-plus hours. The manual claimed that the generator would run for approximately 5 hours on a full tank at 50% (400 W) load. Since I was running at 75% load when the heaters were both on (and only ~17% when the main heater cycled off) I knew it would be less than that. But not sure how much less.

When we came back to the RV 5 hours later I was proven correct – the generator was off and the tank was dry. But the smoker was still holding 210° F, which means that it probably hadn’t been off for long. Maybe 30 minutes was my guess. So I  unplugged everything, refueled, and it started back up on the second pull. I restarted the smoker and let it get the final 45 minutes if smoking in. I noticed no ill effects from letting the generator stop under load.

The ribs were fantastic. And so was this little generator. After my initial failure, this one has probably 12 to 15 hours on it now and it seems to be doing fine. I just fired it up today after replacing the spark plug and it even seems to idle more smoothly now.

So, my initial impressions are still favorable. This little generator seems to be an awesome little tool and has been surprisingly reliable. Hopefully I’ll have more favorable updates in the coming months

Categories: Tools Tags: ,

What Can You Do With 800 Watts?

August 1st, 2012 No comments

If you’re wondering what someone could possibly run with only 800 Watts from my new little Harbor Freight generator, let me just point out the following little facts.

On a Bradley Digital Smoker, the main heating element is 500 Watts. The smoker element is 150 Watts. Hmmmm. Since 650 W < 800 W, well, I’ll let you figure it out. While I’m eating slow smoked spareribs while camping at the Mid Ohio Sports Course this weekend.

Categories: Tools Tags: , , , ,

Harbor Freight 800 Watt Generator

July 21st, 2012 No comments
This entry is part 6 of 9 in the series Generator

Harbor Freight 800 Watt Generator

I needed a small generator for an upcoming camping trip. And my every other day Harbor Freight sales e-mail arrived in my inbox. So I took the plunge on this popular little generator. The first one didn’t work out so well (ahhh, Harbor Freight, you never fail to fail). But the second one seems to be working. Read all about it – I gave the generator its own review page here.

Ch Ch Chain…

December 20th, 2011 2 comments
This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Chainsaws

In my first chainsaw post I discussed saw sizes and components. No component is more important than the chain that does the work. And no aspect of a chainsaw is as controversial and creates more arguments among users than the type of chain you should use.

Chainsaw Chain Basics

A chainsaw chain consists of drive links, cutters, tie straps, guard links, and the rivets that hold them all together. Oregon has a great picture showing these parts at http://www.theoregonshop.com/userimages/ChainParts.jpg.

By Horst74 (Own work) (Public domain)

All the parts are also shown in the photo at left. The parts don’t matter to most users since most people don’t assemble their own chain. But understanding them helps when it comes to understanding chain sizes.

Chain Sizes

Saw chain size is defined by three parameters:

  1. Pitch, or the length of the links (distance between rivets).
  2. Gauge, or the thickness of the drive links.
  3. Length, or the number of drive links.

There’s a picture of this on the page at http://www.stihllibrary.com/pdfs/SawChainSelection.pdf from Stihl. Remember that chains are sized according to the bar they run on, not necessarily by the size of the powerhead, although larger powerheads tend to run larger bars, so there is some relation. In general, smaller saws with bars under 16″ run chain as small as 1/4″ pitch. Medium size saws with bars between 16″ and 20″ run .325″ or 3/8″ pitch chains. Larger saws with bars longer than 20″ may run .404″ pitch chain.

Information block stamped on guidebar.

Chain information stamped on my guidebar.

For example, my 18″ Rollomatic E bar on my Stihl MS 290 runs .325″ pitch chain, .063″ gauge, with 74 drive links. here is the information plate from the bar. I also have an older Rollomatic E bar that is the same 18″ length which I used to run on my old 032AV, which is actually a 3/8″ pitch, .050″ gauge, and takes a chain with 66 drive links.

Although it’s important to buy the correct size chain for your bar, most people don’t pay much attention to other parameters. Some people like to argue the merits of .325″ pitch chain vs. 3/8″ pitch, but most people don’t care. What people do care and argue about is the type of cutters on the chain.

Chain Cutter Types

The number one argument among chainsaw people is whether full-chisel or semi-chisel chain is better. What’s the difference? It has to do with how much of the cutter is sharpened and the geometry of the cutter on the chain itself. A simple explanation is that if you look at a full chisel chain end-on, the cutter looks like the number seven “7”. A semi-chisel chain looks like a question mark, “?”. There is also a difference in how much of a point is filed into the front profile of the cutter, with full chisel chain having a sharp point, while semi chisel is flatter.

Wikipedia says this:

Full chisel chain has a square cornered tooth, splitting wood fibers easily in the cut for fast, efficient cutting in clean softwood. Semi-chisel chain has a rounded working corner formed by a radius between the top and side plates. While slower than full chisel in softwood, it retains an acceptable cutting sharpness longer, making it the preferred choice for dirtier wood, hard or dry wood, frozen wood or stump work, all of which would rapidly degrade full chisel chain.

Chain types

Chain Types (from Bailey's)

Bailey’s, an excellent source for chainsaw parts and chain for all brands posts this picture describing chain types. (Note that what I call full chisel they call round chisel – same stuff.) For homeowners and non-professionals the choice is really between full or semi chisel. The other stuff, especially square chisel, is used only by pros and really dedicated amateurs.

The Argument

One of the best sites for chainsaw information on the Internet is Arboristsite.com. And they relish the debate over full or semi-chisel chain.

For example, see this thread from 2007. Or this thread from 2004. Or this thread from 2006. Or this thread from 2004. Or this recent thread from 2011. Get the picture?

Reading through all those threads the consensus opinion is that full-chisel chain cuts faster when sharp, but loses its edge quickly, especially in “dirty” wood. Semi-chisel chain cuts a little slower, but holds its edge much better. So which is better? For homeowners and occasional users it really doesn’t matter. You see, most of the argument happens between guys that cut wood for a living. Or at least serious amateurs who spend hours in the field on any given day. So to them, the speed that a chain cuts makes a difference in how much money they make. For me it doesn’t. I simply don’t cut that much wood.

And the definition of “dirty” certainly isn’t standard. Is dirty wood a log that has been skidded on the ground through a swamp and is caked in mud? Some people in those threads argue that trees which grow on the side of dirt roads count as dirty because of the microscopic sand embedded in the bark. The point is – the posters are technically right. In my experience full-chisel chain dulls quicker than semi-chisel. But since I don’t cut ten trees a day it doesn’t matter to me if it dulls and slows down much. I’ll spend a few more minutes with the file between tanks of gas if I have to – it gives my back a rest! So read the posts and make up your own mind. But realize that for occasional use, it probably won’t make much of a difference.

What do I Run?

Keep your chain out of the dirt. Here I am using a timberjack to lift a large trunk off the ground to prevent running my saw into the dirt.

Mostly full-chisel chain. Currently I have four loops of Stihl RSC (Rapid Super Comfort) full-chisel hanging in my tool shed. I also have two loops of Stihl RMC (Rapid Micro Comfort) semi-chisel hanging there. Most of the time I run the RSC full-chisel. Even in hardwood (I cut mostly oak and maple here in Massachusetts, with some white pine thrown in) and even in cold weather when the wood may be frozen. But I am very careful, and after years of experience am quite adept, at keeping the bar out of the dirt. Because it doesn’t matter whether you’re cutting hardwood or softwood and whether the wood is dirty. Nothing will kill your chain faster, whether full or semi-chisel, then running your bar into the dirt and rocks under a log!

Note that I mentioned using a file. Yes – you must sharpen your saw chain. No, taking it back to the hardware store doesn’t count. Sure, all chains need to be reground periodically, but a single chain is only going to last a couple of hours, even in clean wood, before it needs to be touched up. In this area the forum consensus is also right: semi-chisel chain will go longer between filings. If you have no intention of learning how to file a chain, you need to assume that you will go through three to six chains in a full day of work and plan on buying that many. So if you only want to to take them back to the store for sharpening, buy six or eight or ten loops to get you through a full weekend’s work.

So my recommendation comes down to this:

  • If you are careful with your cutting and keep your bar out of the dirt, full-chisel will work for most applications, if you’re willing to occasionally file and maintain the chain.
  • If you are new to using a saw and don’t want to file your own chains, run semi-chisel.
One important note: semi-chisel chain can be hard to find in typical stores. Even in some better dealers you might not find a full selection of semi-chisel. I don’t know why that is, but I have experienced it and read about it online.

Regular or Reduced Kickback Chain

In my previous post about guidebars I mentioned that manufacturers make both regular and reduced kickback bars. I said that there wasn’t a tremendous difference between them and I saw no reason not to run the reduced kickback versions. The same is definitely not true for chain, where there is a tremendous difference between regular and reduced kickback versions.

This is an argument that the guys on ArboristSite REALLY like to engage in. Look no farther than this 8 page thread from 2009. There is another good one from 2010 also. In their world, reduced kickback chain is called “safety chain” and all safety chain is shit. My experience tells me that the real world isn’t so cut and dried. I started cutting long before the ANSI B 175.1 chainsaw safety standard was introduced in 1985. So reduced kickback chain wasn’t readily available until I had already been cutting for close to ten years. And current reduced kickback chain has improved tremendously over the stuff that was originally available.

That said, it is generally accepted that modern reduced kickback chain cuts a little slower and less aggressively than regular chain. This varies considerably between manufacturers and even within a manufacturer’s line between chain types. Because I am familiar with Stihl, that’s what I’ll use for my comparison.

When I bought my MS290, it came from the dealer with a loop of Stihl RSC3 full-chisel reduced kickback chain (identified by a green master link). When I first started the saw and cut with it I thought it worked pretty well, though it didn’t “pull” into the cut in the way I was used to with my old saw. But it cut well enough. After a while I switched over to a loop of RSC full-chisel regular chain. And the saw instantly felt more like I was used to. It really grabbed and pulled into the cut. But this same aggressiveness is what can make the saw kick back if the operator isn’t careful.

So I’m not going to get deep into this argument. From my personal experience, modern reduced kickback chain works well. I had no real problems with the RSC3 chain that came on my saw, and I certainly have the loop sharpened and ready to go. If I ever loaned my saw to someone, this is the chain I would give them until I really trusted them. But I admit that I do use the yellow link regular RSC chain most of the time. With all the years I have behind the saw I feel I’m prepared for the increased kickback potential. Your situation may be different. On your first saw I would always recommend a modern reduced kickback chain. Read the threads I referenced above if you want to learn more.

Good luck and safe cutting.

Categories: Tools Tags: ,

A Chainsaw Primer

December 11th, 2011 1 comment
This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Chainsaws
My old Stihl 032AV

R.I.P. - 1982 to 2011

A couple weeks ago, Mr. Murphy paid me a visit and I had to replace my beloved 29 year old Stihl 032AV chainsaw. Soon after I wrote about how awesome and reliable it was, a valve in the chain oil system cracked and the part wasn’t available for a saw that old. So I had to buy a new one.

What I realized during my research is that there is a lot of confusion about the basic components of a chainsaw and few places where someone can find comprehensive answers. There are some great sites with very comprehensive answers and where professionals share their experience with homeowners, but it would still help to have an grasp of the basics before wading into these arenas.

What gives me the right to talk about this? I consider myself an advanced amateur. I grew up in a time and a place where there were far fewer nanny state rules. I was given my first real gas powered chainsaw at 10 years old and, after watching my dad for a while was given the intensive safety training of, “Don’t kill yourself,” and turned loose on brush piles with a Homelite saw with a 12″ bar. Bu the time I was 13 I was given a new Stihl 032AV (pictured above) and turned loose on 75 acres of fields and woods to cut whatever the hell I wanted. As long as there were a few cords of firewood for winter, no one cared. I used to practice felling trees by driving sticks into the ground in a field where I wanted the tree to fall and trying to drive them into the ground by dropping the trunk on top of them. Since then I’ve felled hundreds of trees, cut many cords of firewood, and cleaned up after dozens of storms. For a summer I worked for the US Forest Service in the early 90’s and that’s where I actually learned about safety and technique. I didn’t get to run the saw, but I was on work crews with guys who really knew what they were doing. And I soaked in everything I could.

What I wear now.

Gone are the days of being an invincible kid with no safety gear at all. You will never catch me cutting now without my full compliment of chaps and forestry helmet (hard hat with built in face shield and ear protection).

So, based on that experience, here’s what you need to know.

Types of Chainsaws

Manufacturers usually divide their chainsaw lines into three categories. Known by various names, I will call them: Homeowner or Occasional Use saws; Medium Duty saws; and Professional or Heavy Duty saws. In general, as you move up from Homeowner to Professional saws you get larger sizes (both bar length and engine displacement), more power, and more advanced features (like high efficiency engines and anti-vibration features).

I am partial to Stihl chainsaws, for no reason other than I have always lived near quality Stihl dealers. So I’ll use their line as an example.

A middle of the pack Occasional Use saw might be the MS 211. Offering a 2.2 in3 engine that produces 2.3 horsepower, Stihl recommends guide bars in 12″, 14″, or 16″ length. Other than some new engine technology Stihl is introducing, there are no special features to this saw, though some Homeowner saws have “convenience” features like easy start systems. Saws in this class would typically be used for cutting small trees (up to maybe 16″ in diameter), large branches and pruning ornamental plants, and light cutting of firewood.

Old and new chainsaws.

Out with the old and in with the new. My new MS290 and my old 032AV

A Medium Use saw is the MS 290 (my most recent saw). The 290 has a 3.45 in3 engine making 3.8 horsepower (65% more than the MS211). Stihl recommends guidebars in 16″, 18″, and 20″ lengths. In addition to the basic features, medium range saws offer adjustable chain oil rates, anti-vibration systems (which help reduce fatigue when using the saw for hours at a time), and easy access maintenance features. Medium use saws might be used for felling trees up to 36″ in diameter, limbing large trees, and bucking (cutting into smaller lengths) trees for firewood.

A Professional saw is the Stihl MS460. With a 4.6 in3 engine making 6.0 horsepower (58% more than the MS290). For this saw, Stihl recommends guidebars in 18″, 20″, 22″, or 28″ lengths. Saws in this range get the latest features to make them light and powerful. This saw might be used for felling trees to 48″ in diameter and bucking large trees. The largest Professional saw in Stihl’s line, the MS880 Magnum can take a guidebar up to 59″, for felling trees 6, 7, 8, or even 10 feet in diameter.

What Size Saw Do You Need?

Because chainsaws tend to be tools for men, there is a perception that bigger is always better. That perception is commonly held by people who have watched too many episodes of Ax Men on TV and have never spent a day bent over cutting firewood with a 20 lb. chainsaw.

Chainsaws can be dangerous, and a bigger saw can let you get into dangerous situations faster than you might expect. So it is important to match the saw to the job you will actually be doing. For example – even when I fell a 30″ diameter tree, that whole process might take 120 seconds of actual cutting. But the next two hours will be spent limbing and bucking that tree into firewood. So as nice as an MS880 Magnum would be during the felling process, my back is much happier limbing with my MS290 for the next two hours because it weighs ten pounds less.

You need to realistically assess the size jobs you will really do. Will you really be felling three or four foot diameter trees? That can be difficult and dangerous work and it’s way too easy to drop a tree on your home or car if you don’t know what you’re doing. Want proof? See this video:

Or this one:

Or this one:

Remember – each of these guys thought they were smart enough to handle the job. Although lack of safety equipment, no felling wedges, or no notch and back cuts is usually a dead giveaway that someone doesn’t have a clue.

Here’s your first pro tip – the saw binding in your felling cut is nature’s way of telling you something is screwed up and the tree isn’t going the way you expect. This is why they invented the felling wedge.

Here’s your second pro tip – if you don’t know what a felling wedge is, stick with an Occasional Use or smaller Medium Duty saw.

If you want to know and see how they are used properly, this guy on YouTube gives a great lesson in cutting a tree that’s leaning in the wrong direction and safely directing it where he wants it using wedges. When you can do cuts like this, you’re ready for a large saw and larger trees.

Chainsaw Parts

To many people, this whole system is a “chainsaw.”

In fact, a chainsaw is made up of several components, and it is common to mix components from a variety of manufacturers. The basic anatomy of a chainsaw is:

  • The engine or powerhead. This consists of the engine and related controls, the oiling system, and related components.
  • The guidebar. This is the bar on the front of the powerhead around which the chain runs.
  • The cutting chain. Exactly what the name says. This is the chain that does the cutting.
Information block stamped on guidebar.

Information about the proper chain to use is on the guidebar, not the powerhead. Here's the block on my Stihl MS290.

On all but the cheapest Occasional Use saws, you can buy chain and guidebar systems from a different manufacturer than made the powerhead. For example, many Stihl chainsaw owners use guidebars and chain made by the Oregon company.
Here’s the important thing to know: the chain on a chainsaw must be matched to the guidebar, not to the powerhead model. And the drive sprocket must be matched to the chain as well. So there really is no answer to the question, “What chain do I run on a Stihl MS290?” The answer is, it depends on what bar you have. The picture on the right shows the information from my MS290. It tells me I should run a .325″ pitch chain, .063″ gauge, with 74 drive links on this 18″ bar.

Guidebar Types

In America, there are really only two guidebar manufacturers. Stihl and Oregon. Any brand of chainsaw other than Stihl uses Oregon manufactured bars, even if their own brand name is on it. And regardless of which manufacturer you use, there are two broad categories of guidebars, regular and reduced kickback.

Kickback is the rapid and unexpected movement of a chainsaw towards the operator caused when the chain on the top of the guidebar sticks in a cut or contacts something in a dangerous and unexpected way. If this happens at the tip of the bar, the movement of the saw and running chain is both back toward the operator and up towards the operator’s head. This is perhaps the most dangerous type of chainsaw accident and a very common occurrence. A good demonstration by a chainsaw instructor is in this video:

A common way for kickback to occur is during plunge cutting (when the tip of the guidebar is pushed straight into a cut, rather than a slicing cut made with the top or bottom of the guidebar). To lessen this, reduced kickback guidebars tend to be fatter in the middle and tapered towards their ends. Compare the Stihl Rollomatic E reduced kickback bar against the Duromatic E standard bar on this page for an example. Note that in the picture, the Rollomatic bars have a green dot at the end and the Duramatic bars have a yellow dot. Stihl uses this color coding system to designate bars and chain as reduced kickback (green dot) or regular (yellow dot). Oregon uses blue dots for reduced kickback and yellow for regular.

I have run reduced kickback bars on my saws for years and never missed my old straight bars once. In my mind, there really isn’t a decision to be made here. If you’re reading this you should be running a reduced kickback bar.

Chain

The next discussion is about chain types. But this discussion among chainsaw people is like asking someone what beer is the best or which football team to root for. There is a lot of fighting and arguing that takes place, so I intend to cover this in a second post. Keep an eye out.

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