3 chainsaw maintenance tips

Your most neglected cottage tool needs some lovin' too. Here are a few ways to keep it happy

By David ZimmerDavid Zimmer


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Most cottagers dutifully winterize their outboard motors to ensure long life and a reliable start next spring. But one cottage workhorse that is routinely ignored is the chainsaw, that neglected beast of burden that will save your bacon when a fallen tree limb blocks access to the driveway on your first trip up to the lake next year.

Give some end-of-season care

Remove the air filter and gently tap it to clean off any caked-on sawdust and debris. After a few years of occasional use, or a year of heavy use, replace the filter. Next, take off the shroud that covers the drive sprocket by removing the two bar-retaining nuts, then release the tension on the chain by turning the chain-adjustment screw counterclockwise.

Remove the chain and the bar, and clean all around the drive sprocket. There will be lots of sawdust, chips, and twig ends jammed into this area, all glued together with thick chain-lubricating oil. Use a stick, a toothbrush, a rag – anything it takes to scrape the gunk away. (A few squirts of WD-40 can help loosen things up.) Carefully clean the oiling outlets, usually close to the guide-bar mounts. These deliver oil that reduces friction between the chain and the guide bar, so it is vital that they don’t get clogged up.

Turn your attention to the bar

It’s pretty obvious how things work: The inside of the chain has guides, or tangs, that ride in the groove that goes all the way around the bar. If the groove is clogged, the chain won’t slide smoothly in its track. More importantly, the groove and the tangs act together to distribute bar oil around the business end of the saw, and a clogged groove interferes with this. Clean from the tip of the bar back to the base, removing any gunky accumulations using a “bar groove cleaner,” or the round end of a hacksaw blade. At the base of the bar, near the mounting slot, you will find two small holes, one on each side. These orifices work with the oiling outlets to deliver bar oil to that groove you just cleaned. Because they are so small, they clog easily, so make sure you clean them out, too.

If your saw produces sawdust instead of nice, big chips, your chain is as dull as a hoe blade and needs sharpening. Even if you do know how to sharpen a chain, it’s a good idea to get a professional job done every once in a while to reset all the tooth angles to their proper parameters. While you’re there, pick up a brand-new chain, so you’ll always have a sharp one in the shed when the other is at the shop getting sharpened.

When you consider that 99 per cent of all cottage sawing uses only the bottom edge of the bar, it’s no surprise that this edge tends to wear more heavily than the top. So when you put your saw back together again, flip the bar so the gently worn top edge is now taking its fair share of the load. If you’ve been doing a lot of sawing over the years and have never flipped the bar, the bottom could be worn to the point that the chain tangs no longer track properly. To test this, cut through some wood with a fresh, professionally sharpened chain on the saw. If the cut veers to one side, your guide bar is badly worn. Take it to the repair shop when you bring your chain in for sharpening, and have it professionally “dressed.” Once the edges are all true, just flip the bar once a year and you shouldn’t need to have it dressed again.

Test the oiling system, fuel tank, and fuel lines

With your now-clean saw reassembled and the chain tensioned properly, test the oiling system by running the saw at high speed with the tip a few inches from a light-coloured surface like an old board, a piece of cardboard, or the boathouse floor. A light spray pattern of oil means your oiling mechanism is working properly.

What really hurts a saw over the winter is old fuel in the tank and fuel lines, which quickly breaks down and deposits a gummy film on the weensy parts inside the carburetor. (This effect is called “varnishing,” and can make your saw all but impossible to start next spring.) It’s easy to prevent, however. To prepare your saw for the big sleep, just top it up with fuel, then add the correct amount of two-stroke fuel stabilizer to the tank. Then run the saw, revving it right up, for no less than two minutes. This will get stabilized gas throughout the fuel line and carburetor, which will prevent varnishing. Contrary to popular opinion, chainsaws do not require the addition of storage (or fogging) oil to the cylinders – their innards are oily enough to survive the winter.

That’s it. If you wanted to be really anal, you could take note of the spark plug’s part number and add it to the list of things to bring back to the cottage next spring, right up there with strike-anywhere matches and mildew remover for your favourite captain’s chair on the screened porch.

This article was originally published on April 17, 2008

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David Zimmer