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Home & garden.

Updated: 17 Dec 2021

Chainsaw safety: how to use a chainsaw safely

Chainsaws can be dangerous, but they now have a number of features that make them much safer and easier to use. Find out how to use a chainsaw safely in our guide.
Verity Mann
Chainsaw cutting in amongst ferns

The chainsaws you buy in the UK are subject to strict safety standards and come with features to reduce the risk of injury. Our expert guide on chainsaw safety runs through the equipment you'll need to get your hands on.

Before tidying up the garden with a Which? Best Buy chainsaw, it's important that you're familiar with handling the chainsaw and what to wear while you're cutting.

Below, we've got more on protective chainsaw clothing, built-in chainsaw safety features and advice on chainsaw training courses.

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Video: how to use a chainsaw safely

What is chainsaw kickback?

Chainsaw kickback is where the guide bar gets thrown upwards and backwards towards the user at high speed and is the most common cause of serious chainsaw accidents. It can happen if the log you’re cutting shifts and ‘pinches’ the tip of the guide bar, or if the tip of the guide bar and chain accidentally comes into contact with another branch, log or hard object.

The chain brake, which is positioned in front of the right hand, is designed to stop the chain dead if it’s automatically activated, to protect against kickback.

Kickback can happen to even the most experienced chainsaw operators, which is why it’s essential to wear the proper safety kit.

What do you wear when using a chainsaw?

When using a chainsaw you should wear a safety helmet, ear defenders, chainsaw trousers, chainsaw gloves and safety boots. In the EU, all items of clothing containing chainsaw protective fabric carry a special chainsaw logo and will give the class of protection the clothing gives you. The class tells you the maximum chain speed the fabric is designed to stop.

Man using a chainsaw

Protective chainsaw clothing

Safety helmet

These look like construction hard hats and are designed to protect the user’s head from the force of impact from the bar and chain if kickback occurs, provided the chain brake has been activated and the chainsaw chain isn’t spinning. They won’t stop the path of the guide bar or the chain from cutting if it’s in motion.

Most safety helmets have built-in ear defenders, and often transparent plastic or fine-mesh visors to protect the eyes from flying woodchips and dust. Prices start at about £15 online.

Ear defenders

Chainsaws are incredibly noisy and prolonged use can cause hearing damage. Whether you’re using a petrol, corded electric or cordless battery machine, always wear ear defenders. Most safety helmets will have built-in ear defenders, but you can also buy them separately for about £10.

What do you wear when using a chainsaw?

Chainsaw trousers

Chainsaw trousers are made from layers of specialist fabric designed to slow the chain down by snagging it. They won’t block the path of a spinning chain completely, but, by slowing its progress, the resulting injury will be less severe. Prices of chainsaw trousers vary considerably, with a top-of-the-range branded pair costing in the region of £200. You should be able to get a decent pair for about £100 online, though.

Chainsaw gloves

These gloves have a left-hand that's heavily padded with similar fabric to that used in chainsaw trousers, the right hand is generally less padded as it's further from the blade. They're designed to protect hands, while still being flexible enough to work comfortably, and cost between £10 and £35 to buy.

Safety boots

Buy a pair of chainsaw safety boots that have a steel toe cap and a good grip to prevent accidental slipping when you’re using a chainsaw. Prices vary, starting at about £50.

See the best chainsaw brands to buy this year. 

Chainsaw safety features

  • Anti-kickback or low-kickback chains reduce the chances of the chain getting stuck in the wood you're cutting, causing the machine to hurtle back towards the head and shoulder of the person using it.
  • Chainsaw chain brake. Also known as the front handguard, the chain brake is designed to minimise the risk of injury from kickback; if the blade is thrown upwards and backwards towards the user, their left hand will touch the chain-brake lever, which activates this brake.
  • Chainsaw chain catcher is designed to block the chain if it slips off the guide bar, preventing it spinning off and hitting your legs. You'll find it on the base of the machine, below the guide bar. 
  • Chainsaw throttle trigger and throttle lock-off. These two switches have to be engaged for the chain to spin. This is to prevent the chainsaw starting unintentionally. 
  • On/off switch. Petrol models will also have an additional on/off switch to increase protection from accidental starting. Depending on the design and spec of the chainsaw, you may also find a primer, choke and/or starter rope that play a part in firing up the machine.
  • Vibration dampeners or anti-vibration mounts. To reduce pain and discomfort caused by chainsaw engine and cutting vibrations from the engine and cutting. 

Chainsaw safety checks 

Here are four things you should check before starting up your chainsaw.

1. The chain 

When the chainsaw chain needs replacing, follow this check list:

  • Check the user manually carefully. Installing the chain incorrectly could damage the chainsaw and put you at risk when you turn it back on. 
  • Contact the manufacturer. The manufacturer will help you buy the replacement part. Alternatively, you can buy and fit a generic chainsaw chain. 
  • Choose wisely. Make sure you buy a chain with the correct pitch, gauge and number of drive chains. Fitting the wrong chain can be dangerous. 

If in doubt, get a professional to supply and fit it for you.

2. Chainsaw cutting teeth

If your chainsaw is not cutting easily and you have to push, or if it's cutting a crooked line, your chainsaw teeth could be blunt. 

A blunt chainsaw can be dangerous – inspect and sharpen teeth regularly or get a professional to do the job for you.

3. Chainsaw guide bar

This is the long, oblong-shaped solid metal bar the chainsaw chain runs around at high speed. These range in length depending on the size of wood you need to cut. The longer the guide bar, the thicker the diameter of log the chainsaw can cope with, but the more difficult it becomes to manoeuvre.

4. Chainsaw chain tensioning device

During use, a chainsaw chain loses some of its tension and will need tightening. The tension of the chain should be checked every time you use the chainsaw; if the chain’s too slack it could come off during use. The chain tensioning device will either be a thumbwheel lever you can grip and turn or a screw that you tighten with a screwdriver.

We run through all the features to look for in our chainsaw buying guide

Top five chainsaw problems and how to avoid them 

We asked over 6000 Which? members about the garden tools they have bought in the last 10 years. Here's a round-up of the top-five problems they'd encountered when using their chainsaws and our advice on how to avoid them.

1. Chain tensioning does not work

Likely cause Some chainsaws have a mechanism to prevent over tensioning. If you have followed the right procedure for adjusting the tension, the tensioning screw may be damaged. 

How to avoid Tensioning the chain correctly can be tricky. You should have no visible slack, but the chain should move easily round the guide bar. You should be able to pull the chain slightly away from the bar. Take time to get this right to avoid damaging the chainsaw. 

2. Chain does not oil

Likely cause Chain oil travels from the tank via a tube, then runs into the guide bar and the groove where the chain moves round the guide bar. If the chain does not oil, it may be clogged with wood shavings and dirt, or there may be a blockage in the line from the chain-oil tank to the bar. 

How to avoid Make sure you clean the chainsaw thoroughly after each use. If this does not work, run the saw without the bar to see if the oil is being pumped out of the tank. 

3. Engine will not turn over

Likely cause There are many reasons why a petrol chainsaw will not start, such as a mistuned choke, faulty spark plug, or a blocked fuel line. Even if everything is working well, petrol chainsaws can still be hard to start. 

How to avoid Clean your chainsaw thoroughly after every use, removing all covers to reach every part. Drain your petrol tank regularly, clean the air filters and check your oil filters. Invest in regular servicing to keep it running well. 

4. Chain brake failed

Likely cause The chain brake stops the chain from turning by clamping a band around the drive mechanism that turns the chain. A spring provides the force to hold this in place and it is usually this that stops working. 

How to avoid It is vital that the chain brake works properly and adjusting and fixing this is a specialist job. Have your chainsaw serviced regularly to fix potential problems before they develop. 

5. Chainsaw isn't cutting

Likely cause If you see smoke as you’re cutting or your chainsaw is powdering the wood, rather than producing small chips, it’s a sign of a dull chain that needs re-sharpening. 

How to avoid If you accidentally hit metal or dirt with the blade then the teeth will dull very quickly. It’s a tricky job so follow the instructions carefully and use the correct files to sharpen the chain. Alternatively take it to a specialist.

Chainsaw training courses

If you want to use a chainsaw safely then the best way to learn about safe use and maintenance is with a short course. LANTRA, the National Training Organisation for the Land Based Industries, offers a number of short courses that will train you to use the chainsaw safely, how to make some basic cuts and how to maintain the chainsaw. 

These courses generally are run over two days and cost around £250. Shorter day courses on chainsaw safety are also available that cost around £100. 

See all of our gardening tool reviews.