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For Yardwork and More, Chainsaws Are Better When They’re Powered by Batteries

The revolution will be electrified.

Trevor Raab

For decades, gas-engine power equipment was the only choice for yardwork, followed by corded power tools at a distant second. Anything powered by a battery was either ineffective or an expensive novelty. The few successful versions of battery-powered outdoor equipment were limited to low-power applications, like grass shears. Of course, for every rule there’s an exception: We reported on the highly effective GE Elec-Trak battery-powered tractor and Black & Decker’s somewhat effective battery mowers in our April 1970 issue.

In many respects, gas-engine equipment still rules the outdoors in terms of power and cost effectiveness–at least for people with serious work to do. But a revolution in outdoor power is occurring. For many people doing yardwork, cordless power tools are now the default choice. This has stood the status quo on its head.

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Since chainsaws require so much power, given the strain that churning through wood puts on them, they were the last outdoor power tool that seemed practical to power with a battery. But even battery-powered chainsaws are now the better choice for yard maintenance. It took a lot of engineering to solve the hurdles to efficient battery power, which were 1) getting enough of a charge in the battery without making the tool much heavier, and 2) eking enough power out of an electric motor. The pieces of design responsible for addressing those, respectively, and the success of cordless tools: lithium-ion batteries and brushless motors.

I remember the first time I witnessed the power that lithium-ion could deliver. I was attending the Milwaukee Electric Tool demonstration at the 2005 Builders Show in Orlando, Florida. Walking into the conference room, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. People were running a massive ship auger drill bit, lengthwise, into a gigantic pressure-​treated beam without a shadow of hesitancy or stalling—incredibly impressive.

The key was that it was powered by a massive 28-volt lithium-ion battery, of the same chemistry used in consumer laptops. We learned that the technology offered light weight and a high energy density, making it ideal for power-tool applications, so long as you could harness all that current without overheating and melting the battery or other circuits. Milwaukee solved that problem with a computer chip that allowed the battery, switch, and motor to communicate, metering current flow.

Other power tool manufacturers quickly got on board, and then Makita took the next step when it offered the industry’s first brushless-motor cordless tool in 2010 with its TD133D impact driver.

Brushless motors achieve their efficiency by eliminating the energy-robbing carbon brushes that transfer current from the stationary part of the motor to the spinning output shaft. Instead, they use small circuit boards and sensors to transfer current. The motor circuit sensors and computer chip also provide extremely precise speed control while monitoring electrical input. Since they are so electrically efficient, they are ideal for pairing with a battery.

The combination of the lithium-ion battery’s lightweight charge density and the brushless motor’s high torque-to-weight ratio means that cordless tool technology can challenge the gas engine in many applications, even the most demanding of all: cutting wood.

Outdoor power equipment manufacturer Stihl was the first to cross the threshold. In 2010, it produced its 36-volt chainsaw, the MSA 120-CB. That tool was the game changer, a mid-duty saw perfectly capable of quickly and quietly producing small batches of firewood or doing outdoor maintenance with ease. But what followed was even better. The MSA 220-CB has a bigger motor and more torque and is an even faster cutter that comes much closer to gas-engine performance.

But these cordless saws are more expensive than their equivalent gas-engine power tool. And this is because their motor, battery, circuitry, and charger are more expensive to produce than a combustion engine. Also, their thin-kerf chain is specially engineered to produce less drag and to be as efficient as possible; it’s more expensive to grind than the typical saw chain. And cordless saws are best suited to cutting sessions that run for a couple of hours. Our testing indicates that the sweet spot for these saws is in wood less than a foot in diameter and the saw itself equipped with a bar 14 inches long or shorter.

With those disclaimers out of the way, a cordless saw can do several remarkably well. It will take care of most downed limbs, or even a small tree that has come down in a storm (say with a trunk 8 to 10 inches in diameter and 20 to 30 feet tall). It will do work cleaning up riding and hiking trails and selective pruning in a small orchard or on trees out in your yard. Having an extra battery will help you do a pleasant and quiet morning’s worth of firewood cutting, enough to fill a small pickup truck.

So where does this leave you? If you cut several cords of firewood a year, stick with a gas-engine saw. If you do maintenance wood cutting, yard cleanup, produce a little firewood for the stove, fireplace, or fire pit, go cordless.

The Best from Our Test

Invest in a Pair of Limb-Saving Chainsaw Chaps

On the fence about whether you should buy a pair of chainsaw chaps? Consider that the most common wound chainsaws inflict is to the left leg (particularly the knee, below the knee, or the foot) and requires about 110 stitches to close. Chaps protect against such gruesome injury with a unique mechanism. Once the saw pierces the outer fabric, the chain tears into the synthetic fibers below, which so thoroughly entangle the chain and its sprocket that both are stopped dead in their tracks. Sure, the chaps are ruined, but your leg isn’t. I’ve never cut into mine, but one time I came so close that the chain splattered a stripe of oil on the chaps as it flew by. When I look at that greasy stripe, I think the $100 I paid for those chaps was among the best money I’ve spent.

And some more potentially harm-preventing accessories:

Pro Skill: The Open-Face Directional Felling Notch

When people first stopped felling trees with axes and turned to chainsaws, they kept using the same technique: basically, making a 45-degree notch on the side of the tree toward which they wanted it to fall, then making a level cut from the back of the tree. Called the back cut, this is an inch or two up from the point of the felling notch (see diagram). The wood that’s left between the 45-degree felling notch and where the back cut ends is called the hinge, and it helps guide the tree safely to the earth.

But this method can still be dangerous, with the potential for the butt of the tree (the part closest to the ground) to launch up backwards, injuring or even killing an unwary tree feller.

So a few decades ago, Swedish logger and chainsaw instructor Soren Eriksson pioneered and perfected a method that takes advantage of a chainsaw’s unique ability. It’s called the open-face directional felling notch. It’s more complex, but it’s also safer, and it gains that safety from giving the wood cutter far more control of how and when the tree falls.

Traditional 45° Felling Notch


Open-Face 70° Directional Felling Notch


1. The initial step is a felling notch with an extremely shallow angle. The first downward sloping cut is about 70 degrees.

2. Next comes the horizontal cut, which drops out the wedge of wood. This produces a felling notch that removes more sapwood from the tree than the traditional 45-degree method and makes it more likely that the falling tree will snap its hinge at a safe point in its fall.


3. The key difference is the bore cut, which goes in from one side of the tree’s trunk and right out the other. Note two things about this bore cut. It’s level with the ground and about an inch or two above the vertex (the point where cuts one and two meet) of the felling notch. And most importantly, it leaves the hinge wood intact. The hinge produced by the felling notch should have a width equal to 80 percent of the tree’s diameter when measured at chest height.

4. The wood cutter then moves the chainsaw (and its bore cut) toward the back of the tree and stops, leaving a couple of inches of wood on the back. This uncut wood is called “the strap” or “holding wood.” As its name implies, it holds the tree in position and affords the feller a chance to ensure everything is in order before the fall.


Withdrawing the chainsaw, the operator pounds wedges into the bore cut, one from each side of the tree. These apply pressure upward and in the direction the tree will fall.

5. Finally, they cut the strap/holding wood. As the saw works in, the tree will begin to lean and makes the distinctive creaking sound that signals gravity is taking over. Stopping the saw and moving back quickly at a 45-degree angle, the feller lets the tree fall in the direction of the notch as its hinge snaps.

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