Like the spear that can pierce any shield and the shield that can deflect any spear, a chainsaw chain that will never dull has been the unobtainable, paradoxical jewel sought by mankind for millennia–or at least the 70 or so years since the chainsaw was invented. In this noble quest, many have looked to carbide chainsaw chains as a promising solution. Being substantially harder than steel and not easily dulled, carbide chains offer a more streamlined cutting experience, uninterrupted by frequent sharpening sessions. It sounds great, but is it true, or is it just a fancy sales pitch? Do they live up to the hype? Perhaps not. In most cases, steel chains are going to be the better option, but there are specific situations when carbide may be superior. In this article we will examine the pros and cons of cutting with carbide and assess the situations where it shines.
The Benefits of Carbide
There really aren’t benefits of using a carbide chain. Instead, there is one single benefit, but it is a big one. Carbide chainsaw chains will last longer and will need to be sharpened much less frequently than a traditional steel chain. Anyone who has run a chainsaw for any length of time knows that steel chains don’t hold their edge for too long, and so sharpening can take up a substantial amount of a sawyer’s time. This is particularly true if you find yourself working in conditions where wood is dirty or the chain comes in contact with dirt or metal on a frequent basis. In fact, many carbide chains are designed for firefighter and rescue work, as well as construction and demolition due to its ability to maintain an edge in less-than-optimum environments.
Sounds great, right? I guess it is case closed: Carbide wins! Slow down now, partner. Despite having one very appetizing benefit, carbide chainsaw chains have a whole host of drawbacks they bring to the table.
The Drawbacks of Carbide
If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Nothing is perfect, and carbide has a menu of problems that comes with it.
Difficult and Expensive Sharpening
Just because carbide lasts longer than steel does not mean that it will never need sharpening. It will still need to be sharpened, and sharpening carbide is substantially more difficult. Special tools are needed, such as diamond-coated grinding wheels. You will most likely need to take the chain to a specialized shop, and even then, not all sharpening shops will be equipped with the necessary equipment, so you can safely bet that you will be paying a bit of a premium.
Compare that to steel for which file kits can be picked up for cheap in any hardware store, and a quick filing session can leave you with a nearly brand-new performing chain.
Slower Cutting Speed
There are two types of carbide chains in production (although there are variations in each type). One type is a more traditional “chisel” design and the other is a “low kickback” chain with a shallower cut angle and depth designed for extremely heterogenous materials (think fire and rescue, needling to cut through walls and such). This latter type of chain will cut substantially slower than a traditional chain, adding to the tradeoffs.
More traditionally-designed carbide chains will cut at similar speeds to steel, however, with one caveat: Though carbide is slower to dull, it will also spend longer in an imperfect state of not-quite-sharp, but not-quite-dull. In other words, the performance of a carbide chain will be “meh” for a substantial period of time in-between sharpening. Though the frequency of needing to sharpen steel is annoying, you have to admit, it is nice to start each day with a nice fresh edge.
As any one with an understanding of metallurgy knows, harder metals are usually more brittle, and carbide is no exception. If carbide comes in contact with tough objects like rocks or metal, it will be able to hold its edge more than steel. However, it is also much more liable to chip and break off! This owes to the fact that carbide is far more brittle than steel as well as the fact that the carbide tips are usually brazed onto a normal steel chain, which can be a point of weakness.
In most cases, the chain will still be usable if a tooth chips, as the main structure of the chain is still steel, but regular inspection should be made anyway, as they should with any chain.
As one might expect, carbide chainsaw chains are considerably more expensive than traditional steel chains. How much more expensive depends greatly on the length of chain you need, of course, but in general, you can expect to pay several times more for carbide than you would for steel. Combined with the increased cost of sharpening, the total cost of ownership for carbide is substantial.
Should You Use Carbide Chainsaw Chains?
So here is the bottom line: Whether or not you cut with carbide comes down to how exactly you use your saw. Ultimately, it is your choice, but here are my opinions on the matter.
Situations When Steel Chainsaw Chains Are Better
- You are a professional logger or arborist.
- You use your saw to cut wood and only wood, even if its a bit dirty.
- You know how to sharpen a saw correctly or are willing to learn.
Situations When Carbide Chainsaw Chains Are Better
- You use your saw for fire, rescue, or demolition work.
- You often cut scrap lumber, treated wood, and non-wood materials.
- You use your saw very infrequently and don’t know how to sharpen properly
- You can’t seem to stop running your saw into the ground every time you use it.
For most people, steel is the better option. Sure, sharpening can be a pain, but its so nice to be able to start cutting with a nice, fresh, razor-sharp chain! And for cheap! But carbide certainly has its place. Think carefully about what your needs are and make the best decision for your situation. And as always, stay safe!