What to Do When Your Chainsaw Hits the Dirt

When using a chainsaw, never let the chainsaw hit the dirt.

Uh-Oh! You were out cutting firewood out of a fallen tree when you committed the cardinal sin of all sawyers: You let your chainsaw hit the dirt. Don’t worry! Even with advanced operators, it can be easy to accidentally let your bar hit the ground from time to time. Simply turn off the saw, assess the severity, inspect for damage, and sharpen the chain. While running your saw into the dirt should certainly be avoided, it’s nothing to fret over. In most cases, simply re-sharpening the saw should reverse any damage that was done. Here is a step-by-step guide on how to approach the situation.

Assess the Severity of the Situation

Not all chainsaw/ground encounters are created equal. Did the saw lightly tap the top of forest moss, or did you jam the bar into the gravel underneath a log? Here are some questions to ask yourself to determine how bad the situation is:

  • How long and how many times was the chain in contact with the dirt?
  • What type of dirt was it–Fine organic material or coarse sand and gravel?
  • What did I observe when it happened? Were there sparks? Was there kickback? Did it make a different noise? Did it throw rocks back at me?

Shorter encounters with finer soils and no notable sparks or noises is a good indication that any damage to the chain will be extremely mild and will only require a sharpening. However, if this isn’t the case, and your chainsaw hit the dirt numerous times (especially if there were sparks or kickback) you need to thoroughly inspect the chain for damage.

Inspect the Chain for Damage From Rocks and Dirt

Chainsaws are designed to cut one thing and one thing only: Wood. When your chainsaw hits the dirt or any other non-wood substance (except snow), there is risk of damage. If the chain happened to hit larger, denser rocks, there is a good chance you could be dealing with broken chainsaw teeth or cracked links.

To assess damage to the chain, its important to understand the parts of the chain. Chain links are composed of two main parts: The tooth and the raker. The tooth is the cutting edge that digs into the wood and creates the shavings. The raker, on the other hand, regulates the depth at which the teeth can cut. A shorter raker will make the cut more aggressive. Thus, a broken tooth will likely be covered by an intact raker, but a broken raker may lead to an uneven cutting depth across the saw.

With the chainsaw off and chain brake disengaged, carefully rotate the chain around the bark and inspect the tooth and raker of each link. If any teeth or rakers are broken, it does not mean the chain is ruined. Simply sharpen the saw as you normally would and then test the saw out to assess the saw’s performance. You may need to file down broken parts for the saw to function smoothly. Alternatively, you may decide to replace the chain entirely.

Inspect Carefully for Cracks

A broken tooth is no fun, but it is not the worst thing that could happen. Cracks in the chain, however, can be extremely dangerous. You must inspect the chain very carefully for cracked links. A chainsaw at full throttle has a rope of little knives moving at extremely high speeds. A crack (or anything that could compromise the integrity of the chain) could be extremely dangerous if the chain were to break completely. Chains aren’t cheap, but they are much cheaper than a chainsaw injury. Be safety minded and promptly replace any cracked chain.

Sharpen Your Chain Before You Continue

Regardless of how bad the encounter was or how little visible damage there was, it’s important you stop cutting and sharpen your saw if the chainsaw hit the dirt. No matter what, the chain will have been dulled, and it will require sharpening.

Cutting with a dull chainsaw is not only slow and ineffective, it can lead to a variety of other issues, as the extra heat the chainsaw produces can burn wood and even create additional damage to the chain and saw, and the extra pressure you put on the saw can wear components out faster.

Though it can be a pain, take the extra time to sharpen your chain.

How to Prevent Your Chainsaw From Hitting the Dirt

Luckily, with a bit of practice, it is easy to prevent your chainsaw from hitting the dirt. Here are a few of the best ways:

Roll the Log

Cut about 90% of the way through the log and then let off. Put the chain brake on roll the log about 90 degrees so the uncut piece is off the ground. Then, you are free to cut the rest of the way without any risk of your chainsaw hitting the ground. In most cases this is the best and easiest option and how most experienced sawyers buck logs on the ground.

Use Your Felling Dogs for a More Controlled Cut

Felling dogs are the spikes that can be found at the base of the bar. These are used to give the sawyer more control and leverage over a cut. With practice using felling dogs to buck logs, it is easier to make cuts on the ground while still retaining enough control to prevent any contact with the ground. However, this is a more advanced skill that takes some experience to master.

Use a Log Jack to Lift Logs Off the Ground

A log jack is essentially a modified peavey with a cam-like action that lifts logs off the ground so you can easily make cuts. They can come in handy and really save your chain if you spend a fair amount of time felling and bucking logs. They have the additional benefit of applying consistent downward tension on the log, so you also do not have to worry about your saw pinching, which is a common problem cutting trees on the ground. If you are interested in getting a log jack, you can find one here.

Cut on the Snow

If you have control over the season you cut wood, and you live in a more northern climate, it can be advantageous to cut wood in winter. Not only is it easier to skid logs across the snow, but the snow pack gives you a good buffer between your chainsaw and the dirt. Unlike dirt, Your chainsaw can hit the ice without risk of damage, as water is much less dense than rock. If you don’t believe me, just ask ice sculptors who often use chainsaws in their large arsenal of tools.

When Using Your Chainsaw, Avoid Hitting the Dirt

But if you do, don’t sweat it. It happens all the time. Your chainsaw isn’t ruined. Most likely, your chain isn’t even ruined. Just follow the protocol listed here and re-sharpen your chain. Then, try to do better next time. As with anything in the woods, learning to use a chainsaw is a continuous process.

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