Understanding chainsaw chains

Chainsaw chains are one of the most important parts of the whole chainsaw. Without them you certainly wouldn’t be able to cut through wood. Confusingly they come in almost limitless combinations of type, size and features, all geared to different applications.

You should always refer to your individual manufacturer’s manual as your first port of call, however here is our handy guide that should clear a few things up for you:

The three measurements of chainsaw chains

As chainsaw chains come in so many varieties you first need to understand how they differ, and understand the three different measurements that are involved.

  • Chain pitch
  • The distance between the drive links on the chain determines the pitch of the chain. The spacing between the links on the chain must match the spacing between the teeth on the bar tip sprocket and drive sprocket. What you would typically see is that a larger pitch would indicate a heavier and bigger chain. When replacing your chain, or when it comes to maintenance of the chainsaw the pitch must then be compatible with the bar tip sprocket and the saw sprocket. What you would normally find is that most typical pitches are 0.325” and 3/8”.

  • Chain gauge
  • This is the measurement that outlines the thickness of the drive links and is defined by the portion of the drive link that fits into the grooves in the guide bar. The thicker links will, more often than not, be heavier, but will also be much stronger. The cutting speed will be much faster with a lighter machine so you will need to be aware of what is required from this job to get it done right. The chain gauge and bar gauge must match otherwise it will not fit properly.

    Usually, a larger pitch chain will have larger teeth that take bigger cuts out of the wood. This will therefore require more power. Typical gauges are 0.050”, 0.58” and 0.63”.

  • Number of drive links
  • When researching chainsaw chains it is important to know the exact number of chainsaw links. This helps the manufacturers keep their chain sizes and types in order. This measurement isn’t always displayed on the manual so you will need to know the exact number. Length measurements are not always helpful as the overall length of chains is defined by a combination of the pitch and the number of links.

Types of chisel on the chain

Chainsaw chains come in three main varieties. They come in full chisel, semi chisel and low profile chains, with each being used for different tasks. The chisel refers to how the teeth are cast on the chain itself – which then determines how the chain cuts through the wood.

  • Full chisel chains
  • Typically only professionals and experienced chainsaw users use full chisel chainsaw chains. They are typically used to cut through hardwood such as oak as their square-cornered cutting teeth are more geared up to power through the wood. They have a significantly increased risk of kickback due to the teeth so come with an added amount of risk.

  • Semi-chisel chains
  • Semi chisel chains are less effective at slicing through the wood, as the teeth are round cornered. The risk of kickback is slightly lower than the full chisel teeth however the risk is still there. You are more likely to see these chains on domestic chainsaws for cutting softwood like pine. Their design also allows the chainsaw to be used for longer without needing sharpening.

  • Low profile chains
  • Low profile chains are the best for beginner chainsaw users. These chains are designed so that the chainsaw is less likely to incur kickback during use. This is why you are more likely to see these types of chains on chainsaws sold in the retail sector.

Types of chain arrangement

  • Full complement chain
  • The full complement chain or standard chain has the highest number of cutting teeth. This will be the smoothest and fastest of the three arrangements so very good for small jobs. They are quite popular on short or medium length bars so are good for users who do a lot of limbing.

  • Full skip chain
  • A full skip chain has its cutting teeth the furthest apart. This can be the best option when there is a lot of long cutting. The widening of the distance between the teeth means it is much easier to get rid of the debris and prevent it from clogging the chain. The drawback from this type of chain arrangement is that it isn’t ideal for short cuts and increases the chances of kickback. It is also significantly more prone to vibration.

  • Semi-skip chain
  • The semi-skip chain is a compromise between the two versions. The arrangement is the best of both worlds as half of the teeth are close together, like the full complement chain, and the rest of the teeth are spread apart like the full skip chain. While they offer more flexibility, they aren’t as popular.

Ideal tightness of chainsaw chains

During use, the chainsaw chain will naturally stretch and become loose on the guide bar. You will need to make sure that it isn’t too loose when you use it however as it won’t be as efficient and can become dangerous. The tension should be checked regularly to make sure you are minimising any risk to yourself before you use the chainsaw. If the chain is too loose, it can come off the bar, which can be seriously dangerous given how fast it will be spinning.

To determine the ideal chain tension you should try to lift it off the bar. The chain should be slightly loose but without you being able to pull the chain links off the chain bar. If the chain links remain engaged when you try to pull the chain, you know it is tight enough. If you can pull the whole chain away from the chain bar and the chain links are no longer engaged you know you will need to increase the tension on the chainsaw. You should be sure not to over-tighten the chain. There needs to be a small amount of play in the chain before you get to work. If the chain is too tight, you risk breaking the chain during operation.

For full information on how to tighten a chainsaw chain you should refer to your manufacturer’s manual, as this will provide the bespoke information required for your particular machine.

"Chain 14" Slim Cut Semi chisel, 3/8", 1.1 mm, 50 Drive Links"
CHO - Generic Unpacked chain
Pitch 3/8"
Gauge 1.1 mm
Drive links 50
"Chain 18" Micro chisel, .325", 1.3 mm, 72 Drive Links"
CHO - Generic Unpacked chain
Pitch .325"
Gauge 1.3 mm
Drive links 72
"Chain 20" chisel, 3/8", 1.5 mm, 72 Drive Links"
CHO - Generic Unpacked chain
Pitch 3/8"
Gauge 1.5 mm
Drive links 72