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Forest clearing saw versus chainsaw.

by James P. Engel, © 2012

People might claim I was born with a chainsaw in my hands.  I have used a chainsaw all of my adult life. I bought my first saw in my early 20’s when I cut firewood on shares to make some extra money. A couple of years later at age 24 I bought 38 acres of forest land; a chainsaw was crucial for nearly everything I did on the property from building a log lean-to, to clearing a building site, and managing the woodlot.

A chainsaw is the tool of choice for anyone working in the woods. A good quality chainsaw is a versatile piece of equipment that can pretty much do all the jobs you need to do in the woods: fell trees, limb, buck logs to length, cut up firewood. As with any task having the right piece of equipment can mean the difference between doing a job easily, safely and efficiently compared to taking longer, working harder and maybe less safely. 

In recent years I became involved in controlling several species of invasive brush for hire. I used the cut stump treatment method to control the invasive brush, which included European buckthorn, autumn olive, tartarian honeysuckle and oriental bittersweet plus a few others. The cut stump treatment requires cutting the stem off at ground level and then treating the cut surface with a herbicide to prevent resprouting of the root system. As I was so familiar with it and I couldn’t think of any other more efficient tool to use, I naturally picked up the chain saw.  For the most part the chain saw worked well for this purpose but I often had to cut my way through tangles of dense brush and force my way through numerous branches to reach the base of a broad multi-stemmed honeysuckle or autumn olive. I donated a lot of blood to rose thorns and buckthorn spines, to get close enough to the trunk to cut it off. During the summer months I would be dripping wet from the exertion of fighting the brush. More times than I want to think about I would get slapped, poked and whipped from a slender branch that was too soft and flexible to be cut by the chain but would instead be grabbed and cracked like a whip against some exposed body part.  A chainsaw was just not designed to cut these slender multiple stemmed plants but there was nothing better to use other than hand tools which was just too slow and laborious.

My liberation from flogging came when I had the opportunity to use a forest clearing saw.  That first time I operated a clearing saw I recognized immediately that it was designed to do all of the tasks that a chainsaw could not and some tasks that a chainsaw does well but the clearing saw does so much faster.  Whereas a chainsaw is very good at felling larger diameter stems and cutting a large volume of wood in a short amount of time, it has its shortcomings in other forest management activities such as thinning small diameter saplings, clearing undesirable brush, or controlling beech sprouts.  For these tasks a forest clearing saw out performs a chain saw hands down.  A chain saw does not even come close to competing with a clearing saw when it comes to cutting large numbers of small diameter stems.

Soon after my introduction to the forest clearing saw I did some research and comparison shopping and purchased my first saw. Since acquiring my new big boy toy I barely have touched my chainsaw except to cut up some large limbs for firewood.  I must admit I had held an undeserved prejudice against the clearing saw; In my ignorance I viewed it as not much more than a glorified weed eater capable of cutting only perennial weeds and the smallest woody stems.  Boy was I mistaken!

Three things make a clearing saw superior to a chain saw for cutting small to medium sized stems at ground level.  The operator works standing upright while cutting at ground level, the weight of the saw is supported by the operators body not the arms and the circular saw blade cuts faster and more efficiently than a saw chain.

The design of the clearing saw makes it operator friendly, easy to use and safer to operate compared to a chainsaw. The weight of the clearing saw is supported by an ergonomic harness that includes a shoulder harness and waist belt that distributes the weight of the machine over the operator’s body. This reduces fatigue of the arms and back from holding and lifting a chain saw and constantly bending over.  The four foot long shaft and the angled circular blade that is parallel with the ground allows the operator to cut stems flush to the ground while standing in a natural upright stance. A person can work all day in this position with little effort or fatigue.  That certainly wouldn’t be the case if using a chainsaw all day.  Only a slight shift of the body and movement of the handle is necessary to cut each stem and then a quick step or two to the next stem and then on to the next one.  With the harness, the adjustable handle bar and thumb throttle, one has very precise control and maneuverability of the blade which allows accurate cutting of the target stems without accidentally cutting adjacent stems or hitting rocks and other obstructions.

The long shaft of the clearing saw enables one to reach into a thicket of branches or a rose bush to cut the stem close to the ground without having to fight through all of the branches.  The reach of the blade keeps the operator out of harm’s way from rose thorns, honeysuckle branches and autumn olive spines. This is very important when dealing with many types of invasive plants that have dense branches, sharp thorns or spines, as there is no other practical way of quickly and efficiently cutting these plants.

I find the clearing saw is far safer to operate than a chainsaw. With the blade located at the end of the shaft and the saw supported by the body harness, the blade is kept out of reach of the operator’s extremities. Even kickback from the blade, which occurs fairly regularly when cutting multiple stems, is easily controlled and harmlessly deflected away from the operator by the harness.

The clearing saw achieves greater efficiency compared to the chainsaw by using a circular blade instead of a saw chain.    The clearing saw is equipped with a 9” diameter, 24 tooth, circular blade that can spin between 2,800 rpm idle speed and up to 10,000 rpm at working speed.   The high number of cutting teeth and high rpm, plus a thinner saw kerf enables the blade to cut rapidly through wood, especially smaller diameter stems ranging from 1” to 4” in diameter. Small diameter stems tend to have softer wood than large diameter trunks and most fast growing invasive species also have soft woody tissues, which facilitates rapid cutting. The small wood chip each tooth produces allows the blade to cut through even very small stems cleanly without the blade catching or the stem being bent or whipped back at the operator.  This doesn’t happen with a conventional chainsaw.

The forest clearing saw definitely has a place for the land owner in managing their property. There are three jobs where I can see a landowner using a clearing saw for that purpose.  The first and maybe the most important task in maintaining a biologically healthy property is to control the full range of woody invasive shrubs and small trees that populate your property or inevitably will invade your property. The clearing saw will make short work of these invasive plants.  Once all of the larger plants are cut and treated then it takes very little time and effort to keep your property free of new invasives and to treat any remaining seedlings, as they grow larger.  From personal experience it initially takes between 4 and 8 hours using the clearing saw to treat each acre of land depending on the density of stems.

The next two tasks are very similar to the first except for the difference in the species being controlled. They are selectively thinning tree saplings and removing less valuable species in the woodlot and controlling beech sprouts. Both jobs require selectively cutting many small to medium sized woody stems. The physical activity involved in each operation is identical but the distinction between the two occurs when the operator makes the critical management decision regarding which stems to cut and which species to save or remove.

I suggest if you have never used a forest clearing saw before, that you take the opportunity to try one out. I think you will discover, like I did, that you will fall in love with the machine and will want one of your own. If you are managing a property of a few acres or more you will discover that a forest clearing saw will make your life so much easier.   It will allow you to perform certain tasks so much faster and with less effort than you could ever do with a chainsaw. The only risk involved is that you might never touch your faithful chainsaw again.

Jim Engel operates White Oak Nursery, a native tree and shrub nursery, and is actively involved in all aspects of habitat restoration.

this page updated Jan 20, 2012