Photos by Rick Keller (Product Photos by Manufacturers)
Cordless power tools are improving in leaps and bounds, and they're no longer just for drills. We checked out everyone's favourite outdoor power tool – the chainsaw – just in time for the autumn cleanup across Canada. To level the playing field we tried to stick with 36V or 40V units, with bar lengths between 10" and 15".
With cordless technology improving greatly over the past few years, and manufacturers offering more and more battery-powered products, there are lots of cordless chainsaw choices on the market today. The chainsaws I looked at for this article are aimed at replacing traditional small gas saws in the 30cc size range, and after giving them a try I think they can certainly do that.
Like their gas cousins, these saws look and feel very similar in the hand. Controls and operator stance are the same. Another common thing that these saws all have is an automatic bar oiler. Chainsaw chains need oil to lubricate their travel along the guide bar, and automatic oilers have long been standard equipment on almost all gas-powered saws. These saws have the same feature, and all the saws I looked at had a nice translucent window into the tank so you could see how much oil is left. This is important because you don’t want to run your chain dry. On a gas saw you usually fill up whenever you fill the gas tank, but on these saws the oiler probably won’t run out at the same time as the battery, so being able to see the oil level is important.
One thing that not all these saws have is a chain brake. Chain brakes are pretty typical on gas saws. The Ryobi and the Black & Decker saws didn’t have a chain brake, and this surprised me. This is an option that all the higher-priced saws had. Brake or not, don’t let the batteries fool you. These saws are as sharp and powerful as small gas saws, so they can hurt you if you don’t respect them. Use them with care.
$599.95 – (Includes chainsaw, charger, two batteries)
The Makita saw handled nicely and had good balance. There were a few features on the Makita that I really liked. I liked the tool-free tension adjustment for the chain. I also liked the “start” button. When you first pop the batteries on the Makita, it will not run until you press the “start” button. I also found that if you set the saw down for a few minutes you have to press the button again to get the saw to go. I like this safety feature because it prevents accidental use. Cordless chainsaws are not nearly as benign as most other cordless tools are. Basically, these saws have the same kind of power as small gas saws, which means they need to be treated with respect.
The Makita uses a brushless motor to power up the saw. It also features what Makita calls XPT or Extreme Protection Technology. XPT is something that Makita includes on their higher-end tools, which is extra protection built into the critical components of a tool to seal out moisture and dirt. This is a great feature for an outdoor tool.
For cutting power, I found the Makita, Husqvarna, and Stihl saws very similar in power, only slightly behind the DeWalt saw. Switching between the four saws it was hard to perceive much difference in power. The Makita saw cross-cut my posts quickly, with no noticeable slow down in chain speed. When I plunged the bar in full length, I noticed that the chain speed dropped slightly, but the saw was still able to cruise through the wood with no major bogging or stopping, and at a decent speed.
$229.00 – (Includes chainsaw, one battery, one charger)
One thing I noticed right away when I started using the Black & Decker saw was the chain speed. It is much slower than all the other saws. It made a noticeable difference when cutting. I found that the Black & Decker saw cross-cut the posts significantly slower than the other saws, and I also had to be careful not to apply too much pressure while cutting, or the motor would start to bog down. I also found that the saw vibrated and bounced around a lot when cutting. When I tried to cut with the full length of the bar, I could stall the motor if I applied any pressure on the saw. I was able to cut all the way through the 4×4 like this, but it did take some time. The B&D saw is best for smaller branches.
One thing that I did like on the Black & Decker saw was the oil fill cap. It was located up on top of the saw, rather than the side like the other saws. This means you don’t have to lay the saw on its side to fill it up. The B&D saw also has a tool-free chain tensioner, with instructions printed on the side of the machine. Unlike a circular saw blade, which has a hard body and stays the same size forever, chainsaw chains can stretch. This is usually due to wear in the rivets between all the links. Because of this, you need to check chain tension often, so it’s good to know how to do it properly and be able to do it quickly and easily.
$298.00 – (Includes chainsaw, one battery, one charger)
The Ryobi saw was not as powerful as the Makita, DeWalt, Husqvarna and Stihl saws, but it still had a decent amount of power, and enough to do the job. The Ryobi saw has a noticeable soft start – it takes the chain a few seconds to get up to speed. The cutting action was smooth and fast enough for general yard cleanup. The Ryobi saw did bog a bit when cross-cutting the 4×4 and when cutting the full length of the bar, but with moderate pressure it could still make it through the post with no problems.
The Ryobi uses a wrench to adjust the chain tension, but the wrench is at least stored on board under the rear handle for convenient access. The Ryobi saw I tested came with a 1.5Ah battery, though larger batteries are available. I made 10-12 cuts with the 1.5Ah battery, and the gauge hadn’t yet moved down a light, so it was still at least 75% charged. Overall I liked the feel of the Ryobi. As I said before, it isn’t as powerful as other saws, but I think for the price it would be a good choice for a homeowner looking to buy a cordless unit without spending a ton of money. If your needs are to only make a few cuts here and there for pruning, then the small battery won’t be an issue for you.
Husqvarna 536Li XP
$519.99 – (Includes one battery, one charger)
I liked the feel of the Husqvarna saw when I picked it up, as it feels like a professional-level product. I also liked the “start” button, which the Makita saw also had. One additional thing the Husqvarna saw had on the control panel that the other saws did not, was a red light to tell you when the chain brake was on. The DeWalt, Makita, and Stihl saws all stopped when the brake was on, but if you pull the trigger and wonder why nothing happens, it’s up to you to guess that the issue might be the brake.
I found the Husqvarna to be comparable to the Makita and the Stihl for power, cross-cutting with ease and only slowing down slightly while cutting the full length of the bar. I also liked that the Husqvarna came with a massive 9.36Ah battery. Even with this battery, it was tied with the Makita for weight and still slightly lighter than the DeWalt saw.
$449.00 – (Includes saw, one battery, one charger)
The Stihl saw had a number of good points. One thing I noticed right away was the weight. At 8lb with battery, this saw was very light, with the Black and Decker saw being the only saw lighter. The Stihl saw had a fast chain speed and cut very smooth and quick. One thing I noticed was that Stihl uses a smaller profile of chain than the other saws, but this didn’t seem to cause any problems. This saw cut as fast as the other saws did, and very smoothly. I also found that the Stihl had no problems cutting the full length of the bar, experiencing only slight chain speed reduction when chewing on all that wood.
$499.00 – (Includes chainsaw, one battery, one charger)
The DeWalt saw had a couple of features that put it ahead of the competition. The DeWalt had the longest usable bar length of all the saws I tested, at 15″. A funny little quirk of the chainsaw world is that the stated bar length often includes a few inches inside the machine that you can’t actually cut with. The DeWalt saw also had the most power when the bar was plunged full length into the wood. Even with heavy pressure on the tool, I couldn’t perceive any slow down in the chain speed.
One downside of the DeWalt saw is that it is a bit on the heavy side, even compared to gas models of similar power, which are usually in the 8–10lb range. At just under 12lbs, it was still quite manageable and maneuverable though.
To test out these saws I made a series of test cuts in my fence. Well, not my fence, but what used to be my fence. My fence came down in a windstorm, so I used the old 4×4 fence posts to simulate cuts with the saws. All the saws cross-cut with ease, so for small pruning and limbing, all these saws will do a nice job. But to really test the power of these saws, I made some cuts with the grain, burying the full length of the bar into the wood. This is a bit of a challenge, even for some gas saws to cut with the entire bar engaged in the work, and this test separated the weak from the strong.
One major difference between batteries and gas is the way you refill the tank when it gets empty. Traditional gas saws are easy to refill with gas and restart once they have been running, although gas chainsaws usually have the reputation of being difficult to start if they have been stored for a while. Battery saws are as easy as your cordless drill to start; just pop a battery in, press a “start” button (on some saws), pull the trigger, and start cutting. However, when the battery dies, you have to wait for a recharge, which can be anywhere from 45 minutes to a few hours. Some of these saws came with bigger batteries than others, but all the saws have optional extra batteries available for purchase if you plan to do a lot of cutting. Cordless chainsaws also have the advantage of being able to use them indoors, unlike gas saws. This opens up their use to rough cutting timber in the shop, demolition work, and even carving.
One test I didn’t do with these saws was a runtime test. I tried each saw to compare its power and capabilities, but for a couple of reasons I felt a runtime test wasn’t a fair comparison. Every battery has two ratings, voltage (V) and capacity, expressed in ampere hours (Ah) or watt hours (Wh). Each saw comes with a different capacity battery (Ah or Wh), even though all the saws are very close in voltage (36-40V). These capacity numbers give a fair and easy comparison between the relative runtime of one battery compared to another. For example, the DeWalt saw comes with a 4Ah battery, while the Husqvarna had a 9.36Ah battery. Given identical running conditions, the Husqvarna battery should run just over twice as long as the DeWalt. The critical thing to remember is “given identical running conditions.” Rarely are two branches the exact same size, nor does a chain retain its original sharpness forever. Dull chains and hard wood will work your battery harder than cutting softer wood with a sharp chain. Also, pretty much all the different manufacturers offer different capacity (Ah or Wh) batteries you can purchase if you need more runtime. All the saws came with one battery and a charger, except for the Makita chainsaw, which includes two batteries.
I was very impressed with a number of the saws I tested, and that makes it hard to choose a top tool for this article. Often there are competing perspectives that make one tool ideal for one user, but the last thing a different user should choose. In the world of chainsaws, manufacturers such as Stihl and Husqvarna make gas saws in literally dozens of different sizes and configurations, illustrating how there is not one saw that is perfect for every application. Within the saws I tested for this article, I liked the DeWalt, Husqvarna, Stihl and Makita saws and was very impressed with their capabilities. I don’t think that you would be disappointed with purchasing any of these saws. As I considered the awards for “Best Professional” and “Best Overall” a few ideas went through my mind. For professional use there are two main applications of a chainsaw, either cutting down trees or pruning trees. Arborists usually like compact and lightweight saws that they can climb with, while loggers usually like powerful saws with big long bars. However, professional could also include a renovator or contractor, and many of these people use chainsaws for demolition and rough-cutting big beams and floor joists.
This led me to choose the DeWalt saw as the “Best Professional” saw. While it’s not really big enough to cut down large trees, the DeWalt saw had the longest usable bar, and the most power, and this would make it suitable to cut down smaller trees, cut firewood, or for use in renovations and demolition.
For “Best Overall” I chose the Stihl saw. The Stihl saw actually had the shortest usable bar of all the saws I looked at, but its size is an advantage for a number of jobs. For pruning, you typically are only cutting branches 1–4″ with the occasional branch that’s bigger. The Stihl saw can cut 10″, and its compact frame and light weight make it ideal for manoeuvring in amongst brush and branches where you don’t have a lot of space to work.
For “Best Amateur” I picked the Ryobi. Ryobi offers a modest price point on the saw, but it still has a decent amount of power. My main concern with this saw is the 1.5Ah battery, but if your plans are to only make a few cuts occasionally, then this really should not be an issue.
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