While gas-powered tools are the traditional choice for outdoor construction and landscaping work, several manufacturers have developed cordless outdoor power equipment (OPE) powered by large 36-volt battery packs. In fact, thanks to environmental concerns and high fuel costs in the EU, cordless string trimmers, hedge trimmers, leaf blowers, and even small lawnmowers are now the norm in much of Scandinavia and other European countries, and are making their way to the US market. These tools are admittedly more at home around the yard than the job site, but deck builders and other contractors who work with thick lumber and timber ought to check out the latest generation of cordless chain saws.
Electric chain saws are more expensive and less powerful than comparable small gas saws, but they offer a number of advantages. Two-stroke engines can be temperamental if not run regularly. Gas has a short storage life too; a gas chainsaw left sitting too long usually becomes difficult to start, while the E10 gas/ethanol mixture commonly available at the pumps plays havoc with fuel lines and carburetors. With a cordless chain saw, there’s no small engine maintenance, no tune-ups, no additional fuel expenses or the need to mix up and carry two-stroke gas on the truck, no noxious exhaust fumes, and a lot less noise.
I’ve tested all of the major brands of 36-volt cordless chainsaws available in the U.S. over the last three years, including Makita’s HCU02C1 (see PDB, March 2014), and found that the saw with the best overall performance is Stihl’s MSA160C-BQ. It cuts notably faster and runs longer than competitive cordless models—about twice as long in dry wood and three times longer in green wood. This performance (and the tool’s commensurate cost) is due mainly to three high-end features: an energy-dense 4.5 amp-hour battery pack, a high-efficiency brushless motor, and a thin-kerf bar and chain design that removes less material per cut. The Stihl model also has superior balance and a rear-handle design that keeps your force right in line with the bar for the most control and the least amount of fatigue. While it’s not as easy to use up in a tree as the top-handle Makita saw, which is easily my second favorite cordless chain saw, it’s ideally suited for cutting thick lumber and beams, landscape timbers, and poles and posts for decks, docks, barns, and fences.
The tooth design of a chain saw is best suited for cutting green (wet) wood, but will cut dried lumber just fine, though the cuts will be a little rougher. With its rigid guide bar and fast-cutting chain, a chain saw is more accurate and much faster to use on wide crosscuts than a reciprocating saw fitted with a long blade. The whip and wiggle of a flexible recip saw blade means that it can drift in a deep cut and you never know exactly where it’s going to come out on the far side. But a chain saw cuts stiff and straight for results more like that of a circular saw. In fact, with a little practice, a chain saw could be your go-to tool for anything too thick to cut through with your circular saw—no more cutting through all four faces of a 6x6 post and hoping the cuts line up in the center.