Winter is full of creaking trees and crackling fires, which are reasonable enough excuses to buy a chainsaw. You'll want a reasonable excuse, because it's passé to admit that these things are a shocking amount of dangerous fun.
Consider the chainsaw for a moment. It burns liquid dinosaurs in a metal block and uses that to power a bladed motorcycle chain that can chew through anything this side of solid rock. It (usually) has a two-stroke motor, and everything that runs on a two-stroke motor is a toy. Dirt bikes, outboard boat engines, go-karts, and snowmobiles are all two-stroke. So are lawn mowers, which are still toys, just boring.
As a grown man, nobody can stop you from buying one of these awesome machines, but you should learn to use it. You'd hate to end up in the hospital with your foot cut off explaining to your wife or father how "I was doing fine" until "I don't know what happened." You'd die of shame. Or blood loss.
Let's get you up to speed.
How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?
Selecting a chainsaw to buy can be stressful and research-intensive. Or, you can just walk into Lowe's and ask. You'll probably get the same saw, or wouldn't know the difference. You don't want an electric—they're more Smart Car than Tesla and will run out of juice exactly when you need them. Nor would I recommend a pole saw to anyone but topiary sculptors and/or sculptresses.
No, you want a gas saw, with a bar around 15 to 20 inches. Your brand is up to you: If you like Timbersports on ESPN, a Stihl should work just fine, or Cub Cadet if you like double diminutives. For my money, and since they made my grandfather's deer rifle, I like a good Husqvarna, like this one. For less that $300, you can get a saw that weighs under 10 pounds and that people find generally endearing at a store near you, and that's what matters.
Should I Chainsaw That?
Since only maniacs use chainsaws strictly for pleasure, we're going to assume you're cutting wood. This is wise. Cutting wood—dismemberment aside—is what chainsaws do best.
The first thing is to make sure you're cutting only wood, without nails or dirt or too much rot. Those can blunt your saw or cause kickback, which is dangerous. A nail once whipped my saw chain off the bar and into my shin. Other than being metal as hell, the experience was unpleasant and should be avoided.
You'll also want to avoid precariously hanging trees and limbs, anything much thicker around than a car tire, or situations where you'll be off balance. For those, call your handy brother-in-law and stick to stuff more your speed.
Fire It Up
Step two is turning your chainsaw from a menacing stationary object into a whirring frenzy of death. First, prime the motor. You should see what looks like a tiny breast; squeeze it a couple of times as foreplay. Next, pull the choke tab open, increasing your dinosaur-to-air ratio for smooth starting. There might also be an on-off switch somewhere. Going out on a limb, I recommend you set it to "On".
Now, grab the pull-cord with your dominant hand, the saw with the other, and yank like hell. Most do this on the ground; lunatics and lumberjacks do it with the saw wedged in their crotch. You do it on the ground.
Once the motor is idling smoothly, push in the choke, grab the handle, and goose the trigger. You should hear the engine rev and see the blade spin. If you find yourself making chainsaw noises with your mouth while you do this—that's okay. Nobody shit-talks a guy with a chainsaw.
Tips on Not Dying
Wow, we probably should have covered safety first. If you've survived this long, congratulations.
Things that get caught or pulled into chainsaw chains are most often destroyed. Long hair, loose clothing, and friendship bracelets are attached to you. Figure it out.
Equipment is also important. Some advocate for a face shield and full protective clothing; I've been able to get by with jeans, leather gloves, work glasses, and ear protection, but your desire to don jousting armor depends on your personal risk tolerance.
The most dangerous things are pinching and kickback. Pinching is when the saw gets trapped by the two sides of the wood you're cutting: Turn off the saw and try to relieve pressure with wood blocks or a crowbar. If not, you'll have to buy a second chainsaw to cut it out. It's chainsaws all the way down.
Kickback is when the tip of the blade catches on something—a nail, a knot, a Keebler Elf—and the force of the spinning blade kicks the saw back up towards the operator's face. This can cause some pretty scary near-misses, so try to keep your head away offset from the bar's vertical path; use both hands; and Jesus, pay attention.
Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!
At this point, the only thing standing between you and Victory Beer is the cutting. According to experts, this falls into four categories: trimming, limbing, bucking, and felling. Trimming takes off a standing tree's limbs, felling cuts it down, limbing takes off a felled tree's limbs, and bucking chops it into pieces. If the tree begins screaming at any point, STOP. You are cutting into a person.
Trimming is difficult in proportion to the size and height of the limb. If it's as big around as your chest and hanging 30 feet over your nursery, call a pro. Smaller stuff you'll want to section from the outside in; cut from the top, and don't be leaning on it. (Squeamish editor's note: This guy doesn't die or anything.)
Limbing is trimming, but on the ground. Make sure the tree isn't resting on a particular limb when you cut it, and make sure you're not straddling the saw with slick boots if you enjoy having testicles.
Bucking is when you carve your turkey. Get your tree off the dirt with smaller limbs or a forklift and start cutting. Alternate sides so it doesn't tip, and stop once you've got fireplace-length chunks. Kid stuff.
Felling is where fear and science come together. On paper, it's easy. Make a cut about a quarter of a way through the tree on the side towards where you want it to fall, preferably with its natural lean. Then, make a second cut down towards the first at about a 60-degree angle until an orange-slice-shaped notch comes out. Next, go to the opposite side and start cutting in a few inches above your first cut. Go slowly, and when she starts to fall, mosey. Always walk away at a right angle: the tree's momentum can cause the bottom to jump backwards, hitting you like a meteor. The tree can also twist, falling away from your intended direction and onto the car you've just paid off. Give the tree a lot of leeway or call a pro. There are a lot of tree-felling fail videos, and only one of these miracles.
A Minute to Learn, and So Forth
Those are the training wheels. The rest is basic maintenance and hard-earned wisdom. Lube and grease to your manual's instructions. Don't use regular gas. Buy a file to sharpen the blades. The top of your leg is meat, the bottom is veins, so mishap accordingly. The tree deserved it.
Samuel Wadhams grew up hard in Vermont and now grows soft in New York. He is not an expert on chainsaws, or, for that matter, anything. Occasionally, he tweets here.
Illustration by Sam Woolley.
Adequate Man is Deadspin's new self-improvement blog, dedicated to making you just good enough at everything. Suggestions for future topics are welcome below.