Bar and chain oil substitute: all “hows”

A chainsaw bar and chain oil substitute are a thing. But you can’t just take any random oil, put it in the bar oil tank, and hope for the better. Let me guide you through some of the most prominent options and their feature.

In the following text, I’ll try to cover every substance that bears at least some resemblance to the original bar oil, which of them can become a chainsaw bar oil alternative, and answer some related questions.

Tip. You can read my guide and learn more about Chainsaw chain direction.

And, believe me, or not, there’s much more to it than it may seem. You can use some vegetable oils, some technical fluids, and motor oils, but mind properties of each type.

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Bar and chain oil substitute: what is so special about original?

Similar to the rest of the mechanisms made of metal, every chainsaw’s guide bar and chain need lubrication. Respective lubricants prevent excessive wear of metal parts that occurs due to friction. But from this perspective, even a piece of lard slapped on the chain should do, shouldn’t it?

Actually, no. Every lubricant has different initial properties, as well as changes in properties due to temperature and physical loads. Each lubricant also has different properties of the film it forms on the surface.

Info-piece: Average chainsaw chain moves with a speed up to 60 mph, so proper lubrication is crucial. Or else, the lifetime of both shrinks down to a couple of seconds.

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Proper chainsaw oil properties

While composing branded bar oils, chainsaw manufacturers aim for both additional sources of income and to provide their products with the best performance. Because reputation matters for sales, etc.

Considering the conditions of use of a chain and bar oil, the best properties should be as follows:

  1. Tight adherence of the film to the surface.
  2. Proper oil viscosity to spread over needed surfaces.
  3. Stable viscosity in a wide range of temperatures (work-idle cycles, varying ambient conditions).
  4. Extended terms of proper storage.

Sustainability is still gaining attention, but some manufacturers already offer biodegradable oils for their chainsaws.

So, proper bar oil contains a base and several additives that provide all of the aforementioned properties. The closest substitutions have in their turn met those requirements only partially. So, let’s figure out if there is an actual need for a chainsaw bar oil substitute and what to go for.

Should you really go for a bar and chain oil substitute?

I won’t debate your personal decision, but truly unable to not speculate a bit on this one. So, there are three main reasons to decide to go for a chainsaw bar oil substitute:

  1. The urgent need for restrained conditions.
  2. Saving money on the cost of the actual bar oil.
  3. Environmental awareness.

One-time substitute oil

I see the first one as the most viable reason for using a bar oil substitute of sorts. You’re tight on the schedule, and the closest shop is miles away. Or tight on the budget, or just don’t feel like driving for another gallon. One-time use won’t damage the saw too badly. Just grab whatever vegetable oil you have at hand and go for it.

Saving money

The economy of using substitutes is debatable, as even the closest substitutes may cost less, but you’ll use more of them due to them being thinner.

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Going environmentally friendly

Continuous use of substitute oils due to environmental issues is possible, and even won’t harm the saw, but then again, considering the environmental impact while using a saw that runs on gas or even the electric one? Think how much of an impact production of those has.

Nevertheless, vegetable oil will be the best alternative bar oil substitute for such scenario.

Warranty issues

I realize that warranty void is not that much of an issue for many occasional and professional chainsaw operators. Nevertheless, the majority of manufacturers add respective paragraphs to their warranty agreements.

On the other hand, lubricating the bar with something else two or three times will leave no traces. Whereas continuous use of a chainsaw bar oil alternative can be pretty obvious on warranty inspections. So, this one is up for your consideration and circumstances. I see no reasons to worry if the saw is twenty years old and the warranty period ended long ago.

Sustainability and environment

Care towards local flora and fauna is one of the strongest selling points when it comes to picking substitute bar oil. The chain of a saw always spreads its bar oil all over the place, posing a potential danger to every creature or plant it contacts with.

Do not forget the potential threats to the operator, as some mineral oils produce fine particulate that can contaminate the lungs. But the actual amount of particulate is almost neglectable, so, I wouldn’t worry about whether there are no particular vulnerabilities or sensitivity.

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Anyway, most modern chainsaw manufacturers try to appeal to sustainability-oriented customers and offer biodegradable bar and chain oil. In my opinion, it is the best option in terms of safety and performance.

Tip. Furthermore, you can read more about Types of power saws.

What oil can I use instead of bar oil?

Now, let’s get to the thick of it. All possible bar oil substitutes fell into one of two categories: technical lubricants (motor oil mostly) or fluids for other purposes or natural oils. Both of those have more or less suitable representatives, and that is exactly what we are figuring out.

Safety tip: Never use used oils and fluids of any kind. Used motor oils, transmission, or hydraulic fluids may contain additives that will damage both the bar and chain. It is impossible (or not worth the effort) to filter all carbon particles, fine metal particles, or other contaminants from used oils and fluids.

Option #1: Canola oil

Canola oil is considered one of the best alternatives to the proper bar and chain oil. It has similar properties in terms of temperature range, and actually even outperforms some proper oils in colder regions and seasons. Valued for high accessibility and low price.

Canola oil is the #1 candidate for permanent use as a bar oil substitute. And mostly due to lesser environmental impact. It is a completely safe and biodegradable option.

Canola oil cost

But there’s one thing to mention when it comes to cost. Yes, in some states, canola oil is twice cheaper compared to proper bar oil. But it is much thinner and runnier, hence greater consumption. You’ll spend less on every gallon and will have to use more of it.

Advantages and drawbacks

The main advantages of canola oil as a substitute bar and chain oils are:

  1. Lower price.
  2. Exceptionally environmentally friendly.
  3. Great performance in low temperatures.
  4. Low odor and less clothing contamination.

While major drawbacks include:

  1. Greater consumption.
  2. Shorter expiration period.
  3. May attract pests.

All in all, canola oil seems to be a pretty viable bar oil substitute for a chainsaw guide bar.

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Option #2: Vegetable oil

Various other kinds of vegetable oil (olive oil, sunflower oil, mixed ones) have similar properties too. But other vegetable oils don’t have all of the canola oil advantages. Soybean oil as a type of vegetable oil is a bit thicker; olive oil is thinner and costs more while sunflower has similar viscosity, but doesn’t perform as well when it is cold.

In general, vegetable oil is great for cutting everything meant for food, whether be it a moose carcass or a bale of hay for cows.

Vegetable oil shares advantages and disadvantages with canola oil.

Pro tip: Do not use used vegetable oil. Even after filtration, it will remain contaminated with a lot of additives that may harm your chainsaw, clogging the bar and chain.

Linseed oil

Linseed oil is one of the worst imaginable chainsaw bar oil substitutes. It is pricy when it comes to the chainsaw levels of consumption. It dries to form a polymer film that will clog the bar guides.

And, lastly, it heats up while drying. Sawdust soaked with linseed oil is a major self-combustion hazard. Any other kinds of vegetable oils will be much better.

Bar and chain oil substitute
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Option #3: Motor oil

Using a certain type of motor oil as an alternative bar oil for a chainsaw seems quite a logical solution. Both products were made to work between rapidly moving parts in the presence of heat. But there are nuances.

First of all, fresh motor oil costs almost as much as some proper chain bar oil. And even if it is cheaper in a certain region, it will run out faster. On top of it all, there are no environmental benefits to using motor oil.

Motor oil advantages and drawbacks

Practical advantages of engine oil over proper chainsaw bar oil include:

  1. It may be cheaper.
  2. Leaves the bar cleaner.
  3. Motor oil film stays on longer.

Drawbacks seem to overcome advantages:

  1. A slight decrease in bar and chain resources.
  2. Thinner oil film.
  3. Greater consumption.
  4. No environmental benefits.
  5. Possible warranty void.

Motor oil, especially used, offers no benefits at the very least. Contaminated used oils may damage the drive link, chain oil pump, bar, and chain. I can see motor oil only as a one-time solution in a bind.

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Option #4: Hydraulic oil

Hydraulic oil isn’t a lubricant. Yes, it contains some oil, but it is meant to work under high pressure, not to lubricate fast-moving friction points. Hydraulic fluid is much runnier than average chainsaw bar oil, so it will escape the bar at a higher rate.

Hydraulic oil also has no environmental benefits. If anything, your saw will spread it all over the place.

The economic benefits of using hydraulic fluid instead of proper chainsaw bar oil are debatable. Especially with potential chainsaw damage and greater consumption.

Hydraulic fluid advantages and drawbacks

Hydraulic fluid can have only one potential advantage, it is an acceptable chainsaw bar oil substitute in tight situations. All of the drawbacks mentioned above exclude hydraulic fluid as a candidate for permanent use.

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Option #5: Transmission fluids

Transmission fluids may seem to be a good substitute oil for chainsaw bars and chains oil. But they share many drawbacks with hydraulic fluid. Mainly, insufficient viscosity. A significant amount of transmission fluid will leave the bar and end up on all of the surrounding surfaces.

Moreover, fine drops that will form while the fluid escapes the bar and chain may end up in the operator’s lungs. It is a real concern.

Transmission fluid for diluting

Diluting actual bar and chain oil with transmission fluid make no sense too because it will make the original chain oil thinner and increase the consumption.

Option #6: Biodegradable chainsaw bar oil

Biodegradable bar oils are the optimal option by far. At least, for those who are concerned with environmental impact. Being based on processed vegetable oils, they combine all the needed properties of actual chainsaw bar oil with some sustainability.

On the other hand, manufacturers are only starting to offer such options and such chain oils are harder to obtain and cost more. But it is only a matter of time before customers’ interest in natural oil-based lubricants gains deserved spread.

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Option #7: Everything else that may seem suitable

Two-stroke traditional motor oil, coconut oil, peanut oil, power steering fluids (which are essentially hydraulic fluids), and many other substances that may seem suitable for your chainsaw bars and chains lubrication are more harmful than useful.

Go for natural vegetable oils (canola oil or even olive oil) for both permanent and one-time use if there’s an actual need for chainsaw bar oil substitutes.

Tip. Also, you can read more about How to join two pieces of wood at 90 degrees.

Additional chainsaw maintenance tips

  • avoid running the chainsaw with no bar lubricant as it may damage the bar itself, the chain, and even the engine;
  • avoid mixing different lubricants, as it has no practical advantages;
  • refrain from using drained motor oil or other fluids as they may have both mechanical and chemical contaminants;
  • always keep an eye on the chainsaw bar oil level while topping up the fuel tank.

Q&A bit

Here are the answers to the most relevant questions.

Can I use 10W30 instead of bar and chain oil?

Yes. The range of suitable oils marked by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) spans from SAE 10 to SAE 30. Every engine oil with marking of 10W**, 20W**, and 30W** will suffice. Those markings represent the viscosity of the respective product in hot and cold engines.

Can I use motor oil instead of bar and chain oil?

Yes, but there are nuances. It is the best option for one-time use in a bind. Regular use of motor oil as a substitute for proper chainsaw bar and chain oil has no actual benefits. Avoid using used motor oil.

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How much bar and chain oil should I put in my chainsaw?

Most of the chainsaws have dedicated bar oil tanks. Just refill them on time to not let the chain run dry. There’s no need to fill the tank to the brim with chainsaw oil, leave a bit of space to promote the flow.

How long does chainsaw bar oil stay good in storage?

Every kind of bar oil has its expiration term. You can refer to the packaging of your product. Usually, manufacturers put a year after opening the packaging. The usual safe storage time for chainsaw bar oil in intact packaging is around three years.

Keep in mind that biodegradable bar oils are based on natural sustainable oils, so they will have shorter expiration terms.

Tip. See my tips on How to cut a square hole in wood.

Wrapping it up

So, all things considered, there is a good chainsaw bar substitute. But the main reason to go for it is to decrease the environmental impact.

Actual saving on fresh products is almost neglectable on the grand scale, while using used motor oil or other technical fluids may cost you even more in maintenance and repairs.

The best way to define your personal preferences is to try every available option and make your own decisions. Or don’t follow the gut and choose affordable and easy-to-obtain canola oil. Or stick to the original bar oil like yours truly.

Tip. Get more useful information about the 10 Best sanders in 2024.

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