A closer look at your chainsaw chain direction

Only the correct chainsaw chain direction allows the proper cutting. At least, that’s the basic idea. In reality, there are, as always, some important nuances. Let me explain it in a little more detail. There’s nothing too complicated, as there’s only one direction right out of two.

So, in the following text, you’ll find some info on the basic design features of a chainsaw chain, its right and wrong direction, and why you should always put it on the right way. Because using a chainsaw is fun only when it works as it should.

Pro-tip: Safety first! Especially when it comes to operating power tools. A poorly maintained chainsaw is a source of sufficient danger, including chopped limbs and severe cuts. That’s why you’ll have to bear with me through the theoretical part of this article. Furthermore, you can read more about best 3 tips for apartment woodworking here.

Chainsaw chain basics

You’ll need to start at the beginning to be able to tell if the chainsaw chain runs in the right direction from first glance. So let’s take a quick dabble at the theory behind it all. It wouldn’t be a comprehensive guide, but you’ll get the bare needed minimum to set your chainsaw direction right.

Chainsaw chain default design features

Fun fact: saw chains appeared earlier than chainsaws and mostly had an application in surgery. Mass production of chainsaws had begun some 100 years ago. But chainsaw direction has always mattered.

Since that time, there was only one major change, when so-called “scratcher” chains were substituted by the ones with the modern arrangement of teeth.

Either way, there’s only one way to properly install, maintain and use any chainsaw chain. And those rules weren’t invented to interrupt the cutting process, but rather to make it faster, easier, and safer.

Chainsaw chain direction
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Scratcher and chipper teeth

Scratcher teeth are the older ones and are almost out of use as of now. They are just sharp straight plates mounted within a link. Such chains are not productive enough and hard to operate.

Chipper teeth are a little more complicated. They have two plates (vertical and horizontal) that protrude above the saw chain itself and form a cutting edge similar to a small chisel. It is the common configuration for all modern chains.

Design of a link

There are two types of links in a chain. The first has a cutter/tooth/blade and is called respectively. The other one has a sort of hook that engages with the sprocket of a saw. The cutters, both left-hand and right-hand, as well as the guard, protrude to the outside of a chain loop.

The drive links protrude inside the loop and fit into the grooves of a guide bar, providing stable chain motion. The links and their parts are connected by pins and tie straps. Left and right cutters usually follow each other.

Pro-tip: If there are any doubts regarding the length of a chain, you can just count the number of links as most of them has standard dimensions. In addition, the required length is usually marked on the chain bar of the chainsaw and in its manual.

Teeth arrangement

Teeth arrangement is just the order of drive links and cutters on a chain. Opposite-direction cutters are always following each other, being separated by drive links. The manner of variation of drive links defines the chain arrangement:

  1. Cutters are divided by one drive link (full complement arrangement).
  2. Cutters are divided by two drive links (skip chain arrangement).
  3. One or two drive links between each pair of cutters (semi-skip chain arrangement).

Manufacturers pick the chain arrangement regarding the application, and power of a motor of a given model of chainsaw. It’s important to pick a chain with the same configuration for a replacement.

How chainsaw chain supposed to work

The vast majority of handheld customer-grade chainsaws (both gas-powered and electric) will have the following kinds of mechanics:

  1. The chain receives propulsion by engaging with the clutch sprocket.
  2. The guide bar along with the tension mechanism provides needed tension.
  3. The grooves of the guide bar prevent sideways movement of the chain by holding the chain links guides.

The sprocket and the chain bar are the main parts of a chainsaw that are engaging with the chain. And they will do the job even if the chain is installed in the wrong direction. At least, until you put it against a log.

Chainsaw chain direction
Image source: https://canva.com

Types of chainsaw chains

Modern chains differ by the presence, amount, and configuration of safety elements on drive links, as well as the shape of cutting parts. There are different chains for operators with different levels of skills.

Pro-tip: Some chains have numbers stamped on their drive links. Those numbers mark the type of chain within a given manufacturer range. You can refer to them and their respective guide to pick the correct replacement chain.

Pro and semi-pro chains

Chains of this kind are also called “full chisel”. They have no safety guards on their drive links and square cutting tips (sharp angle between the top and the side plates). This type of chain is sensitive to dirt and has a higher kickback risk. In return, such chains provide clean and fast cuts once mastered.

Consumer grade chains

These are also called “low-profile” chains, as they have guard plates in their drive links. Such construction limits the depth of bite. They are much safer and work well with dirt, but they become dull faster.

Universal chains

Universal or semi-chisel chains have a radius instead of an angle at the point of meeting the side and the top plates of a chainsaw blade. It is the universal type that is used for the majority of applications.

Right direction of a chainsaw chain

There’s only one right chain direction for a chainsaw chain to run. If the chain is installed in the right direction, then the cutting sides of the teeth move away from the engine block and the operator. The reasons for this are as follows:

  1. It is the only possible way for the cutters to bite into the wood.
  2. It is safe for the operator, especially if the chainsaw direction while working is right.
  3. The sawdust and chipped bits of wood fly away or downwards instead of shooting right in the face.

So, the easiest way to determine whether the chain is installed in the right direction is to take a look at the tips of cutting teeth. If the chainsaw blade direction is right, it is slightly slanted towards the motor and the highest point is facing away from it (if there is a slant at all). The depth gauge should be in front of a chainsaw blade in such a position.

Chainsaw chain direction
Image source: https://canva.com

Are there any other ways to check the saw chain direction?

In fact, there is. Many manufacturers put a little diagram on the guide bars of their saws. Due to wear and tear, such diagrams tend to get scraped away.

If the saw was maintained properly, then chances are its chain bar is flipped, so the diagram won’t be accurate and will show the wrong direction. Go for the manual if there are any doubts, and there is access to one.

Note: Due to the nature of the chain loop, chainsaw blade direction on the lower part of the chain is opposite the one on the top part.

Why does chainsaw chain direction matter?

First and foremost, it just won’t cut. If the chain direction is wrong, the actual cutting edges won’t dig into the wood. The teeth will face the wrong direction and just slide on the surface of the log instead of cutting. In addition, using a chainsaw with a backward chain harms both your nervous system (via frustration, not directly) and the saw, too:

  • increased sprocket wear;
  • damage to the drive links, which equals a broken chain;
  • possible engine pistons damage and overall overheating of moving parts.

If your saw isn’t cutting, try not to force it to do so. It would be way better to try to find out the reason for poor cutting. Or you will waste bar oil, damage its parts, and get frustrated.

If the cutting is bad even with the right direction of a chain, then the blades are just dull. Or the motor lost power or one of the other reasons. Those are the main reasons to install a chainsaw chain correctly.

A bit more detail on the installation of a chain the right way

Five simple steps are all it takes to put the chain in the proper blade direction. It is possible to do so even on the go, given you have all the needed tools at hand.

Take off the clutch cover

After that, there will be access to the sprocket and the guide bar mounting. Loosen the chain bar nut a bit to release the chain from the sprocket.

Take the chain off

The next step allows you to take the chain off the sprocket and the chainsaw bar. For convenience, remove the bar too.

Flip the chain over

Now you can just flip the chain and throw it onto the bar. Make sure it is running in the right direction, with the cutting edges of a chainsaw blade facing away from the sprocket in the top section of the chain. Here you also can put the new chain on.

Make sure the drive links fit the groove in the bar

Loosely fit the chain and the bar on the mounting bolts. Check if everything is OK, the chainsaw chain has the correct direction, drive links are not outside the chainsaw bar, etc.

Reassemble the saw and adjust the chain tension

Or vice versa, depending on the configuration of the saw chain tension mechanism. Some mechanisms are under the clutch cover, while others are on the opposite side of the guide bar.

Chainsaw chain direction
Image source: https://canva.com

Q&A bit

I told you there was nothing complicated in determining the right and wrong direction for your chainsaw chain. But there are other relevant questions I’d like to answer below.

Which way does a chainsaw chain go?

The chain always goes away from the motor block on the top part of the guide bar and towards the motor on the bottom part. In other words, if you look at the saw from the side of the sprocket cover, the sprocket, and the chain will move clockwise.

Are there any brand differences between chainsaw chains?

The basic design is pretty similar across various brands. Some manufacturers intentionally add features that prevent the interchangeability of their chains. On the other hand, there are third-party manufacturers that offer universal or alternative chains.

So just always check the compatibility of the chosen chain with your saw to not spend the money for nothing.

Also, pay attention to the main parameters while picking a new chain:

  • gauge or the depth of a groove in the bar where the drive links fit;
  • chain length or drive link count (pay attention when changing the bar too as the longer the bar the longer the chain should be);
  • pitch or distance between links.

Some shops will offer a convenient chain identification chart, while in others you’ll have to ask for help. Or just find one with proper parameters on your own.

How do I know the chain is dull?

You will fill it. The dull teeth don’t cut into the wood very well, causing the following:

  1. Shaking and bouncing while cutting.
  2. Increased load on the engine.
  3. Smaller wood chips.
  4. A general increase in resistance.

After working with a tuned chainsaw with a sharp chain, you’ll be able to tell if something’s wrong with it.

When to replace the chain?

After some sharpening. The resource of a chain is measured by the height difference between the height of a chainsaw blade and a depth gauge in front of it. When they’re roughly the same height, the chain is almost unusable. So just keep an eye on this parameter while sharpening or after it, if someone is doing it for you.

Chainsaw chain direction
Image source: https://canva.com

And there you have it

From now on, you’ll be able to tell if the chainsaw chain direction is right just by taking a quick look at it.

Just make sure that the cutting edge of a chainsaw blade on the top section of the bar is facing away from the motor, and you’re good to go. This is the only direction for proper cutting. And, if something’s going wrong don’t push too much on the saw, it is just a tool after all.

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