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Are Chainsaw Chains Universal? Don’t do it!

By: Author John Cunningham. Published: 2023/09/15 at 12:20 pm

Your saw making more sawdust than chips? It likely means we need to sharpen our chain or spring for a new one. And that begs the understandable but important question – Are all chainsaws chains the same?

Chainsaw chains are not universal. Chains come in various sizes and configurations to fit different chainsaw models. However, chains may be used interchangeably between chainsaw brands so long as the models share the same chain configuration.

In this post, you’ll learn why chainsaw chains are not universal, you’ll understand what your bar and chain numbers mean, and by the end of this quick guide, you’ll be ordering new chains like a total pro!

Guide to Buying a New Chain

So many choices when it comes to buying a new chainsaw chain, and ordinarily, lots of choice is a good thing, but when it comes to choosing a new chain for your saw, choice is a right pain in the jacksie.

Well, fear not; this guide will have you sorted in short order.

Identify your chainsaw chain

Before we can buy a new chain, we need to identify what type of chain we have fitted to our saw; typically, we have three different ways to check that.

1 Check the bar info – The bar on most saws carries some very useful information; the stamped information typically includes the bar length, chain pitch, chain gauge (more on pitch and gauge later), and depending on the bar maker, the part number for both replacement bar and chain.

This is by far the easiest way to identify your chain type, but obviously, the bar must belong to the saw.

If you can’t find your bar details, not to worry, we can check the chain code itself, and we’ll look at that next.

2 Check the chain code – Chains typically carry a stamped code in either the driver or the tie straps. This code isn’t a universal chain code. It only relates to the particular chain maker, which is also stamped into the chain.

If you can’t find your chain code or the chain maker, not to worry. We can still ID your chain, but we’ll need to measure your old chain and count the drive links to identify your chain correctly, and we’ll cover that below.

3 Measure the chain – Measuring the chain is the least favored way to ID your chain, not because it’s difficult, but because it’s the most amount of effort.

When measuring the chain, we’ll check the pitch (distance between drivers), gauge (chain driver width), and length of the chain (number of links).

Anyhow, I’ve covered it below in more detail; you’ll need a vernier caliper or tape measure and some patience. But just before we cover measuring the chain, it may be helpful to have a basic knowledge of the different components that make up a chain.

Chain Components

A chainsaw chain comprises just four components. Some components do more than one job, and some chains configure these components to optimize for safety or performance.

But at its most basic, chainsaw chains are drive links connected to cutter links by ties, straps, and rivets.

A more detailed explanation of each component:

1 Driver links – these chain components are super important; they link to other chain components, but critically, they transfer engine power to the chain via the engine drive sprocket.

The drive links ride inside the bar groove, helping maintain chain alignment. At the end of the bar, the drive links are routed around the bar nose sprocket, where they return to the drive sprocket to begin the power cycle once again.

Guard link – The guard link, also known as a bumper link, is a modified drive link used to optimize for safety (reduced kickback). The link employs a hump ahead of the cutter to reduce the risk of kickback.

Some chains achieve the same result by placing a hump in the tie strap instead of the drive link directly ahead of the cutting link. Chains that employ this feature are known as Green-label chains or safety chains and are recommended for general consumer use.

2 Tie strap – tie straps are used to connect drive links together and also to back the cutter link. Some tie straps positioned ahead of the cutter link employ a hump to help reduce kickback (Green label chains).

3 Cutter link (left and right) – the cutters are the business end of cutting timber. They are positioned on either side of our chain and are known as left and right-hand cutters. The number of cutters on a chain is determined by chain length and users’ preference; this is known as chain sequence.

Fewer links mean a faster chain typically favored by professional users.

How the cutters are shaped plays a big part in their performance: round tooth, semi-chisel, full-chisel (square tooth).

More on cutter types later.

Depth gauge – depth gauge, also known as raker or drag, is part of the cutter link positioned at the leading edge of the cutter link and determines the depth of the cut. A lower depth gauge allows the cutter to take a bigger bite of the timber and is, therefore, more aggressive than a higher depth gauge.

4 Rivets – rivets are what holds our chain together.

Measuring a Chainsaw Chain

Three main characteristics of a chainsaw chain are critical to correctly identifying the chain that is right for your saw.

They are:

  1. Pitch
  2. Gauge
  3. Length

1 Chain Pitch

The pitch of a chain may be described as the distance between the drive links of the chain. It is a crucial specification because it determines how the chain seats interact with both the drive sprocket at the crankshaft and the bar nose sprocket.

Chains of different pitches are not interchangeable, as the chain’s drive links won’t sit correctly in the sprockets.

Pitch is measured in inches; typical pitch measurements include 1/4″, .325″ Standard, .325″ Low Profile (LP), 3/8″ Standard, 3/8″ Low profile (LP), and .404″. 3/8″ Standard is the most common pitch type.

Oregon Chain makes a Standard and a Low-profile 3/8″ pitch; it’s important to ID them as they are not interchangeable.

Typically, smaller saws, less than 50cc, may be fitted with the 3/8″ Low profile chain, and saws over 50cc are fitted with the Standard 3/8″ pitch.

Measuring pitch – Using a tape measure or Verner calipers, pick any three consecutive rivets and measure from center to center.

Now divide the measurement by two, and that’s the chain’s pitch. Easy right?

2 Chain Gauge

The chainsaw chain gauge may be described as the thickness of the drive link (part of the chain that rides in the guide bar groove). Chains with different gauges are not interchangeable, as they won’t properly fit into the guide bar.

Gauge is measured in inches but also in mm, and standard sizes include .043″ (1.1mm), .050″ (1.3), .058″ (1.5mm), and .063″ (1.6).

Measuring gauge – Using a vernier calipers, measure the thickness of the drive link.

3 Chain Length

Chain length is obviously important; either too long or too short renders our chain useless. Chains are measured in inches, but the number of drive links in the chain is typically used to identify the length. (Note the number stamped into the drive link is not the number of links in the chain; that number is usually the chain part number.)

Measuring length – Lay the chain on a flat surface and align the drive links so they face each other. Now, go ahead and count the drive links in pairs.

That number represents the chain length. Easy right?

Now, we have all we need to order our new chain: the pitch, the gauge, and the number of drive links.

Some may wish to categorize their chain further, but for most hobby users, this isn’t necessary.

Two further chain characteristics to consider

Semi-pro users may want to categorize their saw chains further; two further categories include Cutter type and Cutter sequence. Let’s take a look at what each means.

Cutter Type

Cutter types play a big part in chainsaw performance. There are a ton of different cutter profiles, and their shape brings forth different characteristics, but as a rule of thumb, cutter profiles go from round (slow, forgiving, and versatile) all the way to square (fast, high maintenance, and aggressive).

  • Low/Round profile – versatile and low kickback risk (hobby user)
  • Semi-chisel (semi-square tooth) – great for heavier workloads (experienced user)
  • Full chisel (square tooth) – fast and aggressive but a ton of work to keep sharp (pro user)

Low profile aka Round profile aka Low Kickback – Typically, hobby or consumer saws are fitted with round profile cutters. These are favored as they offer the lowest risk of chainsaw kickback. Kickback is, as you know, a saw’s natural tendency to kick upwards toward the operator if the upper quadrant of the saw tip is used to cut timber.

A Low-profile (round profile) chain is graded Green label chain, a government designation given to chains that meet the required kickback rating. Green label chain is suitable for general consumer use.

These chains are designed to efficiently remove wood material from cuts and are particularly well-suited for tasks such as removing tree limbs, clearing brush, stumps, and cutting hardwoods.

These types of chains are typically fitted to smaller saws and require the saw to work harder, so a round profile isn’t suited to the heavier workload of felling trees.

Semi-chisel – the semi-chisel is not round and not square; it’s somewhere in between and, as you can imagine, offers greater performance without the high maintenance of the full pro cutter. The semi is faster and can handle greater workload than the round cutter but does come with an increased risk of kickback, which means greater care is needed.

Most semi-chisel chains are designated Green label.

Full chisel or square-toothed cutter – this profile is for the pro user. Its square cutter means it rips through timber quickly and aggressively. It carries with it an increased risk of kickback, and its razor-sharp edge dulls quickly, especially if you’re getting down and dirty.

She’s a high-maintenance cutter; you might say, fast, but not for everyday jobs, and full chisels are deemed Yellow label, meaning they are only suitable for the professional user.

Cutter Sequence

When talking about cutter sequence, you’ll hear terms like Full complement, Half skip, and Full skip; these terms describe the sequence or distance between the cutters on our chain.

As a hobby user, we’ll have a full complement of cutters. However, the pro user may opt for a Full skip. That means there’ll be two spacers between pairs of cutting teeth. A half skip is, you guessed it, one spacer between pairs of cutters.

And why, you might ask, would one want fewer cutting teeth on a chain? Surely less is less? Not so; fewer teeth means a chain rotates more quickly, and quicker is better when you get paid by the job, but half and full skip are for the pros.

A full complement is a slower, smoother, more predictable cut, meaning it’s safer and precisely what a hobby user needs.

How to Fit a New Chain

Love that new chain smell. Seriously, I do. But that new chain smell isn’t chain lube; it’s just a preserving oil that prevents rust. So the first job we need to do is lube up our new chain.

To do that, take a plastic bag, add some bar oil, drop our new chain into it, and leave it to soak while we move on to the bar cleaning and inspection.

As you know, the bar should be inspected and rotated periodically, so before we fit our new chain, we’ll inspect and then clean the bar; if you’ve already done so, you can jump ahead to fitting the chain here.

Bar Inspection & Cleaning

Oil holes – The bar employs two oil feed holes (one on either side) that feed oil directly to the bar groove. These holes must be kept clean. No oil flow means increased friction, which results in excessive wear on the chain and bar and increases kickback risk.

We use a groove cleaner to scoop out the debris from the oil holes and the groove.

Bent or worn bar – Eye the bar for damage; chips missing, blue scorch marks at the bottom indicate overheating, meaning there may be an underlying issue such as poor oiling, etc.

Use caution when handling the bar, as the chain tends to cause what’s known as knife edging along the bottom of the bar. To remove this knife edging, use a flat file to remove the burr.

Check the bar rails are parallel; if not, use a bar rail dresser to clean them up.

Nose sprocket – Check the nose sprocket moves freely and the sprocket teeth are in good condition. Some nose sprockets need greasing, and some don’t. If your bar employs a hole at the sprocket, clean the hole and add grease while rotating the sprocket.

Ready to fit the chain

Replacing the chain is a 5-minute job; the process is as follows:

Removing the chain

  • Chain brake set to off
  • Use your scrench to loosen the side cover nuts
  • Release chain tension adjuster a few turns
  • Remove side cover fastener
  • Remove side cover (clean before refitting)
  • Remove bar from the adjuster pin and push it toward the drive sprocket
  • Remove the chain from the bar nose and drive sprocket and remove chain

Fitting new chain

Begin by orientating the chain so that the cutters along the top of the chain face forward.

  • Place the chain over the drive sprocket
  • Work the chain into the bar groove
  • Place the chain over the bar sprocket
  • Pull the bar forward so the adjuster pin engages with the bar, locating hole

Adjusting chain tension

  • Place the side cover on the saw
  • Fit the fasteners until they seat
  • Lift the nose of the bar
  • Tighten the adjuster clockwise until the chain seats into the bar groove
  • Now tighten the adjuster another half turn clockwise
  • Tighten the side cover fasteners

Checking the chain tension is correct

About halfway along the chain, pull it downward and let go. When the chain is tensioned correctly, it will snap back into place, and when rotated by hand, it will rotate without binding.

If your chain is binding, check the following:

  • Is chain adjusted too tightly?
  • Is chain brake on?
  • Are chain drivers seated correctly at the drive sprocket?
  • Is chain pitch correct?
  • Is the bar nose sprocket faulty?
  • Are chain drivers damaged? (driver burrs cause binding after the chain is thrown)

Chainsaw Chain FAQs

Here are the most common questions I’m asked about chainsaw chains and related components.

How do I know what size chain I have?

Chains are broadly categorized by three metrics, they are the pitch (distance between drivers), gauge (width of the driver) and finally the length, (number of drivers in the chain).

You could measure all of these metrics; that way, you can ID your chain correctly. However, there are two quicker ways to get this information, they are:

  1. read the embossed bar information
  2. use the chain code from the old chain

Can you put any bar and chain on any chainsaw?

You can not put any bar and chain on any chainsaw because the drive sprocket (drives the chain) at the chainsaw engine uses a precise pitch (distance between drivers) that must match the chain drivers.

Similarly, the bar employs a sprocket at its nose, and its pitch must also match the chainsaw drive sprocket and chain driver pitch (distance between drivers).

Okay, so if the chainsaw drive sprocket, the bar sprocket, and the chain drivers are all the same pitch, we can fit them into the saw? Wow, not so fast! We need to check two more important metrics.

The chain drivers’ width must match the bar’s groove; a snug fit means the chain is guided around the bar efficiently and safely. This measurement is known as the gauge.

Finally, we need to be sure the chain is the correct length for the bar; that information is embossed on the bar itself (driver numbers), as is all the information needed to match a chain to the bar (pitch and gauge).

The same can’t be said of the saw, meaning if you buy a used saw without a bar and chain, you won’t know for sure what pitch, gauge, or bar the saw takes without first referencing an online user manual.

It should also be said that while it is possible to fit a longer bar and chain to a saw, know that the manufacturer has likely fitted the optimum size bar and chain for the engine size. Meaning more bar and chain may mean less saw, if you know what I mean.

Do chainsaw chains fit all brands?

Chainsaw chains do fit all brands, so long as the pitch, gauge, and overall length of the chain match the replacement chain.

Are Husqvarna and Stihl chainsaw chains interchangeable?

Husqvarna and Stihl chains are interchangeable so long as the chain specifications of both chains are a match.

Will Oregon work on a Stihl bar?

Oregon chain will work on a Stihl bar so long as the pitch, gauge, and length (number of drivers) match.

Why do chainsaw chains fall off?

Chains fall off for several reasons; here are all the most common ones and what you can do to fix them.

  • Chain too loose – adjust tension
  • Chain worn and stretched – replace chain
  • Wrong chain pitch – check chain pitch
  • Chain on backways – refit chain correctly
  • Lack of bar & chain oil – check bar oiler
  • Bar damaged – replace bar
  • Worn rim drive – replace rim drive

What’s the hole on the chainsaw bar for?

Chainsaw bars typically employ two holes at the tail, and some employ one hole at the nose. If your bar has a hole at the nose sprocket, then you have a grease port for the sprocket; most modern consumer bars don’t have a hole at the nose of the bar.

The holes at the tail of the bar double job; that’s because a bar is designed to be flipped over so the operator can even out the wear on the bar.

When the bar is fitted to the saw, the top hole is the oiler (which allows oil to flow to the chain and rail), and the bottom hole becomes the locating hole for the chain tension adjuster.

Roles are reversed when the bar is flipped over.

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