If you own or use a chainsaw, you know how much of a chore they can be to maintain. You probably also know how annoying it can be when they run poorly. That being said, you might not always have access to chain oil to ensure that your saw operates smoothly. To make sure that you don’t have to run your chainsaw dry, we’ve prepared a list of bar and chain oil substitute products that are available to you, as well as some of the pros and cons associated with them.
Table of Contents
- 1 How Does a Chainsaw Work?
- 2 Why Is It Important to Lubricate Your Bar and Chain?
- 3 Why Does a Chainsaw Need Oil?
- 4 Chainsaw Oil Substitutes
- 5 Frequently Asked Questions
How Does a Chainsaw Work?
A chainsaw works pretty much the same way an old motorcycle does. The chainsaw is powered by either an internal combustion engine or an electrical one located inside the large housing unit along with the speed control, throttle trigger, carburetor, and clutch. Protruding out of the housing is the guide bar, on which your chain runs.
When the engine is powered on, you press the throttle trigger which engages the clutch. This transfers the rotating motion from the engine’s crank to a sprocket connected to the chain, causing it to rotate at high speed which allows you to cut through various materials. This high-speed rotation creates friction between the guide bar and your chain, which is a bad thing.
The more friction created, the less cutting speed and overall power you have. Excessive friction can cause your chain and/or engine to seize up, rendering your chainsaw useless. Considering that the chain has little blades on it, a seized chain can also become a lethal projectile should it snap and come away from the guide bar at high speeds.
There are usually guards in place to protect the user, but this doesn’t make it that much safer. This is why it is extremely important to ensure your chain and bar are properly lubricated before operating a chainsaw. Any chainsaw you purchase will come with an operating manual detailing maintenance and repair processes that need to be done at certain intervals.
Why Is It Important to Lubricate Your Bar and Chain?
The bar and chain of a chainsaw facilitate the cutting action of the device, allowing the bladed chain to rotate around the bar at high RPM (rotations per minute). This high-speed rotation creates a lot of heat and by extension friction, which can slow down the chain and reduce the cutting power of your chainsaw during operation.
The easiest way to reduce friction and promote seamless chain rotation is to ensure your chain and bar are well-lubricated. Usually, lubrication comes in the form of dedicated chainsaw oil, but as you will soon see there are a number of bar and chain oil substitute options available.
These alternative lubricants are great when you don’t have access to chainsaw oil, or simply want to save some time and money.
What Happens If You Don’t Lubricate Your Bar and Chain?
As we mentioned previously, failing to lubricate your bar and chain can result in your chainsaw running inefficiently. However, it can also cause your chain links to seize up during operation, which can damage your chainsaw’s clutch, sprocket, and motor. This can prove hazardous to you and your workpiece, not to mention becoming a rather expensive repair job.
A seized chain can damage the internal components of your motor in severe cases too, damaging your intake and exhaust valves which can lead to tedious and time-consuming repairs (assuming you don’t have to send it away if the damage is too severe).
As you can see, a bit of oil on your bar and chain goes a long way when it comes to maintaining your chainsaw.
Why Does a Chainsaw Need Oil?
While the primary reason for lubricating your bar and chain is to reduce friction as much as possible, there are other reasons for lubricating your chainsaw too. To ensure you understand the importance of chainsaw lubrication we’ve listed a few important reasons that these tools need to be properly lubricated before operating them.
Extends the Chain’s Lifespan
Metals wear down over time. Proper lubrication reduces the amount of heat and friction your chain is exposed to, which reduces excessive metal fatigue over time.
This can greatly increase the lifespan of a single chain, which can save you a lot of time, money, and frustration down the line.
This might be especially important if you use your chainsaw regularly. Nothing is more frustrating than having to deal with a broken chain in the middle of a project.
Reduces Dirt and Grime
Chainsaws operate at high RPM, and they tend to attract a lot of dirt and dust as a result of the forces generated. Proper lubrication with a dedicated chainsaw lubricant or alternative can clean the chainsaw of dirt and grime build-up during operation.
This ensures that your chainsaw is always operating at a reasonably efficient rate.
Prevents Seizure by Sap
Most chainsaws are used to fell or trim trees. Some trees are high in sap content which can be a bad thing for your chainsaw, as sap can cause your chain to slow or seize. Thankfully, if your chain and bar are well lubricated the sap won’t be able to get into the recesses between your chain and bar, allowing you to work unimpeded.
Reduces Unnecessary Engine Load
When your chain isn’t well lubricated it can cause your engine to work harder than necessary. This can cause excessive wear on your piston and clutch, resulting in your engine overheating. This will render your chainsaw inoperable, and in most cases, you will likely need a new set of piston rings or an entirely new engine if the damage is severe.
Prevent Excessive Consumption of Fuel
When your chain isn’t lubricated your engine works harder, revving higher than it normally would to achieve the same cutting speed.
Not only is this inefficient for cutting, but it will also cause you to burn fuel excessively.
Remember that your chainsaw has been designed to operate at certain output ratios, and when it cannot, damage can occur to one or more components.
Chainsaw Oil Substitutes
At the end of the day, chainsaw oil is just a lubricant. If you can find another substance capable of lubricating your bar and chain while withstanding the heat and friction produced during the cutting process, there isn’t much reason not to use it. To save you some time and money, we’ve prepared a list of chainsaw oil substitute options and the pros and cons associated with their use in this application.
Engine oil, as the name suggests, is used inside internal combustion engines. Engine oil is an excellent chainsaw oil substitute because it can withstand ridiculously high temperatures and becomes thinner as it wears down.
Fresh engine oil actually lubricates your chain and bar faster than dedicated chainsaw oil and should be around the same price if not cheaper.
There are a couple of other advantages to using chainsaw oil too. For one, it will actually make your blades and bar look shinier, although it can grease them up a bit as time goes on. This is a worthwhile trade-off though, as not every store has chainsaw oil available, but most gas stations and convenience stores have some brand of motor oil in stock.
Engine oil isn’t perfect though and there are a number of performance and environmental aspects to consider when using it as a chainsaw oil substitute. For one, engine oil is petroleum and/or mineral-based. When using the chainsaw to fell trees, you should know that this oil will be transferred onto the cut wood and remaining stump, negatively impacting the environment.
Keep in mind that chainsaw blades produce a lot of heat, which causes the engine oil to produce hazardous fumes.
These fumes aren’t only bad for the environment overall, but can also be hazardous for you to inhale. If you are going to be using engine oil as a chainsaw oil substitute, we highly recommend you make use of a face mask to prevent inhalation of these fumes.
Vegetable oil is another great alternative to chainsaw oil. Yes, this is the same vegetable oil you would use to cook a delicious meal, and it just so happens to double as an excellent lubricant for chainsaw bars and chains. As we mentioned previously, pretty much any substance that meets the criteria can be used as a viable alternative to chainsaw oil.
There are many types of vegetable oils on the market, but one of the most well-known has to be sunflower oil. This oil is far thinner than engine oil which means it lubricates your blades and bar even faster, but since it’s quite thin it does have a tendency to leak. However, this problem is easily solved by simply reducing the lubrication speed on your chainsaw to compensate.
Vegetable oil is an incredible substitute if you use your chainsaw for felling trees.
Unlike engine oil, they aren’t bad for the environment and are fully biodegradable, which means tree stumps and lumber will not be poisoned by their presence. As you can see, there aren’t many drawbacks to using vegetable oil as a bar and chain oil substitute. This doesn’t mean there are no drawbacks though. Vegetable oil is far more effective in the warm summer months compared to those cold winter ones. In low temperatures vegetable oil clumps up and can cause a nasty, grimy build-up on your chain and bar. This also makes it too dense to flow inside the chainsaw’s lubricant hopper.
Another good cooking oil that can be used as an alternative to chainsaw oil is canola oil. Canola oil is made from rapeseed oil and is an excellent lubricant for chainsaw components thanks to its inherent viscosity and its ability to withstand the intense heat generated by the friction of the chainsaw blades during operation.
Canola oil is actually quite similar to rapeseed oil but it happens to be more versatile. It can be applied to your chainsaw blade and bar the same way that vegetable oil is, and doesn’t have some of the notable drawbacks that vegetable oils have. Canola oil is also non-toxic, which means that if you are using your chainsaw for felling trees it will not negatively impact the environment.
However, if you are going to be using your chainsaw in those cold winter months you should keep in mind that canola oil does freeze when temperatures drop below zero.
This means that it can become decidedly ineffective as a lubricant at this point. That being said, alternating between motor oil and canola oil as the weather gets colder is a good idea. There are some other drawbacks to using this oil type too. For one it is thinner than vegetable oil which means it can easily fly off your blade during operation. It also tends to vaporize at high temperatures which could lead you to inhale these fumes when the chainsaw is at high speeds, but wearing a face mask should prevent this. Canola oil is also inexpensive, making it a great budget-friendly alternative.
This might be a bit challenging for you to get your hands on as it’s quite a specialized substance. Hydraulic fluid is used in hydraulic pumps, stands, and even door hinges! It provides a degree of mechanical advantage to certain pieces of machinery, but it also happens to be a great lubricant for chainsaw bars and chains!
Hydraulic fluid can be purchased at machine shops, but it can be a bit expensive, so we’d only recommend this option if you can’t get your hands on chainsaw oil or know someone who has some spare hydraulic oil for you.
Hydraulic oil is quite thick, so it makes for an excellent long-term lubricant, plus it has a high flash point, so you won’t have to worry about accidental fires. Hydraulic fluid also has the ability to stave off rust and general decay on metal surfaces, which makes it a good option when working in low-temperature environments where oxidation could occur. Hydraulic fluid can be dangerous when released at high pressure though so be sure all the seals on your chainsaw are up to scratch before filling up.
Like engine oil, hydraulic fluid isn’t exactly environmentally friendly. Using this oil in a chainsaw when felling trees can result in the tainting of the surrounding environment, so this is best used for wood that has already been harvested. Hydraulic fluid can also cause discomfort if it comes in contact with your skin, so be sure to wear some gloves and a face mask when using it as a lubricant.
You should also know that hydraulic oil needs to be thinned out when used as a chainsaw lubricant.
Most manufacturers will either provide a list of instructions or a dedicated product for thinning out their hydraulic oil. That being said, we don’t recommend drying to add hydraulic oil to your chainsaw at its off-the-shelf viscosity.
Drained/Used Engine Oil
While you could buy some fresh engine oil, drained engine oil might work in a pinch too. Draining the oil from a car, motorcycle, tractor, or any other internal combustion engine can save you a trip to the store and some money!
Drained engine oil works just as well as new engine oil, but there are some risks associated with it.
Oil is designed to keep your engine lubricated, but there is bound to be some degradation over time. This can result in metal filings building up in your engine oil, and if you use this tainted oil to lubricate your chainsaw it could cause it to cease. This is why it’s important to filter your used engine oil before attempting to use it in your chainsaw.
While you could use a filter cloth, the simple way of getting those metal filings to stay behind is to use a fine sift. We recommend running your used oil through one of these at least thrice to be sure all the filings are removed, at which point you can load your used oil into the lubricant reservoir of your chainsaw (make sure it’s off first!). Like new engine oil, used engine oil isn’t great for the environment and because it’s been cycled under extreme heat inside your engine it might have lost a bit of its heat resistance. This does mean that its viscosity will be significantly thinner though, so you will have a much easier time loading it into your chainsaw.
Diesel is another good automotive fluid that happens to double as a lubricant for your chainsaw. Diesel has an exceptionally high flash point and maintains its rather thick viscosity regardless of operating temperature. This means that even at high speeds your chainsaw will remain well lubricated as you work.
This makes diesel the ideal chainsaw lubricant, but depending on how gas prices are doing when you read this it might not be a feasible option.
If you can get your hands on some diesel you’ll be pleased to know that it works incredibly well in cold conditions even below freezing, making it the perfect lubricant for those cold winter months. In addition to being hard to get, diesel isn’t the most environmentally friendly lubricant around. It can be even more damaging to soil and plants than petroleum, so we wouldn’t recommend using a diesel-lubricated chainsaw to fell trees or other plant life. That being said, any application where diesel won’t negatively affect you or the environment is perfectly fine.
Diesel is pretty easy to use as a lubricant, too. All you need to do is pour some into your lubricant reservoir while your chainsaw is off, secure the cap, and start your chainsaw. Is diesel worth using as a lubricant replacement then? Well, this depends on your situation, and if you have no other option it’s one of the best substitutes overall.
Whether you are trying to cook healthier meals or want to lubricate your chainsaw, good old olive oil has your back! Olive oil lubricates chainsaw blades and bars pretty well and has many of the same advantages and disadvantages that vegetable and canola oil have. However, olive oil can be a bit expensive depending on where you live though. Olive oil is easy to use too. Simply pop open your lubrication reservoir, pour in some olive oil, close the cap, and start your chainsaw.
Olive oil is thinner than dedicated lubricants, so be sure to set your lubrication rate accordingly and watch out for any splatter when operating your saw. Olive oil doesn’t have a particularly high flash point either so watch out for potential overheating issues.
For ordinary work, olive oil should be just fine though. Like canola and vegetable oils, olive oil is biodegradable and therefore can be used when felling trees or reigning in other forms of plant life, which is ideal. Olive oil can break down pretty quickly though, losing its ability to lubricate your bar and chain effectively, so keep an eye on it.
Does this mean olive oil is a viable alternative to dedicated chainsaw lubricants? Yes, but we wouldn’t recommend using the same batch for too long though. If you’re going to be working for a long time at high speeds, try changing out your olive oil lubricant every once in a while, to avoid potential seizure of your chain.
Power Steering Fluid
Power steering fluid and transmission fluid are other great examples of liquids that double as excellent chainsaw lubricants. These fluids are used in highly stressed machinery like the steering mechanism and gearboxes of automobiles, which means they can take quite a bit of punishment before beginning to break down.
They offer the same level of protection as chainsaw bars and chains, ensuring that your blade stays nice and lubricated while you work. Power steering fluids have a high flash point which means you won’t have to worry about potential fires, which comes as no surprise considering the environments they’re used in.
Modern power steering fluids and transmission fluids are usually fully synthetic, which means that there are no minerals present in their composition. This ensures that the oil doesn’t break down as quickly as mineral oils do, which will provide you with far better lubrication for a much longer period of time. When used as a chainsaw lubricant, you would be hard-pressed to find a better lubricant.
While these oils do act as an excellent lubricant for chainsaws, they are (like similar oils) not great for the environment. As we mentioned previously, this means that you shouldn’t use them on your chainsaw when felling trees or other plant life as they will contaminate stumps and the surrounding soil, essentially poisoning the environment.
If you are absolutely out of options and desperately need a good chainsaw oil substitute, coconut oil will do the trick. Is it the best alternative in the world? Certainly not, but it will get the job done if you find yourself in a pinch. Coconut oil has an extremely high flash point so there’s a very low chance of anything catching fire, and it smells pretty good too.
Coconut oil can be used in conjunction with vegetable oils to lubricate the chain and bar of your chainsaw, but we wouldn’t recommend using it outside of the summer months. Coconut oil all but solidifies at around 22 degrees Celsius, which means it’s useless in colder weather.
Aside from temperature sensitivity, its only other downside is its consistency.
Coconut oil doesn’t have a very stable viscosity, which is why it’s typically used to supplement other oils like vegetable oil when used as a lubricant. Does this mean that you shouldn’t use it at all? No, but you should ensure that the weather conditions are favorable before throwing some into your lubrication reservoir.
Now you know why it’s important to ensure that your bar and chain are well lubricated at all times, and what you can use as an oil substitute in a pinch. Remember that chainsaws can be extremely hazardous regardless of how experienced you are, so always wear your protective gear and ensure that both your chainsaw and workpiece have your full attention at all times when engaged.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Are the Hazards of Chainsaws?
Chainsaws are essentially an engine connected to a series of spinning blades, so hazards are plentiful. Chainsaws are known for their harsh kickback, excessive noise production, intense vibrational feedback, and the exhaust gasses they produce. Modern chainsaws are more efficient though, and come with a wide range of safety and comfort features too.
Can a Chainsaw Cut Bone?
A chainsaw is absolutely able to cut through bone. In fact, bone saws are not completely unlike chainsaws, so it is best to exercise the utmost caution when operating a chainsaw regardless of your skill level. While some table saws have automated sensors that shut them off when skin is detected, chainsaws have no such safety mechanisms.
Can a Chainsaw Cut a Rock?
Yes, chainsaws are entirely capable of cutting through stone and rock. Diamond chainsaws are commonly used in the construction industry for this very purpose, and are both extremely effective and expensive.
I have been into woodworking since 2005 and woodturning since 2011. Because of my love for wood and woodworking, I started woodhappen.com to teach other enthusiasts about how to finish and seal wood, the best woodworking tools, the different types of wood, and everything else related to woodworking! Read more about me here.