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Back Roads Bill on the cutting edge of chainsaw development

This week, Back Roads Bill takes us through the history of chainsaws, an integral part of life on the back roads

The long weekend has come and gone, and summer is approaching, and this distinct sound will be discernible at the camps and cottages, all along the back roads. You can hear it in your mind. And it may remind you of a classic horror movie.

Here is a refresher of the sound, and a good segue to this story.

It is a visceral sound that seems to drive deeply into disturbing the calmness of Nature. With a loudness of around 110 dB (challenging helicopters and jackhammers), it is often identified as one of those quintessential 'noises'.

Going through the library stacks – yes there remain libraries, invaluable as they are, there was this multi-coloured spine of a book. Like a raven seeing something glitter on the side of the road, I pulled out the title: Chainsaws: A History. Wow!

It was one of those soft covers, pictorial-like horizontal books. Flipping through the pages, before reading the foreword or the back cover there were these historic photos of chainsaws and close-ups of contemporary ones. Just the title alone was too much to leave alone, I had to find the author.

He is David Lee and I found out he's living near Hamilton.


The book, Chainsaws: A History claims to be the “first-ever comprehensive history of chainsaws from around the world,” and there is no doubt about it.

Of course, I asked the obvious question.

He said there were “chainsaws everywhere when growing in Mission, situated in the Fraser Valley of B.C. I bought a $40 Pioneer used saw – 'sure it works fine' – from the garage sale.“ Lee never did start the saw, no matter how many times he pulled or tried to fix it. Instead, it went to the local dump.

“I have come to treasure old saws as collectors’ items but at the time I was convinced I hated the machine and all its noisy, temperamental kind.”

As fate would have it he ended up being employed in the local rental equipment business.

“I started out thinking there would be enough to do in the shop that I could manage to avoid the accursed machines,” Lee said.

But it was not to be.

“One day my boss placed a beat-up McCulloch in my hand and said, “Take this outback, take off the filter – he pointed to a couple of screws – and let’s see how it looks.”

It was the start of his education of becoming a chainsaw mechanic. Eventually, he made peace with his journey, “Now I love them,” he said.

In 2004, while doing graduate work at McMaster University Lee started researching old chainsaws on the Internet wishing that there was a book, he could go to. A big, illustrated history of the chainsaw.

"It occurred to me that, as a writer who knew a thing or two about chainsaws, I was able to do something about this unaccountable void in the literature,” Lee said.

And so, it began.

Chainsaw knowledge

The first sentences of wisdom in the book:

It rips and cuts, it splatters and drips, it raises the roof with its racket; the chainsaw the most terrifying of all labour-saving devices. Its name has become synonymous with bad behaviour: chainsaw diplomacy or even chainsaw massacre (something it’s only good for in the movies).

“When we lived in Pender Harbour, B.C. we were always on a tight budget (to say the least), and getting a little pickup truck and a used chainsaw was liberating. The local tree crews would tell me where there were deadfalls to be had, and I would take my kids out to the bush and we’d stock up on firewood. Building up my chainsaw knowledge, and using it to help my family survive, was a prideful experience," Lee said.

“Maybe some of the readers will get their heads straightened around about this most understood of power tools.

“Maybe not. This book is unapologetically addressed to that small but growing segment of the population who already know that the chainsaw is one of humanity’s most admirable inventions and that the history of its development is one of technology’s most unsung sagas.

“This book carefully traces the evolutionary threads of countless pioneer devices—from six-hundred-pound steam-powered behemoths to gas chainsaws mounted on wheeled carriages, to diesel chainsaws mostly operated by two people. The meticulous text examines Andreas Stihl’s Black Forest experiments, Vancouver’s booming WWII chainsaw industry and the postwar race to develop one-man saws, the rise and fall of Canada’s proud Pioneer brand, and the late entry into the field of the centuries-old arms manufacturer Husqvarna.”

And some of these once-familiar brands remain in sheds and barns, and on display at our rural community museums, such as Titan, Timberhog, Bluestreak, Hi-Baller, Hornet, Wasp, IEL, Partner, PM, Poulan, Dolmar, Danarm, Disston, Remington, Canadien, Lombard, Mall, McCulloch, Shade, Solo, Be-Bo and Jo-Bu among others.

“I worked together with some of the world’s leading chainsaw history experts to create this tribute to one of humanity’s most labour-saving inventions,” said Lee.

Stop in at a local museum, you will most likely see these revolutionary artifacts.

Like on a bicycle I have always been curious about that chain, so I asked David, ”The chain is itself an ingenious system, although there are constant refinements in materials and design. The thing is, it always has to rotate fast, it always has to cut through resistant materials, and it’s never going to be low maintenance. The chain still must be lubricated, and the cutter teeth must be kept sharp. People who are skilled chain sharpeners have a special mojo in the chainsaw world and command great respect.”

Another question was, “What's new beyond weight and what about the future of the chainsaw...will we stop cutting trees?

“As I say in the book, more than ever, we’ve got to grow trees wherever we can - and growing trees means we’ll have to be cutting trees. What’s really new is the battery-powered electric chainsaw," he answered. "For now, it’s not going to take over in the forest industry, because gas-powered saws deliver more bang for the buck – they’re more powerful and durable for sustained cutting.”

Electric chainsaws

Lee said he was visiting a friend in Nova Scotia after a storm, and a fir tree had blown down and blocked a trail through his property.

“He was waiting for a relative to show up with a chainsaw, so I went to the hardware store and bought an electric chainsaw – a little DeWalt – with a 12” bar. We went back to my friend’s house and charged it up, and I took it up the trail and made short work of that deadfall. I kept expecting the saw to run out of juice but it kept running and finished the job.

“Professionals still need gas-powered saws for heavy duty, tough, sustained cutting, and because of power considerations the Husqvarna and Poulan electrics I see come with maximum sixteen-inch bars – not the twenty-inch-plus lengths that professional tree cutters need. But for homeowner-type users like myself, the electric is just great. We no longer have to deal with oil and gas mixing, or fuel stabilizers, or the mess and smell of leaks and spills, we no longer have to deal with pull cords, or with the incredible noise of gas chainsaws. Just keep the battery charged … and don’t forget you still need to sharpen the chain! – and you’re ready to go."

Back Roads Bill traded his chainsaw in for an electric and Lee sees the benefits as well. The lithium-ion battery is the future.

“And the chain lubricant is never going away,” Lee added.

“These days I live in Hamilton and I don’t use my electric chainsaw for much but trimming branches. Sometimes I can help out a friend or relative who needs a tree trimmed. A battery-powered chainsaw is so much easier to handle than the gas-powered models – but it’s still a dangerous beast so I mostly do this work myself and only hand the saw over if the user is prepared to take some serious instruction first.”

The authoritative text lists hundreds of models from the 1800s to the present and there are more than three hundred original and archival photos.

On the back cover, it says:

From the earliest chainsaws-deafening, dangerous and often too darn heavy to take to a tree – to today’s lightweight machine this reference is the history for anybody with an interest in technology.

I won’t hold my breath for the history of cell phones.

Maybe for Father’s Day, a birthday or Christmas, you can find this gem of a book at Harbour Publishing. The book won an independent publishing award in 2007.

And remember those chainsaw safety slogans help to reduce the risks associated with using a chainsaw, which can be dangerous if not used properly. Google: “Chainsaw safety slogan,” there are more than one hundred, like: “Safety first, chainsaw last!” “Keep your hands on the saw, not under it!” “You only have one life, protect it with a chainsaw!” “Safety is not an option, it’s a priority!” “Safety gear is the chainsaw gear!” and “For a safe cut, steer clear!”

Sage advice on the back roads.

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Bill Steer

About the Author: Bill Steer

Back Roads Bill Steer is an avid outdoorsman and is founder of the Canadian Ecology Centre
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