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Chains of Love

Geoffrey Norman on the power of a power tool

Nov 12, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 09 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
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Hurricane Sandy showed Vermont some mercy, where Irene did not.  The storm passed to the west, and we got a lot of rain and enough wind to knock out power to a few thousand people, including, 

A lumberjack and his love

Tom Labaff

to my absolute nonastonishment .  .  . me.  The pine trees in our neighborhood fall over in a faint if the weatherman so much as mentions strong winds.

A couple of hours before the storm reached peak strength and before we lost power, my wife left for a business appointment, then shortly returned and reported that there was a tree down, blocking the road. She was about to call and cancel, but I said, “Not so fast there.”

My pre-storm checklist includes—along with stocking up on double-A’s and filling bathtubs—making sure there is some 50:1 premix (i.e., fuel) in the toolshed and that the chain saw will start. I was ready for that tree and delighted to leave my work and attend to it. It feels good to handle your own problems and not call (and pay) some expert or specialist for help. For me, the pleasure increases dramatically when I can use a chain saw to fix the problem.

I have owned—still own—many other tools powered by a two-cycle engine. Lawnmowers, leaf blowers, weed whackers, snow blowers, and so on. They give good service so long as I play by the rules and don’t force-feed them ethanol. But I don’t love my snow blower, and I don’t know anyone who does.

But the chain saw .  .  . now, that is a different thing. I view the chain saw as the finest, most sublime use to which the two-stroke engine has ever been put. I suspect that a lot of other modern housebroken males share the feeling. It is our version of what gentlemen of another age felt for their prized edged weapons or dueling pistols.

I know men who depend on chain saws for their livelihoods, and I’m sure they don’t feel this way. Which gets at part of the reason why those of us with soft hands do. When using a chain saw to buck up a few logs for firewood, you can easily imagine yourself as a lumberjack. And, pace Monty Python, what man didn’t always want to be a lumberjack?

But you don’t want to get too dreamy when you are running a chain saw. It is a powerful and dangerous tool. Even some professionals I know have been so careless as to nick themselves, usually in the leg, with a chain that is still turning fast enough to do damage even though the engine is idling. You can buy chaps that are made of some kind of tough composite that will crab a chain and stop it. But hardly anyone wears them.

The more serious injuries result from what is known as “kickback,” which is what it sounds like. The nose of the chain gets into something that won’t yield quickly, and the saw comes back at the operator, hard and fast. If it catches you in the neck, it can open an artery. The injuries that are less severe and more survivable are still pretty awful. I remember making small talk with an emergency room doctor who was sewing me up after a different sort of injury and asking him if he had repaired any chain saw wounds.

“The worst,” he said. “Chews up the flesh, and all that oil in the wound .  .  . just the worst.”

Modern saws have all been engineered to reduce the danger of kickback. But it can still happen if you get careless. One of the precautions against kickback is to keep your chain saw sharp. The old rule about dull knives cutting more people than sharp ones applies. And the ability to sharpen a chain saw is what amateurs rank themselves by. If you have to take yours in to the place where you bought it and get someone there to do the job, then you are still a suburbanite.

The next stage involves kits with tools that will line your file up at just the right angle. These tools work, but using them makes sharpening the saw time-consuming and laborious. The analogy would be to a 20-handicap golfer.

You have reached elite status when you can sit on the machine’s power head and eyeball the angle. Or, better, with the nose of the saw, cut a vertical slot through a small tree, at chest level, and let the saw hang there while you do your sharpening, just like a real lumberjack. 

The satisfactions of a saw you have kept sharp and running smoothly are undeniable. You feel like you are handy with machinery, capable with dangerous tools, and prepared for an emergency. You can also be a hero with the ladies. My wife made her appointment with time to spare.

So what, as they say, is not to love?



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