Larry Lyons: History of the chainsaw

Published 1:51 pm Thursday, April 1, 2010

lyonsChainsaws are pretty much a man thing and after spending all winter watching TV programs like Axe Men, American Loggers and Swamp Loggers this sunny weather has all the armchair “wannabe” loggers itching to convert big pieces of wood into smaller pieces.

I guess it just makes us feel like we’ve accomplished something. In this day and age we take the chainsaw for granted, just a plain old tool like the shovel and rake and all the other tools cluttering up the garage. But few realize chainsaws are a quite recent invention.

The first chainsaw-like device goes back much further.  It was a saw invented somewhere around 1830 by a German orthopedist looking for a better way to cut through bone. A chain with small, angled teeth was driven around a bar by hand turning the handle of an attached sprocket wheel.  However, that was pretty much the extent of the chain cutting concept for the next 100 years. It wasn’t until 1926 when another German, Andreas Stihl, a hallowed name every chainsaw geek reveres, patented a chainsaw for cutting wood.

However, it was a monstrous, impractical beast and it didn’t go anywhere. Three years later, in 1929, he designed another chainsaw that was driven by a gasoline engine and began producing them. Around that same time others, including another famous saw name, McCullough, were also working on similar inventions. All these early saws had one thing in common – they were humongous monsters weighing well over 100 pounds and taking at least two people to operate. Some were even mounted on wheels.

By the time World War II broke out, the world had still not seen a practical, useable chainsaw. Think about it – that’s not that long ago. By then we had cut down nearly all of our forests. We had cleared thousands of miles of trees and brush to lay railroad tracks and roadways snaking up, down and around and around from coast to coast. We’d erected untold millions of wood houses and burned up I can’t imagine how many million cords of firewood. Every one of those trees was wrestled down, limbed and cut into manageable sized logs with only muscle driven axes and handsaws.

When I lived in Washington State I occasionally came across century old cedar and fir stumps that were well over 10 feet across. Standing next to these monsters I just couldn’t comprehend how two guys could muscle a crosscut saw through it, not once but again and again all day long. When the Japanese invaded Alaska’s Aleutian Peninsula, we all of a sudden were desperate for an access road into Alaska for troops and supplies. In just one year the famous Alaska-Canadian (ALCAN) Highway was grubbed through 1400 miles of boreal forests. Every tree, limb and piece of wood that had to be cut was done by hand.

One thing that came out of the war was new technology. To fulfill the necessities of war the making of aluminum as well as smaller, more powerful engines had been elevated to a new level. Now we could make chainsaws small and light enough for one man to manage. I don’t know who came up with the first practical, one man chainsaw but they started to appear around 1950. Companies like Stihl, McCullough and Husqvarna began mass producing them as men with tired muscles and sore backs lined up to buy them.

Back in the late ’60s I owned a tree removal service and logging company. I never thought about it at the time but the powerful, reliable chainsaws we took for granted had only been around a few years. They were younger than I was and I wasn’t yet old enough to buy a beer.

Today, those pioneering companies are still leaders in the field.  Andreas Stihl is generally considered the father of the chain saw. His company remains family owned and for decades Stihl saws have been the one to which all others are compared. The postwar designers of the chainsaw must have gotten it right the first time for there has been little change in the basic design to this day.

Carpe diem.

Larry Lyons writes a weekly outdoor column for Leader Publications.
He can be reached at