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How to sharpen a chainsaw by hand

The sudden advancement from the usual ax to the very effective chainsaw is probably one of the greatest and best evolutionary leaps in the history of tools. Just take a moment to think about it, really amazing right? Almost overnight, the energy and time-consuming task of felling trees have gone from incredibly stressful and time-consuming, to amazingly effortless and quick! In our world today, chainsaws are now commonly used both at home by typical DIYers and at work by professionals or experts to cut down, trim, fell, and cut up trees as well as wooden planks. However, when using a dull chain, even the strongest and most powerful chainsaw will not cut. Not great right? But the good news about this is that, unlike most power-cutting tools and machines, the chains of a chainsaw can be made to have its new look just in a few minutes. It may seem tiring but it is very important to keep your chainsaw chain sharp at all times because.

How to sharpen a chainsaw by hand

You can sharpen a chainsaw chain by hand with a file, or by using a tool. Both methods are not difficult and will result in a sharp and good working chainsaw.

To sharpen a chainsaw by hand follow these steps:

  • Stroke away from your body
  • Look through the file guide
  • Use a piece of wood with a kerf cut to get the correct angle
  • Make Strokes with your file maintaining the proper angle
  • File until the burr is formed

A dull chain typically increases the upward launching of the chainsaw bar after the chain has been caught in the wood. This dangerous occurrence is usually called a kickback and it is one of the common causes of chainsaw injury and accidents. A kickback can damage the hands of the user and ultimately send them to a hospital.

What you Need to Know About Sharpening your Chainsaw Blade

Often times, a dull chainsaw blade will cause burning and buckling when cutting through the wood, and this situation is a very slow and dangerous manner in which one can cut. This is why you need to sharpen your chainsaw blade from time to time to make maximum use of the tool and to also get your work done effectively. You may decide to take your chainsaw to a shop so as to have an expert sharpen it for you. You may also decide to do it yourself. That being said, here is the equipment you’ll need in order to sharpen your chainsaw blade.

What you will need

  • A pair of gloves
  • A filing kit made for chainsaws- round file, file guide, flat file and depth gauges (these you can find available at various outdoor power equipment stores)
  • Protective eyewear to avoid injury

What You Should Do Before Sharpening a Chainsaw Blade: Step by Step

Before you sharpen your chainsaw chain, there are some things that need to be done first. Here are step by step guides on what you should do before proceeding to sharpen your chainsaw chain:

Step 1:

Before you begin to sharpen your chainsaw, it is important for you to know the type of chain and the right sharpening angle specifications. This information is one that you will find on either your chainsaw user manual or on the pack of the chain. Also, the chain identification code is often written on the drive link, so you can easily check for any information that you need about your chainsaw chain.

However, if after all these, you don’t know the type or number on your chain, you can take it to the nearest chain dealer store or check online for information. You can refer to specifications for sharpening chain so as to make your inquiry a lot easier.

Step 2:

Always make sure to put on protective clothing and gear, which include your gloves and eyewear.

Step 3:

If you plan on sharpening your chain while it is still attached to the chainsaw bar, then you should make sure that it is tensioned properly before you begin to sharpen.

Step 4:

If using an electric chainsaw, be sure that your chainsaw is turned off at the power outlet and totally disconnected before you perform any maintenance work.

Step 5:

Make sure you wipe all stains of oil and grease off the chain as this process will ultimately prevent the build-up of dirt from occurring on the file’s teeth when grinding or on the wheel.

Step 6:

Thoroughly check the chainsaw chain for any signs of damage. To make this step a lot easier, here are some things that you should look out for:

  • Drive links: Ensure that the installation of both three tie straps and drive links are properly done.
  • Cracked cutters: Look out for cracked and broken cutters, cutter top plates, or tie straps.
  • Bent drive links: Look out for bent, cracked or burned drive links and ensure to replace them.
  • Worn out chain: Look out for high abrasive damage and abnormally worn out chain. Also, replace them when required.
  • Bar wear out: Check out for wear patterns which may indicate that the bar or sprocket is worn out. For more information, you may refer to the user manual or contact a professional.
  • Look out for loose rivets: You can check this by rotating the rivets with your fingers. If you can conveniently do this, then they are not tight enough.

Step 7:

Now if you are planning to file your chainsaw chain by hand, then make sure you select and use the correct file guide and file for your saw chain. That is the most important step before you begin to file.

Step 8:

If your chainsaw chain is broken, make sure you repair or replace it as soon as possible.

Step 9:

Make sure you check and adjust depth gauges.

Step 10:

Always sharpen your chain to the manufacturer’s recommendations, ensuring that you keep it balanced.

Using a chainsaw sharpener

Generally, here are some lessons on how to use a chainsaw sharpener

  1. Rotary dresser: Always use either a rotary dresser or a dressing brick to ensure easy handling.
  2. Chain brake: Be sure to engage the chain’s brake, then clamp the chainsaw bar lightly in a vice.
  3. Direction: Place the chainsaw guide in between the rivets on the chain, but ensure that the arrows on the guide are pointing towards the nose of the bar.
  4. Angle: Next, follow the angle that is printed on the outer plate of the saw, then the rollers on the guide will also keep you from filing too deep into the side plate of the chain.
  1. Steady and even strokes: Always ensure to use steady and even strokes on the blade with your file, until the face of the cutter is shiny silver. That indicates sharpness.
  2. Move the chain: After you have successfully sharpened about two or three of the cutters, release the brake and then rotate the chain forward or backward so as to expose more blades for you to sharpen. Once done, re-engage the brake and file more cutters or blade.
  3. Turn around: After you have sharpened the blades on one side of your chain, turn the chainsaw around so that you can sharpen the blades on the second side of the chain.
  4. Depth gauge tool: You can also use the depth gauge tool and your file to adjust the height of the depth gauges on your chainsaw chain. If the depth gauges are too high, then the cutters won’t reach the wood.
  5. Sharpen: Every time you refill your gas chainsaw with fuel, always sharpen your chainsaw chain.
  6. Dirt: Even after sharpening, keep your chain away from dirt whenever you are cutting. This will prevent it from dulling quickly.

Now, it can also be of great help if you know or believe that sharpening a chainsaw chain is not scary. Certainly, in some cases or situations, some chainsaw cutters may look somewhat scary to you, causing you to think that you can’t sharpen the saw yourself. However, with the help of a couple of inexpensive files and guides, you can successfully sharpen your chain in about 10 minutes or less. In fact, you can totally transform that slow-cutting chainsaw into a more effective and time-saving tool. It is also possible to sharpen the chain while its still on the saw or just by the wood that you plan on cutting, it doesn’t necessarily need to take long before you can achieve results. Just ensure that you file it often, by doing that, you’ll be able to get more years of sharp cutting and effectiveness from your chain. In the rest of this article, we will show you how to use chainsaw sharpeners.

How to Know When to Sharpen a Chainsaw

To know when it is right to sharpen your chainsaw, try to cut or saw with it. After sawing, carefully inspect the waste material from your saw cuts. If what you get from your cut is dust, then that means it’s time to sharpen your chainsaw. However, if you get chips, that indicates that the cutters are sharp and may not need sharpening for some time.

With just very little force on the bar, a sharp chain will cut very well, however, a dull chain will ride in the cut or buckle down without actually deepening the cut. Now, if you are forcing the saw so as to get it to cut, then your chain is dull and definitely needs to be sharpened. Also, as mentioned above, when the chain begins to spit out dust instead of wood chips, then it is time to get a round file and sharpen the cutters until they are sharp again. Asides from the fact that it increases the cutting time and is less effective, a dull chain is also dangerous. When using one, it can actually increase the chances of kickback. In a kickback situation, the chain will most likely get caught in the material and throw the bar up towards the operator, hence causing an accident or injury to the operator.

Chain Anatomy- Three Parts of the Blade that are Sharpened

Be sure to inspect the cutters or blade on your chain loop. The semicircular cutting edges on your saw can be easily sharpened with a round file. Also, the depth-gauge fin in front of each cutter is what controls how deep the cutter can bite into the wood. Then the angle ground on the cutters always alternates between the left and right in order to keep the saw cutting straight.

The saw teeth on the chain always have semicircular cutting edges that come in specific diameters. In order to sharpen them, use a round file that also comes in the same diameter. Just in front of each cutter, there is a depth gauge, a piece of metal that is shaped like a fin. The depth gauge’s tip is only some inch shorter than the tip of the cutter and this feature controls how deep the cutter can bite into the wood. However, after several times of sharpening, the cutters can become level with the depth gauges, and this can keep the saw from cutting right. But with a flat file and a file guide, it is a lot easier to lower the depth gauges to the appropriate height.

Getting your chainsaw blade sharpened is easier especially if the cutters have become dull from normal use. However, if the cutters or blade are badly nicked and become crooked from accidental contact with rocks, dirt or hard objects that are embedded in trees, it may be advisable to get professional help or employ an expert so as to get it sharpened. You may also want to look into buying a new one.

The Appropriate Tools for Sharpening – What to Get and not to Get

As mentioned above, make sure you get these four sharpening tools so as to easily use then as chainsaw sharpeners; a round file with a file guide to sharpen the cutters and a flat-file with a depth-gauge guide for lowering the depth gauges.

Tip: Be sure not to use a rattail file on your cutters.

For sharpening easily, you will need:

1. A round file:

One that matches the diameter of your cutter or blade. The commonly used diameters for medium-duty chainsaws are 5/32, 3/16, and 7/32 in. For your chain saw’s requirements, you can check the user’s manual or check for the chain identification number that is often stamped on the drive link. There are certain engine dealers and hardware stores that have charts that would have the right file diameter that will match this number.

Tip: Do not, in any case, use a standard rattail file as your chainsaw sharpener. This is because it has tapered diameter and coarse teeth, and this will ruin the cutters on your chainsaw.

2. A file guide:

A file guide is a tool that holds the round file at a uniform depth making it easy for you to sharpen each cutter.

3. Flat file:

A flat file and gauge are also needed for occasionally resetting the depth gauges of the saw.

Always ensure to file at the right angles: To achieve this, first mount your round file (which is the right size, and definitely precise for the rattail file) in the file guide. Next, hold your file at an angle of 30 or 35 degrees (to check, see your saw’s cutters) to the bar in a horizontal position and at a right angle vertically. Then you can start filing. Ensure you count each stroke, and make sure you use that same number of strokes on each cutter to achieve accuracy.

Sharpening by Hand

When sharpening by hand, always endeavor to follow the following steps:

1. Stroke away from your body:

When sharpening, always make outward strokes from your body while also ensuring that the file is at 30 or 35 degrees to the bar. Cut a slot in a log that would help hold the bar while sharpening. Don’t forget that the file guide helps you to file all the cutters to the same depth and shape.

2. Look through the file guide:

While cutting, constantly look through the file guide so as to line up the cutter with the file. You will also feel as the file rests into the cutter. Make sure you file every other cutter, then move to the other side of the bar so that you can sharpen the rest. Also, as you file, you will need to raise or allow the chain to move further ahead after sharpening every five or six cutters. Don’t forget to wear your gloves for this. However, while you file the cutters, you may feel like you need to have a better feel of the contact made between the file and cutter, that’s if you work barehanded though.

3. Kerf cut:

Make a 2 inches deep kerf cut into the wood and place the saw bar into it so as to secure it while sharpening. Then place the file and file guide into a cutter on the top and towards the end of the bar. Create a mark on top of the cutter with a felt-tipped pen so as to show the spot where you began using the chainsaw file. Also, line up the factory ground angle with the cutter. Most times, the angle turns up to be about 30 or 35 degrees, and most file guides also have 30 and 35-degree angles stamped on their upper side so as to help you maintain the same angle as you file.

4. Strokes:

Make a stroke with your file, while still maintaining the proper angle on the blades, which is parallel to the ground but also away from your body. You will feel the guide bar sliding on top of the cutter and depth gauge. The first couple of strokes that you make on your dull cutter may cause your hand to vibrate a little, it’s totally normal. Just take five or six more outward strokes, and then pause. When you notice a sharp look along the blade’s outer edge, then the cutter is already sharp. Always skip a cutter and file the next one with the same number of strokes as the first. This is because the cutting angles on the cutters often reverse direction on every other tooth.

5. File until the burr is formed:

Be sure to file until the burr is formed on the outside edge of the cutter. Once you have sharpened like five cutters, put on your gloves, disengage the brake and pull the chain along the bar so as to expose the following set of cutters. With the mark you make, continue sharpening the cutters until you reach the one you marked. That means that you have reached the end of the cutters for that side. Move to the other side of the bar and begin to sharpen the cutters on the opposite side, not forgetting to use the same number of strokes as before.

Now, if you feel that sharpening by hand is rather tedious and time-consuming, you can decide to use other tools for this.

Quick and Simple Power Sharpening

Instead of sharpening your chainsaw by hand, you can decide to save yourself the energy and time by making use of a rotary tool to sharpen the cutters. There are several kinds of chainsaw sharpeners that are available on the market which you can choose from. Some come with three grinding wheels which are available in popular diameters with a guide that easily screws onto the rotary tool so as to control the depth at which it cuts as well as the angle. There are even other brands that come with a stone and guide which can be used to sharpen lawnmower blades. However, make sure you wear safety glasses while using them. Place the grinding wheel against the cutter also making the edge of the guide to be parallel to the cutter’s factory-ground angle, then put on the equipment, grinding the cutter with the sideways pressure. Count to four and stop. Make sure you sharpen all the cutters just as you would if using a round file instead, then switch to the opposite end and sharpen the cutters.

Once you can get very familiar with using the rotary tool as a chainsaw sharpener, you can conveniently move from one cutter to another while the equipment is still running. This would make sharpening go at a faster rate.

Filing depth gauge- Check depth gauge heights

Each time you sharpen, always check the height of the depth gauge with the filing guide. The moment they become above the guide, use a flat-file to file them flush. Also, using the depth gauge guide, check the height of the depth-gauge fins that are right in front of the cutters. The gauge sits on the blades and a slotted ledge sits on the depth-gauge fin. Now if the fin becomes higher than the ledge on the guide, file it lightly with your flat file so as not to file away some of the ledges on the guide.

Old Chainsaws and Sharpened Chainsaws

  • Pulls to the side: Once your saw pulls to the side when cutting, it is most likely because the cutters on one side are sharper than the ones on the other side. To ensure that your saw is cutting in a straight line, make sure you pay close attention to filing each side of the cutter with the same number of strokes as well as the same level of pressure.
  • Worn out chain: You can sharpen your cutters for about 10 times or even more before the chain is worn out or needs replacing. Even if your cutters are worn in an uneven manner after a few sharpening, you can take them to a professional who will regrind them to have a uniform shape.
  • New chain: Also, if you use a chain for a few years, then you should buy a new one. Although, the new one may not mesh smoothly with the bar and it may cause rough-cutting as well as faster wear on the saw. So, it may be advisable to buy two extra chains when purchasing your saw and then switch among the three, occasionally. By doing this, all the components of the blade such as the bar, sprockets, and chains, will be able to fit together. This will prolong the years of your saw and would allow you to be able to use it for a long time.
  • Same angle: Finally, guiding that clamp to the bar will make sure that you file at the same angle on each cutter. They may take a bit longer to use, but they always restore the cutting edge to the factory-ground angle. Due to this, there’s a lesser chance that your chain will need to be reground by an expert.


Overall, safety is much more important in each of these methods of sharpening a chainsaw chain. Always take care when using the file or a sharpening tool. Wear gloves where necessary and try to not be distracted when working on your chainsaw. That being said, good luck with your DIY sharpening method!