Chainsaws are great tools to help clear yard waste and keep larger branches and trees under control across our properties. Some folks use chainsaws for art, some for cutting up large game carcasses, and others to prune live trees. Regardless of the use, chainsaw chains need chain oils all the time.
Whether an electric chainsaw, a gas motor, or one of the many types of battery chainsaws, your blades will need chain lubricants. Chainsaw manufacturers recommend certain chain oils made just for their chainsaw bars, and in most cases, this is the type of oil you should use. But why is chainsaw lubricant so important? If you don’t have the right chainsaw bar oil, can you use a substitute oil?
Let’s find out!
What is Chainsaw Oil For?
Oil in chainsaws helps keep the blades lubricated and allows the machine to cut through wood without overheating or combusting. As the internal parts churn the blade faster and faster, everything needs proper lubrication to remain cool and avoid unnecessary friction. Variations in oil viscosity (thickness) and the condition of the spinning blade on the chainsaw determine how long oil lasts and how effective it is at reducing extreme heat and harmful fumes.
Professional arborists know that if they want clean cuts and to get many years out of their expensive chainsaws, the oil reservoir cannot become empty. Gas chainsaw oil will run out at the same time as the fuel in most brands of chainsaws. For battery-powered or electric chainsaws, check the user manual to determine how often to refill regular chain oil for that specific type of chainsaw bar.
Common Chainsaw Bar Oil Substitutes
Chain oil substitutes can be either petroleum-based oils or non-toxic oils that work in the same way or very nearly the same as the recommended type of bar oil. Alternative chain oil for chainsaws only needs to meet a few requirements to work properly, including being sticky, highly lubricating, and non-volatile with a high flash-point. If your oil for chainsaws meets these conditions, it is a suitable alternative but not a permanent solution, the best options are in the chart below.
|Motor Oil||Same viscosity, long use, and high flash point as standard bar oil||Toxic substances and inconsistent performance based on weather conditions and SAE rating|
|Gear Oil||Low-weight motor oil and high viscosity||Stains on protective gear and unpleasant smells|
|Hydraulic Fluid||Operates in low temperatures has a high flash-point||Not environmentally friendly and dries out very quickly|
|Vegetable Oil||Works in cold temperatures and is biodegradable||Clumps during the winter and can expire, turning rancid during long-term storage|
|Transmission Fluid||Tackier and runnier than other chain oil substitutes||Harmful when inhaled, and damages trees and plants|
|Filtered Used Oil||Free and readily available||contains contaminants that could damage chainsaw blades and may clog chainsaw bar oil reservoir|
Traditional motor oil can be used as a chainsaw bar oil alternative. It has the viscosity to coat the entire blade and won’t come off easily when running at high speeds. Some types of oil have cold temperature limitations and will not offer efficient lubrication when air temperatures are low.
- SAE10 – Good motor oil for cold weather. SAE will run with no issues in winter but will have a hard time staying on the blades as the chainsaw heats up. Motor oil with a weight of SAE10 may not provide continuous lubrication as the heat increases.
- SAE20 – This is a well-balanced chain lubrication that offers a chainsaw bar oil alternative that works in pretty much any weather condition. It may run out faster than chain bar oil, so makes sure to check the reserve to avoid damaging your blade and wasting fuel.
- SAE30 – The high viscosity of this motor oil helps it stay on the chainsaw blade even in high temperatures. It has a high flashpoint and can withstand prolonged use. The oil becomes much less effective as the temperature drops and should be mixed with SAE 10 to provide a smooth transition to cooler weather use.
Gear oil or gear fluid can be used to provide lubrication during times of friction when using a chainsaw. The low viscosity helps this lubricant work even at low temperatures. Gear oil stains badly on clothes and can produce excessive fumes, which can cause harm to the lungs. It is also toxic to the environment.
Hydraulic fluid can be used to quickly lubricate a chainsaw bar when no other alternatives are available. It has a high flash point and an excellent viscosity to work at colder temperatures. It will dry up quickly, so reapply often for constant lubrication, and the sprayed hydraulic fluid will have a negative effect on the surrounding vegetation.
Vegetable oil is a catch-all for vegetable-based oils and other common types of oil from plants. Vegetable oils are readily available in most pantries and will not damage a chainsaw blade even with continuous use. Vegetable oils can go bad faster than engine oils and needs to be used quickly. The best types of vegetable oils for chainsaw oil substitutes are:
- Canola Oils – Less sticky and spreads better in cold weather. Completely non-toxic and is used as the primary chainsaw bar oil in most of the world where the manufacturer’s oil is hard to get or unaffordable.
- Coconut Oils – Suitable for summer use and has one of the highest flash points of non-toxic oils. It can be used to improve the thickness of other vegetable-based oils but is unstable and can clump up in cool weather.
- Olive Oils – It has a high viscosity and works well in warm and cool temperatures. Olive oil does not have a very high flashpoint and may start to smoke, although it is non-toxic and will not harm the environment. It is one of the more expensive chainsaw bar oil substitutes and should only be used in emergencies.
- Soybean Oils – Thicker than olive oil but still has a high viscosity allowing it to run smoothly in winter. It is not harmful to the environment and can be a cheap alternative to other pantry oils.
- Sunflower Oils – Another expensive and thin oil, it can work as a chainsaw bar oil substitute for short stretches of time. it doesn’t have a very high flash point and can start to get very sticky in cold temperatures.
This is a tacky and runny oil alternative that should only be used for short-term emergency lubrication purposes. It is harmful to the skin and eyes if splattered and produces very toxic fumes. It can be mixed with other thick oils to produce a better lubricant but is not the best alternative to use on your chainsaw.
Filtered Used Oil
Easily available and cheap to obtain, this has the benefit of always being on hand. You can remove it from any other engine, filter the oil, and then repurpose it for use on your chainsaw blade. Filtered oil will have small contaminants and metal particles that will damage a chainsaw blade over time. Make sure to use clean bar oil as soon as you can to avoid permanently damaging your machines.
Is It Bad to Substitute Chainsaw Oils?
Nothing is worse than running a chainsaw without proper lubrication. The friction and extreme heat generated by cutting wood can quickly lead to blade damage and other avoidable disasters. Using substitute oil is always better than allowing your machine to operate dry.
Choosing substitute oil that will work for your type of chainsaw and in your climate can be a challenge, but fortunately, there are tons of options. Mixing different vegetable-based oils or oils of different weights that are compatible with bar oils can help increase the longevity of the lubricant and protect your equipment. These combinations can also help your chainsaws run better, saving fuel and producing better cutting results in less time.
The most important reason to consider chainsaw bar alternatives is to protect the environment and the object that is being cut. Motor oil and normal chainsaw oil can leave black marks and splash all over the property when running at high speeds and temps. Non-toxic and non-staining alternatives are preferred by wood artists and environmentally conscious loggers.
Tips to Make Bar and Chainsaw Oil More Efficient
Most of these substitute oils will work as a lubricant on your chainsaw blade. Using the right oils is important for the long-term health of your machine, but the effects substitute oils can have on the chainsaw operation and environment needs to be considered. Make sure to follow these tips to keep your chainsaw working as safely as possible.
Always warm up the chainsaw before trying to change or drain any oil. Keep it idling and let the oil already set on the blade heat up and become liquid before running the blade. Let the blade go at a slow speed to completely coat the chain without flinging oil droplets everywhere. Once the oil is hot, and the blade is fully lubricated, you can begin cutting your branches.
In most cases, you will run out of oil before your fuel is finished unless using the manufacturer’s oil. If you run out of oil but still use the remaining fuel to work, you could damage your blade, and your cuts will be much harder to make. Make sure to check if your oil bar reservoir is empty regularly and refill immediately if it is. You can also listen for sounds that your chainsaw is struggling to indicate more lubrication is needed.
The main way to keep your chainsaw efficient is to opt for non-toxic alternatives. Along with being less corrosive to internal parts, the plant-based oils can be mixed to formulate the ideal viscosity for your weather conditions. With no harmful fumes, fewer stains on clothing and wood, and less damage to the surrounding yard, these alternatives need to be thoroughly investigated. Aside from panty-based alternatives, most major chainsaw brands offer non-toxic petroleum-free products as well as the standard bar oil usually supplied.