What Is Chainsaw Kickback? What Causes It And How To Prevent Accidents

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A chainsaw is a dangerous device, and in the hands of an inexperienced user, it can be doubly harmful.

In the past, chainsaws were sold only to those who worked with timber by trade (and before that, chainsaws were used in childbirth!), but today more than three million chainsaws are purchased in the United States annually for various purposes.

Even though they come equipped with safety features such as kickback protection and chain brakes, they are amongst the most dangerous pieces of equipment and can pose life-threatening injuries if not used correctly or as intended.

Below, we’ll explain chainsaw kickback as well as the kickback zone, causes of kickback, preventive measures, and how to avoid kickbacks in the first place altogether.

Chainsaw Kickback

Chainsaw circulation is currently at its peak.

The usage of newer saws with safety features (and millions of older chainsaws) results in over 28,000 chainsaw-related injuries every year.

Most of these injuries are hand-related, but many involve lacerations to the head and neck regions. It goes without saying that one must exercise an abundance of caution when operating this potentially dangerous piece of equipment.

What Is Chainsaw Kickback?

Chainsaw kickback is an expression used to describe the sudden and lightning-fast upward motion of the guide bar. You can see an example of it in the video above.

It occurs when the end portion of the guide bar’s nose strikes an object, resulting in the chain becoming pinched.

The CSA (Canadian Standards Association) describes kickback as, ‘the rapid upward motion of the guide bar that can occur when the saw chain, near the nose (tip) of the top area of the guide bar, contacts an object such as a log or branch (rotational kickback), or the backward movement that can occur when the wood closes in and pinches the saw chain in the cut (pinch kickback).’

This can be very hazardous and is one of the most common causes of accidents related to chainsaws.

We’ll have a look at the different types of kickback that can take place and what you need to be wary of.

Linear Kickback

This occurs when the saw chain at the other end of the bar is pinched shut by the object that is being cut.

Therefore, if at any point the chain gets pinched or closed on either side of the object, the chainsaw will get pushed back at full throttle due to the excess power.

Bottom line, do not allow the chain to get pinched, and be extremely careful and alert.

Rotational Kickback

This is a dangerous one, and also the most common.

It is the least controllable and is initiated when an object touches the nose or the guide bar’s tip, causing the saw to go haywire and be “kicked” back towards you with maximum force. This nose or tip is called the kickback zone, as will be discussed below.

When the cutting angles of the teeth angle back, they tend to run on the wood rather than cutting into it. The grinding of the teeth onto the wood instead of into it forces the bar’s tip upwards towards you.

It will catch you by surprise, and you will lose control of it and get a kickback, all in a split second.

Pull-In Kickback

If the saw you are using hits a piece of wood or a nail on the other end, the saw will be jerked forward and away from your grip.

The Chainsaw Kickback Zone

kickback zone

Chainsaw kickbacks mainly occur in the kickback zone on the saw blade.

This zone refers to the top of the tip of the chainsaw bar. If you use this point of the saw to cut, the blade will get pinched on the wood, and you’ll be met with the dreaded kickback.

Keep in mind that the larger the guide bar’s nose, the higher the probability for a chainsaw kickback.

The zone is considered a high-risk area, and you are advised not to use that part of the bar while cutting or sawing, as doing this will exponentially increase the chances of experiencing a kickback.

What Causes Chainsaw Kickback?

Most commonly, kickback occurs when the chain gets pinched on something, like a piece of wood. Since the saw isn’t capable of handling a large piece of wood when it hits the cutting tooth, the chain stops entirely, leaving the power to go nowhere else.

It’s often easy to forget that even if the chainsaw chain is stuck, the engine is continuously running, and the power is still there. Consequently, according to Newton’s third law of motion (which states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction), the kickback is initiated.

The more the chainsaw gets stuck, the more brutal and dangerous the kickback will be.

Under normal circumstances, individual teeth of the chainsaw take off little pieces of wood at a time. But this takes place rapidly while actually operating the chainsaw, which makes for a clean cut. The depth of each cut is decided by the depth gauge, allowing a small piece of wood to be cut at a time.

Usually, chainsaws are made so that the depth gauge allows for approximately 0.018 inches to 0.030 inches of wood to be cut with each different cut. In the kickback zone, the chain’s alignment is such that more wood is cut than advised below the cutting tooth.

Kickback Triggers

Three main situations can trigger a kickback:

  1. When the moving chain at the guide bar’s tip hits an object, as mentioned above
  2. When the wood closes, pinching the saw chain in the middle of cutting
  3. Pull-in kickback

All of these incidents cause the guide bar to inadvertently kickback, which then causes the operator to lose control of the saw, resulting in serious injuries.

Other than the scenarios listed above, there are also several minor issues (which alone or in combination with another issue) can drastically increase the chances of a chainsaw kickback.

These are:

  • Dull chain
  • Neglected or improper chain saw maintenance
  • Loose saw chain tension
  • Incorrectly fitted parts
  • Broken or cracked chain components
  • Loose rivets
  • Wrongly sharpened chain angle

How to Prepare for Kickback

You may be familiar with the expression, ‘prevention is better than cure.’

This is highly applicable when it comes to handling a chainsaw because once the kickback occurs, it is impossible to do anything about it.

Being prepared ahead of time is the best option.

Protective Equipment

First of all, wear protective equipment.

It is highly vital that you wear the right gear. Helmets with a visor should be the primary choice because when a kickback occurs, the head is one of the prime targets for injury.

Another essential piece of equipment is thick trousers or good chainsaw chaps. Chainsaw chaps are preferable because they are chainsaw resistant and are also specially designed to protect the left side of your leg, which is another prime target for a kickback.

Other protective equipment should include:

  • Jacket
  • Thick leather gloves
  • Earplugs
  • Heavy boots (i.e., logging boots)

Heed the advice of obtaining and investing in proper protective equipment seriously, as it could be what saves you from a life or death situation.

How To Avoid Chainsaw Kickback

chainsaw kickback injuries

There are many ways to avoid a potential chainsaw kickback.

Here are some of the best rules of thumb to avoid losing your thumb.

Read The Manual

Reading the instruction manual should be your first order of business, especially if you are not an experienced chainsaw operator. The manual will provide all the information you need to use the chainsaw correctly and, more importantly, safely.

Prepare The Saw

Checking on the chainsaw before starting work is always a good idea. Teeth that are sharpened perfectly will cut more efficiently, smoothly, and safely.

Check on the air filter, spark plug and muffler, and all other components to ensure that they are working properly. Doing this will make the engine run better and will prevent possible kickbacks. Also, ensure to keep the instruction manual handy and consult it while making adjustments to the engine or the chain.

Proper chain tension will help in sustaining a long chain life and will cut more precisely, as well. A chain that is too loose will be inclined to derail, sway about, and could be a hazard in itself.

Alternatively, a chain that is too tight will become old and blunt prematurely. Remember that all chains do stretch with use, and checking and readjusting are essential every time you use it.

Lubricating it properly with oil will help and maintain the correct tension. Check the oil as often as possible, and refill it if needed while carefully following the directions.

Check The Chain Brake

The chain brake is the most vital part of a chainsaw. It is specially designed to stop the saw chain by applying a brake to it. It’s incredibly useful if a kickback occurs, as it can lessen the possibility of serious injury.

The chain brake stops the cutting chain and is also used to stop or prevent the chain from accidentally picking up speed while you are switching cutting positions. Most chainsaws come with two types of braking systems: one is an inertia braking system, and the other is a mechanical braking system.

Some manufacturers have come up with a third braking system as well, such as Husqvarna’s TrioBrake, which has a second mechanical brake at the rear end of the saw.

When a kickback occurs, the chain brake can be used to halt the rotating chain. While being struck by a stopped chain isn’t ideal, it is far better than being hit by a full-speed rotating chain.

Low Kickback Chains

Modern chainsaws have safety features that efficiently reduce kickbacks.

These features include chain breaks (as discussed above), the bar tip guard, and low or reduced kickback chain and guide bars. For these features to work effectively, it’s crucial to double-check and ensure that the chainsaw is assembled correctly and that all the parts are attached and function properly.

Low-profile chains or semi-chisel chains are a good fit for beginners, as they are specifically designed to have less kickback.

Keep Chain Sharp

Using a dull chain increases the risk of causing a kickback, as the teeth cannot slice through the wood, which causes the chain to get stuck and cause a kickback.

Watch The Kickback Zone

The chainsaw bar’s nose is the area to avoid (as it is the kickback zone). Be alert and use the correct part of the chainsaw to ensure there are no kickbacks.

Maintain A Solid Grip

Make sure to have a good grip on the chainsaw with both hands and ensure your hands are not slippery. The right hand should always hold the rear handle, and the left hand should have a firm hold on the front handle. A good pair of chainsaw gloves can help.

Operate Chainsaw Correctly

The ANSI (American National Standards Institute) instructs that “a chainsaw shall be operated with the left hand and thumb gripped firmly around the forward handle and the right hand and thumb gripped firmly around the rear handle.” The standard also advised that the user should be in a steady and firm body position before starting the chain saw.

Check Your Surroundings

Always remember to check your surroundings to see if there are any obstacles or barriers in the area where you are cutting.

Pay attention to the bar’s nose
Constantly watch the nose of the bar and do not let it make contact with any object, such as a branch or a piece of wood.
Cut at engine speed

This is where the chain is at its most effective and, thankfully, there is less chance of a kickback occurring.

Use Suitable Chains

Use chains that are suitable for your cutting needs during that particular time. This is because there is a variety of different chain types; some chains are lighter and their pitches differ according to sizes.

Work On The Correct Side

Work on the left side of anything you are cutting, as close to the chainsaw as possible, as it gives you complete control.

Stay Alert

Pieces of wood can be jammed in the chain and thrown into your face causing you to lose control of the saw. This is one of the worst-case scenarios obviously, so be extremely alert at all times.

What Not to Do

Above all else, there are three things that you absolutely should do not do under any circumstances:

  • Don’t stand directly behind the saw
  • Do not saw or cut wood or anything else that is above your shoulder height
  • Do not saw in the kickback zone

Avoiding Chainsaw Kickback

If you are a beginner when it comes to using chainsaws (or happened to have forgotten their potentially harmful mishaps), the above is a handy and perhaps life-saving guide.

Knowing what a kickback is, how it happens and why it can keep you out of harm’s way is the obvious end goal. It’s also imperative to take preventive measures and obtain protective gear that will certainly ensure your safety.

Ultimately, it all comes down to properly maintaining and taking care of your chainsaw, and knowing how to use the saw effectively is key. Having this information in your toolbox of knowledge could be the best tool you’ve ever had.

Think about attending a chainsaw course to better familiarize yourself with the tool, and make sure you learn how to keep your chainsaw clean for the safest operating.


Chainsaw Chain Types Guide: Understanding Chainsaw Chains

Chainsaw Accidents And Injuries: Be Prepared And Stay Alert


2 thoughts on “What Is Chainsaw Kickback? What Causes It And How To Prevent Accidents”

  1. I find that you always hear people who don’t know much about chainsaws talking about kickback but it doesn’t happen seriously all that often. Obviously it only needs to get you once, but it’s not something we need to be overly anxious about. Hold on to your saw and remain attentive and you’ll be right.

    • Yeah, serious events are fairly rare thankfully. However, it depends on the wood you’re working with. I was speaking with an arborist today who said his saw kicked back 15 times today. He was taking down some large macrocarpa and it would happen on those smaller limbs.


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