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Thursday, 14 December 2017

Makita electric chainsaw review

Makita UC4041A: a good electric chainsaw for recutting firewood in the shed

Why I bought a new saw

I use electric chainsaws quite a lot, mostly inside the shed, cutting pole wood into firewood blocks. My old Stihl E140 was working fine, but I like to have a backup for the tools I depend on, so I went looking for a new electric chainsaw (see my blog post on electric chainsaws here).

The options

I didn’t see very many options for a good quality electric chainsaw. The Stihl MSE 170 looks like it would be good, but it’s expensive at $380 and I suspect parts are costly too. Stihl has dropped most corded electric chainsaws from its Australian catalogue (they want to sell cordless) and the 170 is the last one standing. In Germany Stihl list 9 corded chainsaws, including a 2.5kw model which runs 3/8” chain on a 16” bar, that costs around $1000. Husqvarna sells a 2kW corded chainsaw in Europe, but not in Australia. Clearly Australia has a weak market for corded electric chainsaws.
There are a few low cost, low quality corded saws available, which I took no interest in. The time spent and the materials wasted on poor quality, un-repairable machines are not worth it. Saws in particular have to work well to work at all.
The Makita was priced at around $200, was available from many retailers, and importantly, had easy and low cost availability of spare parts. Tradetools priced a replacement armature (commonly burnt out) at $62.

The Makita

I like the new Makita chainsaw. It’s sturdy and well made, has good power (for an electric saw), and is comfortable to use.



Makita with Stihl E140: same format really

This is the Makita chain sprocket, which will need replacing every 2 or 3 chains

Bar and chain

In Australia the Makita is only sold with a 16” bar, but in other countries the same body and motor is sold with 12” and 14” bars – much better suited to the motor’s power. In Australia, our timbers are generally harder and tougher than other countries, so a shorter bar makes more sense here, to reduce the load on the motor and provide more power per tooth. I'm not sure why Makita thinks Australians need the long bar, something with Aussie blokes?...
Makita box image appealing to buyers with bar inadequacy issues
A long bar is easily swapped for a short bar, so that wasn’t a deal breaker.
The Makita uses Oregon 3/8” Low Profile chain, which is normal on small chainsaws. The chain and bar supplied were narrow 1.1mm gauge, which cut a narrow kerf (the slot cut into the wood), reducing the load on the motor. The teeth are shorter than standard 3/8LP chain, promising a shorter chain life - they will file away sooner.
Standard Stihl 3/8LP chain above, Makita (actually Oregon) low kickback chain below - note the short teeth and the kickback-reducing ramps in front of the depth gauges
Makita uses the same chain bar base pattern as Husqvarna, so there are plenty of non-genuine 3/8”LP replacement bars available.
The Makita bar above, Husqvarna bar below - same pattern
I was able to buy a couple different 12” bars cheaply online, one of them was described as for 3/8” chain when it was for 3/8” LP. I also buy chain loops from Huztl.net which work very well. Interestingly, different bars sold as 12” were different lengths, needed different numbers of chain links and definitely weren’t 12” long in cutting length.

Cheap bars and chains: some feedback

One of the short bars I bought for the Makita was sold with a “Mondis” branding on ebay, with a chain, for $28 - very cheap. It fit straight on and worked, but needed some attention and understanding to work fully.
Like many cheap Chinese bar and chain sets, the bar groove was significantly too wide for the chain supplied, and the bar rails (the edge where the chain slides along) were not level. I found it worthwhile to hammer and dress the bar before its first use, closing the rails together to fit the chain without sideways slop, and grinding the rail surface square and smooth (see my video on hammering and dressing chain bars here).
The Mondis chain also has some problems of geometry. The cutter top plates are too narrow to cover the full width of the kerf, leaving about 1mm between left and right teeth which isn’t directly cut. This is fine for crosscutting, but means the chain won’t rip because it leaves a wafer of wood uncut down the middle of the teeth. For most firewood cutting, this is no problem, but it does mean this chain can’t be used for ripping.
For someone who just wants a machine that works and pays a shop to do repairs, cheap bars and chains are often a dud: they need some work to be useable, or at least will need some after a short cutting life. However if you are willing to do some saw doctoring, they will do a lot of work and save you some money.

Chain kerf

Trying different chains, I noticed significantly different kerf widths. The Oregon narrow chain supplied with the Makita cuts a kerf of 5.5mm, where the 3/8”LP chain on the Mondis cuts a kerf of 6.8mm: 25% wider than the Makita. Standard Stihl 3/8LP 1.3mm gauge chain (after a few sharpenings - which makes them narrower) cuts a kerf of 6.0mm (10% wider). I’m not sure how much more power the wider kerf takes to cut, presumably more, but I don’t believe it would be 25% more, it certainly doesn’t feel like it is working harder. The main load in normal crosscutting is in cutting the end grain of the fibres, which is the same whatever the kerf width.

Bar and chain adjustment

My preference for simple, durable and repairable, instead of complex and sophisticated, makes me mistrust the tool-free chain and bar adjustment system in the Makita (and plenty of other new consumer chainsaws). My mistrust is comforted, to a large extent, by my assessment that when/if these components break in the Makita, I'll be able to make a relatively simple bush mechanic repair.
Instead of old-fashioned bar nuts, the Makita has a sort of plastic folding wing nut, designed to be undone without using a spanner.
Clutch cover with plastic folding wing nut
This seems robust enough, but if it gave trouble, it is easily replaced with a normal M8 nut, or (more likely for me) a standard Stihl bar nut which has a bigger bearing surface and can be turned with a normal chainsaw tool (and is available very cheaply from Huztl.net).
See: a Stihl standard bar nut spins straight on. That feels better. 
More potentially problematic is the chain tensioning mechanism, with a finger wheel, presumably using a pair of bevel gears to drive the chain tensioning thread. This works fine but feels flimsy. If it broke, it looks like it could be easily enough removed and bypassed by drilling through the plastic housing beside the bar, to install a traditional bar-side chain tensioning screw (oh for simple, reliable, old-style machines...).
The black metal bit below pushes the bar forward to tension the chain. I reckon it could easily be replaced with a traditional bar-side screw by drilling thru the plastic 
This vulnerable-looking chain adjustment mechanism is probably the aspect of this saw I feel most sceptical about. However I see it as easily repairable, and thus something I can easily live with.

Safety

The Makita has all the usual safety features of good electric chainsaws. It has a thumb button which must be depressed to use the main switch (I want to call it the throttle, but it isn’t). It has an effective chain brake for kickback. It has a run-down brake which stops the motor quickly when you take your finger off the main switch.
The chain supplied by Makita is low-kickback chain, which has a geometry that reduces the digging-in of teeth when they’re going around the bar nose. The disadvantage of this type of chain is that it also makes the chain poor at boring cuts, where you do want the chain to cut as it turns around the bar nose. I prefer to use standard chain and be able to do boring cuts, but for the infrequent chainsaw user, the low-kickback chain is safer.

Summary

The Makita works very well. 1800 watts of power is noticeably more than my 1400w Stihl, and makes it easy to maintain high motor rpm (this is very important to avoid overheating the motor - see my post on electric chainsaws). It seems robust and well built, and after a few hours of use I’m very happy with it. I’m careful not to do frequent starts (which heat the motor) when cutting small pieces: I take the risk of keeping the motor running between multiple cuts. I would advise avoiding cutting with the full bar length, and considering a shorter bar and chain. Overall, this seems to me like the best buy for an electric chainsaw in Australia.

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