Did you know the first-ever chainsaw wasn’t made to cut wood? We were also surprised. Chainsaws seem like the simplest of tools, but they have a lot going on in their past.
Here, we want to show you a piece of the chainsaw history, so you can have a better idea next time you use one.
To be honest, we rarely think of the origins of the tools we use. From the computer to the cellphone, cars, planes, TVs, and maybe even our headphones and irons-they all feel like magic, yet they were once someone’s idea and not more than that.
But the chainsaw is a unique tool in the garden. One of the few that can cut wood smoothly, saving minutes or even hours of work on most days.
We wanted to honor that by explaining its backstory (where it comes from, when it was invented, and more importantly, why). All of that (and more) you’ll find below – take a look!
Chainsaw History: An Overview
There’s probably no tool (NONE!) that has made as much of an impact in the timber, forestry, and woodworking industries as the chainsaw.
That’s the first thing you need to know.
If it weren’t for the chainsaw, many of the things around you that are made of wood probably wouldn’t be there. The use of chainsaws accelerated wood-driven industries to a point where you could argue it actually changed the world.
How is that? Consider these primary reasons:
- Made cutting trees a lot easier (transformed a two or three-man job into a one-man job)
- Helped boost productivity to the point of no return (timber industries grew exponentially)
- Reduced wood prices and boosted accessibility (everyone could buy wood for cheaper)
- Allowed anyone to cut their own wood with little effort (even women could use one)
While the first-ever mechanical chainsaw comes from the 18th century, it wasn’t until the 19th century when we met the electrical one.
Fast forward more than 200 years, and we still use the chainsaw. One of the most useful and yet easy-to-use tools ever.
Today, you can find not only mechanical and electric chainsaws but also cordless chainsaws. This also includes pole saws and mini chainsaws, plus a wide array of other similar tools that fit the mark.
As our need for wood grew, the chainsaw was there to help us meet the demand. And more importantly, to make the job a lot easier.
Suffice to say, the chainsaw probably changed the world – and we still take it for granted.
Why Were Chainsaws Invented?
The first person who ever used a chainsaw didn’t use it to cut wood.
That’s a surprising fact, right?
So, what was the first chainsaw ever made for?
Believe it or not, it was built with the sole purpose of cutting human bone.
A pair of surgeons (John Aitken and James Jeffrey) needed to find a way to cut human flesh more easily. Back in the 18th century, we didn’t have the tools we have today for that kind of job. The chainsaw looked like the perfect solution.
But it doesn’t stop there…
The first chainsaw wasn’t invented to cut bone and flesh alone. It was actually used, more than anything, to help women give birth.
Well, giving birth 300 years ago wasn’t as easy as it is today. We didn’t know how to induce easy deliveries and smooth out the process.
When newborns got stuck in their mom’s birth canal, surgeons had to do something FAST. Otherwise, the child and the mother could die within a matter of hours.
The solution? Enter the chainsaw.
Surgeons used it to cut the pelvic area. It went through the cartilage and flesh more easily than any knife.
And it worked.
BE AWARE: This is the most dramatic use of the first chainsaw. While its inventors were surgeons, they mostly used it to cut diseased bone (deformities and abnormalities).
How Did the First Chainsaw Work?
The year was 1780. John and James didn’t rely on electricity like we do today. Instead, they have to use less advanced methods: mechanics.
This chainsaw was powered by hand, more specifically, a hand crank. It powered the teeth that were connected to a little chain. After each crank, the tool turned on, using a typical cranking mechanism. Each crank made the chain circle around the oval shape of the blade.
You could say it was close to what we know as a chainsaw today, but with way older technology.
Either way, the original chainsaw didn’t withstand the weight of time as a surgical tool. But it eventually evolved into something entirely different.
Today, it is the best tool for cutting wood and trees we have.
How Chainsaws Evolved?
So, how did the chainsaw go from a medical tool to a wood-cutting tool?
In reality, no one knows how it made the jump. After the first medical chainsaw in the late 1700s, we decided to take it slow. A few years later, the skull saw was invented, and several decades later, we came with other mechanical variations. It wasn’t long until its use as a medical tool was stopped.
#1. Mechanical Chainsaws (Somewhere in the 1800s)
Most of these chainsaws went through many iterations. And they were used for all kinds of things.
Most of them were used in the medical field. Others were large and difficult to turn on and maintain. Plus, they weren’t affordable at all. Few people had the chance to use one – and they didn’t last long.
Until then, the two-man manual saw dominated the market in the woodworking industry.
#2. Chainsaws as Electrical Tools (1918)
The first electrical chainsaw didn’t appear until the 20th century.
It was James Shand, a Canadian millwright, who invented the first portable chainsaw. An easier way to wood that required fewer people and less space.
#3. Chainsaw Mass Production (1924)
A German engineer name Andrea Stihl saw how a two-man saw wasn’t the best at cutting wood. It was slow and tricky, plus it required way too much effort – something that reduced productivity.
Even worse, it was challenging to produce – so getting it in the hands of as many people as possible wasn’t easy.
Obviously, he had to think of a solution.
His idea? Use electricity to power the tool (cheap) and use a chain with teeth to cut the wood (more effective), plus steel parts (durability). Thus, the first electrical chainsaw was finally commercialized and mass-produced.
#4. Gas-Powered Chainsaws Entered the Market (1927)
Emil Lerp, a businessman from Germany, decided the electric chainsaw wasn’t as powerful as it could.
He came up with a gas-powered machine. Like cars, he saw how gas was way better to power up things than electricity – so he decided to make that possible.
His invention made it easier for the already-established Andreas Stihl to mass-produce the gas-powered chainsaw. From here on, chainsaws devoured the woodworking market.
#5. One-Man Electrical Chainsaws (1944)
The first chainsaws weighed 116 pounds. A gas-powered model weighed 139 pounds. They were so heavy that it took two men to carry and operate, plus another man to help.
Suffice to say; someone needed to disrupt this new technology.
Claude Poulan invented the “bow guide,” a way to reduce the weight and instability of the tool. Now one man could use a chainsaw.
Also, aluminum alloys became more prominent, so people started to use them for everything. This included chainsaws.
The first one-man electrical chainsaw arrived at the US market after more than 15 years since the creation of the first one.
#6. Faster and Better Wood Cuts (1947)
Joseph Buford Cox saw how the original chainsaws didn’t have much of a bite. They cut wood a lot faster than a typical two-man saw, but they still required a significant effort to go through.
He got inspiration from the beetle larvae, a timber-eating insect that eats across the wood grain, making a wood-devouring machine. Joseph came with the idea of the Cox Chipper Chain, boasting better teeth that cut through wood a lot faster than the usual chain.
#7. Super-Light Chainsaws Enter the Market (1949)
Chainsaws were already the go-to tool for cutting wood and bringing down trees. But McCulloch Motors Corp. didn’t believe the large tool was practical enough.
The company decided to come up with a more convenient idea: a 25-pound chainsaw. It was the Model 3-25 – the lightest chainsaw back then.
#8. Less Fatigue and More Balance (1964)
Many new things were added to the chainsaw in 15 years, but none like the anti-vibration handle. Once again, Stihl (where the first electric chainsaw was born) created this innovation.
The focus of this handle, as its name said, was to reduce vibrations exponentially. As most engines were potent, it was difficult to control the tool – these handles made it all a lot easier.
Woodworkers and loggers had an easier time cutting with precision and with less fatigue going forward.
#9. Ultimate Chainsaw Safety (1973)
Chainsaws were cool for their ability to cut fast and effectively. But they weren’t the safest of tools.
The most dangerous part of a chainsaw was the chain itself. Not precisely when people cut themselves but when the chain kicked back after a wrong contact with wood. This usually broke the chain to the point that it went back and cut people in difficult areas.
Husqvarna invented a solution: the Automatic Chain Break. This lever prevented the chain from going towards the user after harsh kickback. Most loggers and woodworkers didn’t experience face cuts ever again.
#10. Lighter and More Potent (1980)
Going forward almost a decade, many companies introduced many new versions of the chainsaw. But it wasn’t until Husqvarna came with the model 154, a chainsaw mainly built with plastic parts.
This reduced the tool’s weight exponentially, helping to achieve a lot more accuracy and reducing fatigue. Plus, the lower weight allowed the motor to go a little faster, increasing potency a bit.
#11. No Cord and No Gas (the 2000s)
The early 2000s were a breaking moment for chainsaws – the first battery-operated models came into the market.
They weren’t too enticing, as battery technology wasn’t too advanced. These chainsaws were slow, underpowered, and their battery didn’t last long.
But it was still outstanding: they were a lot cheaper, easier, and much more convenient to operate. And if that wasn’t enough, they didn’t produce any contamination.
#12. Long-Lasting Battery Chainsaws (2011)
It wasn’t until 2011 when Stihl used new lithium-ion battery technology to create a chainsaw that lasted over 35 minutes per operation. Plus, cordless chainsaws started to get a lot more powerful.
It didn’t take long until people started to use them a lot. Nowadays, they take a big chunk of the market.
What Does the Future Hold for Chainsaws?
No one knows what the future holds in almost any aspect of life. This includes chainsaws.
But it’s worth remembering: the first chainsaws were medical tools. And now, we use them exclusively for wood cutting.
Isn’t that amazing? A seemingly dangerous tool became one of the woodworkers’ best friends – in the garden, at work, or for simple hobbies.
But it still needs some improvements – it’s far from a perfect tool.
That’s why the future of chainsaws relies on those who can make battery-powered chainsaws more powerful so people can stop using gas-powered ones. Also, it depends on those who make them more comfortable, lighter, and much more effective at cutting wood.
It’s also good to know is that chainsaws are going nowhere. Humans need more wood than ever before, and the wood industry is growing like crazy.
And with more demand for wood and industries growing, innovations follow. It won’t be long until something great reaches the market – so you can receive it with open arms.
Chainsaws are here to stay. They’re simply amazing. And everyone should be glad to use them for cutting wood (and not flesh like crazy surgeons in the 18th century).
Now that you have a better idea of chainsaw history plus a better understanding of where the market is likely going – you’re now ready to use one with pride.