“A pole saw is a type of saw that sits on a pole.”
Accurate, but not very helpful, eh?
Adding the fact that it’s usually used for trimming tree branches doesn’t give much more information either.
Let’s do better.
To start, there’s a type of pole saw that’s no more than a handsaw on a stick. They’re often called a pruner instead.
That’s not the type I’ll be talking about. They’re simple enough that you really don’t need any guidance. Pick a manufacturer with a good reputation, select a model according to length and budget, and you’re done.
Instead, I’ll be discussing the type that is, in fact, closer to a chainsaw on a pole.
Describing it that way gives a much more vivid picture. Everyone knows what a chainsaw looks like.
Still, there are considerable differences between a handheld chainsaw and a pole saw.
Why Buy a Polesaw? Why Read This At All?
I live on several acres in the Pacific Northwest, surrounded by thousands of acres of trees. For me, a pole saw is a must, basic equipment to keep my own parcel trimmed. But even if you just have a few trees to care for in a postage-stamp yard, you might benefit from owning one of these superb tools.
The problem is, as with most consumer products these days, there are so many options on the market it can be a horror to narrow the choices down. Even to get them down to a dozen you might want to consider closer can be a tough slog. Still, it can be done, and without the need to read a ton of info. Let’s zoom in…
Types of Polesaws
One way to skinny the list right away down to something manageable is to make a first cut by type. Pole saws come in three main types: gas, electric, cordless. The definitions are easy to guess.
Just like chainsaws, a pole saw needs power and it can be supplied by a gas engine (like a lawnmower motor, only smaller). Or, it can be plugged into a standard house outlet, usually via a very long outdoor extension cord, and then run on electricity. A subset of that type has an onboard battery, eliminating the need for the cord.
There are several features they all have in common, though. They attach to a pole (obviously), which can usually telescope out – typically up to 8, 10, even 12 feet or more. Some professional units stretch as far as 20 feet.
The saw itself is almost always a chain carrying sharpened metal teeth, rather than a solid blade with a serrated edge. The latter type was discussed, and dismissed, above. That chain wraps around a thin, oval bar usually made of steel. The chain moves around the bar, carrying the teeth that do the sawing, just like a regular chainsaw. That movement usually introduces the need for a lubricant to keep the bar cool, but I’ll defer that to a section below.
Which type is best for you? Obviously, there’s no universal answer to that. It depends on your personal circumstances and preferences.
If you have a big property like mine, a corded electric is only useful for work not too far from the house. In fact, for some home owners, you need to be pretty close to the garage. A lot of houses don’t have outdoor outlets anywhere but there, and it’s not usually wise to run a cord through a screen. It’s definitely not convenient.
In that scenario, that necessarily leaves only one of the two types: cordless or gas. In my case, I do more than trim the trees around the lawn. I have several acres of forest surrounding it. Also, I don’t always feel like getting out the chainsaw and a tall ladder.
Even if you have to do no more than trim some fruit trees around a yard, a cordless or gas model might well be preferable. Getting a tall ladder up into an apple tree is a bit of a pain, if doable. Doing so while dealing with an extension cord can be downright unsafe. A long pole helps, of course, but there are limits.
Deciding between cordless or gasoline-powered is usually pretty easy, though. Any individual is going to have natural preferences here.
Noise level is often considered. I’ll get it out the way at once because it frequently doesn’t matter much. True, electrics are inherently quieter. But sawing tree limbs is noisy even if the unit itself makes zero sound. Using a gas model is only marginally louder than an electric, all things considered.
Gas pole saws are typically heavier than electrics. Cordless units have hefty batteries if they are to last even as long as an hour (as most do). An electric will typically be under 10 lbs, but a cordless may weigh 15 lbs. A gas model may weigh several pounds more.
Even so, the pole represents a big chunk of the total weight and there is some overlap among the various models. That said, it matters a lot how heavy the end is and gas units are generally heavier on the tip.
On the other hand, a gas pole saw typically offers far more power than a cordless. If you have very thick branches you want to trim, a gas unit is a must. It will do the job much quicker and, equally important, much more safely. Even if you get a gas unit with a small tank, one that provides only an hour of use, it’s faster to refill the tank than recharge a cordless polesaw.
Naturally, that brings us around to reconsidering a corded electric polesaw. They’re the lightest, provide a medium amount of power, and can be run almost as long as you have electricity from the utility. I say “almost” because there are other factors than power supply to consider. See below.
An Aside on Lubricant
Among those factors is how the lubricant is supplied to the chain on the bar. Many corded electrics (and cordless ones, too) have a little chamber to supply oil to the chain wrapped around the bar. That keeps the chain (and, to an extent, the bar) cooler during use.
At a certain point, a hot chain would seize up and/or break if not lubricated. It also helps somewhat to move the teeth through the branch. Apart from that, it’s possible to start a fire in a tree if the chain/bar got hot enough, long enough.
Keep in mind as you look at various models that not all units self-lubricate. Some cheap ones require you to drip oil on the chain from time to time during use. Best to avoid them. The savings is rarely worth the hassle.
Beside the need for lubricant, a gas-powered pole saw will almost always use a 2-cycle engine. That sort uses an oil-gas mixture to power the engine. Frequently, the same mixture lubricates the chain/bar simultaneously.
The point is, you can only run any pole saw – electric or gas-powered – for so long, even if you can keep supplying it with power. Chains get hot. Bars get hot. Even with lubricant they can get hot enough to start a fire in a tree.
One purpose of this side excursion is to suggest that you don’t need to place too much emphasis on how long the pole saw will continue to cut in one session. Apart from tiring yourself – holding up a pole saw for an hour is no picnic – you will need to let the saw rest from time to time anyway. Therefore, cordless battery time isn’t usually a major factor.
There are two basic ways to indicate pole saw power and they correspond to the two basic types. A third way, unsurprisingly, corresponds to the size of the battery for a cordless.
The power rating for a gas-powered pole saw will typically be designated by engine displacement and/or horsepower. Displacement is a measure of the internal volume of the cylinder(s) used. It’s familiar from cars and lawnmowers, though much smaller. European models are typically specified in cubic centimeters, though that unit is becoming more common in the U.S. Some will state a certain number in cubic inches.
Naturally, you have no reason to care about the absolute size. You just care about the ability to compare one to the other. It makes no difference to the average buyer that homeowner pole saw engines are usually typically less than 3.8 cu in (62 cc). Most fall between 1.5 cu in and 2.8 cu in (24 cc – 46 cc).
What really matters in a gas engine is the horsepower. A more efficient engine will generate more from the same sized engine, just as is true with your lawnmower. Unfortunately, finding that number for a particular model is sometimes difficult. Sometimes, displacement is all you have to go on.
In any case, more is usually better. On the other hand, “more” usually means “heavier.” Life is full of tradeoffs, particularly in home maintenance products.
The power rating for a corded or cordless electric pole saw is usually specified by an amp rating. Here again, the more the better – other things being equal, just as with an electric snow shovel.
However, though it’s less true for polesaws, other things aren’t always equal. A larger current rating may signal a heavier pole saw head. More importantly, it almost always signals a higher price. An 8-amp electric pole saw may put out about 1.5 HP and will usually be on the less expensive end of the range. If you are on a budget, there are a few best times when you can save a lot of money.
That’s decent. It will handle branches of up to eight inches in diameter, provided the wood isn’t too hard. I’d do a birch or small pine with one of these but I’d be reluctant to tackle an oak tree.
Many cordless units also specify the battery size. That may be, for example, around 2000 mAh. More often you will see them specified with a voltage figure – from 20 V to 40 V, typically.
They can be rated that way because they don’t plug into a standard 110 V outlet, obviously. On the other hand, it’s not so obvious that the voltage isn’t all that important. What counts is power and that is amp x voltage. Better to look here for either power or amperage rating. Even better, look for how long a session it will offer and how thick a branch it can cut.
There’s one important thing to keep in mind with any battery-powered product that is often overlooked. Whether it’s a robot lawnmower or vacuum cleaner or a polesaw, Li-ion batteries wear out over time.
As they age, they deliver less power (and time) than they did when new. Worst of all, they will die long before the chain, which can be sharpened or even replaced, if and as necessary. A rechargeable battery will very often last no longer than a few years.
Replacements are frequently available for such devices but they’re often 20-50% the cost of the original product. Be prepared, if you choose to go this route.
Chain & Bar
Any type of pole saw will have a chain wrapped around a bar. That’s the way they cut, after all. Not surprisingly, there are several factors to consider here, too.
The most basic is length. A pole saw chain/bar assembly can range from a few inches to over 20, just like a regular chainsaw. The most common sizes are between 6-10 inches.
Longer isn’t necessarily better. Pole saws with longer bars are invariably more expensive, often by quite a lot. If you just have a few smallish fruit trees to trim around the yard it’s easy to waste money. A $50 pole saw may do the job just as well as one costing $200.
A smaller one may also do the job much easier. Longer bar/chains are heavier. It helps if you get a unit where the engine or motor is on the handle rather than just beneath the chain/bar. Still, a 10-inch bar pole saw is generally going to be heavier than a model only 6 inches long.
That extra 4″ of bar and chain usually represents a small additional weight, especially as a percentage of the total for a gas-powered polesaw. But models with longer bars typically have larger engines and longer poles. That’s by design. It’s expected that you’ll be tackling thicker branches and/or those higher up.
So, putting all that together you have to consider the size – both thickness and height – of the tree branches you intend to trim. At the same time, think of the type of tree you’ll trim. A hardy tamarack is going to be tougher to trim than an alder, given the same thickness of branch at the same height.
Last, but not least, consider the type of pole. This too-often-overlooked attribute can make the difference between grief or gratitude when you use your polesaw.
Length is the more important feature, of course. But getting a pole that extends 15 feet may sound good and be bad. If you only trim things 10 feet up, that extra length is just adding weight (and, usually, cost).
Just as bad, the longer the pole extends the weaker it gets – unless it’s carefully made. So, look at the design – both materials and style.
Some are aluminum, others are fiberglass, a few are carbon-composite, steel, or some other material. Plain old wood is rarely used these days. Some are a mixture.
Also, consider how easy (or not) it is to extend and collapse. It should be quick and sure. Accept nothing less. The pole parts should fit well inside one another, with little to no wobbling and no excess friction. When extended, they should feel secure, not as if they’d break under pressure.
Even with a super-sharp chain and smaller branches you’ll be pressing hard. When the pole is not extended the branches may be thicker, requiring more pressure from you. When they’re high up and thin the pole is more vulnerable from being a single tube with joints.
True, there are lots of factors to consider when you select a polesaw. But a few minutes of thought about your typical trimming job, and making a short list of desired attributes, will narrow the choices to reasonable size.