If you use a chainsaw, you will know that it is important to always keep the chain and bar well lubricated. This minimizes friction as the chain turns, and if you don’t keep the chainsaw lubricated, increased friction will cause a dangerous build-up of heat that can damage the tool.
All chainsaws come with a manufacturer’s recommendation for which oil to use for bar and chain lubrication, but sometimes the correct oil isn’t always available when you need to use your saw. Furthermore, the recommended oils can be expensive, so are there alternatives you can use in a pinch or to save you money?
The answer is yes, there are – so here, we look at some of the possible chainsaw bar oil substitutes.
If you’re a chainsaw novice, watch this video explaining why you need to use oil to lubricate your machine.
How to choose the best alternative
To work effectively, chainsaw chain and bar oils need specific qualities that are different from the qualities of other oils – and this is true for electric chainsaws and cordless chainsaws as much as for gas-powered models.
Since chainsaw chains spin at high speeds, the oil needs to be “sticky” enough to stay on the chain as it moves. If an oil is not sufficiently sticky, it will quickly be thrown off the chain and the chain will dry up.
The oil also needs to function properly as a lubricant, so it needs the quality of “slipperiness” to do its job.
This means a good chainsaw oil has the perfect combination of stickiness and slipperiness.
Note that temperature changes the viscosity of the oil (how thick or dense it is), and some oils that have perfect stickiness and slipperiness at warmer temperatures may be unsuitable at colder temperatures, for example.
Finally, chainsaw oil needs to be environmentally friendly since most of it will come off the chain as you work and will end up in the environment.
If you want to use an alternative to specialist chainsaw chain and bar oil, you should first consult your user manual to see which type of oil they recommend. With this information, you can then select an alternative that most closely matches the recommended oil.
Chainsaw Bar And Chain Oil Alternatives
1. Motor oil
If you find yourself in a situation where you need to use your chainsaw but you don’t have any of the correct oil, one of the obvious options is motor oil. The main advantage of using this is that if you own a car, you probably have some close at hand.
On the downside, motor oil is petroleum-based and is not environmentally friendly. As the chain spins, microscopic droplets of oil fly off the chain – so as you use the chainsaw, all the oil you put in the reservoir ends up in the environment.
Another disadvantage is that if you are pruning live trees, since the oil is non-organic, it will harm the trees.
Another possibility if you are really stuck for lubrication oil is to take used motor oil from your vehicle and filter it. If you do this, it is better to harvest the oil while it is still warm from the engine because this helps with filtration.
Bear in mind, though, that however well you filter the oil from your car, it will still contain microscopic metal particles which can damage the bar and chain of your chainsaw, so this should only be seen as a last resort.
If you have the choice, use summer oils like SAE30 in warmer conditions and winter oils like SAE10 in colder conditions because of the variations in oil viscosity due to temperature.
2. Vegetable oil
Vegetable oil is another possibility that can be used in a number of situations and that has certain distinct advantages – it is cheap, you probably already have some in your home and it is environmentally-friendly. It is also easier to remove from clothes if you spill some on yourself.
Vegetable oil is particularly suitable if you are pruning live trees since it won’t injure the trees in the same way that a petroleum-based oil would.
Another reason vegetable oil is a suitable alternative is that it has a high viscosity – however, the flipside of this is that in colder weather, it becomes too viscous and can’t be used.
3. Canola oil
Canola oil is made from rapeseed and has many of the same advantages of vegetable oil when used as a lubrication oil substitute.
It is environmentally friendly, it can be used when pruning live trees, it is inexpensive and it’s readily available.
It is thinner than regular vegetable oil, meaning it will tend to fly off the chainsaw more quickly – but it has a more suitable viscosity at lower temperatures so makes a good substitute for chainsaw oil when it is too cold to use vegetable oil.
4. Drained hydraulic fluid
Hydraulic fluid is similar to motor oil and can be pressed into service as a chainsaw lubricant if you don’t have anything else.
If you have access to machinery with hydraulic pumps, it will be readily available and easy to harvest – but it is also a pollutant and will have a negative impact on the environment.
Another downside is that it tends to dry up quicker than other chainsaw oil substitutes, so you will have to use more of it to keep your chainsaw lubricated.
Important tips for using alternative oils
Chainsaws are designed in such a way that the fuel in the tank and oil in the reservoir run out at the same time. This means you always top them up together, minimizing the risk of inadvertently using your chainsaw with no lubrication oil.
However, for this to work, you need to use the recommended type of oil – and if you are using a substitute, the oil may be used up much quicker than the fuel. This means you might continue using an unlubricated chainsaw after the oil runs out without realizing.
To prevent this, the first time you use a substitute oil, you should fill up both the oil reservoir and the fuel tank at the same time and then keep an eye on both as you work. This way, you will see how quickly the oil is used up and will know if you need to be ready to top it up.
Also, whenever you are working with a chainsaw, if you notice that it is consuming much more fuel than usual, this may be due to increased friction between bar and chain.
This is a sure sign that your chainsaw is not lubricated, so you should check you still have oil in the reservoir and consider trying a different oil if the oil you are using isn’t doing the job.
Use the right oil – but substitutes are available
The best oil for your chainsaw is probably the one the manufacturer recommends – however, if you don’t have any available or you want to save yourself a bit of money, other possibilities exist – and many of them can work almost as well as the real thing.
My name is Peter Weeks, Writer of The Daily Gardener. Gardening has always been my passion, nothing gives me quite the satisfaction that feeling the soil sift through my fingers does. Give me a spade, a shovel, and a rake, and I can happily while away the day transforming a patch of land into a beautiful oasis. To me, gardening is life. It’s not a career. It’s not a job. It’s something that I truly love doing. It’s a way of life, a passion that I’ve no intention of ever giving up.