Chainsaw Chain Life Expectancy: When to Sharpen or Replace

If you have a chainsaw, then at some point you’ve probably wondered if (or when) you should replace your chain. That’s an important question, and the condition of your chain has a big impact on the performance and safety of your chainsaw. 

So, how long does a chainsaw chain last?

A chainsaw chain can last for 5+ years with frequent use. For occasional users, a chain could last for decades. The life expectancy of a chainsaw chain is determined by it’s use and maintenance, not by a pre-determined timeline or expiration date.

But how do you really KNOW if the specific chain you have is still in good shape? And roughly how many times can you sharpen a chain before it needs to be replaced? In the rest of this post, we’ll be tackling these questions and more, to help you get all the info you need. Let’s get to it!

Chainsaw Chain Life Expectancy

Under normal circumstances, you should be able to get hundreds of hours of use out a single chainsaw chain. That might sound surprising, but think about it. The cutters on a chainsaw chain are fundamentally steel blades, kind of like a knife. And how often do you expect to replace a knife? Every 10-20 years? If not even longer.

However, as you use it, your chainsaw chain will wear and get small imperfections, so you should regularly sharpen it. This raises one of the oldest questions for chainsaw users: how many times can you sharpen your chainsaw chain?

How Many Times Can You Sharpen a Chainsaw Chain?

The number of times you can sharpen your chainsaw chain is not a specific number or rating from the manufacturer, and whether you can sharpen your chain again is dependent on two factors:

  1. The amount of wear or damage your chain incurs
  2. The amount of metal that is removed each time you sharpen

Let me give you two examples. First, if you hit a rock and it breaks or chips your chain, even a professional might not be able to repair the chain with sharpening. Second, if I sharpen a chain and only take off 50% of the metal that you do when you sharpen, then that would mean I can sharpen my chain 50% more times before discarding it. 

These two examples illustrate that the number of times you can sharpen a chainsaw chain, is a case-by-case situation. With that said, there is a very clear method you can use to tell if your chain has some life left in it. 

Here’s what you should do to check if your chain can be safely sharpened again:

  1. First check for any significant damage, such as visible chips or breaks.
  2. Then, simply check the lines that are stamped into the chain’s cutter and guide pieces.

If there is no significant damage, AND there is still space between the tip of the chain’s cutter and guide pieces, then your chain still has life left in it, and can be sharpened again. Here’s a photo that shows the stamped “safety lines” on the chain. This chain has room for more sharpenings.

Chain cutter sharpening marks:
Chain guide sharpening marks:
when to replace chainsaw chain

These small lines indicate the maximum amount of metal that can be removed. Once you reach that line on the chain links, it is not safe to sharpen and use your chain again. If you’d like to learn more about the different parts of a chainsaw chain, you can check-out this post.

In general, you should expect your chainsaw chains to last a very long time. However, there are some things that can reduce the life of your chain, or even ruin it immediately. Here are the top chain killers you should try to avoid:

Top 5 Chain Killers

1. Hitting dirt or rocks

This is probably the number one cause of damaged chains. When you’re cutting through a log on the ground, it’s very easy for the blade slip through and hit the dirt underneath. You should try to avoid hitting the ground with your chainsaw blade, but sometimes it just happens. 

2. Hitting a nail

Sometimes the wood will have unexpected metal objects embedded inside. Common examples include nails, fence staples, and even bullets. It’s good to check the outside of a tree before beginning a cut to look for warning sides, but sometimes you’ll hit something despite your efforts. 

3. Cutting through ice

If you use your chainsaw in the winter, you need to be wary of frozen wood and ice. A chainsaw will still cut through it, but ice can chip and wear your chain. Frozen wood can be tricky because it looks pretty normal, but can be as hard as a rock. Be careful!

4. Improper lubrication

You’ve got to use bar and chain oil to keep your chain cool (e.g. not overheated) and running smoothly. Not using proper lubrication is a fast way to overheat your whole chainsaw. To learn more about bar and chain oil, check out this post.

5. Improper storage / rust

If you don’t clean and oil your chain properly, it can easily get rusted, which is a fast way for a chain to be ruined. To avoid this, clean the bar and chain, oil it, and cover the bar/chain with a scabbard before storing. For more info on cleaning your chainsaw, see this post

If you run into any of these issues, then you’re probably going to give the chain a thorough sharpening. Or, if there is serious damage, you will have to replace the chain entirely. Next, let’s break-down how many times you can actually sharpen a single chain. 

Manual File Guide vs. Professional Grinding

The two main ways we sharpen our chains, is manually (with a file guide) or having the chains professionally ground at a local chainsaw shop. There’s a time and place for each one, but the file guide sharpening is the one we use most frequently.

Here’s some additional information on each one of these methods, including when to use them, and the impact they have on a chain’s life expectancy.

1. With a File Guide

If you’re not familiar with a file guide, here’s what they look like:

fixing a chainsaw to cut straight

Basically, a file guide is a tool with multiple files built-in, which is specifically designed to help you sharpen your chain’s cutters and guides consistently, and with the right angle. 

When to sharpen with a file guide: a good rule of thumb, is to give your chain a 1-2 swipes with the file guide every time you fuel up. If it’s getting noticeably dull, then you may have to do a couple extra swipes (around 4) to get it sharp again. 

To tell if your chain is sharp, do one of these two tests to find out.

2. With a Grinder

If you have a grinder and know what you’re doing, you can technically do this yourself. However, for most people it’s going to be better just to pay a professional to do it, at a local saw shop. It’s pretty cheap to have this done (usually $5-$7).

The downside of using a grinder, is that it typically takes off WAY more material than sharpening with a file guide. This does get your cutters nice and sharp, but it also reduces the life of your chain. 

When to sharpen with a grinder: With normal wear, you should be able to do 40 fuel-ups with your chainsaw (e.g. 40 manual sharpenings with a file guide) before you need to sharpen with a grinder. Then have it professionally sharpened to remove hard-to-fix imperfections.

You might think that 40 fuel-ups is a long time to wait before getting a professional grinding, but there’s two reasons you don’t want to do this too frequently:

  1. It reduces the life of your chain by taking off more material (vs. a manual sharpening)
  2. Since it costs around $5, once you get to around 4 grindings (e.g. $20) you’re at the cumulative cost of a new chain. 

So, after a few professional grindings, you should start thinking about just buying a new chain on your next visit. 

As a final note on this subject, it’s important to keep in mind that if you damage your chain on some dirt or something, then you would probably have to go to the grinder earlier. 

How to Protect Your Chainsaw Chain from Rust

You can’t run a rusty chainsaw chain. A sure-fire way to destroy a perfectly good chain, is to allow it to get rusty. This is probably one of the biggest causes of ruined chains. 

So, how do you prevent your chain from rusting?

With proper maintenance and storage. Before putting away your chainsaw, here are the 4 things you should do to prevent rust:

1. Clean the Bar and Chain

You should take off the face plate, and clean out the bar track, the chain, and the sprocket. You can learn the detailed steps for cleaning in this post about replacing a chainsaw chain

2. Apply Bar and Chain oil

After cleaning and putting everything back together, you should oil the chainsaw bar and chain. The best way to do this, is to put some bar and chain oil into the lubricant tank, and then simply start the chainsaw and run the chain for a few seconds. 

Chainsaws have a built in mechanism which draws in lubricant as the chain spins, and this is the best way to get it oiled before storing. If you’d like to learn more about bar and chain oil, check-out this post.

3. Put on a Chainsaw Scabbard

Most chainsaws come with a scabbard (e.g. a cover for the bar). For example, in the photo below, the chainsaw has a scabbard on it (the plastic orange sleeve that says “Stihl” on it). Before storing, you should put your chainsaw’s scabbard over the bar and chain. 

This prevents dust, bumps and dings, and also protects you from accidental cuts. 

4. Store it inside

This might go without saying, but once you’ve done steps 1-3, you should store the chainsaw inside. A barn, garage, or shed is fine. Just don’t put it outside where it would be exposed to the weather. 

When to Replace Your Chainsaw Chain

Alright, in this section, we’ll summarize some of the key information in this post, to give an outline of when to replace your chainsaw chain.

1. If You’ve Reached the “Safety Lines” on the Chain

As mentioned above, there are small lines stamped into chainsaw cutter and guides, which indicate how far it can be sharpened. If you sharpen a chain past those lines, you risk the chain falling apart, or even flying off the chain while you’re using it. 

This can be very dangerous, so you should replace your chainsaw chain if you have reached the safety lines on the chain. 

2. If the chain gets broken, dented or chipped

If you hit rocks, dirt, ice, etc., your chainsaw chain might have to be replaced. You can often repair small chips in the blade edge through sharpening. But, if it looks like something that you can’t fix by removing some metal with a file, then you’ll probably have to replace the chain. 

3. If your chain is rusty

You can not use a rusty chainsaw chain. If you get your chainsaw out of storage, only to realize that the chain has rusted, then you should replace it. 

These are the 3 main things that you ought to consider, when deciding whether or not your chainsaw chain needs to be replaced. As I mentioned at the top of this post, you can usually expect a chainsaw chain to last for several hundred hours of use.

Depending on how often you use your chainsaw, that means it could last for 5 years, or several decades, as long as you are taking good care of your equipment. 

Whenever you change or inspect your chain, you should also take the time to check your chainsaw bar for damage.

Alright, that’s all for now. If you found something in this post helpful, then please share it with a friend or on social media. Let’s get the word out about the Burly Beaver community!

Thanks for reading. Now go do something awesome.


JJ is a firewood enthusiast, an Eagle Scout, and an avid learner and teacher of outdoor skills.

Recent Posts