Sharpen a Chainsaw Chain by Hand in 7 Easy Steps

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Written By Michael Culligan

With over 12 years of experience in Oregon's forestry industry, I have established myself as a skilled and knowledgeable lumber professional. As a passionate competitor in local timbersports events, I have consistently ranked among the top lumberjacks in my area. I take great pride in meticulously maintaining an extensive collection of restored vintage axes. I personally test every axe I review by using it to fell and chop up oak firewood on my land.

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To sharpen a chainsaw by hand, clamp the bar in a vice, identify the correct file size, and use a round file with a guide to sharpen each tooth at the proper angle. File each tooth the same number of strokes, then use a flat file for depth gauges. Alternate between left and right cutters.

Sharpening your chainsaw is an essential maintenance task for keeping it in top condition. This will keep the cutting rate fast and allow you to process more wood. Learning to sharpen a chainsaw is also an important safety factor as it significantly reduces the risk of a kickback.

I have compiled this list of 7 quick, simple steps to sharpen a chainsaw easily.

How to Sharpen Your Chainsaw

Learning how to sharpen your chain is essential for all chainsaw owners. It is a task that may seem complicated at first, but is quite simple after you have given it a go. You can do it every time you notice a drop in cutting rate – pull out your round file and give the cutters a quick sharpen. In this guide, I have assumed you have never done this task before and have given comprehensive step-by-step instructions.

Tools Required

There are only four tools you need to sharpen your chain effectively by hand:

  • A round file that matches your chain – typically 5/32, 3/16, or 7/32 inch
  • Sharpening guide – over time, you can get away without this, but it is handy for beginners
  • Depth gauge filing guide
  • Flat file

You can get chainsaw sharpening kits that contain everything you need.

You can also use power tools like a dremmel or bench grinder to sharpen your chain more quickly, but that is a discussion for another day.

Understand Your Chain Schematic

Step 1: Preparation

There are some initial tasks to prepare your chain for sharpening. Firstly turn your chainsaw off and let it cool down. Place it on a flat surface at waist to chest height. Remove any residual material from the chain, such as sap, wood chips, or oil. You can use a towel, screwdriver, or soapy water to help remove debris.

Look at your chain to see if any cutters are damaged beyond repair and whether the entire chain needs to be replaced.

I also fully tension the chain onto the guide bar so that it doesn’t move and flex when you place force in a horizontal direction from the file.

Step 2: Mark the First Tooth

I always use a permanent marker to identify the first tooth I will sharpen. This makes it easier to know when you have completed an entire chain revolution without repeating yourself. Sometimes there are identifiers on the chain that you can use instead.

This is a good opportunity to have a look at your chain and get a better understanding of how it works. A chainsaw chain comprises cutters on each side, closely followed by depth gauges (also called rakers). The depth gauges are designed to be a fraction shorter than the cutter and prevent the cutter from digging to deep into the wood. After you have used your chain for a long time and lost some metal from the cutter, you will find that the depth gauge is too tall and needs to be filed down.

The drive links are on the underside of the chain, which keep the chain attached to the guide bar and rotate around the sprocket.

mark the first tooth

Step 3: Pick the Correct Round File

One of the most common mistakes from beginners learning to sharpen a chainsaw for the first time is using whatever file they have lying around – rather than using the correct tool for the job.

Chainsaw chains are generally one of three sizes – 5/32, 3/16, or 7/32 inch. Selecting the correct round file in these sizes is important to make the following steps work. You can find the correct diameter in your chainsaw’s owner’s manual, or they are sometimes stamped on the drive link.

Step 4: Sharpen the Cutters

Set your file guide onto the chain at a 30 to 35-degree angle to the cutters. Mount your round file to the file guide. This helps you to maintain the same angle every time. You can learn to do this without a sharpening guide with practice and experience.

Start stroking the round file away from your body. It will generally only take 5 or so strokes to sharpen the cutters effectively. You are looking for the face of the cutter to be shiny with all burrs and metal fillings removed. Check with your finger whether the cutter is sharp enough. Remember the number of strokes you used and repeat this for all the remaining cutters.

Sharpen only the cutters on one side of a chain at a time (eg. the left cutters), so you don’t need to reset your file angle. Release the chain brake, rotate it to expose more blunt cutters and sharpen them. Repeat until you have sharpened all the cutters on that side.

sharpen the cutters

Step 5: Rotate and Sharpen the Other Side

Either move to the other side of your workbench, turn the chainsaw around and repeat step 4 on the other side’s cutters. This involves marking the first cutter, re-setting the sharpening guide, and running the file through the same number of strokes. Release the chain brake, rotate the chain, and continue until all the cutters have been sharpened.

Step 6: File the Rakers

The next step is to file the rakers (or depth gauges). Rakers are used to prevent the cutters from digger too deep into the wood, but as you sharpen the cutters and remove metal material, you can find the rakers are too tall and prevent any of the cutters from touching the wood. They then need to be filed down to work properly.

This is whether the depth gauge filing guide comes into play.

Place the filing guide over the top of the cutters and check the height of every raker fin. If the filing guide cannot progress without hitting the raker, take your flat file and reduce the height of the raker.

file the rakers

Step 7: Re-tension the Chain

You have now sharpened your chainsaw chain – easily, right? The last step is to re-tension the chain to be ready for use.

I also take this opportunity to give my chainsaw a deep clean, refuel the tank, and fill up the bar oil reservoir.

Why a Sharp Chain Matters

Cutting with a sharp chain is faster and gives a cleaner cut. This reduces your workload and muscle fatigue as you don’t need to hold up your heavy tool for as long. A sharp chain is essential to keep the machine running at high performance. Even the largest chainsaws won’t cut effectively without a sharp chain.

The likelihood of kickback increases significantly with a dull blade because the chain catches in the wood and pulls the guide bar up. This is extremely dangerous if unexpected.

One of the easiest ways to tell whether your chainsaw needs a sharpen is from the waste material that is being produced:

  • Large wooden chips in the waste material show that the chain is sharp and cutting quickly.
  • Sawdust with no chips in the waste material shows the chain is blunt and needs to be sharpened.

The last way to telling whether your chain is blunt is if it starts pulling to one side, left or right. This indicates that one side of the cutters are blunter than the other and needs to be sharpened.

How Often Should You Sharpen Your Chain?

You should sharpen your chainsaw whenever you notice a drop in the cutting rate of the chain starts pulling to one side. You can give your chain a quick sharpen every second fuel tank, but I only recommend this for experienced users who won’t take off too much metal each time.

I recommend sharpening your chainsaw after every session.

If you are cutting through wood with a lot of dirt or sand, then this can blunt the chain more quickly.

How Often Should You Replace Your Chain?

You should replace your chain whenever you notice irreparable damage to the cutters, the depth gauges are filed too short, or you have sharpened the chain at least ten times. This indicates that the chain has done its lifespan, and you will get a better cutting rate with a brand new chain.

How Long Does it Take?

While the first time may take longer, an experienced user typically sharpens their chainsaw in just 10 to 15 minutes.


Sharpening your chainsaw chain is essential to get the fastest and cleanest cut. You will quickly understand how your chainsaw behaves as the chain dulls and blunts. Keeping your chain sharp is an easy way to reduce your workload and muscle fatigue caused by cutting slower for longer. I also recommend cleaning your chainsaw every time you sharpen it to reduce friction caused by sap and oil buildup and keep the engine running at maximum performance.

If you have a large collection of tools, such as hand saws and axes, I recommend sharpening them all simultaneously to save time.