Chainsaws are one of the most durable gas-powered tools that average homeowners can buy and use with minimal practice. At least, in most cases this is true. However, lubricating our chainsaws is not as cut and dry as running the engine and using the saw. In fact, choosing the wrong oil can damage or destroy your chainsaws over time.
Chainsaws can run at speeds nearly 50mph. At that velocity, replenishing your oil regularly is a necessity. But what do you do when you’re out of your manufacturer’s recommended oil? This article will address that question and discuss each chainsaw bar oil substitute that you are most likely to have at home.
So, let’s get our engines running and start the article to discover the best chainsaw bar oil substitutes!
Understanding The Properties of Oil
If you have ever purchased or used oil you will no doubt be familiar with the numbering convention to describe the properties of the oil. Typically you will see 10w30 or some other variation of the oil viscosity numbering system on many oil product labels.
Viscosity is essentially the thickness of the oil or how easily it flows, and this changes with the temperature of the oil. The hotter the oil gets the higher the viscosity, or you might say, it becomes runnier.
The first number on the 10w30 oil label indicates the oil viscosity when cold, or at standing temperature, the letter W represents Winter or cold conditions. The second number 10w30 tells us the viscosity of the oil at 100°C (212°F), which is the typical temperature the oil will reach when the engine is running. So in a cold state, the viscosity is SAE10 and under working conditions, in an engine, this raises up to SAE30. SAE is an industry-standard grading system.
If we compare two oil types, 5w30 engine oil, and 85w140 gear oil we should now understand that gear oil will be a much thinner oil at both ambient temperature and at 100°C. This will affect the oil’s ability to cling to a surface providing adequate lubrication.
What Oil Can Be Used for Chainsaw Bar Oil?
First, check your manufacturer’s instructions before adding alternative bar oil to your chainsaw. Generally, chainsaws can handle a wide range of lubricants but SEA30 is the ideal choice. Vegetable and canola oils work well, and automobile motor oil will too, as long as you observe the SAE ratings and use the appropriate oil weight for the season. Always use new oils and avoid recycling used oil.
Most oils may appear similar to the naked eye, but you don’t want to fill up the oil reservoir with the wrong type. This rule applies to automobiles and large engine machines, but chainsaws are just as sensitive when it comes to bar oil.
Bar oil plays a specific role in the performance of the chainsaw. For one, the oil needs to be slippery and thin enough to help the chain move smoothly through the wood chips and wood pulp. An SAE rating of 5-10 should suffice. Second, oil should be tacky enough to stick to the chain and bar at high speeds. An SAE rating of 30 is ideal. Meaning a multi-weight oil is an obvious winner.
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1. 10w30 Motor Oil
You can use a 10w30 oil without any major issues. in fact most bar oils are a straight 20w or 30w
Motor Oil as a multi-weight will give you acceptable lubrication performance in all but the most extreme weather condition. In the blazing heat of summer, it may be too thin and in deep winter it will be too thick. In these circumstances, you may experience a drop in chain speed or an oil that is too light to stick and lubricate your chain. However, this is no different from bar oil, where you may opt for a 20w or even 40w.
10w30 motor oil operates as a SAE10 oil upon starting the chainsaw, so with the average temperature, it will be thin enough to provide lubrication and get the chain rolling. In cold situations, a 10w can thicken up and congeal.
So 10w30 is a good alternative to bar oil in average weather conditions, and let’s be honest it is one of the most popular and versatile oils in the world, so you probably have a 10w30 on a shelf in your garage. If you …go and get on with using it.
- Suitable for use in warmer climates
- Very popular oil and one most of us will have sitting on our garage shelf
Hazard: Depending on where you are working you need to consider motor oils are synthetic products and will damage the surrounding wildlife. So if you are working in your yard or similar I would avoid motor oils and choose one of the natural products listed below such as cooking oil.
2. 5w30 Motor Oil
Like 10w30 motor oil, you can use 5w30 oil. However, the thin consistency of this low-viscosity SAE5 weight oil, will not cling to the chain as well in the summer months. You may experience a lot of oil loss and a messy worksite if you choose this oil alternative.
One advantage of using motor oil like 5w30 if you don’t have any other oil lying around is the price. Automobile oil is relatively inexpensive, with quarts rarely costing over $10. Just keep in mind that motor oil is not environmentally friendly when it sprays off the chain.
- Low-viscosity 5W oil that will still perform even in colder climates
- During summer months, expect to use more of this oil due it spraying off the chain
There are forestry experts and amateur chainsaw enthusiasts online who have debated using motor oil in chainsaws for years and years. The jury’s still out, but professionals agree that 5w30 motor oil is an acceptable alternative. It’s just not a long-term solution.
3. Vegetable Oil
Yes. Vegetable oil is perhaps one of the best alternative oils to use. This oil does not present any contamination risk to the environment, it releases almost no fumes on use, and reassuringly, is widely used by many pros as their go-to chainsaw bar oil. In fact, manufacturer Stihl (the company that invented the chainsaw in 1926) use vegetable oil as the base for their BioPlus Bar Oil.
- Environmentally friendly, used as the base for Stilhs BioPlus use
- Runs clean without noxious-smelling emissions
- Canola, Soybean, and Onlive all have ideal viscosity
Keep in mind that there are several types of vegetable oil (including canola oil, which we cover below). Soybean oil, olive oil, and rape seed oil are all fine substitutes for bar oil. They are good viscosity and perform well in warm conditions. Note, that sunflower oil is thinner so I recommend using it exclusively in colder climates.
4. Canola Oil
This article is about bar oil alternatives, so it’s probably the case that you will need to use whichever oils you have around the home. However, if I was to ‘recommend’ one substitute oil, then it would be canola oil, but it has downsides too. Arborists across the world use canola oil as a lubricant of choice over bar oil. It is cheap, biodegradable, and has a low odor. However, you’ll have to refill your bar more often since canola oil is relatively thin so does not stick to the chain as well as some other options.
On the flip side, canola oil is roughly half the price of most manufacturers’ recommended oil. So using more canola is not really a problem on your wallet when it’s so cheap.
- Canola oil is natural and environmentally friendly
- Extremely cheap and probably in your kitchen stores
- As a natural product, it can go rancid if left unused for long periods
Still, canola oil is good for the environment, keeps the chainsaw bar well lubricated, and is easy to wash out of clothes. One downside, though: canola oil can rot, so check the expiration date before use.
5. 2-Cycle Oil
No, 2-cycle oil is not a good substitute, it is far too thin to be used for lubricating the bar. It lacks the viscosity to stick to the chain and perform the function of bar oil. 2-cycle is designed to be mixed with gasoline for use in 2-cycle engines. Therefore, by design, this oil is very thin, which allows it to blend with the gas. A thicker oil would clump or pool and not blend with the gasoline.
You should only use two-cycle oil as an engine oil mix, never as a bar oil alternative.
- Two-cycle oil will not provide enough tackiness to stick to the chainsaw chain.
6. Gear Oil
Unless you are using your chainsaw in hot conditions, gear oil is not a recommended alternative. Why? Most gear oil is at least three times more viscous than traditional motor oil and thicker than proper chainsaw lubricant. Gear oil will likely get your chainsaw running, but you will probably void your manufacturer’s warranty with extended use.
- High viscosity makes gear oil a poor alternative, and likely to lead to performance problems
- Very high price compared to other alternatives
Another reason to shy away from gear oil is its price. Unless you have a stockpile of gear oil available if your chainsaw oil runs out, it’s not a sound economic decision to buy gear oil as a backup. Reach for environmentally-friendly canola oils or simple SAE10/30 motor oil instead.
7. Hydraulic Oil
Though hydraulic oil tends to dry faster than motor oil, you can still use hydraulic oil for chainsaw bars. This type of oil has a lot in common with motor oil, so it will keep your chain and bar lubricated in the right temperature range.
Don’t use recycles hydraulic fluid though, some people keep used fluids that have been drained from automobiles and attempt to filter it. This just sounds like far too much work for me, seriously, how tight can you get? Drained hydraulic fluid is destructive to the environment, and it may compromise your chain.
- Suitable for use in most temperature ranges
- A thinner oil so keep an eye on your oil levels as you will get through this stuff fast
Fresh hydraulic oil is fine, though. It is quite thin, and it will dry in half the time of motor oil, so pay attention to overheating and replace it several times per hour.
What is the Best Chainsaw Bar Oil?
A straight 20w or 30w oil will offer the best combination of adhesion and lubrication. I like to use BioPlus from Stihl, as it offers an eco-friendly product that I know works in all of the weather conditions I work in.
You can also try 5w30 motor oil and a good alternative that you may have kicking around in your garage. Another very popular option is vegetable oils, namely canola, olive oil or rape seed oils offer all of the qualities required for bar oil. Just don’t leave them standing around for too long as they can go rancid over prolonged periods of time.
Bar Oil Substitute Final Thoughts
Chainsaws are designed to be rugged hardwearing tools, however, oil is a critical consideration as chainsaws are sensitive to poor lubrication. The manufacturer recommends a specific (often on-brand) oil for a reason: it optimizes your saw’s performance. A substitute is a compromise, but pick the right oil for the conditions and it will definitely serve its purpose until you can pick up a replacement genuine bar oil.
Vegetable oils like canola, sunflower, and olive oil are the best alternatives for most chainsaws. Stay away from high-viscosity, highly processed SAE90 oils or higher.
Those are the main takeaways, and I hope reading this article has given you some tips for the next time you’re out of bar oil and need an alternative in a jam.