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Using Vegetable Oil to Replace Chainsaw Oil

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When a chain saw is used, virtually all of the lubricant ends up in the environment.

By Greg Seaman, Eartheasy.com Posted Nov 11, 2010

Using vegetable oil in chainsawsEvery time I fill my chain saw with oil for lubricating the bar and chain, I realize that 100% of this petroleum-based oil will be sprayed into the environment. The modern chainsaw’s “total loss lubricating system” releases the oil from the bar tip once it has travelled around the bar a few times, and the atomized oil particles cling to the sawdust or spray over the work area. When a chain saw is used, virtually all of the lubricant ends up in the environment.

Most brands of lubricating chain oil sold in North America are petroleum-based. These oils are known carcinogens. In addition, prolonged exposure to petroleum-based oil mist can cause irritation of the respiratory tract. Environmental damage caused by petroleum-based oil spills is well known.

Now that firewood gathering season is upon us, the time is right to switch to an environmentally benign alternative to petroleum-based chain lubricating oil – common vegetable oil. I’ve switched to using vegetable oil exclusively for chain lubricant, and here are my observations and a few tips.

Advantages of replacing chain oil with vegetable oil:

Environmentally friendly – Using vegetable oil as chain lubricant poses no threat to the environment.

Effective – Vegetable oils have natural properties including good lubricity, resistance to shear, a high flash point, and a high viscosity index. These qualities lend themselves to chain lubricant requirements similar to petroleum-based chain oils, and do not contribute to chain or bar wear over time.

Safer for the user – Chain saws run at high RPMs which result in oil misting. This can affect the user through inhalation and or dermal absorption. Canola-based chain oils have low vapor pressure, which reduces inhalation of fumes by users. In this regard, studies have shown vegetable oils to be safer than petroleum based oils.
http://www.osha.gov/SLTC/healthguidelines/vegetableoilmist/recognition.html
http://www.osha.gov/SLTC/healthguidelines/oilmist/recognition.html

Cheaper – A 4 liter jug of chain oil costs $12.99 ($3.24/liter) at my local big box home supply store, while a 3 liter jug of canola oil costs $7.99 ($2.66/liter).

Readily available – Canola oil is a renewable, sustainable farm product. It is readily available at most grocery stores.

Tips for replacing chain oil with vegetable oil:

Use canola oil – Canola oil is currently the most common environmentally compatible chain-and-bar lubricant. Canola-based chain and bar oil has been extensively tested in Europe. Manufacturers and some users claim that there is a potential for extended bar-and-chain life when using canola-based products because it lubricates and adheres to metal better than petroleum-based oils.

Vegetable oil is thinner – Vegetable oils have lower viscosities than the bar/chain lubricants and therefore flow more readily. First time users of vegetable oil for chain lubricant may notice some leaking (while the saw is not running) from the oil port on the bar, near where the bar is bolted to the saw. To test for leaking, set your saw on a cardboard scrap overnight and see if there is spotting in the morning. If so, you can adjust the oiler flow screw usually located at the base of the saw. For long term storage, leave oil reservoir empty.

Check fluid levels when finishing first tank – Chain saws have two reservoirs, one for the “Mix” (gas and two-stroke oil combined) and one for the “Oil” (chain oil/ bar lubricant). These tanks are designed to run out at the same time, since running a saw with the oil reservoir empty may damage the chain and bar. If you are using vegetable oil for the first time, fill both reservoirs to the top (using vegetable oil in the “Oil” reservoir and gas/2-stroke mix oil in the “Mix” reservoir) and then check the fluid levels when you are getting low on gas. The levels should be about the same – both tanks should run out at the same time. If not, adjust your oil flow screw.

Vegetable oil is harder to see – The first time I used vegetable oil in my chain saw, I had an accidental overflow – the oil was so clear I didn’t notice it filling towards the top of the reservoir. When filling your saw with vegetable oil, get used to looking more carefully to gauge the fill level.

Cold temperature limitations – The cold-temperature properties and oxidation stability of vegetable oils are their main disadvantages compared to petroleum-based oil, and additives are needed to overcome these problems. Tests have shown that canola-based chain oils provide good performance down to -13 degrees F but storage can affect the pour point temperature (they may not pour easily after standing for several days at -22 degrees F). If you operate a chain saw in climates this cold, you may want to consider vegetable-based chain oils “with additives” which are becoming available in stores which sell chain saw accessories.

The Forest Engineering Research Institute of Canada (FERIC) tested and reported on field trials of a vegetable-based oil for lubricating chain saws. (See FERIC General Field Note Number 35.) The overall results were positive. Users reported that the vegetable-based oil was easier to clean from clothes and equipment. Users also experienced less skin irritation.

Although using vegetable oil to replace petroleum-based chain oil is a step forward from an environmental perspective, operating a chain saw still emits fumes from the 2-stroke gas mix. When using a chain saw, try to plan your cuts in advance to be most efficient, and never set down a running saw. Operators and nearby workers should use “ear muff” hearing protectors and respirators capable of handling the chainsaws emissions.

One final note: This article recommends using vegetable oil to replace chain oil in chainsaws. However, this does NOT mean replacing “mix” oil which is used for the gas mix. For mix oil, you must use the petroleum-based 2-stroke mix oil recommended by the chain saw manufacturer.

For more ideas about efficient wood burning tips, see Wood Heating Tips.

Greg Seaman is Editor of Eartheasy, and has over 30 years experience working with chain saws.

Posted in Preparedness Tags , ,
  • Dwight

    Also consider biodegradeable 2 stroke oil for your gas.

  • mike

    The other thing to make a bar last longer is to turn it over every time you maintain it, so it wears evenly on both sides.

  • andryia

    I’ve heard that vegetable oil can go rancid if left in warm temperatures. Anyone had experience with this?

    • Greg Seaman

      I've never had a problem with vegetable oil going rancid because the oil is stored in a dark part of the shed and the oil in the saw cycles through regularly.

  • Garret

    I've heard about using vegetable oil for my chainsaw but wasn't convinced enough to try it. These saws are expensive and I don't want to risk any damage. Your article has convinced me to give this a try. Thanks.

  • Gord

    We have used vegetable oil for power saw work in riparation restoration work in stream areas and where logs are cut and placed in streams for fish habitat. There seem to be no adverse effects and I personally use this method for all saw work. Good post.

  • http://4todaynews.blogspot.com/ Uzair

    The other thing to make a bar last longer is to turn it over every time you maintain it, so it wears evenly on both sides

  • tbone

    sonds good if it works, will try.

  • Darren

    We made the switch in 2011 at SouthernTree.com and have had no negative effects thus far. Very pleased.

  • MWest

    Cooking oil was meant to be for cooking but in this day and age, anything can evolve and its purpose be altered to suit the changing times. I’ve known waste vegetable oil (WVO) to be used in vehicles but the use of it for a chainsaw is definitely unique and great! Waste or not, cooking oil surely has great uses especially these days. In my area, we allow a grease collection Texas company to get our waste cooking oil and transport it to recycling facilities for them to process it further. This is one great post that will surely open the eyes of people to the importance of vegetable oil.

  • http://www.bidetinternational.com/ bidet

    haha this is so cool. take something out of your kitchen to make a chainsaw more environmentally friendly. LOVE IT… keep em coming. 

  • Djcheatwood

    Sounds like recycling to me. Take oil out of the ground and put it right back where it came from.  Where’s the problem? 

  • john autry

    This is great news for people who grow shitake mushrooms on logs. I was wondering how I could say “organic”, while misting the logs with oil. Thanks ja

  • Doug / Australia

    Great article ! One comment however – 90% of canola oil is monsanto genetically modified , this means that the crops are sprayed with up to 10 times the amount of roundup usually used, so if we buy more canola oil thinking we are helping the environment, chances are we are not, best to use an organic oil or different oil to canola or corn as these are the main GM crops today. better still, if you have the land to do so, grow a small crop of sunflowers, corn or something and make your own oil!

  • Tony

    Great idea. Maybe with starch or flour you could thicken it for use at warmer temps.

    • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

      Interesting. A bit more viscosity would be ideal.

  • Husqi240

    A good post, but why compare the price of fresh cooking oil with regular chainsaw oil, when I bet we’ve all got smelly old used cooking oil we could use that is free.

    Castor oil also makes a very fragrant alternative to 2-stroke oil, though I think the guys at Castrol already pioneered that one. Having used this Castrol in 2-stroke bikes back in the early 80’s the only problem I can see, that will need watching even with chain bar lubrication is that vegetable oils can have a tendency to gum up and eventually block oil ways. Modern motor oils have additives to prevent sludge and gum. Worth a try, just keep an eye out for oil flow becoming slowed or stopped.

  • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

    great idea!

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