Motor Oil vs Chainsaw Bar Oil: Comparison and Guide

Motor Oil vs Chainsaw Bar Oil: Comparison and Guide

Using the right oil is crucial for keeping your chainsaw running smoothly and efficiently. However, there is an ongoing debate about whether regular motor oil can be used in place of dedicated chainsaw bar and chain oil. In this post, I’ll provide a detailed comparison of motor oil and chainsaw bar oil to help you understand the key differences and make an informed choice for your chainsaw’s lubrication needs.

I’ll start by explaining the composition and properties of each type of oil, as this sheds light on why they perform differently. We’ll then look at how motor oil and chainsaw bar oil vary in terms of lubrication performance and potential environmental impact. I’ll clearly lay out the risks of using motor oil in a chainsaw before covering some viable substitutes. Finally, I’ll answer some frequently asked questions about choosing the optimal chainsaw bar oil for your needs.

My goal is to equip you with the knowledge to select the right oil to protect your chainsaw’s bar, chain, and other components. While motor oil may seem like an economical option, chainsaw bar oil is specially formulated to prevent wear and tear. Let’s dive in!

Motor Oil vs Chainsaw Bar Oil: What’s the Difference?

Motor Oil vs Chainsaw Bar Oil: Comparison and Guide

To understand why chainsaw bar oil outperforms motor oil, we first need to look at how they are formulated.

Composition and Properties

Motor oil contains a base oil made from petroleum extracts combined with various additives like detergents and viscosity index improvers. This blend is designed to lubricate engine components and protect the interior of an engine.

In contrast, chainsaw bar oil contains tackier, thicker base oils. Manufacturers add special tackifier ingredients that allow the oil to cling firmly to the bar and chain. This helps ensure adequate lubrication, preventing excessive friction and wear.

There are also key differences in viscosity between motor oil and chainsaw bar oil. Multi-grade motor oils flow well at cold temperatures but can be too thin at high temperatures. Chainsaw bar oil maintains optimal viscosity across a wide temperature range.Thinner oils like motor oil tend to drip off rather than sticking.

Performance and Lubrication

When sawing, the chain travels rapidly around the guide bar. This subjects the bar and chain to intense friction and heat. Chainsaw bar oil contains special additives to maintain viscosity and keep surfaces lubricated under pressure.

Motor oil simply doesn’t have the adhesive, “tacky” properties needed to cling to the chain, bar, and drive sprocket. It’s too slippery and thin to adequately coat and lubricate these components. Using motor oil can lead to excess wear and even chain breakage or bar damage.

Quality chainsaw bar oil is specifically engineered to hold onto the bar and chain. Its thick, sticky consistency prevents oil from slinging off at high RPMs. This constant lubrication protects your chainsaw’s components and prevents costly repairs.

Environmental Impact

If you cut wood on your property, the environmental impact of your chainsaw bar oil may also be a consideration.

Standard petroleum-based chainsaw bar oils take a very long time to biodegrade. Any oil that ends up in the soil can be harmful to plants and leach into groundwater over time.

Meanwhile, used motor oil contains additional contaminants and additives that can be even more environmentally hazardous. Safe disposal is crucial.

Luckily, there are eco-friendly bar and chain oils made from plant materials like canola oil. These thick vegetable oils provide lubrication while breaking down much faster than traditional options.

Can You Use Motor Oil as Chainsaw Bar Oil?

Now that we’ve compared the makeup and performance of motor oil and chainsaw bar oil, let’s clearly address the key question:

Should you use motor oil as a substitute for chainsaw bar oil?

The direct answer is no – motor oil is not recommended for chainsaw bar and chain lubrication. Here are the main reasons why:

  • Motor oil lacks the adhesive tackifiers that allow chainsaw bar oil to cling to surfaces under intense friction. This can lead to inadequate lubrication and increased wear.
  • Thinner motor oil tends to drip off the bar and chain rather than sticking to it. This allows dry spots to form, especially at high RPMs.
  • Motor oil may contain chemical additives and contaminants that can damage internal chainsaw parts like the oil pump over time.

While some users report success using motor oil in a pinch, it is far from ideal. Chainsaw engines generate much higher pressures and temperatures than automobile engines. The wrong oil can lead to premature failure of chainsaw components.

Experts strongly advise using purpose-made bar and chain oil for optimal saw performance and longevity. Don’t take unnecessary risks with your expensive chainsaw investment. Stick to quality bar oil designed specifically for chainsaws.

Chainsaw Bar Oil Alternatives

If you find yourself in a bind without chainsaw bar oil, the following substitute oils can work in a pinch:

Canola Oil

Canola oil is one of the most popular substitutes because it is relatively inexpensive and tackles well. Look for cold-pressed, unrefined canola oil. It is biodegradable and less messy than petroleum-based oils. Many professional loggers keep canola oil on hand as an eco-friendly backup bar oil.

Hydraulic Oil

Hydraulic oil formulas vary, but some types can substitute for chainsaw bar oil since they contain tacky additives. They are less viscous than motor oil. However, hydraulic oil dries out faster than bar oil, so you’ll need to monitor and refill the reservoir more often.

Vegetable Oil

Oils like sunflower, olive, or soybean oil can work as temporary emergency chain lubricants. However, they lack the optimal adhesive and friction-reducing properties. Avoid cured vegetable oils like peanut. Check your manual – some saws prohibit plant-based oils. Only use vegetable oil very sparingly and immediately replace it with proper bar oil.

While these plant-based oils aren’t perfect substitutes, they can work in a pinch if you have no other options. But I recommend keeping high-quality chainsaw bar oil on hand at all times.

Choosing the Right Chainsaw Bar Oil

When selecting chainsaw bar and chain oil, you’ll want to match the oil’s viscosity grade to the temperatures when you use your saw. Let’s look at the key criteria:

Viscosity Grades

Oil viscosity is measured in Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) grades based on optimal operating temperatures:

  • Winter-grade: SAE 30 and 10W are best for cold weather use below 55°F/13°C
  • Summer-grade: SAE 50 is optimal for temperatures above 55°F/13°C
  • All-season: SAE 30 works across a wide range of temperatures

Choose a chainsaw bar oil viscosity grade suited for the climate where you’ll be using your saw. Thicker oils work better in winter’s cold, while summer heat requires a lighter oil.

Using an oil that’s too thick or thin for ambient temperatures can impede bar and chain lubrication. Always consult your saw’s owner’s manual as well.

ISO Grades

International Organization for Standardization (ISO) grades provide another way to select bar oil viscosity:

  • ISO 100 – optimal for temperatures above 32°F/0°C
  • ISO 150 – covers moderate temperatures from 14-68°F/-10-20°C
  • ISO 220 – best for cold weather use below 14°F/-10°C11

For example, a good rule of thumb is to use ISO 100 chainsaw bar oil in the summer and ISO 220 in the winter. Matching the oil viscosity to the operating climate helps maintain consistent lubrication.

Frequently Asked Questions

Let’s wrap up with answers to some common chainsaw bar and chain oil questions:

Can I use used motor oil as chainsaw bar oil?

It’s not recommended. Used motor oil contains contaminants from combustion and can lack optimal viscosity for bar lubrication. Stick to clean, fresh oil formulated for chainsaw use.14

What is the best chainsaw bar oil for winter use?

Look for SAE 10W or ISO 220 chainsaw bar oils designed specifically for cold weather use. Some all-season SAE 30 grade oils work well into cold conditions too.2

Can I mix motor oil with chainsaw bar oil?

It’s not advised. Mixing oils can lead to sub-optimal viscosity, tackiness, and performance. Stick with 100% chainsaw-specific bar and chain oil.6

How often should I refill the chainsaw bar oil?

Check oil levels before each use and top off as needed based on your saw’s fuel consumption. Bar oil tanks are translucent – you can visually inspect the level. Refill when it drops below 1/4 full.9

Can I use diesel engine oil as chainsaw bar oil?

No, diesel oil lacks the adhesive tackifiers that allow bar oil to stick and lubricate properly. Only use oil specifically made for chainsaws.6

What are the environmental impacts of using motor oil as chainsaw bar oil?

Motor oil takes a very long time to biodegrade and can contaminate soil and water over time. Canola or plant-based oils are more eco-friendly options.12

How do I know if my chainsaw bar oil needs to be replaced?

Inspect the oil tank often and refill when low. Immediately replace oil that appears contaminated or has lost viscosity. Stick to the oil change schedule in your saw’s owner’s manual as well.9


After reading this comparison guide, it should be clear that motor oil is a poor substitute for quality chainsaw bar and chain oil engineered specifically for your saw. Chainsaw bar oil contains special tackifiers, optimal viscosity, and antioxidants to protect your investment.

Take time to choose the right oil viscosity grade for the climate where you’ll operate your chainsaw. Using multi-grade or all-season bar oil is a safe bet for year-round use. With proper lubrication, you’ll keep your chainsaw’s bar, chain, and drive components running smoothly for years to come.

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