I’ve been using chainsaws for years to tackle projects around my property, but I never gave much thought to the differences between chain types until recently. As I started taking on more demanding cutting jobs, I realized not all chainsaw chains are created equal. The two main categories are full-complement and skip-tooth chains, and they each have advantages and disadvantages depending on the task at hand. In this post, I’ll compare and contrast these two common chain types so you can choose the right one for your needs.
Full-complement and skip-tooth chains may look similar at first glance, but they have distinct designs that significantly impact performance. Full-complement chains have a tooth (or cutter) that follows right behind the previous one with no space between. This arrangement allows for very smooth and precise cuts. Skip-tooth chains, on the other hand, have cutters spaced out every two or three links. The gaps help remove sawdust and wood chips as you cut, allowing faster cutting through large pieces of wood.
So which one is right for you? Here’s a more in-depth look at how these two chain types compare:
Full-complement chains, as the name suggests, have a “full complement” of cutters around the chain loop with no missing teeth. Some people call them “full chisel” chains since the cutters are often an aggressive chisel shape. The profile of each cutter is designed to sever wood fibers efficiently as the chain spins around the guide bar.
With no gaps between cutters, these chains leave a very smooth cut surface on the wood. The cut quality is excellent but that smoothness comes at the cost of speed – chips and sawdust can accumulate in the kerf which inhibits fast cutting. Full-complement chains are better suited for smaller jobs where you value precision over brute cutting force.
Besides smooth cuts, full-complement chains offer a few other benefits:
- More predictable cutting since there are no gaps between teeth
- Lower vibration since the chain continuously engages the wood
- Better performance in green or dirty wood where debris can clog the cut
The main downside is that full-complement chains are slower at hogging through huge logs or trees. All those teeth also mean more sharpening work to keep them cutting nicely!
In contrast to a full-complement chain, skip-tooth chains have some cutters removed to create empty spaces along the loop. The most common designs remove every other tooth, but some chains skip 2-4 teeth between each cutter. Oregon and other brands market these as “skip chisel” chains.
The gaps between cutters serve an important purpose – they provide space for wood chips and sawdust to be ejected as you cut. This prevents debris buildup so you can saw faster through large diameters. The open pockets also aid in chip clearance when boring cuts using the tip of the bar.
However, skip-tooth chains leave a rougher cut surface since the cutters are more sporadically spaced. And because the chain doesn’t engage the wood continuously, more vibration can be transferred to your hands.
Here are some other key advantages and disadvantages of skip-tooth chains:
- Faster cutting through thick wood thanks to open space for debris removal
- Good chip clearance when boring into wood with the bar tip
- More prone to vibration since fewer teeth are engaging the wood
- Increased risk of kickback on some saws since fewer cutters are grabbing at once
So in summary, skip-tooth chains trade away some cut quality for ripping speed – perfectly suited for large-scale cutting jobs where fast limbing or bucking are priorities.
The shape and style of each cutter (or tooth) can also have significant impacts on how a chain performs. Let’s compare some of the key differences between full-complement and skip-tooth cutter configurations.
Full Complement Cutters
With a full-complement chain, the shape of each chisel or chipper cutter determines the characteristics of the cut. Standard full-chisel cutters are very efficient at severing wood fibers, leaving a smooth cut surface on the wood. Semi-chisel cutters are less aggressive, making them safer for novice users.
During operation, the successive cutters slice into the wood in an unbroken, continuous pattern. This allows full-complement chains to bore or plunge cleanly into wood using just the tip of the guide bar. The cutters carve out wood as they rotate through the kerf, ejecting chips and debris upwards.
Some key attributes of full-complement cutter designs:
- Continuous cutting pattern for steady, predictable sawing
- Allows plunging using just the bar tip
- Chisel shape severs wood cleanly for smooth cut surface
- More teeth contacting the wood at all times for stability
On skip-tooth chains, the cutters are much more sporadically spaced, so the cutting action happens in pulses rather than one long continuous slice. As each tooth takes its turn in the wood, it severs fibers then exits to let chips and dust eject before the next tooth engages.
This on-off cutting pattern happens very rapidly as the chain speeds around the guide bar. The intermittent nature gives skip-tooth chains their characteristic faster cutting through large diameters. However, it also makes the saw feel less steady in the cut compared to a full-complement chain.
Here are some other traits of skip-tooth cutter configurations:
- Pulsed cutting action as each spaced-out tooth takes its turn
- Increased chip ejection from gaps between cutters
- Not ideal for plunge cuts since fewer teeth are engaging the wood
- Staccato cutting pattern compared to the seamless feel of full-complement
No matter which chain you choose, keep the cutters sharp! Hardened cutters will last longer and withstand more sharpenings. And remember that cutter shape directly impacts cutting performance.
Advantages and Disadvantages
To recap, let’s directly compare some of the key pros and cons of full-complement vs skip-tooth chains. Keep these factors in mind as you select chain types for your projects.
Full-Complement Chain Advantages
- Delivers very smooth, clean cut surface on wood
- Faster cutting on smaller trees and wood pieces
- Lower vibration for less hand fatigue
- Cuts through dirty or frozen wood better
- More stable and predictable sawing
Full-Complement Chain Disadvantages
- Slower cutting through thick wood due to chip buildup
- Not great for boring cuts
- More teeth means more sharpening work
Skip-Tooth Chain Advantages
- Faster cutting on large diameter logs and trees
- Aggressive chip and dust ejection from gullets
- Good for boring cuts using the bar tip
- Stays sharper longer since fewer teeth
Skip-Tooth Chain Disadvantages
- Rougher cut surface than full-complement
- More vibration felt in the hands
- Can increase kickback risk on some small saws
- Not ideal for cutting dirty or frozen wood
As with most chainsaw components, there are tradeoffs to each design. Pick the chain type that offers the performance characteristics most suited to the projects you tackle.
The typical applications for each chain type also provide insight into their strengths and weaknesses. Here are some examples of where full-complement and skip-tooth chains tend to excel.
Full-Complement Chain Uses
Full-complement chains are great for tasks like:
- Finish carpentry – their smooth cut minimizes rework afterwards
- Pruning trees and trimming branches – better control for careful limb removal
- Cutting roots – the continuous cutting pattern is less likely to snag in soil
- Bucking smaller diameter logs – efficiency at chewing through lighter cuts
- Construction and home use – control and smoothness suit most tasks
Skip-Tooth Chain Uses
Skip-tooth chains really shine when:
- Felling and bucking large timber – fast cutting with room for big chips to clear
- Milling lumber – efficient at hogging through wide slabs
- Forestry use – the speed suits high-volume cutting
- Boring cuts in log centers – open pockets allow chip clearance
- Pruning large limbs – fast cuts to remove heavy branches
Keep in mind that chainsaw chains can be swapped out fairly easily if the task changes. Many loggers keep both chain types handy to optimize cutting in different situations.
Performance and Efficiency
Cutting efficiency and chainsaw performance also differ quite a bit between chain types. Let’s look at some key metrics and how full-complement and skip-tooth designs stack up.
- Excellent power transfer for maximum efficiency in the cut. The continuous cutting pattern keeps the chain constantly engaged.
- Predictable feel and control since teeth are encountering wood smoothly without gaps or pulsing. Easier for beginners to operate.
- Does not bog down as easily in dirty or frozen wood. Less likely to get jammed up from debris.
- Smoother operation with less vibration felt in the handles. Easier to use the saw for extended periods.
- Ability to clear chips, dust, and wood shards very efficiently. This spacing prevents clogging which improves cutting speed.
- Aggressive self-feeding action draws the chain rapidly into the cut. Excels at powering through large diameter cuts.
- Increased chain speed possible since each tooth can cut more wood between sharpenings.
- Very good chain life and longevity since fewer teeth require sharpening. Stays sharper longer.
The bottom line is full-complement chains make the most of smaller saws better suited for finish cuts and light jobs. Big powerhead saws really wake up with skip-tooth chains that can devour huge logs. Pick the design that takes best advantage of your saw’s attributes.
There are some key differences in kickback tendencies, chain derailment risks, and other safety concerns between chain types that are good to understand. As with any power tool, play it safe by wearing full protective gear and following good operating practices.
- Lower kickback risk – the continuous cutting pattern provides steady grabbing force with less let-off.
- Reduced chain derailment issues – more teeth maintain positive bar contact and lateral friction.
- Smoother operation with less vibration reduces hand fatigue and injuries.
- Easier for beginners to control – continuous cutting action is more predictable.
- Potential for more frequent kickbacks since fewer teeth are engaging the wood.
- Increased vibration from the pulsing cut can numb hands and lead to loss of control.
- Gaps between cutters may increase bar nose dive in some scenarios.
- Staccato cutting action requires getting used to for optimal control.
No matter which chain type you choose, always exercise extreme caution when operating a chainsaw. Use two hands, wear protective clothing, and avoid unsafe situations to prevent injuries. A moment of carelessness around spinning chains can lead to severe consequences.
Maintenance and Sharpening
The number of cutters on full-complement vs skip-tooth chains also affects how much sharpening they require. More teeth equals more frequent filing needed. Here are some key maintenance considerations:
Full-Complement Chain Maintenance
- File all teeth evenly to keep them consistent – takes more time vs skip-tooth chains
- Monitor cutter length more frequently since more teeth remove more metal
- Increased wear on sharpening files/grinders from the higher tooth count
- Expect to swap out chains more often as all teeth reach minimum length
Skip-Tooth Chain Maintenance
- Fewer teeth make hand filing go quicker – every other one can be skipped
- Good cutter length can be maintained longer before replacement is needed
- Files and grinders last longer since they sharpen fewer teeth
- Gaps between cutters show you exactly where to sharpen rather than guessing
I recommend learning to hand file your own chains to save money and sharpen them properly. It only takes a few minutes once you get the hang of it. Just be sure to follow manufacturer filing angles and tooth settings closely.
Choosing the Right Chain
When it’s time to buy a new loop of chain for your saw, use these guidelines to select the best match:
Factors to Consider
- Type of cutting – smaller finesse jobs or aggressive hogging of wood?
- Saw and engine size – match chain design to the power output.
- Bar length – longer bars suit skip-tooth chains better.
- Your experience level – learn control with full-complement first.
- Budget – skip-tooth chains tend to wear better and last longer.
Here are my quick picks for which chain to use in various scenarios:
- Finish carpentry, trimming, firewood – full-complement
- Felling, bucking, milling – skip-tooth
- Shorter guide bars – full-complement
- Longer guide bars – skip-tooth
- Beginner users – full-complement
- Intermediate/Professional users – application specific
Of course these suggestions are generalizations and your needs may vary. Feel free to experiment with different chain types on your saws to compare them directly. Many loggers and arborists switch chains as needed to optimize cutting in various situations.
Whether you choose a full-complement or skip-tooth design, keeping your chainsaw chain sharp and maintained is absolutely critical for safe operation and efficient cutting. Take the time to regularly file each cutter and ensure adequate depth gauge settings. Catching up on deferred maintenance makes everything more difficult and dangerous.
For most firewood cutters and weekend warriors, I think starting out with a full-complement chain is wise to learn good control and habits. They cut nicely and are more forgiving for novices. But don’t be afraid to try a skip-tooth chain later on larger saws – the speed increase when bucking big logs is amazing.
Of course there’s a whole lot more to learn about chain types, cutter profiles, and sprocket nose bars that could fill a book. But hopefully this gives you a solid understanding of the key differences between full-complement and skip-tooth chainsaw chains so you can make an informed decision on your next purchase. Thanks for reading!
Frequently Asked Questions
Can I use a full-complement chain for large jobs?
Yes, you can use a full-complement chain on large diameter trees and logs. It won’t cut as quickly as a skip-tooth chain, but the smoothness and control may be preferable for certain situations. The debris buildup in the kerf will inhibit speed, so expect slower progress on thick wood.
Are skip-tooth chains suitable for beginners?
Skip-tooth chains may not be the best choice for first-time chainsaw users. The pulsing cut action and increased vibration require getting used to. Beginners are generally better served starting with a full-complement chain to learn proper control and saw handling.
How often should I sharpen my chainsaw chain?
As a general rule, the chain should be sharpened every 2-3 hours of use, or whenever you notice a decrease in cutting speed. More frequent light sharpening is better than waiting until the chain is badly dull. Keeping each cutter razor sharp is key for safety and efficiency.
Can I switch between full-complement and skip-tooth chains on the same chainsaw?
Yes, you can swap chains as needed. Many loggers keep both chain types handy to optimize cutting in different situations. Just be sure to adjust the chain tension and check that the gauge matches the saw’s bar groove width.
What is the best chainsaw chain for cutting hardwood?
Full-complement, full-chisel chains are typically the best performers when cutting dense hardwoods like oak, maple, hickory, etc. The continuous cutting pattern and aggressive chisel cutters sever tough wood fibers efficiently.
How do I know when my chainsaw chain needs to be replaced?
When cutter length gets too short or chain stretch cannot be eliminated by tensioning, it’s time for a new chain. Also replace bent, damaged, or overly-worn chains rather than trying to repair them. Maintain the manufacturer’s recommended minimum cutter length.
Are there any other types of chainsaw chains I should consider?
Yes, there are a few other specialized chain designs such as safety chains, carving chains, ripping chains, etc. But most users are best served by sticking with standard full-complement and skip-tooth chains from reputable brands like Oregon, Husqvarna, and Stihl.
Michael Boyle is the founder and main author of Chainsaws Finder, boasting over 20 years of experience in the chainsaw industry. Hailing from Texas, Michael combines his extensive knowledge and hands-on expertise to provide reliable advice and top-notch service. His vision is to empower chainsaw users to tackle any project with confidence, making Chainsaws Finder a trusted resource in the field.