When lithium-ion tools first hit the market, a number of manufacturers introduced 28- and 36-volt models. But the tools were bulky and heavy, and the battery platform didn't catch on — though it did find some use in power-hungry tools like recip saws, circular saws, and large rotary hammers.
The new frontier in high-voltage tools is cordless outdoor power equipment. Most such tools (string trimmers, leaf blowers, and the like) are of little use to contractors, but a cordless electric chain saw has some value. Though not an everyday tool, it can come in handy for tasks like trimming beams, cutting sheathing out of rough openings, and clearing trees and branches from the work area.
Admittedly, a gas chain saw is cheaper and more powerful. But for intermittent use, it may be easier to go with a cordless electric model; there's less need for maintenance, no need to store and transport fuel, and the saw will start every time.
For this article I tested all three high-voltage cordless chain saws currently available in the U.S. (In other parts of the world, Bosch, Dolmar, Husqvarna, and Makita sell 36-volt0 cordless chain saws, some of which are sure to make it to our market in time.)
The three saws hit different price points: There's the premium Stihl MSA160C-BQ, the less-expensive Oregon PowerNow CS250E, and the economical Ryobi RY40510.
The Stihl is sold a la carte with two different battery and charger options, the Oregon is available in kit form with two battery options, and the Ryobi is sold as a kit or bare tool. I received a charger and one battery with each of the tools and opted for the higher amp-hour (Ah) batteries with the Oregon and the Stihl.
All three units rely on low-kickback-rated chains and bars, but the Stihl and Oregon saws have the additional safety feature of a chain brake that mechanically stops the chain if there's a kickback. The Ryobi relies on a tip guard to keep the nose of the bar from entering a cut. It works when it's in place — but since it reduces cut capacity to a meager 9 inches, most users will be tempted to unscrew it and set it aside.
As an additional safety feature, the batteries in the Oregon and Ryobi can be placed in a secondary position where they are electrically disconnected. The batteries are secure in this position (they won't fall out), but the tool can't be operated until the battery is pushed the rest of the way in. The Stihl lacks this feature; if you fail to fully engage the battery (at which point it's electrically connected), it could fall out if the saw is knocked over during transport. However, the Oregon and Stihl saws can be electrically disconnected even faster by clicking their brake levers forward the same way gas saws are mechanically locked.
The tool-free tensioning mechanisms on the Stihl and Ryobi make it easy to keep their chains properly tensioned. Oregon requires the use of a screwdriver, which — combined with the clumsiness of the tensioning operation — made me dread (and delay) having to perform this adjustment.
Automatic oiling of the bar and chain is a must — and all three chain saws do it well. The tanks hold enough oil for a few charges' worth of cutting and have clear sight windows so you can tell at a glance how much is left.
Other notable features
The Stihl has a brushless motor and a battery with the highest Ah rating (4.5 Ah) I've ever seen on a cordless tool. These features represent the latest in cordless technology, though they are not played up in the product literature.
Another great feature of the Stihl is the active coast-down brake, which functions like the brake on a cordless drill, bringing the chain to a rapid stop when you release the trigger. It provides an added margin of safety and allows you to move more quickly between cuts.
The Oregon saw has a built-in sharpening stone that works with the included PowerSharp chain. By pushing on the stone's lever for a few seconds, you can touch up the edge of this oddly shaped chain pretty well; it's a handy time-saving feature. The saw also accepts standard 3/8-inch low-profile chains, but the sharpening stone doesn't work with them.