An American Chainsaw That's Worth The Money
Dec 31, 2010 (Updated Mar 3, 2011)
Review by glen22
Rated a Very Helpful Review
Nice balance of power to weight
Made In USA
Bulkier/Heavier than a small chainsaw
The Bottom Line: The Stihl MS 280 is a fine chainsaw for those who need a long-lasting saw that is capable of handling the occasional big cutting job
More than a few of us have found the need for a chainsaw to cut firewood, to limb or cut the occasional tree. And if you’re like me, you have experienced the pain of buying a new budget-level chainsaw to replace the one that died after only a short and unhappy life.
Recommend this product?
The small 1.5- 2.0 horsepower saws with 14” or 16” guide bars (mostly made in China) have proven to be poor investments in my experience. I have used both gasoline and electric-motor chainsaws, and always felt like the saw was struggling at its limits just trying to cut a few logs or a one medium-size tree. Two in particular come to mind, a 14” gas-powered Poulan that broke three plastic gears in a row within two months, and a corded electric Craftsman. The Craftsman lasted only one afternoon before the trigger control broke in two pieces, and I returned it the same day.
Finding A Better Chainsaw
While most of use normally cut a few limbs or down a small dead tree now and then, the occasional big job does come along. A large tree falls across the driveway, or an extra cord or two of hardwood can be had for the cutting.
Then there are emergencies caused by man or weather. A few years ago, the arrival of Hurricane Katrina downed many huge trees across access roads in Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi, blocking passage access to many homes and farms. Those landowners who had a good chainsaw were able to clear passage themselves, without waiting days for the authorities to catch up. Small saws just don’t hold up to this kind of work.
A couple of years ago, I was faced with the need to cut and clear some dead timber and mature hardwood trees on some rural property in Tennessee. The dirt road onto the land itself was partially blocked with dead timber, while a clump of huge oak and maple trees had grown too close together and needed thinning. There were also numerous stunted ‘trash’ trees underneath the hardwood canopy to be cut down. I knew I needed something better than a ‘homeowner’ grade chainsaw.
Other than getting a quality product, I’ve come to believe that the biggest trick to buying chainsaws is all about matching the saw to the job. One can easily under-purchase, and end up forcing a cheaply-made small saw to try to do work beyond its (very limited) capabilities, shortening its life and in some cases, endangering its user.
But it’s also just as easy, if you have the money, to overbuy. Then you get a saw that is very expensive, very heavy, and rarely used. That $850 'professional' chainsaw with the super-long guide bar you so easily hefted in the store becomes a lot heavier and clumsier after a solid day of work cutting and sectioning trees at all angles. It's also smart to leave a bit of room in the wallet to purchase those other needed accessories: good hearing protection, thick work gloves, eye protection, two-cycle oil, wedges, and a couple of extra chains.
Leaving out the consumer-grade and commercial saws, then, I was really left with only three choices of manufacturer, Husqvarna, Echo, and Stihl. These are about the only chainsaw manufacturers still producing models in this mid-level range. A nice Husky was on sale at the local Tractor Supply, but the Stihl dealer had more models in stock, including one with a bit more power, the MS 280, for $469. I couldn’t find a local Echo dealer, and was somewhat dissuaded from searching further when I couldn’t find any local landowners or arborists who used the brand. I also wanted to get repair and warranty service, if needed.
The Stihl Brand
Like most other Stihl chainsaws, I was pleased to see that the MS 280 is made in the U.S.A., a definite plus in my book. Stihl does not sell its products via mass-market retailers, but through an approved dealer network. While this reduces opportunities for price shopping, it does mean that you are assured of getting parts, service and instructional assistance from a local dealer who knows something about chainsaws. In my case, it had been awhile since I had last used one, and it was helpful in brushing up on the latest features and operation.
The dealer’s sales clerk was very patient with all of my questions. I was also allowed to use a demonstrator model out back. (Can’t do that at the Home Depot.) Some female customers were in the store when I visited, and I noted that they were treated equally well - patiently, and without condescension. Unlike some outdoors and sports gear shops I’ve visited, I was pleased to see that there was no sign of at all of what I call Green Apron Syndrome (translation: where the part-time sales force, newly equipped with heavily starched clerk’s aprons, acts as if they are dispensing knowledge from divine sources, brushing off important questions they can’t or won’t answer). I ended up choosing the Stihl MS 280.
MS 280 Features And Specifications
The MS 280 is a mid-range level, two-cycle (2-stroke), gasoline-powered chainsaw with a fairly beefy 55cc engine of some 3.6 horsepower, and can be used with a 16” 18”, or 20” guide bar (the length of the metal blade upon which the chain rides). With some larger trees to cut, I chose the longer 20” bar and chain, but the 18" bar is probably the best length for most users (Stihl makes all of its own chains and guide bars here in the USA). At an overall weight of approximately 12.5-13 pounds including bar and chain, the MS 280 is designed for heavier duty than the bottom-grade homeowner chainsaws, while not being as large and heavy as saws intended for commercial use.
The MS 280 has a two-cycle engine, which means that the lubricating oil must be pre-mixed with the fuel (gasoline). The chain and bar are oiled separately via a reservoir. The saw comes with what Stihl calls Intelligent Engine Management technology. This electronically optimizes fuel mixture over the RPM range of the motor to produce better engine performance under different conditions such as a dirty air filter, different altitudes, fluctuating temperatures, or varying fuel qualities.
The MS 280 has more power than the lower-level Stihl models and importantly, a very good power-to-weight ratio. This means that the saw will cut faster, while still being light enough to remain relatively comfortable to use.
The saw is fitted with the now mandatory chain brake, which stops the saw within fractions of a second if the operator’s hand comes off the carry handle. Other nice features included an electronic ignition, transparent fuel tank for viewing remaining fuel, an automatic chain/bar oiler, a ‘chain catcher’ (designed to prevent the chain from hitting the operator if it accidentally breaks or derails), an easily-adjusted chain tensioner, heavy-duty oil and air filters, and aggressive bumper spikes mounted at the front of the powerhead or engine casing (bumper spikes are the fixed saw-like teeth that grip the tree trunk while the bar and chain are rotated into the tree trunk).
The MS 280 In Use
Starting the MS 280 is no different from starting other small two-cycle engines with a pull-start. With a cold engine, the 'cold start' (choke) position is engaged and the operator pulls the T-handle on the left side of the casing. The electronic ignition makes for a relatively easy start if the day isn’t too cold (the carburetor does have a preheat setting for cold days). Using the Stihl MS 280 alternately with a friend who used chainsaws regularly, I noted that the MS 280 is a bit ‘cold-blooded’, that is, a bit hard to start on a very cold day. But experience does help. The next day, I noted my friend was able to start the Stihl on the first pull on a cold engine, while I needed several tries. As I got more used to the saw, I was able to start the Stihl without multiple pulls. Once running, the engine control lever is moved to the 'normal run' setting.
With a warm engine, the engine control lever is moved to 'warm', then to the 'normal run' setting after starting. Once warm, the MS 280 starts very easily. It idles effortlessly and the engine engages the chain and runs up very smoothly. The fuel system works very well. I set the idling saw on a stable surface and let it idle happily for 20 minutes, then picked it up and applied full throttle. No hesitation or stumbling was noted.
When cutting, the added power of these mid-range chainsaws is immediately apparent. The MS 280 happily attacks thick tree trunks without bogging. We used it on three consecutive eight- to ten-hour days of cutting, limbing, and sectioning trees, mostly hardwood. The dirt drive was finally cleared with a marathon session of cutting and sectioning, again using only the Stihl MS 280.
An ultimate test was the felling of a giant red oak with a trunk at least three feet in width. It had to be felled fairly precisely, meaning we had to miss hitting my friend’s trailer and a nearby storage shed. I was given the job of cutting this one, which required multiple wedges and precise cuts. I found that the MS 280’s aggressive, heavy-gauge bumper spikes really helped in controlling the cut as the guide bar disappeared into the trunk. I freely admit that cutting down such a huge tree was far in excess of what the manufacturer intended for a saw this size, even using a 20” bar. Nevertheless, the huge tree was felled as intended, fortunately with no damage to either trailer or shed, or to the saw.
Another somewhat difficult job involved a tree that had grown hard against a barbed-wire fence line, and which protruded into a well-traveled roadway, obstructing the vision of oncoming motorists. We decided the quickest solution was to convert the tree into a extra fence post. This meant a cut at shoulder level while dropping the tree in a five-foot space between the fence and the paved roadway after putting up a temporary detour to traffic. The MS 280 again did the job perfectly, and was easy to hold stable while making the necessary cuts.
A word here about cutting technique. I make no pretense to being a chainsaw expert, a lumberjack, or anything resembling same, but this how I do things. I never skimp on protection for eyes, ears, or body. I try never to rush myself, and always use correct technique, never ‘forcing’ the saw or cutting where footing is not stable, and never trying to cut with the nose or tip of the guide bar. An accidental blade kickback is always a prime concern with a chainsaw, so I approach every tree, limb, or log as if I’m going to have a kickback - imagining the arc of the guide bar if it suddenly popped back - and position my body accordingly. I always plant my feet solidly and hold the saw firmly with a strong grip on the top (carry) handle, cutting carefully - but not tentatively. I also never cut any wood that I even suspect might contain metallic objects such as nails or spikes.
Chainsaws and Ethanol-Gas Blends
One problem that Stihl has also addressed is suitability for E10 gasohol – gasoline blended with ethanol to satisfy emissions laws. As many small-engine owners have found to their disgust, modern mandated ethanol-blend fuels are not a direct substitute for 100% gasoline.
The ethanol blended into gasoline can cause fuel system corrosion and deterioration of rubber and synthetic seals, while hotter burning temperatures can lead to excessive carbon buildup and even holed pistons in extreme cases. Its most commonly seen side effect is an extremely short fuel storage life due to ethanol’s tendency to attract moisture and accelerate fuel separation, often making small engines impossible to start without draining, disassembling, and rebuilding the fuel system.
Thanks to the ethanol lobby and EPA mandates, real 100% gasoline is no longer available in some states, even for small engines. Fortunately, Stihl builds its chainsaw engines to operate on E10 gasoline blends (10% ethanol) without damage, which at least allows the consumer to use the currently mandated fuels. Just make sure to drain the tank and fuel system if you plan to store the chainsaw for more than a couple of weeks. You can also use a fuel stabilizer, and Stihl even sells a two-cycle oil containing a fuel stabilizer and mixing agent that helps a little in extending fuel storage life. All that being said, if you are lucky to live in an area that still offers 100% gasoline, by all means use that in your expensive chainsaw, and forego the E10.
While it was by no means inexpensive, I’m very satisfied with the MS 280. It has worked flawlessly for two years of heavy use, and with good care and maintenance I hope it lasts many more.
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