Vintage Chainsaws: Cutting a clear path to nostalgia

By Greg Bates

Growing up, Wayne Sutton looked up to his father.                                                         

The elder Sutton was a timber cutter in the Pacific Northwest, which piqued the interest of his son.

When Wayne got out of the service, he took a job at a local chainsaw shop. Sutton’s interest in chainsaws started to grow. In the early 1980s, Sutton began buying chainsaws. Lacking knowledge about the young hobby at the time, Sutton didn’t know what types of chainsaws to pick up, so he purchased anything that looked old.

One Chainsaw Starts It All

Sutton kept adding to his collection. It took on a life of its own.

“Anything to do with chainsaws, I don’t narrow it down more than that,” Sutton said. “I have documents and paperwork and clothing. Everything relating to chainsaws – from ashtrays to bottle openers.”

Sutton, who works at chainsaw giant Stihl as a territory manager for southwest Washington, northern Oregon and Alaska, now owns one of the most detailed and unique chainsaw collections in the United States and quite possibly the world.

The 60-year-old even runs a museum out of his property in Amboy, Washington. Commonly referred to as Wayne’s Chainsaw Museum, Sutton has about 1,000 chainsaws on display and another couple thousand in storage. 

“I like the older, the odder, the more unusual,” Sutton said. 

Impressive Collections

Chainsaw museums are quite rare. But chainsaw collectors these days seem to be coming out of the woodwork. 

“It’s amazing how many people are doing it now,” Sutton said. “There’s a number of Facebook sites dedicated to chainsaw collecting and there’s just hundreds and hundreds of people that just seem to be involved.” 

Sutton believes it is the nostalgic aspect of chainsaws that has attracted so many collectors and interested parties to the hobby. It’s certainly a niche market. 

Most collectors strive to have operating chainsaws for their collections. 

Operational Advantage

“Running condition is No. 1, that’s what everybody wants,” said Rich Dougan, the founder of West Coast Muscle Saws. “They want to take it out on the weekend and show their friends what a vintage saw will cut like compared to their brand-new Husqvarna or their brand-new Stihl chainsaw.” 

“My thing was to get them running again, not just to have them [as] wall hangers,” Dougan said. “Actually, to get them to run again like they did when they were produced.”

If a chainsaw is operational, it holds a direct correlation to its collectible price range.

“If they’re into the dollar value, running vintage muscle saws – muscle saws from the ’70s are worth a considerable amount of money rather than just a wall hanger,” Dougan said.

Chainsaw Repair In High Regard

Dougan, who is referred to as “The Chainsaw Guy” by his large following of YouTube subscribers, repairs chainsaws and also is an avid collector. Dougan gets plenty of interest from collectors for his services.

“I get probably 50 calls a day and I have to screen my calls,” said Dougan, who said he coined the term “muscle saw” for power saws about 15 years ago. “I finally had to post that I respond to emails when I can.” 

There aren’t many people who fix chainsaws, so Dougan is desirable for his skills.

“I’m old school, do it the way I was taught back in the day with McCulloch and all the guys would go to the schools and factories and they’d teach us how to work on them,” Dougan said. “You just don’t see a real saw shop anymore.”

Tracing Back to The Chainsaw’s Infancy

Motorized chainsaws got their start in the 1920s. That’s when names such as Stihl (Germany) and Wolf (United States) first were introduced. 

Chainsaws were produced to make it easier for forestry workers to do their job faster. The quicker wood could be cut, the greater the profit. 

Stihl is the oldest chainsaw manufacturer in the world, with its first electro-chainsaw hitting the market in 1926. The next year, Dolmar put out the first gasoline-powered chainsaw. 

“In the late 1920s, that’s really when everything started coming together,” Sutton said. “Andreas Stihl started building an electric saw in ’26, and by 1930 he had gas-powered saws and he was selling internationally already. It launched right there. Basically, all of the saws that came after that point were copies in some way of his equipment. They call him the Father of the Modern Chainsaw.” 

Evolution of Chainsaw Roles

Early chainsaws were bought and paid for by the timber industry; it was rare for individuals to purchase individual saws.

“The war effort kicked in and there was a big push for timber,” said Matt Dominish, who is a collector and runs the website www.thisoldchainsaw.com. “Those were the companies that were ordering 100 chainsaws – 100 chainsaws really helps your development and your founder skills. You need those big pushes to get in there. The farmer wasn’t buying a chainsaw. Maybe a municipality or something, but all the big developments came from the need and the purchasing from these bigger timber companies.”

The early chainsaws were two-man models to get out in the redwoods and cut down trees. The first one-man saws experienced a surge after World War II, coming out in 1950.

Early Chainsaws

After the war ended, McCulloch, which is now owned by Husqvarna, designed its first chainsaw using diecasting in 1948. 

“Everything jumped ahead like 10 years overnight,” said Marshall Trover, who is a leading collector in the hobby. “They caught up with all the other technology that was out there.”

Up until that point, chainsaws were sandcast and extremely heavy with steel cylinders.

“You needed a big saw because everything was big timber but then the outgrowth started disappearing and the one-man saws were all you needed,” Trover said. “Market plus innovation kind of ended the two-man saw.”

A Century of Chainsaws

According to Dougan, Douglas County in Oregon – where Dougan lives – used to be the Timber Cutting Capital of the World. The Pacific Northwest with its vast forest was the prime location for the evolution of the chainsaw.

“If you had a new saw in the ’40s or ’50s, you brought it here to test it because out here in Washington and British Columbia is the pro market,” Trover said. “This is prime country for early examples. It’s very fertile country here, especially Vancouver.”

In the nearly 100 years since the first motorized chainsaws were produced, obviously a lot has changed. One area that has evolved is the weight of chainsaws. In the ’40s, two-man saws were in excess of 100 pounds, and in the ’50s, a one-man saw was a whopping 30-40 pounds. By the next decade, a one-man saw was about 25 pounds, depending on the length of the bar, according to Dougan. Today, one-man saws weigh around 18 pounds and some consumer and small pro saws can weigh as little as 5 pounds.

With advancements in chainsaws, the saws have become more reliable.

“When I was getting into it back in the ’70s and the ’80s, a real timber cutter would probably have five or six chainsaws in the back of his truck to make it through a day,” Dougan said. “This day in age, timber cutters have one chainsaw. It’s just amazing how reliable and how high performance they are.”

Picking Up Vintage Chainsaws

When Dougan started collecting chainsaws in the 1970s, it wasn’t a hobby yet. But that changed over time.

He traveled around the United States for 10-15 years collecting and purchasing a bunch of vintage saws. If Dougan wouldn’t have found that rusty gold, the chainsaws most likely would have ended up in a scrap piles.

“That’s probably where most of it went, just gone,” Dougan said.

These days, it’s tough for collectors to find any pre-1950s chainsaws due to the fact they were destroyed, Dougan said.

Since the timber industry had an enormous presence in the Pacific Northwest, collectors still swoon over the area for vintage chainsaws.

But are there still plenty of saws around for collectors?

‘Barns Full of Saws’

“Most of them are at my house,” joked Sutton. “No, there are still barns full of saws here and there. It’s not easy to locate early stuff anymore.”

Through his travels around the country picking up chainsaws, Dominish has found two types of collectors.

“There’s the old, vintage antique where the guys want the first of, the oldest ones they can find,” Dominish said. “Then there’s the muscle saw collectors, just like with the cars. The people want the Barracudas and the Chevelles – the muscle cars. But there’s also that with the chainsaws. Those muscle chainsaws are what were used to cut down the big Redwood firs – 100, 130cc’s.”

The muscle saws are the most sought-after saw for collectors. The top model that jumps into Dougan’s mind is the McCulloch Super Pro 125 with a custom-built 101B racing engine.

Eye on Engines

“Out here, the timber cutters got paid for how much timber they got on the ground and so they wanted the fastest cutting saw they could make,” Dougan said. “They didn’t make one at the time, so we put these engines in them, and they were great saws.”

In excellent shape, Dougan said the McCulloch saw runs for about $3,000.

“I get calls daily of people looking for saws like that,” Dougan said.

Vintage Stihl 075, 076 and 090 models, along with Homelite 2100 and 3100 are also extremely collectible. Early Poulans are also desirable.

“Anything’s that vintage, ’50s and ’60s, is highly collectible,” Dougan said.

Honing a Focus for a Collection

After 30 years of collecting, Trover started to shred his collection. He got rid of 400-500 chainsaws that were spares, duplicates or what he considered “junkers.” Trover has 600 saws, but he’s keeping his collection tight.

“I’m trying to focus on rarity and quality,” Trover said. “I do more restoration than any of the other collectors. My job allows me more time to do that.

“The old ones were nice to restore because they’re big, heavy cast aluminum and wherever there was damage or something, you would just weld it up and grind it down.”

Trover’s rare pieces are plentiful. He owns a Dow low stump saw from 1933. It features an 18hp Indian Scout motor and the cast-iron model weighs 460 pounds.

Surviving the Test of Time

Trover also has a Stihl prototype from Germany called a BK from the early 1930s. Another great piece in Trover’s collection features a combination of the Oregon Saw Chain Manufacturing Corporation and Homelite. The Oregon company made the chain and Homelite provided the saw.

Only 12 were produced and two or three have survived the test of time.

Sutton’s rare pieces include diesel saws from Comet and Jonsered. He also owns a Model B Titan and a two-cylinder Spear and Jackson.

“I like weird stuff: diesel-powered, hydraulic and air and two-man or just miniature one man,” Sutton said. “It’s interesting how many different variations there are.”

Dominish enjoys getting out and traveling the country to pick up saws. Just last year, he hit 28 states on various road trips out west and down south. His day job is as a linesman, so on weekends it’s not uncommon for him to get out and pursue his passion.
Dominish is big into collecting first-of models: Homelite, McCulloch and he owns a Stihl prototype with a two-piece engine.

Parts are Also Collectible

Along with collecting entire chainsaws, parts are also valuable and can be extremely rare.

“Most of the time guys are collecting saws they’re also collecting those other items,” Sutton said. “It’s like having an antique car, you have to have replacement tires. If you’re going to fix it up, you want to have a nice looking bar and a good looking chain on it. It’s kind of a package deal.”

Dougan noted desirable parts coming from vintage Stihl, McCulloch and Homelite models are all worth good money.

According to Dominish, original vintage air filters are the toughest chainsaw accessory to acquire. Filters didn’t last long for timber workers out in the woods, so they were just thrown out while on a job.

“That is what we call unattainable,” Dominish said. “If you can find a chainsaw like that that wasn’t abused or that doesn’t have the war wounds on it – that does make them look cool – but to find one 100 percent complete is the goal. It’s very difficult, though.”

After-Market Parts

Collectors generally aren’t interested in after-market parts, they strive for original equipment manufacturers. However, stock parts can be difficult to come by. Sutton noted collectors can get crafty and repair parts, such as pistons, they have or build new pieces.

Ignition coils and engine components can be tough to track down, noted collectors.

But with eBay being a great option, it’s easier these days for collectors to pick up chainsaws and parts. That’s had a direct effect on the hobby.

“With eBay coming around and all the Facebook sites and so on, the prices have steadily grew,” Sutton said.

Rising Prices in Collector Market

Dominish has also watched the prices increase just since starting his collection earlier this decade.

“When I first started collecting there were a couple chainsaws that were $150-$300 apiece and if you ever wanted one you could just jump on eBay and contact a couple people in that area to find one,” Dominish said. “Now, you’re paying $500-$700 for that same saw, and that’s over
a six-, seven-year period I noticed that.” 

Sutton contemplates from time to time what the future holds for chainsaw collecting. He believes it’s a stable, long-term hobby.

“It’s like collecting wood planes for carpenters or people that are into fishing collect fishing stuff,” Sutton said. “And guys that are into the woods want to collect logging-related stuff, and chainsaws are a big part of that.”

“It’s something you can collect and do something with,” Trover said. “You can set it on the shelf and display but you can take it out and do something with it, too. I think that appeals, and it’s cheap.”

“There’s lots of saws at flea markets and swap meets for $20 or $50 and [people] can just collect common stuff and just have fun.”

Having fun is what collecting is all about.

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