Chain saws and hedge trimmers may seem similar, but these yard tools each have very specific uses. Understanding the differences helps you choose the right tool for each job, whether you're cutting down a tree or trimming your hedges, to keep you safe and make the task easier. Always wear proper eye protection when operating either machine.

Hedge Cutter in Action
credit: Marilyn Barbone/Hemera/Getty Images
Chain Saw vs. Hedge Trimmer

Cutting Action

Chain saws and hedge trimmers both have bars, and both can be either electric- or gas-powered, but that's where the similarities end. The cutting action of a chain saw is similar to a band saw. The teeth move around the bar and rip through anything they come into contact with as they move.

The cutting action of a hedge cutter is similar to a reciprocating saw. The blade oscillates back and forth, and it cuts anything small enough to fit inside of the notches on the bar.

The Jobs They Do

The purpose of a chain saw is cutting tree trunks and branches. Saws come with bars as long as 48 inches or more that can reach all the way through the trunk of a large tree. Without a chain saw, the only way to fell a tree is with an ax or long hand saw.

The job of the hedge trimmer is to shape hedges and shrubs by trimming the ends from small branches. Think of it as a faster way to prune than using clippers or pruning shears. Hedge trimmers have considerably less power than chain saws since they're just meant to trim tips of small branches.

Chain Saws Aren't Best for Trimming

You wouldn't use a hedge trimmer to cut down a tree. You could try, but you'd be there a while. The tool just doesn't have the power to cut through a tree trunk or thick branches. But you could technically use a chain saw for trimming. Because it has a bar and plenty of cutting power, a chain saw can easily cut through small branches.

You may have some success if you use a chain saw for hedge trimming, but you may also find yourself frustrated. A chain saw often pushes small branches to the side instead of cutting them. Small branches can be dangerous when they get caught in the chain. They can interfere with its motion and may cause saw kickback, which is extremely dangerous for the operator.

Use a Brush Cutter to Clear Brush

How do you decide if a trimmer is right for the job? Look at the size of branches you need to cut. If they're too big to fit between the notches on the hedge trimmer, they're too large for the tool to cut. For a typical gas-powered hedge trimmer, that's from 1/2 to 1 inch.

If you need to trim a large shrub or clear a pile of brush with lots of large branches that your hedge trimmer can't handle, try a brush cutter or forest-clearing saw. The circular saw sits on the end of a long shaft. The shaft keeps the tool well away from the operator, and the 9-inch blade easily cuts through branches up to 4 inches in diameter.