Hot and Heavy

The Mechanics Behind Hot Saws

The Mechanics Behind Hot Saws Zoom

The Mechanics Behind Hot Saws


They roar like a parade of Harleys in a concrete tunnel. They throw sawdust in twenty-foot roostertails. The operators are decked out in chaps, protective glasses and hearing protection, and the crowd is protected from exploding parts and thrown chains by plexiglass shields.

The hot saw competition - a combination of a combustible rock and roll show (think Jimi Hendrix lighting his guitar on fire) and a drag race - is the loudest, most jolting adrenaline rush in the STIHL TIMBERSPORTS® Professional Series. And, while the echoes rumble just about as long as the chainsaws run, the hot saw has earned its place as the final event.

"The premier event of the day is the hot saws," said Russ Lemke, who started building hot saws almost 30 years ago, in 1980. "You can ask just about anybody, any of the competitors, anyone in the crowd. Everybody waits for the hot saws."

There's more meaning to Lemke's last sentence than it might appear. More than just the money shot for fans enjoying a testosterone-filled afternoon, actually getting a hot saw can be a difficult and expensive endeavor, often costing the buyer or builder in the neighborhood of $10,000.

Though a good saw may be hard to find, the best saws last and often change hands during the course of their lifetimes. One newbie in the STIHL TIMBERSPORTS series this year bought his saw from veteran Mike Slingerland who'd bought it from former lumberjack competitor and multiple hot-saw record holder, Rick Halverson. (Slingerland downsized to a MS 880 STIHL MAGNUM® " stock chainsaw modified to run with nitromethane.)

Other young competitors, like Will Roberts and Nathan Waterfield, have purchased saws from world record holder Matt Bush. Bush is an accomplished saw-builder himself, though his 5.085-second time making three cuts through 19 inches of white pine is probably his best-known feat.

However, according to lumberjack Mike Sullivan, approximately 80 percent of the hot saws on the circuit are made by Lemke, an automotive dealer in Mosinee, Wis. In talking to both Sullivan and Lemke, it becomes clear that Lemke takes great pride in his craft - and for good reason.

Sullivan has had his current Lemke saw for 12 years and has won multiple gold medals in the hot saw event at the Great Outdoor Games with it. He said in all that time, the saw has failed to start on the first pull only once during competition. If balancing raw power and reliability in a 250 cubic centimeter, half of a snow mobile engine that cranks out about 100 horsepower can be compared to the making of a fine stringed instrument, a Lemke saw may be the Stradivarius of its ilk.

"I'd say personally the ideal saw is the one I have," said Sullivan. "It may not be as powerful as it could be - but as soon as you start getting to that edge, of racing, your engine maybe drops over that edge of becoming so finicky, that now you become unreliable - and it becomes harder and harder to run.

One saw that just dropped over that finicky edge is Jason Wynyard's saw, and it couldn't have picked a worse time. In the 2009 Finals of the STIHL TIMBERSPORTS series, in Columbus, Ga., Wynyard flirted with a record time on Day One, winning the event with a saw he'd spent two years building. Then, his saw promptly and inexplicably stopped working, forcing him to borrow a saw from his brother-in-law and fellow TIMBERSPORTS competitor, Dion Lane, to finish the competition.

"It was bad gas," said Sullivan, of Wynyard's saw problems. "I can basically put any fuel in my saw and it'll run. He gets some bad fuel and it didn't mix well in the engine and it wouldn't run."

Ultimately, Wynyard won the championship, and, typically, everything hinged on the final hot saw competition. In what was a spellbindingly, unspectacular show of hot saw operation, Wynyard disqualified. Then David Bolstad, who, along with Wynyard, has dominated the TIMBERSPORTS series for more than a decade, one-upped Wynyard by throwing away a virtually guaranteed championship with a poor performance. Such is the ongoing saga of the hot saw.

If it sounds like hot sawyers are either gamblers or circumspect, straight-laced engineers, consider this: Russ Lemke, who preaches a combination of constant maintenance, consistency and reliability over raw power, came to hot saws by way of drag racing and snowmobiles.

"I've raced about everything that can be raced: cars, boats, go karts and snow mobiles," Lemke laughed, "and always did my own engine work.

"I was working in the woods when I started competing [in lumberjack competitions], and, of course, the hot saws intrigued me right away. The first one I built was a two-cylinder, and I went to the Wisconsin State Championships and blew everybody away with it. And the next week, there was a new rule out for single cylinders."

The event rules for the TIMBERSPORTS series specify only three stipulations about the saw's mechanical make-up: it is limited to one cylinder, with a tuned exhaust, and it must have a sprocket cover - other than that, the machines are a mechanical free-for-all.

"The range of displacement goes from about 250 CC's up to about 380 or 404 - Matt Bush ran a 404." said Granite State forestry expert, Don Quigley. "Somebody tried a 500 CC a few years ago, but they just couldn't handle it."

Saws can weigh up to 100 pounds, Quigley said, making them incredibly difficult to lift and maneuver through a block of wood - especially when you add in the kind of power they produce. When a hot saw kicks, it's throwing 100 pounds at speeds produced by an engine with 100 horsepower.

All-in-all, success in the hot saw competition takes more than just the operator. Each man standing on stage is allowed a helper, who can aid in getting the saw started during the 60-second warm-up period. And very few lumberjacks go without the assistance of a mechanic for construction and maintenance for their saws.

"These [competitors] sort of arrive, and they put the saws together and they run them a few times and they step out there on the stage, but they really aren't what you'd call a saw mechanic," said Quigley. "It's almost like in NASCAR, where you might have one guy who's a great driver, but he doesn't build the car."

Sullivan, who Quigley listed as the best and most consistent hot sawyer in the STIHL series, makes no bones about how much he's relied on his mechanic Russ Lemke. And Lemke has no problem with taking a piece of the limelight.

"Everybody knows the saws from one to the next; they know who built them and they know who's behind them," Lemke said. "We're all part of one team, as far as that goes. The majority - I'd say 99 percent of the guys out there couldn't build them themselves, anyway."

At 67, Lemke has been there, done that, with hot saws. He's found a formula that works, and he's sticking to it. The future of hot saws, in Lemke's mind, looks a lot like what he's been doing for 30 years: building solid, reliable saws that last. He makes the comparison between the number of manual, cross-cut saws a competitor buys over ten years versus the one saw that Sullivan bought from him 12 years ago.

"It's going on 12 years," Lemke said. "He's probably gone through 100 cross-cut saws since he got that power saw. It was engineered 12 years ago and it's still very competitive today."