Homebuilt Hot-Rod Chainsaws Prove Motorsports Goes Beyond Wheels

A two-stroke go-kart-powered saw with three carburetors definitely counts as a hot-rod in my book.

byCaleb Jacobs| PUBLISHED Dec 13, 2022 10:00 AM
Homebuilt Hot-Rod Chainsaws Prove Motorsports Goes Beyond Wheels
Mike Nolen
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Muscle cars and hot rodding certainly go together, but it doesn't end there. True tinkerers find a way to upgrade every machine in their lives, and for some that includes their chainsaws. Mike Nolen from Northern California is one such builder, and while he's far from the only saw fanatic, his creations are really something—especially if you're used to stock Stihls and Husqvarnas.

Nolen is into timber sports, which is the kind of spectacle you'd expect to see on ESPN8: The Ocho. It's pretty niche, all things considered, but diehards make lumberjack athletics as cool as they sound. There's even a factory-sponsored series out there, but the competitions that Nolen enters are more grassroots-style. And while he wants to build saws that'll win races, he wants them to look cool. That might be even more important.

His West Bend 820 was the first to catch my attention when I scrolled past it on Facebook. His name was nowhere to be found on the post, so I went looking to find who built it. After prodding around, I got in touch with Nolen, who told me exactly what I was looking at.

"That saw is completely handmade," Nolen tells me. "There's not a piece of chainsaw on that thing except the trigger handle, which is from a Stihl 090. Actually, that one has a 1970 West Bend 820 go-kart motor that has a welded stroker crank in it with a quarter-inch added to the stroke. It needed a custom head with a larger chamber to accommodate the piston coming up out of it."

"It's bored and stroked to 10 cubic inches, or 144cc," Nolen continues. "[It has] three Tillotson HL-324 carbs."

That may not sound as impressive as a 572-cubic-inch big block with a quad-barrel carb, but when you're talking about something you hold in your hands, it's pretty righteous. It's also pretty loud until you put the silencer on the exhaust pipe, which is built that way on purpose to force gas back into the combustion chamber. It prevents the bulk of unspent fuel from exiting into the atmosphere, returning the fuel instead to be burned more completely for improved power.

A lot of people gave Nolen flack saying a saw with three carburetors would never run right. He says he knew better and decided to build it "basically just to rub their noses in it."

"We took it to North Fork this year on Fourth of July weekend, and my buddy Zack Montgomery ran it. It sung really nice. We had a big ol' 44-inch log and I only had 32 inches of bar on it so he had to really work at it, but it sounded like a holy terror. I'm really happy with it. I'm not going to change a thing."

It runs on C12 race fuel with 3 ounces to the gallon of nitropropane, which oxygenates the mix. Nolen explains that they've tried methanol in the past but didn't like it as much as this blend, which he affectionately refers to as "the purple stuff." It's not as temperamental, either, and you don't have to rebuild the entire thing if you leave fuel in it for any amount of time.

Mike Nolen

Nolen says he's built more than 20 saws in the past five years, many of them with bike carbs and big pipes like you see here. If someone asked Nolen to build a similar saw for them, he tells me it'd likely cost around $5,000. That's a lot more than you'd pay for even the nicest Stihl off the shelf, but they really aren't in the same category. Nolen's are more about artistic expression than they are about productivity.

"I look at it like any other crazy motorsport. If you're into dirt bikes, they're even more expensive now, it's always five grand. By the time you have all the stuff it takes to do it, it's always five grand. It's just another dumb sport. You can start with other things, like the new 3120 Husky, but you're starting with a $2,000 saw before you touch it."

Toys like these are exactly that—toys. And while it may not be everyone's idea of fun to spend weekends cutting logs for sport, it's some folks' passion. If it means we get more wicked creations like this, then I think we can all agree that it's pretty rad.

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