Husqvarna chainsaw: ‘The perfect product for a weapons manufacturer to produce in times of peace’ 10.07.17

Husqvarna chainsaw

Before the world could have post-war Swedish design, it needed a post-war Swedish power tool, writes Tim Abrahams

"And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares — Isaiah 2:4

In the mid-19th century, the munitions manufacturer for the Swedish army realised that the imperial ambitions of its country were in decline. Husqvarna decided to branch out into other mechanical equipment. It turned out that its engineering skills and the machinery needed to produce rifles were perfect for sewing machines. Launched in 1883, the Freja was the first sewing machine to be driven by gears and thus able to sew in straight lines. Husqvarna became a world leader in the field, pioneering new technologies in domestic settings.

Husqvarna returned to weapons production during the Second World War, churning out huge numbers of Lahti M40 pistols for the Swedish army. After the war, it was well placed to move quickly out of munitions into high-value domestic equipment, having already followed this path a century earlier. Rather than expand its motorbike production line – Steve McQueen’s favourite bike was the Husqvarna or ‘Husky’ 400 – the company diversified. With the timber industry in Sweden taking off, partly to fuel the booming furniture industry, the move into chainsaw production was aimed first at a local market.

It is right that the delightful and sensuous curves of Swedish post-war furniture were produced from wood sliced by an equally beautiful machine. Although German mechanical engineer Andreas Stihl patented the first gasoline-powered chainsaw, it was the Swedish designer Sixten Sason who turned it into an iconic design object for Husqvarna. Sason was formerly both an artist and a pilot who was invalided out of the Swedish air force just before the war, when a crash cost him a lung. He made his name employing aerodynamics to the curves of the Saab 92 car. He designed the first Hasselblad camera and the almost ridiculously space-age Electrolux Z70 vacuum cleaner, which even today looks more like Mir than a Hoover.

In the UK, we are only vaguely aware of how much fun a good chainsaw is. We are the third largest net importer of wood products in the world, after all. The ones we tend to see are the dinky little ones arborists use to lop off pesky branches. Yet even the largest Husqvarna is beautifully balanced, not just vertically with its black chrome guide bar, but also laterally. The clutch protrudes outwards, meaning the case bulges on both sides, giving it a singular poise. It is also tested for cold temperatures, making it more reliable than competitors.

Yes, chainsaws possess real menace. They have powerful two-stroke engines and can kill you, a threat made horrifically palpable by the film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 1974. In reality, the person most at threat from older chainsaw models was the user, particularly if they suffered a ‘kickback’, when the saw’s rounded end touched a hard object or the wood closed tightly around the saw, throwing it out of control. Ironically, the same year The Texas Chainsaw Massacre hit the cinemas, the Husqvarna 140 hit the hardware stores. It featured an automatic chain break that stopped the motor if a kickback occurred – an innovation that saved the lives of many forestry workers.

The Husqvarna chainsaw was the perfect product for a former weapons manufacturer to produce in times of peace. Clearing land and providing fuel, it tames the wilderness. Yet, with an engine cased in moulded plastic and a barbed chain that cuts out at the first sign of trouble, the chainsaw is itself savagery tamed.

This article first appeared in Icon 163

 

Words

Tim Abrahams

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Yes, the chainsaw possesses real menace. They have powerful two-stroke engines and can kill you

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