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Why is a saw needed to make a wheel? (History question)

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Forum topic by Thuzmund posted 03-26-2020 06:57 PM 1445 views 0 times favorited 29 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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Thuzmund

177 posts in 2789 days


03-26-2020 06:57 PM

I thought I would post here in the hopes that hand tool workers might include folks familiar with wheels and saws, the subject of my question.

There is a great book called the story of the saw published by Spear and Jackson: https://toolemera.com/bkpdf/Story%20of%20the%20Saw(2).pdf

On page 13, it states ”One of the greatest single events in the history of mankind – the invention of the wheel – may well not have been possible without the earlier invention of the metal saw. It was well-nigh impossible to make a
wheel without a saw…”

But no further explanation. I really really love the topic of ancient woodworking, so I sat and thought about this statement for a bit. Unfortunately I have no experience making wheels. But I see some old examples here:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wheel#/media/File:Roue_primitive.png

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wheel#/media/File:Ljubljana_Marshes_Wheel_with_axle_(oldest_wooden_wheel_yet_discovered).jpg

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wheel#/media/File:Ljubljana_(8629147956).jpg

Does anyone know why a saw is necessary for the development of the wheel? And not, say, a chisel or axe?

Thanks!

-- Here to learn


29 replies so far

View Underdog's profile

Underdog

1688 posts in 3195 days


#1 posted 03-26-2020 08:13 PM

The only thing I can think of is the process of putting the work piece on a center pin, then rotating it while a saw is cutting in a jig/fixed position around the circumference.

But then you’d almost have a lathe, so… why not a chisel?

I suppose one could hand shape a wheel, but a saw and jig would certainly make uniformity easier.

-- Jim, Georgia, USA

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GaryCN

501 posts in 5094 days


#2 posted 03-26-2020 08:26 PM

Agree with Underdog, now my tool of choice is the router to accomplish a wheel. Then the lathe for smaller ones.

-- Quando Omni Flunkus Moritati

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Phil32

1496 posts in 1063 days


#3 posted 03-26-2020 08:38 PM

Probably the oldest cutting edges were the Clovis points – stones with knapped edges. They may have started as spear points for taking down big game, but would have crossed over to other tasks like cutting wood. In obsidian they were very sharp. With a fine edge of multiple chips they would work for sawing tasks. It should be noted however that nomadic tribes of North America didn’t bother with wheels; they let the women carry the household stuff.

-- Phil Allin - There are woodworkers and people who collect woodworking tools. The woodworkers have a chair to sit on that they made.

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jdh122

1252 posts in 3977 days


#4 posted 03-27-2020 02:48 PM

I wonder if the author means that the ability to cut a cookie off the end of a log was what gave people the idea to make wheels? This wouldn’t be possible with an ax. But historically, this seems highly unlikely to me.

-- Jeremy, in the Acadian forests

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TraditionallySpeakin

65 posts in 901 days


#5 posted 03-27-2020 04:14 PM

Two books immediately come to mind. “Woodworking in Estonia” and the Village Wheelwright”. While I don’t specifically remember either mentioning the absolute need for the saw; I think it comes from the fact that the felloes are made from non continuous grain and are short enough that steam bending the curve in them might be impractical. It also might not work out well when you put the cherry red iron “tire” up against a steam bent piece?

There is the specific mention of not using a saw. They only use cleft heart of oak for the spokes as a saw wouldn’t ensure continuous grain and thus the necessary strength.

-- “If not for Roubo, the back of the U.S. nickle would be blank.” -Roy U.

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Phil32

1496 posts in 1063 days


#6 posted 03-27-2020 04:31 PM

The book “Cedar” by Hilary Stewart documents the amazing ways First Nations people worked wood for thousands of years before white men came, including steam bent boxes. They split huge planks from live trees. Then you add the clever use of fire for dugout canoes, etc.

-- Phil Allin - There are woodworkers and people who collect woodworking tools. The woodworkers have a chair to sit on that they made.

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AndyJ1s

485 posts in 915 days


#7 posted 03-27-2020 05:40 PM

Interesting, since the wheel pre-dates the saw by around a thousand years (4000+ BC to ~3100 BC)

The saw likely enabled the rapid advancement and application of the wheel, by reducing the labor required to make a wheel. Just like the saw advanced many other tools.

-- Andy - Arlington TX

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Thuzmund

177 posts in 2789 days


#8 posted 03-27-2020 05:41 PM

Here is another interesting page I found: https://www.dkfindout.com/us/science/amazing-inventions/wheel/

And this one—read about why Catherine is the patron saint of Wheelwrights! https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/a-salute-to-the-wheel-31805121/

I agree that cutting a cookie would seem an easy way to make a wheel but I have to imagine, like Jacob Bronowski did in the Ascent of Man, that flint and stone working revealed to humans that grain structures could be taken advantage of. Therefore, I imagine that splitting timbers along the grain would have to predate sawing by a long time. And I bet with a hatchet I could make a very fair wheel from a board, if I take my time (which folks seemed to have a lot of back then).

Maybe I will end up contacting the publisher. And maybe they are tooting their own horn a bit. It sure is a head scratcher though.

-- Here to learn

View HokieKen's profile

HokieKen

18424 posts in 2298 days


#9 posted 03-27-2020 05:50 PM

That sounds rather preposterous to me. By all accounts of which I’m aware, the invention of the wheel preceeded the invention of the metal saw by a couple of millennia. We have evidence of wheels dating to around 3500 BC but the earliest examples of metal saws are around 1500 BC.

Maybe they were referring specifically to a certain type of wheel or construction method in the book??

-- I collect hobbies. There is no sense in limiting yourself (Don W) - - - - - - - - Kenny in SW VA

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Thuzmund

177 posts in 2789 days


#10 posted 04-08-2020 07:21 PM

Remember that stone and bone saws were a thing, too. And lord did they have a lot of time on their hands :)

-- Here to learn

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HokieKen

18424 posts in 2298 days


#11 posted 04-08-2020 07:32 PM



Remember that stone and bone saws were a thing, too. And lord did they have a lot of time on their hands :)

- Thuzmund

Very true :-) But the quote in the OP specifically says ”... invention of the METAL saw”

-- I collect hobbies. There is no sense in limiting yourself (Don W) - - - - - - - - Kenny in SW VA

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Thuzmund

177 posts in 2789 days


#12 posted 04-08-2020 07:42 PM

Oh my! You are correct!!! Good catch lol. That’s an embarrassing error on my part. I haven’t visited this thread in a few days I guess, and didn’t even check the original when I posted.

Spear and Jackson made the strongest version of the claim, so we should hold them to it!

-- Here to learn

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Thuzmund

177 posts in 2789 days


#13 posted 04-08-2020 08:20 PM

Well the least I can do is actualyl bug Spear and Jackson with this question. Haha, they just received it by email. I doubt I will get a response, but darnit it’s their book. :)

Hello,

I have a question about an entry in an old publication entitled “Story of the Saw” (1961, available here:  https://toolemera.com/bkpdf/Story%20of%20the%20Saw(2).pdf).

The entry I’m interested in relates to some historical/anthropological information, so I would greatly appreciate if you could forward the question to an appropriate office within your company.  

On page 13, it states ”One of the greatest single events in the history of mankind – the invention of the wheel – may well not have been possible without the earlier invention of the metal saw. It was well-nigh impossible to make a wheel without a saw…”  But no further explanation is given.  My question is this:  Why was a saw necessary for the development of the wheel?

I am a Yankee with a keen interest in tools from the American colonial period, so I both appreciate the significance of tools and lack any helpful expertise about ancient times. :) Therefore, I have thought about this statement for a good many weeks now. I have even posted it to my woodworking forum.  I have also spent far more time than I anticipated researching the development of the wheel and early wood crafting.  Without a degree in anthropology, it’s fair to say that accessible information is limited and precious. 

Perhaps my favored guess is that a saw would allow for discs to be cut from a round log.  However, this isn’t how most early wheels seem to have been made, and would have leapfrogged the easier method of splitting wood and roughing boards round with an axe.  Furthermore, the entry I referenced went on to claim that effective saws required metal, so “copper, bronze or iron deposits were the essential condition for the evolution of the wheel”.  

I just haven’t been able to drop this question.  As a last effort, I thought I owe it to myself to simply ask the company.  

Thank your for whatever generous attention you can offer my concern.

-- Here to learn

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therealSteveN

8213 posts in 1734 days


#14 posted 04-08-2020 08:49 PM

I’m not going to say I’m a historian or anything akin to it, but is it possible they missed one word?

WOODEN wheel would have been hard without a saw.

As far as I am aware the very early wheels were all stones/rocks smacked into submission with other rocks, and later things similar to what we now call chisels. With them a steel saw would have been pretty much worthless.

Maybe they are only guilty of having a proof reader who doesn’t know Jack about the history of a wheel? Anyone who has ever written even a 100 page piece for school, knows how easy it is to think a thought, and not completely write it all the way out.

Not supporting, just thinking of reasons why….

-- Think safe, be safe

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AlanWS

145 posts in 4718 days


#15 posted 04-10-2020 03:28 PM

My guess is that it depends on what you call a wheel. Does it need to have an attached axle supporting something, or is a roller considered a wheel? I would have expected that logs used as rollers to transport large objects would have preceded wheels with axles, and I would have called the rollers “wheels”.

-- Alan in Wisconsin

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