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 406 views 0 times favorited 9 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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166 posts in 2308 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:

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:

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


-- Here to learn

9 replies so far

View Underdog's profile


1474 posts in 2715 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

View GaryCN's profile


474 posts in 4614 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

View Phil32's profile


989 posts in 583 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 mountain climbers and people who talk about climbing mountains. The climbers have "selfies" at the summit!

View jdh122's profile


1130 posts in 3497 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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47 posts in 421 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.

View Phil32's profile


989 posts in 583 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 mountain climbers and people who talk about climbing mountains. The climbers have "selfies" at the summit!

View AndyJ1s's profile


226 posts in 435 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

View Thuzmund's profile


166 posts in 2308 days

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

Here is another interesting page I found:

And this one—read about why Catherine is the patron saint of Wheelwrights!

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


12848 posts in 1818 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??

-- Kenny, SW VA, Go Hokies!!!

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