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I'm making a human society that has a lack of metal ore and no knowledge of metalworking at all. However, industry must still continue, metal or not, so I'm thinking about a water mill made out of hardwood. Would that be possible? Or does the lack of such durable materials doom this option before it can even begin?

Edit: As a comment suggested, I would like to clarify that I am worried more about the Long Term use than the material difference.

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    $\begingroup$ Many people are reading your question as 'Can I make a waterwheel from wood instead of metal?'. The answer to that is a simple 'yes' - it has been done so and is still being done. But what I think is that you're more worried about the long-term viability of such waterwheels for use in industrial factories and what-not, e.g. powering an industry by wood instead of metal. Is that right? If yes you should clarify & point this out in your question - otherwise you'll get many answers on something that you already knew... $\endgroup$ – dot_Sp0T Jun 27 '18 at 15:56
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    $\begingroup$ The answer here is relatively simple. You can make a waterwheel out of wood--however, it will likely require more maintenance than a metal one. An interesting side case is if the water is very mineral rich--you might get a fossilized waterwheel (a related case is if the water is very corrosive to a metal waterwheel). $\endgroup$ – Hosch250 Jun 27 '18 at 16:27
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    $\begingroup$ Waterwheels were always made of wood, from the beginning to the end of waterwheel usage. I don't think that I have ever heard of a waterwheel made of metal. The big problem is with "industry must still continue", because I'm certain I've never heard of metal-less industrial societies. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Jun 27 '18 at 22:00
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    $\begingroup$ "High friction" areas in a waterwheel assembly? What would those be? Waterwheel are slow. The axles were also made of wood, I've never even heard of a metal axle on a carriage before the 19th century, much less for a waterwheel. Basically you are asking about the actual historical state of things as if it was counterfactual. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Jun 28 '18 at 3:27
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    $\begingroup$ If there is no metal in your society, i highly doubt you'll get a wood based industry - knifes, lathes, saws, chisels,... They all can be made from wood and stone, but are way more fragile like that. If you can't handwave another big labor intensive aspect of your society (like Farmer did in Riverworld by providing free food without need for agriculture or foraging), the upkeep of tools (and toolmaking tools, and toolmaking-making tools and ...) will eat up your productivity. Just the construction of water/wind powered wooden plants? No problem. $\endgroup$ – bukwyrm Jun 28 '18 at 5:01
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It is very possible. It's been done. The wheel itself can clearly be made out of wood, as many are even in societies that have metal. The axles and gears that transfer the rotational energy are usually wood too, though sometimes with metal fittings or casings so that they will wear down and need replacement less quickly. The milling surface itself can be made out of stone. The biggest challenge might actually be the lack of nails. Instead, wood pieces could either be lashed together with rope, or holes can be drilled in each and then a wooden pin put through.

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    $\begingroup$ The fittings for the axles and gears can be ceramic or stone if they're lubricated well enough. $\endgroup$ – Ryan_L Jun 27 '18 at 16:32
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    $\begingroup$ Egyptians ran chariots on wooden axles without lubricates. They would just replace the axle as it wore down. $\endgroup$ – cgTag Jun 27 '18 at 19:13
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    $\begingroup$ There are also wooden nails used in wooden waterwheels. You'd drill holes for them and put the dry wooden nails in and then when you put the wheel to water the previously dried nails soak up water and expand and sit tight. $\endgroup$ – Sumyrda Jun 27 '18 at 21:10
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    $\begingroup$ But how would you drill the holes (efficiently) in the first place? $\endgroup$ – XtremeBaumer Jun 28 '18 at 6:44
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    $\begingroup$ @XtremeBaumer Using laser tools of course! $\endgroup$ – Maurycy Jun 28 '18 at 8:13
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Japanese built water mills without any metal. The Japanese are masters of construction using just wood and wood joinery.

Without metal you're limited to using the mill for basic things like flour grinding or water pumping.

Water wheels were often used to power wood cutting, a blacksmith shop or other industry shops. These often relied upon metal.

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    $\begingroup$ Wasn't the reason for all the wood and wood joinery because of a lack of metal for nails? So they had to get creative with wood and how they could join them together. $\endgroup$ – Shadowzee Jun 28 '18 at 1:16
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    $\begingroup$ They had lots of nails but there was a shortage of hammers. $\endgroup$ – cgTag Jun 28 '18 at 11:16
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    $\begingroup$ @Arsenal maybe you bump it to get it moving, but pumping would probably be more effective... $\endgroup$ – brhans Jun 28 '18 at 11:39
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    $\begingroup$ While the mistakes are funny, remember to Be Nice $\endgroup$ – bendl Jun 28 '18 at 13:37
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    $\begingroup$ One of these days Japan's going to launch a completely wooden spaceship. $\endgroup$ – Lord Farquaad Jun 28 '18 at 21:24
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Yes, lignum vitae wood was used as shaft bearings in the first hydroelectric plant and also on the first nuclear sub. It's waterproof, very dense and self lubricating.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding! Your first post is good, as you formulated an answer with reasoning and examples. Good job! $\endgroup$ – ArtificialSoul Jun 27 '18 at 22:04
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Using this primitive design makes it easy to build a reliable impact-type (trip hammer) mill without any metal, not even a small metal nail:

enter image description here

Author STA3816
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Watermills_at_Onta_Pottery_Village_02.jpg
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

From Wikipedia (CC-BY-SA):

A water scoop is a simple hydropower machine–that is, a machine used to extract power from the flow of water. Unlike a water wheel it operates intermittently, like a seesaw: A container (a bucket or cup) at the end of a lever is filled with water in the upper position. The container side becomes heavier, and so the lever with the filled container moves downward, which may be used to operate a machine drive. In the lower position the container is emptied, and the lever moves back into the upward position.

Because of their inferior efficiency compared to a water mill, water scoops are less common, and have been used in the past mostly for applications where linear motion is required rather than rotation, for example hammers in smitheries, saws in sawmills, and stamp mills in mining. They are also used for fulling and, nowadays, to operate animated sculptures in fountains.

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Assuming you have flint or obsidian to make cutting tools, definitely yes.

In the absence of metal, you will learn a lot about how to deal with the limitations of wood.

I can no longer find the source, but I have read about gearing used in windmills; the teeth are replaceable of course, and ideally made from apple wood, seasoned nine years, for maximum hardness. (Another subtlety was mutually prime tooth counts , e.g. meshing 19 teeth (not 20) against 40, so that the teeth wore evenly. Bearings run too slow to overheat, as long as they are lubricated with fat or wax.

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  • $\begingroup$ Mutually prime tooth counts is the standard method of designing all engineering gears of any material, for the same reason - so that each tooth on one wheel works equally against every tooth on the other wheel in the long term. $\endgroup$ – alephzero Jun 28 '18 at 12:19
  • $\begingroup$ @alephzero it is; but it was probably developed in pre-metal mills, and certainly known before the industrial era. The first metal gears were employed in clocks, where the need for division by 12 or 60 made mutual primes of limited use. $\endgroup$ – Brian Drummond Jul 4 '18 at 12:02
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As others have mentioned before, it is possible. My biggest concern with such a build is related to the tools required. If you cant use metal saws and chisels for example, the task becomes a whole lot harder, but still doable.

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    $\begingroup$ I think you're right - without metal tools, I don't think that the wood can be machined to be precise enough to safely operate a mill. Cutting all of the parts with stone tools seems unlikely. $\endgroup$ – David Rice Jun 27 '18 at 18:38
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    $\begingroup$ @David Rice - you may be imagining higher precision than is actually needed - I've seen a number of windmills/watermills, and the gears/pegs are closer to broom handle size than clockwork... Metal tools would certainly make it easier, but from what I've seen, the parts aren't really high precision. $\endgroup$ – JerryTheC Jun 27 '18 at 21:17
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidRice Why? There's not much difference between a metal chisel and a stone/flint chisel aside from edge retention and blade strength. It's no less accurate if made well. $\endgroup$ – Korthalion Jun 28 '18 at 10:44
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Answers so far have focused on real-world all-wood construction techniques, but a world short on metal ores may well develop advanced ceramics at a lower overall tech level than we did.

Things like ball bearings can be made of ceramics even at only moderate tech levels.

The relative hardness of ceramic bearings results in increased durability over comparable steel bearings. Ceramic material does not rust, unlike steel, meaning exposure to moisture is less of a concern, particularly for full ceramic bearings. They require less lubrication and do not suffer from pitting.

However, there is a risk of chipping, particularly where they are located in areas that are susceptible to water or grit ingress. So whilst ceramic bearings can last between 5 and 20 times longer than steel bearings it is important that they are fitted and maintained correctly.

From a page discussing bicycle racing performance.

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  • $\begingroup$ Do you have an idea of how durable these would be? $\endgroup$ – Joe P Jun 28 '18 at 12:01
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    $\begingroup$ They are used in situations where metal bearings would not have adequate performance - e.g. jet engine shafts. Also where their smaller size and weight is a requirement (e.g. the thinnest mechanical watch movement made to date - balls 0.2mm (0.008 in) diameter, the complete movement 1.2mm thick). $\endgroup$ – alephzero Jun 28 '18 at 12:32
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enter image description here

Im not sure if this is what you mean, but wood is a very standard way to build a water mill.

If you mean not putting the wood together without nails, seems that some where used to be ensambled by pressure by leaving some little wood connections, even though i can't find a suitable reference for the ancient construction.

If duration is your problem, since it was used by our ancient civilization, i would say that they last long enough as long as you make maintenance (like old boats that where treated with resin from trees or wax in order to travel the ocean)

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    $\begingroup$ I was going to edit, but was unsure about your meaning. "seems that some where used to be ensambled by pressure" might have been meant to say "seems that some used to be assembled by pressure", but I'm not certain. $\endgroup$ – bendl Jun 28 '18 at 13:43
  • $\begingroup$ @bendl You are correct sir i meant "assembled" $\endgroup$ – Alfred Espinosa Jun 30 '18 at 15:48
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Some considerations others have not addressed: Suitable timbers are Greenheart, Ekki , and Oak (which is not as good as the other two).

It is five to seven times harder to work hardwood with metal tools, compared to common softwoods. It is even harder to work Lignum Vitae. To work using only stone and flint tools, making a mill wheel could be a lifetime's achievement.

It should be remembered that in medieval times burning the wood to work it was a useful technique, many holes and notches being made with red-hot pokers because drills were hard to make.

Given the difficulty of working timber without metal tools, It would probably be easiest to weave as much of the wheel as possible from willow/sallow, ie. use wicker baskets, which could be waterproofed by painting them with lime to fill the gaps in the structure.

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  • $\begingroup$ Lime — or lacquer. $\endgroup$ – Konrad Rudolph Jun 28 '18 at 17:02

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