Build a Homemade Waterwheel

Richard N. McCray shares his story of building a one-of-a-kind homemade waterwheel, providing him with a less labor-intensive means of watering the garden.

| July/August 1986

Reprinted from MOTHER EARTH NEWS NO. 82. 

The memory of a childhood waterwheel helped this inventive gardener get water to his plants! 

I got my first taste of waterwheels at the age of five, when my great-grandfather McDowell made me a toy paddle turbine to run under the spring-fed spigot at the back of the house. Today, some 65 years later, I've applied the principles of that early lesson to building a full-sized undershot wheel that provides me with every drop of water I need to supply my thirsty garden throughout the entire growing season.

My vegetable plot, you see, is quite a distance from the house and its plumbing. True, the garden is located not far from a small perennial mountain stream that forms the southern boundary of our property . . . but that "crick" runs a good 8 feet or so below my patch!

Now I certainly don't have an aversion to honest work, but the drudgery of using a hand pump to fill a washtub, lugging the sloshing vessel around, and repeating this operation at least six times every time I wanted to water my garden forced me to look for a less labor-intensive means of getting the job done. Naturally, that first waterwheel in my life came to mind, so I set about researching the design and operation of functional "paddle pumps" in hopes of building one at my site that'd handle my watering chores with a minimum of maintenance. (See the waterwheel diagram in the image gallery).

Early Planning for a Waterwheel Paid Off

Because there was only about 4 inches of fall in the part of the stream bordering our land, an overshot waterwheel was out of the question. Unfortunately, I had little luck digging up specific information on undershot wheels, so I had to use common sense—and a by-guess-and-by-golly approach—to make my project a success.

mother earth news fair 2018 schedule


Next: April 28-29, 2018
Asheville, NC

Whether you want to learn how to grow and raise your own food, build your own root cellar, or create a green dream home, come out and learn everything you need to know — and then some!