Why Do Wheelbarrows Only Have One Wheel?


The wheelbarrow is a hand-propelled vehicle that has been around since medieval times. They’ve been used for centuries to transport large quantities of food, and the primary mechanism remains in the wheelbarrows we see today.

These days, there’s an abundance of wheelbarrows to choose from, of which most are either one-wheeled or two-wheeled.   

But why do manufacturers continue to make wheelbarrows with one wheel? Aren’t two wheels better than one?

Wheelbarrows only have one wheel because they can be tilted to steer in the desired direction, making it much easier to maneuver, especially on uneven ground. One-wheeled wheelbarrows are popular in construction and landscaping work because it’s easier to cross narrow surfaces since it only has one point of contact with the ground.

To answer the question of why we continue to see single-wheeled wheelbarrows in the market today, I break this blog post into two parts – the first is the technical reason, and the second is the practical reason.

If you want to know the advantages of the single-wheeled wheelbarrow, you can continue to scroll to the second half of this post.

Wheelbarrows Are Technically One-Wheel Vehicles


The Dictionary Meaning Says It’s One Wheel

In its traditional sense, a wheelbarrow only has one wheel, which is supported by various dictionaries.  

For example, the Collins Dictionary defines a wheelbarrow to be:

…  a small open cart with one wheel and handles that is used for carrying things, for example, in the garden.

Similarly, the Merriam-Webster defines a wheelbarrow as:

… a small, usually single-wheeled vehicle that is used for carrying small loads and is fitted with handles at the rear by which it can be pushed and guided

Perhaps this is why it’s called a “wheelbarrow,” not a “wheelsbarrow”!

The Mechanics of a Single Wheeled Barrow Offers Better Maneuverability

The basic structure of a wheelbarrow requires only one wheel to transport rock, mulch, compost, or whatever material you’re transporting. The assisting components are the handles, axle, and tray, to move loads from point A to B.

The wheelbarrow is designed to be pushed and guided by a single person using two handles to the rear. The wheel is firmly positioned by a cylindrical axle, allowing it to spin. These components help to move the wheelbarrow with very little friction.

The wheel is fitted at the front and center to allow easy steering and tilting between tight spaces.

Historically, Wheelbarrows Only Had One Wheel

The design and mechanism of the wheelbarrow came from the Chinese invention of the “wooden ox.” These tools were used to transport supplies to injured soldiers on the battlefield.

The build of the wooden ox comprised of a large single central wheel and axle around which a wooden frame was constructed in the representation of an ox. The central wheel allowed heavy loads to be distributed equally between the wheel and the puller.

The first wheelbarrows in medieval Europe contained a single wheel at the front. The European wheelbarrow was invariably placed at the furthest forward end of the wheelbarrow so that the weight of the burden was equally distributed between the wheel and the man pushing it. The front wheel acted as a substitute for another human carrying the load.

It was commonly used for short-distance cargo transport, notably in construction, mining, and agriculture. Other uses were medium and long-distance travel, carrying both cargo and passengers.

Practical Reasons Why Wheelbarrows Continue to Have One Wheel

Increased competition in the wheelbarrow market today means that different types of wheelbarrows are offered to the consumer.

There are now dual-wheel wheelbarrows that promote better stability and even four wheels that look more like carts.

Wheelbarrow wheels are also available in pneumatic (air-filled) tires that absorb ground shock and flat-free tires that provide convenience and durability

Despite these innovations, the wheelbarrow has one wheel for several practical advantages in the field.

1.   Easier to Maneuver

The major advantage of the single wheelbarrow is that it’s much easier to steer and maneuver between tight spaces and turns. Those who work in construction will appreciate this as they may need to transport materials between narrow spaces, such as the side of homes.

Another factor is that one-wheeled barrows are better at dealing with uneven terrain than dual-wheelbarrows.

When the ground is higher on one side, the one wheelbarrow can level itself to provide an even balance of the load. The operator can freely level the load while balancing on one wheel. This wouldn’t be possible on wheelbarrows with two wheels because they need to be perpendicular to the ground and, therefore, not usually level. Unfortunately, we do not live in a two-dimensional world!

Now, let’s talk about carrying loads up a hill.

Transporting loads on an upward gradient is easier on one-wheeled barrows because gravity pushes the load into a single point of contact (i.e., the single wheel). The burden is spread across the tray with dual-wheelbarrows, meaning more friction is placed on the two wheels. Overall, it feels that the overall weight is pushed against you.

One Reddit user shares her experience:

My dad bought a two-wheeled wheelbarrow. Moving stuff around our large, flat backyard is easier than it would be with one wheel. Moving anything, including air, up the windy hill to the front yard is just the most miserable experience. Counter-intuitively, it actually is more likely to tip over because you can’t lean against the incline. And if the whole thing isn’t tipping, you’re way more likely to spill the contents.

One-wheeled barrows allow you to keep content level even in very uneven terrain.

The next time you pass a construction site, pay attention to the wheelbarrows being used. More than likely, it will be single-wheeled.

2.   Easier to Cross Narrow Platforms

When doing construction or landscaping work, you may encounter situations where you’ll have to cross planks of wood as a bridge. You’d be able to cross it easier with one-wheeled barrows, whereas a dual-wheeled wheelbarrow would require a broader bridge.

Under narrow flooring spaces such as scaffolding, it’s perhaps paramount to use a one-wheeled barrow for maneuverability.

And even in narrow trails and walkways, relying on a one-wheeled barrow offers a much better piece of mind without worrying about the terrain.  

3.   Easier to Tip

Most people find it easier to tip over contents at the desired destination.

Depending on the design of the two-wheeled wheelbarrow, you’d have to tip over in front of you or completely upside down to completely empty the contents.

With a one-wheeled barrow, the V-shape plane works in your favor by easily shifting the weight to one side, resulting in a side tip with minimal effort. You can then easily scrape off the contents with a shovel if necessary.

4.   Easier to Load Content

As the one-wheeled barrow can be rested on its side, scooping dirt, rocks, and debris into the tray becomes a much easier job. You can push the materials into the tray and use the wheelbarrow as a lifting pivot. This would not be possible with most two-wheeled wheelbarrows.  

5.   Cheaper and Simpler

These days, wheelbarrows come in all different shapes and sizes.

With wheelbarrows becoming more fancy and sophisticated to attract consumers, it’s no wonder that wheelbarrows are becoming more expensive.

The wheelbarrows we see in the market still have one wheel because they’re structurally simpler and more cost-effective to produce. The triangular structure makes it very rugged, unlike the two-wheel varieties that are susceptible to rocky terrains.

The simpler design of the one-wheeled barrow means that:

  • Fewer parts are prone to rust and damage.
  • There’s less maintenance and repairs needed.
  • There’s less to drag around.
  • They’re more affordable.

The wheelbarrow is perhaps a good example of when less is more!

Conclusion

Wheelbarrows have one wheel because they are easier to steer and maneuver than the two-wheelers. No one wants to put more effort than needed, so the one-wheeled barrow provides the best balance between transport efficiency and human effort.

Sources

Wikipedia – Wheelbarrow
Reddit

Image Credit

Wheelbarrow by Lurii
Wheelbarrow by Animaflora-PicsStock
Wheelbarrow by Subjob

AskthePlantician

Hi I'm Mike, a self-proclaimed plantician (an invented profession to describe a plant enthusiast). Based in Sydney Australia, I enjoy the great outdoors and the greenery things around the garden, in particular, indoor climbing plants.

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