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Canoe Paddle


"And now for something completely different..."

For Christmas I bought my wife a nice Canoe Paddle. As well, I picked up a copy of Ted Moores book "Canoecraft". Aside from getting my wife a nice, useful, present, I did have some ulterior motives for that paddle. I wanted to have a nice example on hand to use as an inspiration/guide for making my own paddle. I'm not (yet) a huge canoe tripping enthusiast, but I thought this would be a fun challenge for 2012.

It is also radically different than anything I've made before, hence the opening quote.

As far as methods.... I'm mostly winging it. I've never taken a class! Canoecraft has a chapter in the back about making your own paddles. I've browsed that. It focuses mostly on hand tools. As well, Matthias Wandel over on has a set of instructions on how he made a paddle. His method focuses on the bandsaw, and is pretty much aimed at using one solid piece of wood. Finally, over on the Lee Valley Tools website I stumbled across a set of instructions for making a paddle. (part of their collection of woodworking articles.) With those three as references, I plowed ahead!

For lumber I used red oak, yellowheart and black cherry. The shaft is red oak, and the yellowheart and cherry make up the bulk of the blade and the hand grip. I like the looks of multiple species in a laminated blade, and also this uses a lot less wood than carving it from one solid piece. I freely admit that red oak is probably not the best choice. The way the grain acts like a straw makes it a poor choice generally for outdoor projects. However, this is what I had on hand. I do expect to make mistakes on this one, and will probably make at least one or two more before I'm totally happy with my efforts.

I made two templates -- one for the blade and one for the grip. I'm 5" taller than my wife, and I have a lot of my height is in my torso/arms, so I need a longer paddle than she does. First I marked a centerline down the length of the paddle blank. Then I set the templates in place and traced them. After that I cut out the rough paddle shape on the bandsaw. This is a bit of a tricky operation, as the shaft is thicker than the blade blank, so I was slow and careful.

That took care of the rough shape. Thickness was next.

My paddle blade was going to be mostly flat. This meant that I could just mark the thickness of the blade on the side of the blank and freehand cut most of the waste off of the blade using my bandsaw. Again, first locate and mark the centerline down the outside of the entire paddle blank. Then mark the desired thickness/shape of the paddle blade offset from that centerline. Do something similar for the grip.

So after my first "day" of fiddling in the shop (which includes a fair bit of downtime as the blank was gluing. So it was nowhere near a full day!) I had a paddle roughly shaped out.

Oh yeah, a word on weight. My wife's paddle weighs almost exactly .7kg, so that is my target. At this point, my prototype paddle is around 1.57kg, which is more than double.

After two more evenings of shop work, the blade and the shaft were really coming together. The spoke shave did not work well at all in the oak, so I mostly worked with a block plane and a smoothing plane, as well as a few more trips back to the bandsaw to hack at the blank a bit more. It is an awkward shape to hold. I tried clamping on the vise, as well as on a workbench, as well as just holding it with one hand. The grip still needs work, first on the bandsaw to trim it smaller.

On my fourth evening, it was nearing completion.

I trimmed the grip on the bandsaw, making it narrower and extending the curve into the shaft. That was cleaned up a bit with a spokeshave but mostly with the Orbital Spindle Sander. I also slimmed down the entire shaft a bit with the block plane and re-rounded it. The final job of the evening was using 80grit in the Random Orbit Sander to work over the whole paddle, with a focus on the blade, where I had some

At this point I am down to 1.002kg in weight. This is more than I'd like, but I think I'm going to stop now. I blame the oak for the weight, but I keep reminding myself that this is just a prototype!

tear-out to deal with. I then swapped to 150grit hand-sanding.

The second last step is finishing... (In my mind, the final step will be actual testing in a canoe, which won't happen until the summer!)

I waffled a bit on this but decided to go with Spar Varnish. There seem to be a lot of opinions out there as to finishing, with epoxy vs everything else, being the main choice. I'm going to stick with the basics and just apply some Minwax spar varnish. At some point (with future paddles) I will look at reinforcing/protecting the tip with Fiberglas or resin, but I decided to not bother with this first one.

I read a tip somewhere about hanging your paddle when applying finish, and I used that here. A small eyelet was screwed into the grip and used to hang the paddle while finish was applied, and while it dried.

I applied 3 coats, with a light 220grit sanding after the first two, and a 3m pad buffing after the third. Yes, there were a few drips. Those were chiseled or sanded off. The finish isn't perfect but this is still my first/practise paddle... and I think it was probably better than the purchased paddle's finish, so I'm happy! I tried dribbling some varnish into the hole left by the eyelet, but that wasn't getting too far, so I mixed up a tiny dollop of five minute epoxy and pushed it in there with a toothpick.

And that's really about all I can do with it at this point. I'll have to wait until summer to get in a canoe and try it out. But I still think I'll press on and build one or two more when I get the chance.

At the time of writing I'm almost finished work on paddle#2, this time with a shaft of Western Red Cedar which is as light as a feather! Here are a few shots of that paddle's build, also comparing it to #1.


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See Also:

Canoe Paddle

Canoe Paddles, Part 2

Cedar Strip Canoe Build: Part 1

Canoe Paddle Rack

Custom Laminated Canoe Paddle