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Paddle finish

Discussion in 'Paddles and Paddle Making' started by tszpieg, Apr 16, 2008.

  1. tszpieg

    tszpieg Curious about Wooden Canoes

    Hello Everyone-
    I just finished carving 2 paddles from a plank of solid Cherry. Now that the hard part is done, or so I thought, I need to start thinking about the finish I will put on them. That is why I am here... I've done a little research and found that there are people who;
    -Epoxy and then 3-4 coats of varnish
    -Just apply 3-4 coats of varnish
    -Varnish blade and shaft, then oil the grip
    -Oil the complete paddle

    I do intend to use these paddles so I am looking for a relatively durable finish. I was leaning toward oil, but I am not sure how/what the maintenance/durability will be...? Thoughts?

    Questions about the varnish/oil combo... I was considering this as well, however, it seems that there would be compatability issues between the two. Maybe delamination/flaking of finish at the transition between the varnished blade/shaft and the oiled grip..? Thoughts on that one?

    Maybe I'm thinking too much about this. I guess that I spent so much time carving and creating these paddles, I'd hate to screw them up at this finishing stage. So I would love your input, thoughts, and/or experiences.

    Thank you for the help. It is very much appreciated.

    laurNsG likes this.
  2. Stephan

    Stephan Canoe Enthusiast

    Hi Terry,

    My favourite paddles are varnished up to the grip and then the grip is oiled. I've never had any type of delamination or flaking at the transition. I've enjoyed them this way and would recommend it.

  3. Canoez

    Canoez Paddle Bait

    For a canoe paddle, my personal favorite is to epoxy the tips on the end grain - masking the faces of the blade. I then apply spar varnish up to the bottom of the grip and leave the grip natural. Eventually the grip builds a nice patina from your body's own oils and dirt. I find I get fewer blisters from the grip this way. One of these days I'll try a paddle with the throat being left natural as well.

    For double bladed paddles, I've been laminating them and actually glassing the power face with very light glass (2 oz/yard) and epoxy. I then use a UV filtering spar varnish over the epoxy.
  4. Todd Bradshaw

    Todd Bradshaw Sailmaker

    I don't think you really gain much with an epoxy base coat under varnish unless you really plan to beat the hell out of the paddle on rocks. The thick epoxy base topped with varnish also very often makes for a a rather fake or plastic-looking finish on things like paddles, gunwales and other trim. Something about it just doesn't look the same as a finish built up by multiple coats of varnish alone.

    Varnish with an oiled grip is traditional and can feel nice, but as far as I can tell from 45 years of paddling the claim that the oiled grip is less prone to cause blisters is nothing more than a myth being spread around by people who don't know any better. Blisters are much more likely to be caused by bad technique and "over-gripping" the paddle. Paddling with a relaxed grip is generally much better for all the body parts involved.

    An oil finish can be lovely and eventually a pretty good sealer, but it is a building process and takes a while. You can't just slap two or three coats on and expect to be done. It may take 20 coats, spread out over several months to finally get that nice, satin gun-stock look and a really good moisture barrier. You also have to be pro-active with oil. Wait too long to refresh it and you may get dirt and moisture working down into the wood which won't come out.

    Multiple coats of a good quality marine varnish is probably the easiest way to get the paddle sealed well and looking good in the shortest period of time (with or without oiling the grip - your choice). There are seldom compatability problems between the oils and the varnishes which are appropriate for use. Personally, I just varnish the entire paddle as the varnished shaft with a dirty-looking oiled grip (which is generally what they look like after a few seasons of use) doesn't trip my trigger.
  5. Douglas Ingram

    Douglas Ingram Red River Canoe & Paddle

    Epoxy as a base coat only really serves as a pore filler so that you get a gloss to your varnish faster.

    Here's my protocol, worked out on many paddles:

    I use an epoxy tip that is set into the end of the paddle. A fiberglass plate secures the whole thing together in the end of the paddle wood. This tip is a fair bit of work but works for me.

    I varnish the entire paddle with one sealer coat of varnish. Then sand with 220. The blade receives 2 more coats of varnish, then allowed to dry for several days, then is flat sanded to 400 grit, then two flood coats of varnish.

    The shaft and grip receive 2 coats of Tung oil over the varnish. I haven't found anything nicer, yet.
  6. Dave Wermuth

    Dave Wermuth Who hid my paddle?


    I was glad to see your comment on blisters. I thought that if a blister was to form it would form on the lower hand from the shaft. Not the grip. My small experience at canoe racing resulted in no blisters from an all varnished wood shaft and then later a carbon fiber shaft.
    A varnished paddle with oiled grip has strong traditions, seeming to be just right. And a touch up in the spring is a pleasant chore.
  7. Todd Bradshaw

    Todd Bradshaw Sailmaker

    You also need to consider that just about any wooden grip area will contain some end-grain. This is both the hardest to seal against water intrusion (which can damage the paddle) and the most likely to suffer from the grain raising if it does get wet (which can be quite hard on your hands as you paddle and is much more prone to causing blisters than any varnished finish). To really get a grip oil-sealed to the point where it won't absorb water and the grain won't raise is not an instant process. Generally it's a matter of repeatedly oiling it over an extended period along with some fine sanding to keep knocking the grain down prior to applying fresh oil. If you do take the time to do this, it's possible to wind up with a truly lovely satin finish which feels just as elegant as it looks. For something that gets marine use, this can take a couple years of frequent oiling/burnishing and with the commonly used oils like Watco you can't really rush the process as the oil needs time to dry (or more accurately polymerize) down inside the wood's surface.

    We used to run into this problem with the original Mad River canoes, back in the day when they all came with oiled ash gunwales and trim. When they came in, the wood had only had a couple coats of oil due to the constraints of manufacturing time and it was rough and looked pretty raw. Customers weren't thrilled with the look. With regular oiling and smoothing over the first couple of seasons, the owner could build up a very nice and durable oiled finish. However, if they didn't follow a fairly strict oiling schedule, the result was almost always rough, nasty looking gunwales with pockets of that black fungus which tends to form down inside the deep pores of white ash.

    The advantage of varnish is that it will seal against moisture and in the process, pretty much stop the grain from being able to raise again after the first couple of coats. You can then level it with some sanding and finish varnishing without worrying about it coming back up. If your plan is to have the finishing truly complete and ready to go in a period of a few days, it's probably the best option.

    On opened-grain woods, the idea of epoxy as a pore or grain-filler has some merit. Some of the guitar makers are using it as such on woods like mahogany and ash. They mix the resin and spread/scrape it into the wood with a plastic squeegee (an old credit card works great). Usually, it's done in two coats and the idea is to scrape it into the pores, but leave as little as possible on the surface. Then after a light sanding/smoothing, they apply their regular finish, which might be multiple coats of laquer, polyester or some sort of urethane. Having the pores filled ahead of time with clear epoxy doesn't show, but leads to a smoother, flatter finish and the same could be done to open-pored paddle woods before varnishing.

    Don't forget that you can also come pretty close to the softer look of oiled wood with satin varnishes or any varnish that has been rubbed down with very fine abrasive substances. Most satins are made by adding finely ground minerals to regular varnish, so if you want the best clarity, do most of your buildup with gloss varnish and then top it off with a final coat or two of the satin stuff. If you want to rub down gloss varnish to create your own satin finish a good automotive supply house will have a vast array of sanding, rubbing and polishing products in a wide variety of grits, capable of creating various levels of satin or gloss.
    laurNsG likes this.
  8. Canoez

    Canoez Paddle Bait

    I agree with the "don't do epoxy all over" thing. I've found that the epoxy on the end-grain of the blade tip does a better job long-term than varnish alone, tho. Still, I only put the epoxy on the end grain. Varnish the rest.

    I must say that I don't agree with the varnish over the grip business not causing blisters. I made a paddle a while back that was varnish all over. I got a horrible blister on the palm of my grip hand. I'd heard about the no-varnish technique and when I made a new paddle (same grip shape, BTW) I went with the un-varnished grip. I've not had blisters since.

    Still, YMMV.
  9. pklonowski

    pklonowski Unrepentant Canoeist

    I usually varnish the blade (with or without epoxy tip/'glass coat), and then oil the grip & shaft. Re-oiling isn't that big of a deal, I often just sand & oil all of them at once, whether they need it or not. I like the feel of oil better than varnish, and have only had blisters from varnished paddles. But my hands are so calloused now that getting blisters would be an accomplishment...

    But I varnish the blades, because it shows off the fancy grained woods that I laminate together for them, which you can see in other threads in this forum.

    Having spent the time to build & finish the paddles, give some serious thought to making/getting paddle bags. Paddles can get pretty dinged up in the back of the car, en route to your favorite paddling spot.
  10. OP

    tszpieg Curious about Wooden Canoes

    Holy Smoke! What a great bunch of replies. I really appreciate everyone's responses. This a truly a valuable forum to be a part of.
    At this point, I think I am leaning toward varnishing the entire paddle, maybe with a skim-coat of epoxy just on the end grain of the blade. If I do end up getting blisters with an entirely varnished paddle, I figure I have 2 options- sand the varnish off the grip and oil it, or analyze the way I am holding the paddle and make adjustments there...
    Now, can anyone recommend the best varnish? It seems that I have heard good reports about Epiphanes (sp?) brand varnish. I would like to use the same varnish on my canoe when she is ready for that stage of the process as well.
    As far as varnishing the entire paddle goes- would a good approach be to take the paddle one half at a time. Lay the paddle on the bench, varnish the top half, allow to set up, flip, varnish the other half, and repeat until the 3-4 coats are built up.
    Other suggestions for the most defect-free finish...?

    Thanks again for all of your help. What a wealth of information here!
    Have a good one,

  11. Canoez

    Canoez Paddle Bait

    Spar varnish types? That's opening a can of worms. I've used several different brands including Epifanes. I haven't really found anything I like more or less than others, yet. The one thing I'll say is that I'm avoiding the "Spar Urethanes" because I'm worried about yellowing of the urethane base over time.

    When I coat paddles, I do it with them hanging vertically. Because I don't finish the grip, I can tie a line around the grip and hang it from a nail in the ceiling joist. I have also put small wire nails (#18's) into the top center of the grip to hang them from when I'm doing a full varnish job. Just be sure to smooth over and touch up the little hole left by the nail when you're done.

    Tip : pour what varnish from the can that you think you'll be using and strain to remove any "gels" that may be in the varnish. Cover the can and store upside down to avoid a skin on the top. Others swear by "blow-gen" to keep the varnish from skinning.
    laurNsG likes this.
  12. Greg Nolan

    Greg Nolan enthusiast

    I have found that thinning varnish substantially (perhaps 1 part thinner to 3 parts varnish) allows the varnish to be rubbed on like oil. The resulting coat is thin, of course, and so several coats are required. Because the coat is thin, the "wet" paddle can just be stood on a clean floor and leaned against a wall for drying.

    The grip gets only one or two rubbed-on coats, while the shaft and blade get several. Because the thinned varnish dries/cures much more rapidly than an oil, several coats can go on in a week -- one in the morning, and another at night, for as many coats as you wish.

    The resulting finish feels much like an oiled finish (especially on the grip that has only one or two coats), but is, I believe, quite a bit more durable. It is not as durable as several heavier brushed-on coats, of course. When touch-up is required in the fall (or in the spring, if I've been lazy), I scuff with a scotch-bright type pad, and rub on more varnish. I use a marine varnish (don't think it much matters which for this purpose) for the UV protection (though my paddles actually spend the majority of their time inside), and have used both gloss and semi-gloss.
  13. pklonowski

    pklonowski Unrepentant Canoeist

    I guess the other upside of doing varnish on one end & oil on the other is that you can clamp/suspend the paddle from the end you're not finishing, and put the finish on the other end... then reverse the ends when you're ready to work the other finish. It's been years since I varnished an entire paddle, so I'm no help there.

    I use Minwax's Spar Varnish, which is available locally; haven't tried any others. I should probably look harder at the paint store shelves, and see what else they have. Would be very interested to hear what others have to say! Especially RE: what specifically makes one brand better than others.

    A couple of other factors that may cause blisters could be the shape of the grip, and the cross-sectional shape ofthe shaft. A lot of commercially-made paddles are cut straight across the top of the grip, and a couple of cheap paddles I used to own had shafts that were cut into ovals, but they were wide in the wrong direction. I find putting a bit of a curve across the grip top, and sizing both the grip and shaft to the owner's hands, make it much more comfortable. If I remember correctly (?????) I started curving grip tops about the same time as I started oiling grips, so maybe that's why I don't get blisters any more?
  14. OP

    tszpieg Curious about Wooden Canoes

    Well.. I started out rubbing in some thinned 60/40 Epifanes clear high-gloss varnish a week or so ago on the entire paddle. I put 3 coats on with the rubbing method, and that looked good. I will probably leave the grip as is. For the past couple days I've been brushing (foam) the remaining coats on the shaft and blade, and that is looking better and better. The last brushed on coats are showing the brush strokes slightly. I have been thinning all the last couple coats with about 5% thinner in hopes that the varnish will lay down a bit more (smoother finish). Keep in mind that this is my very first attempt at varnishing anything so I don't know if the slight brush strokes I see are something that 'just happens' or if I can do something to get more of a 'mirror like' finish. Which is why I am writing here again... I would appreciate any info from those of you experienced varnishers! By the way, if it matters, I am varnishing the paddles as they hang from the grip vertically from a rack in the paint room at my school. It is probably around 65-70 degrees in the room if that makes a difference...
    Any help is much appreciated.

    Thankd everyone-

  15. Dave Wermuth

    Dave Wermuth Who hid my paddle?


    Maybe if you try a little penetrol added the varnish will level out?
  16. Greg Nolan

    Greg Nolan enthusiast

    One of the reasons I use the rub-on method is to avoid problems like brush marks. I am not an expert varnisher, and have found that when I brush on a light coat, I have brush marks, but if I brush on a coat heavy enough that the brush marks flow out, I get runs or sags. The problem with the rub-on method is that it is hard to build the kind of thick coat that provides more protection.

    Using penetrol as suggested should help. Also, if the paddle is kept horizontal while drying, instead of hanging, gravity will help brush marks flow out without creating sags and runs. But then you have the problem of how to support the wet paddle, and there is a greater chance of dust marring the surface. It is a tricky balancing act.

    It is possible to do while having the paddle hanging vertically. Probably apply just a bit more varnish than you now are, using penetrol (or maybe just a bit more thinner).
  17. Dan Fera

    Dan Fera Curious about Wooden Canoes

    I've only made one so far. I used Tru-Oil gunstock finish. I have used Tru-Oil for several years now on stringed instrument fingerboards. It builds a beautiful and tough film after 8-10 thin coats.

    First ones were 50/50 gum turpentine/Tru-Oil, left wet until it wouldn't soak in any more, then thoroughly wiped dry and left set overnight. Next day, two coats full strength, rubbed on and quickly rubbed off, 8 hours between coats. Continued for about a week (ten minutes max/day) until I had a satisfactory film built up.

    In use, the film holds up great to everything but repeated gunwale pries. It is waterproof enough for all day paddling for several days in a row. After the first season I sanded it lightly (mostly to remove black marks from a dreadful day in the wind that left plenty of black vinyl from the gunwales of a plastic canoe I was using). After another 10 light coats of straight Tru-Oil, it looked like this:




    This paddle has extremely thin edges and tip. I ran ultra-thin cyanoacrylate glue down the sides and let it really soak into the tip until it wouldn't soak up any more, then sanded smooth before applying the oil. The thin tip held up well so far, even though I routinely use it to push off (gently!) logs and rocks.

    I especially like the way water sheets off this finish, leaving virtually nothing clinging to it on the recovery.
  18. revcp

    revcp Enthusiastic about Wooden Canoes

    I'm similar to above. Two or three coats of marine varnish on blade and then "polish" with very fine paper to give it a satin finish. On shaft and grip I use tung oil. I've never had blisters with any paddle, but I prefer the feel of oiled to varnished wood.

  19. stevek

    stevek Curious about Wooden Canoes

    Hi everyone,
    I just put a light coating of unboilied linseed oil on a new unfinished paddle, and I dont think I want to continue with an oil finish.How can I bail out,and now apply a varnish. urathane?
  20. Douglas Ingram

    Douglas Ingram Red River Canoe & Paddle

    If it was boiled linseed oil all you'd have to do is wait till it is thoroughly dry, then varnish over it. With raw oil, you have to wait longer.

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