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Paddle Finishes

Discussion in 'Paddles and Paddle Making' started by Wriggs, Jul 10, 2011.

  1. OP

    Wriggs Survivalist


    I appreciate your two cents worth. It would cost a novice paddle maker a lot more money and time if this forum did not exist with the knowledge, skills and experience that take the time to share.

    I have already started the process of thinning out the blade and the shaft. I love the look and feel of the paddle so really it was always going to be fixed rather than end up at the back of the wood pile.

    I was lucky enough to get my hands on some really nice Cherry, Oak, Western Red Cedar and the famed Birds Eye Maple last night. So I am excited about getting down to work on a few more.

    Thanks again.


  2. pklonowski

    pklonowski Unrepentant Canoeist

    Sounds like a nice set of paddles are sitting "in the rough." Try walnut, too... it's not too heavy, and makes very pretty paddles.

    Oh, and post pictures... we like pictures!
    Last edited: Jul 17, 2011
  3. Dan Lindberg

    Dan Lindberg Ex Wood Hoarder

    The nicest paddles I've ever seen (bar none) were the old Peter paddles, light, nice wood and flawless finish.
    He doesn't make them anymore but you might find one around to learn from.


    btw, oak and maple are heavy, use only as wear strips in a paddle, stick with the cedars, cherry, mahogany, etc, for the main woods.

    Here is a site that has images of a few.
    Last edited: Jul 17, 2011
  4. Todd Bradshaw

    Todd Bradshaw Sailmaker

    Not so fast......
    You have forgotten spruce, which is nearly as light as cedar, but considerable tougher, and yes, you can certainly make an excellent hardwood paddle (maple and ash absolutely, maybe white oak, cherry, etc. if you can find a good piece) BUT, like anything else - you have to know how. If you build the same paddle from these woods that you would make from cedar or spruce, it will be a heavy piece of junk. Back when Norm and I sold canoes, we used to call them "bear clubs".

    Case in point....Here are two paddles about 51/2' long. On the left, is an Old Town spruce paddle from the early 1970s (back when their spruce paddles were excellent, and about as good as you could possibly buy in a one-piece paddle). At the time, their ash paddles were shaped very similarly and were tough, but borderline bear clubs in terms of weight and balance.

    On the right is a maple paddle that I bought about 1975 for $25 from a starving hippy who walked into my store, looking to unload it for cash. It's without a doubt made by somebody with spar-making training and the nicest solid paddle I've ever seen. So far, nobody has been able to tell me who built it, but it is very old. The guide-style grip is actually a smoothed-out octagon with a little bulb on top and at the bottom of the grip area, the shaft has a small octagonal cross-section like a collar, which then becomes round. As you go down the shaft, it slowly turns into a long, fore-and-aft oval for your lower hand and about the time you get to the throat, it's become a fairly sharp rib that runs down the middle of the blade and slowly tapers out. The blade is very thin (like 1/4"-5/16" for a lot of it) and then it has a slightly flared bulb on the very bottom for durability.

    The old Town Spruce paddle weighs 1 lb. 10 oz. and the maple paddle weighs only four ounces more. Judging by its age, it seems to be plenty sturdy enough (it's the paddle I use most of the time) and it actually balances slightly better than the Old Town, though both are quite good. If it was spruce or cedar, it would snap like a toothpick, but the dense, tough maple works great if you are willing to really thin it out in those places where bulk is just added weight.

    I see a lot of very expensive, very fancy paddles at shows like Canoecopia, both solid and all sorts of fancy laminations. Unfortunately, many of them (including some of the most expensive) have terrible balance, especially if they have a lot of hardwood in them. If you pick up a well-balanced paddle with one hand by the lower grip area, as if you were going to use it, and you let it balance itself on your fingers, it should seek a horizontal position ALL BY ITSELF. The last thing you want to be doing all day is lifting the blade on every stroke. It should pivot on your lower hand, lifting the blade clear of the water without your help. In many ways, this well may be more important that the paddle's total weight in terms of how much energy you have to spend for an afternoon's paddling trip.

    Whether you're talking about a traditional beaver-tail, a big, squared-off whitewater-style paddle or a modern bent shaft, they all can be, and should be, made to balance properly. So when you're looking for paddles, before you're blinded by all the fancy laminations or gorgeous finishes, pick up the paddle by the throat and let it sit there with a loose grip, balancing on just two fingers. This will tell you far more about the true quality of the paddle than your eyes will. If you're carving your own paddles, it will tell you if the blade has been thinned out enough.

    This is also one of the reasons that a lot of oars have big, un-rounded upper shafts and Maine Guide-style canoe paddles tend to have large, long grips. The additional wood up there is acting like a counterweight to give them better balance.

    Attached Files:

  5. Mike Everett

    Mike Everett Maine Canoeist

    I also use the "trial and error" method of shaving a paddle until it feels just right - pliant and lightweight. Sometimes I've reworked a paddle twice until it attained the right combination of balance, spring, and weight, scaping off the finish and trying again.

    Also agree with Todd Bradshaw that spruce, ash, and maple make excellent woods for paddles, with each wood requiring different dimensions based on the strength and weight of the wood. I especially like working with maple, and have used clear maple, tiger maple, and birds-eye maple in Maine-guide style and voyageur-style paddles.

    My favorite paddle, though,is of tiger cherry based on a Micmac design I found and traced in a New Brunswick museum. The original was of maple.

    As Todd writes, balance is a critical element of a paddle, along with spring and lightness. I dislike laminates because they're difficult to trim for pliancy; my experience with laminates is that they retain their stiffness right up until their breaking point, but that's just my opinion.
  6. Douglas Ingram

    Douglas Ingram Red River Canoe & Paddle


    There is a lot that goes into making a good paddle, but I would advocate that the beginning paddle maker work towards balance as a first goal. I've made well over 1000 paddles, I was still improving at the 100 mark, and I still work on improving.
  7. Mike Wamhoff

    Mike Wamhoff Woodland Paddles

    With all due respect to Todd and Doug, and speaking as a long time paddler and paddle lover (I probably care more for the paddle than the boat itself) and not as a small-time paddle maker (my count is tiny compared to Doug), I tend to differ on the matter of balance. Up front I will say that I like the idea of the paddle balancing at the throat, it just seems right in some way. It may also be right functionally, or maybe not - empirically I'd like to see someone prove the point - until then I'm somewhat skeptical. In my own admittedly limited experience it seems that carving a paddle that balances "correctly" means subordinating all other design criteria to that one factor. I have found that a traditional beavertail style paddle has to be a minimum of about 60" long, have a substantial grip, a robust shaft, and a more or less flat, spineless blade under 5 1/2" wide, with a thickness no more than 1/4" and probably closer to 3'16" thick. All well and good and certainly a fine and attractive paddle can be produced with these numbers, but what if your paddling style or your sense of aesthetics call for something else? At the risk of possibly repeating what I may have posted elsewhere, here are my own preferences. I tend to like my paddle to be somewhat stiff in the blade (cambered, about 3/8" average - I don't like to feel any flutter) with a relatively slim shaft, and a quite delicate grip even though I have fairly long fingers. Aesthetically I also like a quite pronounced center spine. Very personal, but also I think very much within traditional paddle territory. Carving with these criteria I've found that my paddles never "balance" at less than about 62" long (28" blade and 34" shaft). I personally use a 58" paddle solo. Since the balance issue was first raised in this thread, I've spent quite a few hours on the water alternating between a couple of my paddles with their typical balance point an inch or two toward the blade tip, and others that balance more or less perfectly. After much thought on this I still think it comes down to personal preference, a certain feel that each of us is looking for in something as personal as a canoe paddle. For me feel and beauty trumps efficiency. I wonder how many of the eastern woodland paddles in museums balance all that well, certainly most of the vintage paddles I've owned didn't.

    I'm really not trying to be argumentative here, but I would like to make the point that on a forum that is primarily concerned with wooden boats and traditional methods and craft, engineering and efficiency would seem to be of secondary importance to other criteria. It's not that I think function is unimportant, just that other factors may be higher on someone's own list. I don't at the moment own a wood canoe but am actively looking around for just the right boat. If the ultimate in function and efficiency was at the top of my list then I'd probably be planning on a carbon/composite canoe not a wood/canvas canoe. Again, beauty and feel can for some of us, be more important than speed or performance. On the balance issue I'm ready to be convinced I'm wrong.

    By the way Doug, I just happen to have one of your paddles (#194 - April 1993). Last year when I moved to a new smaller shop I decided to downsize my paddle collection from about 35 to 15 or so. Yours not only made the cut, but is one that I really studied when I started selling mine seriously. I my disagree on this one point but your paddle is beautiful and is displayed in my shop next to my own.
  8. Todd Bradshaw

    Todd Bradshaw Sailmaker

    You (and everyone else, for that matter) should absolutely paddle with whatever weight, balance, shaft size, profile, and blade type you like best. Personally, I don't believe nice wood or nice woodworking justify poor balance. The engineering and functionality have to be a part of the overall beauty of the thing and in my mind, poor balance means that part of the package is missing. There are plenty of people who can do some fantastic wood laminating, but if you go to a big canoe show and go through the racks, there are an awful lot of them that look superb, but are extremely blade-heavy. You may like that, I don't. If it won't lift the blade out of the water by itself, then I have to do it on every stroke and I choose not to do that. To me, it's like seeing some spectacular woodworking and finishing on a guitar, and then picking it up and finding out that it doesn't sound very good or has terrible action. Call me greedy, but I want the whole package.

    The old paddle that I showed next to the Old Town in the photo above is a good example. I wouldn't call it beautiful, mostly because it's just a single hunk of maple and somewhere along the line, a previous owner stained it with some sort of ugly brown stain. I removed about as much of it as I thought I could without damaging it, but it will never be as pretty as it originally was and it would look pretty plain sitting next to a fancy laminated paddle. On the other hand, more thought went into the shaping of the shaft and blade on that old paddle than on any paddle I've ever seen. Nobody builds paddles where the shaft profile changes from octagonal, to round, slowly turning oval at the lower grip area and then becoming a rib down the blade that slowly tapers out. I also haven't seen anybody thin out a blade and then carve a little bulb at the bottom for durability. On top of all that, it balances quite nicely.

    To me, that's the difference between a paddle made by a craftsman and one made by an artist. From grip to tip, every inch of this paddle was carefully planned and every inch is somehow in transition from one cross-sectional shape to another - rather than the typical, "stick grip style A on top of X-number of inches of featureless shaft and then add blade shape "B" to the bottom" - which is how most canoe paddles (even the fancy ones) seem to be made. Most paddle makers seem to pick a grip type, pick a blade type and size and then add enough shaft separating them to arrive at the desired length. The transitions from one section to the next are usually very short and abrupt. They may plan all the laminations in the blade and grip very carefully, but I don't get the feeling that many of them ever really bother to plan the paddle as a whole - and one of the results of that can be poor balance. Decisions made with regard to one section of the paddle may indeed need to be counter-balanced (literally) by the design and construction of other sections, and that's where, in my opinion, a lot of fancy paddle builders lose it.
  9. Douglas Ingram

    Douglas Ingram Red River Canoe & Paddle

    WOW, #194. That's a loooong time ago! I'm glad that it has proven to be inspiring to your work. I remember back when I was starting and really had nothing to reference my work on. All I could do was to make a paddle and go paddling. Evaluate it, make another. Go paddling. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

    I haven't been racking up the paddle numbers recently as so much of my work time is spent on repairing and building canoes these days, only about a dozen/year at the moment. Since the $/$ exchange rate has come to be about equal my US sales have really dropped.

    There is a point in making every paddle when it snaps into focus. It takes a lot of work to recognize this point, and how to achieve it. I will re-iterate Todd's point about balance. It may not be the be-all and end-all to everyone, but it definitely is one of the most significant indicators that a paddle is coming into focus. Grip, flex, shaft, finish, transitions, tip, etc., all have their role, as well.
  10. Brock McCrory

    Brock McCrory I caught a big one.

    I know that it has been a coons age since this thread was originally posted, however, in an effort to save at least one person a headache here is a tip.
    Try using Plastic Resin Glue. Its what the furniture makers use to glue up individual pieces on the legs, or used for repair. The color is dark tan to a medium brown and fits in great with most wood types. It is super thin and can rarely be seen other than a nice thin even brown line, and that is if used next to a lighter piece such as ash or spruce. This stuff is strong. I recently had a paddle of mine broken just above the blade. It was for a good reason. My father was drinking coffee one morning and noticed a large rat sitting there staring at him and my mother. In a rush decision he grabbed the closest thing he could find that would inflict enough damage to render him harmless. It worked, but broke the lightly spalted red oak shaft in two. I used plastic resin glue to repair the break, and now i can drop the paddle from a height of 4 feet directly onto the blade, and it doesnt even bother it. "Stronger than the wood itself." It's what it says on the container, and I can personally vouch for that.
    The glue requires pressure to bond 2 surfaces together. It can even bond 2 pieces of rough bark to one another as long as you clamp it down with sufficient pressure. The mix is by weight or volume. You mix the powder with water 5 parts powder/ 3 parts water. I use a small jewlery scale like you can find in most gas stations these days. 5:3, 10:6, 15:9. Just depending on how much you need.
    Warning, do not get this stuff on your hands. It stains them for 2 weeks.

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