Making a canoe paddle with a smooth, straight shaft and evenly cambered blade looks like the kind of thing that you need to be born to. Not so. If you approach the job in a systematic way, and work to a set of basic shaping guidelines, then it is relatively easy to produce a fine-looking paddle first time out. As with anything else, a natural flair might mean that you can dispense with the formalities and directly convert the paddle in your head into the real thing in wood, but this kind of skill is simply not necessary to make an excellent job. Anyway, the skill comes. You start out simply planing off wood, but a few paddles later you will find yourself tilting the paddle this way and that so that the light picks out little ridges that you need to shave off. You will also start using your hands to feel for bumps and hollows that need attention.
If you are making a one-piece paddle, choose a straight-grained plank that has been flat sawn (although other grain configurations are useable). If you prefer to laminate a paddle, glue the strips together with urea - resorcinol or epoxy glue. Mark out your intended design onto the wood and cut out the "blank". It saves a lot of time if you make the blank the same thickness as the final shaft thickness. Typical dimensions for a hardwood shaft are 1 and 1/8" x 1".
A common way of choosing the length of a paddle is to get someone to measure the distance from your nose to your seat when you are sitting upright. This distance approximates to the shaft length (top of grip to start of blade) that will suit you. You need to add this distance to the blade length of a particular design to find the overall paddle length required.
A good flat sawn plank: straight even grain, no knots or warps
Woods. Most woods will have been used at some time or other for making canoe paddles. Native canoeists would obviously use the materials that were to hand. Ash, maple and spruce are among the most popular from a long list. Both kiln and air dried are suitable. Buy a plank at least 6” longer than your paddle and cut off the ends which may well harbour splits. The plank should be at least 1 and 1/4 " thick. The properties of various woods can be blended in laminated paddles.
A simple “5-piece” lamination setup of ash and Douglas fir
Basic outline. Paddle (blade and grip) outlines are available as tables of dimensions (“offsets”) or plans/tracings. It is far better to use these to make a template for half of the blade and grip, and to draw around these either side of a centreline to make sure that the paddle is symmetrical. Then cut out the “blank” and sand up to the line.
Carving guidelines. You can make shaping the paddle much easier by first drawing in some lines to guide your shaping. The diagram shows a set of guidelines marked onto the blank that will greatly help. These lines are first marked onto the paddle blank using templates made from flexible plastic sheet to conform to the curves of the paddle.
Flexible plastic templates for the grip, throat and blade tip
Shaping the blade. Plane the blank down to the required blade thickness (usually around 3/8”), draw on lines marking the edges, then bevel at about 45°, producing even blade edges and a smooth transition from blade to shaft.
The blade is then smoothly cambered over by spokeshaving in from the edges and decreasing the angle of the tool as you go.
Shaping the shaft. The shaft is marked out by adding guidelines as shown below. There is a formula to do this accurately, but drawing them in by eye also gives a pretty good result. Bevel to these guidelines to make the shaft octagonal, take of the ridges evenly to make it 16-sided then sand off smooth by “shoe shining” with a strip of 60 grit sandpaper.
A square starting cross-section gives a round shaft using the guidelines as shown, and this is perhaps the easiest to shape to make. But for a profile that is more comfortable to hold (because it more closely matches the shape made by a gripping hand), you might like to try an elliptical shaft. This is made by starting with an oblong cross-section, and moving the guidelines on the sides of the shaft further apart, as shown below. The long dimension of the ellipse is made at right angles to the paddle blade.
The Grip. The grip is sawn, sanded or rasped to the various guidelines, then sanded smooth with progressively finer grit papers on a foam block.
Finishing your paddle. An oil finish is recommended as being durable, soft on the hands and easy to touch up. Brush or rag on repeated coats of boiled linseed or tung oil (or a 50/50 mix of these). Do not allow to dry between coats as this will seal the wood and prevent further absorption. You can thin the oil with white spirit or turpentine to improve penetration, or alternatively apply the oil hot (take care).
Once you become hooked on paddle making, you will probably want to give more thought to the various design variables like blade area, flexibility, blade edge thickness, grip, weight and balance, amongst other considerations. It is unlikely that you will come across the perfect paddle; any design is usually a compromise between various constraints, for example strength vs. lightness.
Blade areas commonly vary across the range 115 -165 sq. in. Larger areas are better for whitewater whereas small areas are often chosen for long distance touring. A paddle should have a definite flex when you brace it against the floor and lean against it. If a paddle does this, it will be pleasant to use and protect your arms and shoulders from shock. A paddle that is too flexible will start to loose efficiency. Blade edges should be relatively thin so that they slice cleanly through the water. If they are too thin they will be easily damaged. 3/32" is a good compromise for a hardwood blade. It goes without saying that the paddle grip must be comfortable, otherwise it could reduce you hands to blistered, painful stumps. It is often desirable to modify grips with judicious application of a rasp and sand paper until you arrive at one that suits your hand. A paddle should be as light as possible, in the range 700-900g. Ideally, your paddle should be ever so slightly blade heavy when you balance it on your finger at the base of the lower grip region.
Bent shafts paddles are more efficient for canoe racing because the blade is held perpendicular to the water for a greater proportion of the stroke. Using a bent shaft paddle requires a sit and switch style that is rather frowned upon by traditionalists, one reason being that water drips into your boat during crossover. Bent shafts can be made by gluing laminations over a former. Strong (heavier) and light (weaker) woods can be alternated in the laminating setup to give a strong and relatively light finished product. We have a variable-angled jig that we can use in conjunction with a variable-angled prototype paddle, to give bend angle to suit individual paddlers.
Native-style paddles vary greatly in different parts of the world. North American paddles were the ancestors of today's recreational paddles and are on the whole, quite familiar. South American paddles are quite diverse and often have short and very rounded blades. The interesting idea has been put forward that different South American tribes could recognise the identity (friend or foe) of approaching canoes by the distinctive sound that their differently-shaped paddles made in the water. Ocean-going canoes are often propelled by slim, pointed blades, a shape that may be favoured on account of lower wind resistance. Pacific paddles frequently have heavy, bulbous grips that undoubtedly doubled up as offensive weapons. Paddles used when stealth was required had slim tips for silent entry. North American native paddles were most often very slim, around 4-5" wide, except when used in situations in which fast flowing rivers had to be ferried across, in which case wider blades were used. Some early paddles had simple pole or bobble grips, and were probably used with the top hand around the shaft, rather than over the top of the grip. Native paddles were regularly highly decorated, either in stylised designs or depicting animals such as moose and beaver. Mineral and vegetable pigments were used. It is interesting to recreate such designs, and a collection of native paddle makes a very attractive wall display. Some very specialised paddles have been identified, for example paddles designed to be used one-handed, lying flat in the canoe whilst hunting.
There are numerous tricks of the trade, many of which are mentioned in Canoe Paddles and Making Canoe Paddles in Wood. These books also contain many blade designs as offset tables.
The stills on this page are taken from our Paddlemaking DVD.