Thursday, December 27, 2007

Preparing the Blank

Preparing the blank is where you finally get into some basic woodworking action. I unfortunately never took many "work in progress" pics of my first real homemade paddle (Yellow Poplar Penobscot Heron) featured on the main page margin, so I'll document my steps with a current paddle I'm working on. A long & narrow solo paddle similar to the Quill by Ray Kettlewell. This one is made from some choice figured maple I scored last time I was at Century Mill

Like I mentioned in my first post about lumber, qualities such as straight, contained grain in the region that will become the shaft (at least 36 inches is a good guideline) is a must, with the grain in the blade region of less importance for strength. At the mill I get the shop guys to machine plane the board down to 1 1/8th inches which will be the final thickness of the shaft. Warren's book mentions 1 1/8th as fine for round hardwood shafts and 1 1/4 inches for soft woods.

Here are some basic steps in prepping the blank.

1. First, mark the centre line of the board (I've started using a chalk line for convenience but any method is fine)

2. Then, trace the pattern of your chosen paddle on the board ensuring the centreline for paddle matches to that of the lumber stock. For the shaft of the paddle, I use a 40 inch metal straight edge that is exactly 1 1/8th inches wide and trace the edges to the grip

3. Keeping in mind that sawing out can cause up to 1/8th inch of lost wood, keep to the outside of the line when sawing. Excess wood can be later shaved off to meet the desired dimensions, but once you cut too thin (especially around the shaft), the wood paddle will lose much of its strength.

4. Using a simple handsaw (I prefer a fine toothed one with 12-15 teeth per inch which minimizes spliting and leaves a cleaner edge), cut around the pattern and if the blade shape permits, continue in one long continous curvy cut around one side.

Here are some pics of the progress:

Beginning to saw out the pattern. I'm using a walnut scrap piece to lightly wedge the cut open as I saw, making cutting curves easier without the saw sticking due to friction.

Cutting around the second side. The 1st side cut pretty cleaner and the "waste" wood will be re-used (last photo)

Final Blank cut out and "dressed" with guidelines (more on that in another post)

Here's a final shot I took of this paddle along with some others (laminating a Greenland Kayak paddle on the far left with another laminated ottertail canoe paddle on the right). The completed one piece maple paddle is 2nd from the left and the "waste pieces" are next to it. I've since glued these up with a walnut shaft to make what I call my "recycled paddle" and it resembles some of the West Coast native paddles from BC. In other words...don't waste the wood!

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Paddle Dimensions

PLENTY of debate on this topic. Forums such as Canadian Canoe Routes and the UK site Song of the Paddle have plenty of posts about ideal paddle length and size. Some say measure armspan, some say sit in a chair and measure distance from shoulders to the floor, some say hold the paddle above your head with 90 degree bends at the elbows, some say stand up straight and measure distance from under the chin to the ground. I enjoyed reading C. Burchill's page which details the important difference in overall paddle length vs paddle shaft's length.

My opinion? There really should be no set rule for paddle length because there are many variables to consider. Do you kneel or sit? Do you heel the boat onto its side or do you stay centred? Do you "sit and switch" paddle or can you control the boat with correction stokes?

My own style of solo paddling (Canadian or Classic Solo...check out the fantastic Becky Mason DVD for more info) means that I'm always kneeling in the boat (never sitting) and I tend to heel the boat over and paddle on one side exclusively (tend to favour paddling left side). This means that the gunnel is near the water line and I don't have to reach over too far to place the blade in the water. More importantly, most of the correction strokes are based on underwater recoveries so the blade tends to stay submerged and shaft length can be shorter than average. Before I started making my own paddles, I found conventional paddle shafts were too long for my style of solo paddling.

I've personally found that 58 inch length works well as a guideline with blade length being anywhere from 28-32 inches long. Simple formula for me...58 inches is the length to my chin so this worked for me.

Choosing a Paddle Design

This is one of the fun parts...choosing a paddle design. I won't go into the multiple types and forms of paddles, there's a fantastic chapter in Warren Graham's book Canoe Paddles: The Complete Guide to Making Your Own.

In addition, you can consider checking out Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America by Tappan Adney, a fanstastic ethnological look at the detail construction of nearly every native craft in North America. Many chapters include sketches of native paddles.

I like to use my meager Photoshop skills to scan any paddle images and manipulate the dimensions to customize the paddle. Shown on the left is a typical ottertail pattern blade that I screen captured.

Then, images are printed off (usually on legal paper), taped together to form the image of the blade, and the pattern cut out to be used as a tracing template. Pretty low tech. Warren's book talks about cutting out a 1/2 blade pattern from a thin piece of wood and then trace the image, but I couldn't be bothered with this old fashioned paper and pencil prevailed.

Each image is carefully cut out to maintain symmetry, but a little error here is fine...most people don't have the accute perception to notice minor flaws anyway. I've also begun using photoshop to mark center lines in the image digitally, which helps align the pattern with the appropriate centering line on the lumber stock.

I've since learned that one need not bother drawing out the whole paddle (grip + shaft + blade) as the shaft and grip can be easily drawn in or customized on the lumber stock after the fact more accurately with a straigh-edged metal ruler. Instead, I prefer to choose the blade pattern first and then measure out dimensions afterword. More on this in the next post.

Sunday, December 23, 2007


The next logical post would be about tools. Being a minimalist and living in a condo, I wanted ownly the bare necessities (i.e hand tools) to make a paddle. So here's a short list of necessary items in my toolbox (photos to follow shortly)

Measuring & Marking Tools

• HB pencil
• 40 inch metal straight edge ruler
• 12 inch combination square (marked with 1/32 & 1/16ths)
• spring calipers

• few (4) one handed trigger (style) clamps
• bench mounted vise

Cutting & Shaping Tools
• Crosscut hand saw (for cutting out the paddle blank from lumber stock)
• Coping saw (for cutting out finer curves)
• Block plane (for initial shaving of blank)
• Spokeshave (for final shaping of the paddle)
• Dual bladed rasp (rough and fine for shaping the grip)
• 80, 150, 220 grit sandpaper

That's pretty much it. All of these items were available at my local HomeDepot or Canadian Tire (and routinely went on sale for more $ savings). As I stated to make more paddles, a few other specialty tools became needed, but I'll blog about those later

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Sourcing Lumber - Where to get the wood?

This was my problem initially. I was hoping to obtain some ready cut paddle blanks from known paddle manufacturers given that I don't have access to a bandsaw, but after being given the run around by half a dozen companies I said SCREW IT...I'll carve my own blank from rough lumber stock.

Home building centres carry lumber for just The grade, quality, and dimensions are really not suitable for making quality work so I had to source out local mills in the area. Thankfully, I'm not that far (30km) from Century Mill Lumber up in Stouffville, a family run mill (150 yrs!) with a friendly staff for the newbie like me.

Prices (especially for domestic woods) are pretty competitive and on my first visit, Keith took the liberty of helping select different types of domestive lumber appropriate for my needs and took care of the shop work to plane, joint, and cut pieces to more manageable sizes.

Other Sources for GTA/Southern Ontario
Archived page of lumber stock sources in Southern Ontario
Exotic Woods in Burlington (Great site, but I don't like travelling west...that area is a traffic nightmare)

What to look for when you get to the mill? Well the Graham Warren book I posted about previously has a detailed chapter on various hardwood and their properties...won't get into that here. Instead, here's the bare minimum info you need to know.

I found the thickness of the stock to be most important, especially if you are going to work exclusively with hand tools as I do. 5/4 stock (meaning approximately 1 1/4" thick is best because it can be shop planed at the mill with minimal wood waste to the desired thickness of 1 1/8" - the final thickness of the shaft. 6/4 stock works as well, but then you pay for all this waste wood that needs to be removed. 4/4 stock is too thin to be used as a onepiece paddle, so even though it is more available, it's not really useable.

Next of course is the grain, which needs to be as straight as possible (although in nature nothing is perfectly straight). You may need to rummage through the stock to find boards that contain at least 3 ft of straight grain (where the grip shaft & throat of the paddle will be carved out of. Grain direction is less important in the blade. Rolf Kraiker of Blazing Paddles has a great page devoted to understanding wood grain for paddles

Finally, the length and width. Generally lumber stock dries faster on the cut edges than in the middle, so cracks can form in the wood and obviously ruin a paddle. For than reason, you want to have at least 4-6 extra inches on each terminal end of the board. For width of course, that all depends on the final width of your paddle, but again allow for an inch or so of "waste". Nothing is really wasted though, I use these scrap pieces for heating up the cottage fireplace in winter or as other wedges/scraps for other projects.

Sounds like an intimidating process at first, but I actually find it just as rewarding as using the paddle in water for the first time. To be able to visualize your work out of a rough piece of lumber is like an artist just starting to work on their canvas.

Paddle Making Info

So how does a complete newbie go about making a paddle...READ! The most authoritative book on the topic is written by Graham Warren, entitled Canoe Paddles: The Complete Guide to Making Your Own. Fantastic detail on every aspect of construction, from tool lists to techniques while also including plans for various designs and an intriguing chapter on various elements of native design.

While some of the marking/measuring techniques are quite different (and more laborious) than I learned at the Canoe Museum Workshop, the book's overall info is superb. Apparently this is Warren's 2nd book on the subject. I've ordered his original paperback on the topic Making Canoe Paddles in Wood from his site and will comment when it arrives (probably in the new year)

A few other sites I found with quality info include the following:

Friday, December 21, 2007

First Post - How it all started

Well, after scouring the net for info on making custom canoe paddles, I realized there's a real shortage of info. So I decided to start a blog on the topic to document some of my work over the last year. Probably best to mention that all this started because of a fantastic workshop held at the Canadian Canoe Museum last May as part of their Adult Artisan program. I had absolutely NO woodworking experience yet in 2 days was able to carve a sweet cherry paddle with the help of Jeremy Ward, Hal Bowen, and Don Duncan.

2008 dates are listed on their site as:
Feb 23 - 24, 2008
May 31 - June 1, 2008
Sept 27 - 28, 2008
Nov 29 - 30, 2008

If you love the idea of paddling your canoe with a paddle carved by your own hands, this workshop is the place to start.

Here are some pics from my experience:

Paddle blank ready to be carved

Blank set up on a shaving horse

Clamped on table for more work

Working on the grip

The final work...varnished and ready to go

So that's the first post. In the future, I'll be posting more of my creations and inspirations out there. Feel free to comment!

Newer Posts Home Page