Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Cherry Fusion Paddle

From that large cherry stock I wrote about in the last post, I was able to carve out two paddle blanks. Here they are posing on the balcony with Toronto's skyline and the Don Valley in the background. The left one is the Maliseet style I wrote about already (58 inch) and the other is a shorter one (54 inch) I've dubbed the "Fusion Paddle" on account of its different native styles.

I was intrigued by the write-up on the early Mi'kmaq shaped blade described in Adney's Book as well as documented in Doug Ingram's great page on Historic Canoe Paddles The shape was reminiscient of a spearhead and looked exotic though I wasnt't too keen on maintaining historical accuracy and using a simple pole grip. So I decided on a style that would complement the look of the blade...a Northwest Coast Nootka style roll grip.

The grip started off as an elongated triangle after which I used a round rasp to scrape two grooves about 1.25 inchs down from the top of the grip. This left a roughly rectanglar top that could be shaped into an octagon much like shaping the shaft. I could've been technical about it an drew measuring lines like the shaft but figured it was an easy job to eyeball. The rough profile of the grip (before sanding to a slightly oval roll) is pictured on the left.

I also scooped out the area below the roll with a spokeshave leaving a confortable cambered section for the palm to rest. It looks quite thick and bulky but seems to fit my hands well and that is what custom paddle making is all about. Now I was left with the decorating inspiration.

Generally I burn wildlife imagery I've seen on paddling trips, but the blade shape and overall design wasn't inspiring me to do that this time. While searching the net for various aboriginal style art inspiration, I came across this amazing site describing Captain Cook's impression of Maori paddles when he "discovered" New Zealand. One such paddle, though faded with age, has a distinguishable negative-image painted scroll pattern (kowhaiwhai) and is on display at The Hancock Museum, Newcastle upon Tyne

The pattern seemed suitable for pyrography as it simply required a dark burning at one temperature. Using the computer scans of the paddle blank and Photoshop, I was able to stretch the Maori image to fit the different blade shape and handle on my paddle. After transfering the pattern with carbon paper (too complicated to do freehand), all that was left was to do the burning which took a total of about about 6 hours. Here are some final shots:

The unvarnished grip

The unvarnished blade

The final product varnished and ready to paddle

Obviously this paddle is a bit of a showpiece, but I could't resist taking it out on the lake and pretending to be part of native solo war party. The tapering tip of the blade coupled with high shoulders makes it quite fluttery in the water and not very powerful, but the grip was more comfortable than I had expected. My Fusion paddle is now on display in a prime location at the cottage and will only be used if I'm in the mood to spear something.

Cherry Maliseet Paddle

I scored a choice piece of black cherry stock last year that was wide enough and long enough to carve out 2 paddle designs. I decided that I wanted to attempt 2 native style paddles. The first and easier of the two, a Maliseet Style basically a narrow ottertail with tapering flat grip) and what I called a "Fusion Paddle"...an early Mi'kmaq blade with a Westcoast native style roll grip (another post needed for that one). Both blade patterns were taken from scanning and enlarging smaller illustration from Graham Warren's book and adjusting for size. The Maliseet paddle discussed in this post is 58 inches long, my ideal measurement for paddling solo.

I started by marking out the paddles and finding out the ideal orientation for the grain and blade for both. The resulting patterns fit nicely on the stock but needed careful sawing out of the blanks. I had to drill some pilot holes on the stock at set points and saw between them to crudely divide the stock into halves.

Given that the paddle blade came so close to edge, I had trouble setting the saw to allow for a curved cut, so I learned a trick from a woodworking book. Basically using a flat rasp to indent the wood just enough for the saw to bite and begin a cut. Worthwhile tip for the future.

Curves were then finished off with a coping saw. Having a bandsaw would be sweet but I've got no place for a powertooled workshop so elbow grease and the condo balcony had to suffice.


Shaving down the paddle while clamped to the patio furniture (all 2nd hand stuff anyway). To see the final shaping of the grip check out my earlier post on the Maliseet style grip. Everything was working out well until I started working on the throat and shaft (the last parts in my carving process). I started shaping down the area with a few strokes of the spokeshave, when out of nowhere buried superficially under a thin layer of healthy looking wood, a knot appears ... the worse kind too...with dead wood in the centre that dropped out and formed an angled 1/8" hole right through the shaft. At this point I realized that this paddle wouldn't be tripping worthy anymore but since Black Cherry is a premium wood, I continued with the intention of this being a show-piece on the cottage wall.

After all the sanding and final wetting of the grain, it as time for some decorating. The flat grip is ideal for use as another burning area, so I decided to burn images common to our cottage area. A Black-Capped Chickadee and Pileated Woodpecker on some White Pine (The Ontario Provincial Tree). Anyway, despite the structural blemish (not visible on these pics) I'm still quite happy with the work and it's one of three paddles gracing our cottage wall. 

Black-Capped Chickadee burning on grip

Pileated Woodpecker burning on the blade

Completed paddle varnished and ready to be dipped in the Lake

Yellow Poplar Penobscot

Most of the books and sites I read recommended using Yellow Poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) as an introductory wood for paddle carving. The wood is a breeze to carve and rough stock is very affordable...5/4 stock is $2.50 board foot at Century Mill compared to up to $8-$9 for stuff like walnut and cherry. The lighter colour is pleasing although it does tend to contain streaks of greenish heartwood that sometimes give the paddle a bit of an "algae" like colour. Either way, this was my first attempt at a paddle entirely made on my own after the Canoe Museum Workshop in late May 2007. Cut out the blank at home and did all of the carving over the '07 Canada Day Long Weekend while up at the cottage.

I wanted to try a different style than the typical "beginner's paddle" so elected to try a Penobscot style listed in Graham Warren's Canoe Paddles book. Basically an elongated Beavertail with a sloping, flattened grip. Sawing out the blank by hand took a while as usual, but I found poplar to be a pretty forgiving wood that allowed for the sweeping curves of the blade when cut with a fine toothed crosscut saw. Below are some pics of the job (skipping all the intermediate steps I've outlined in other posts)

The sawn out blank

Completed paddle before artwork

Varnishing after burning a heron on the blade and cat-tail image on the grip

Taking it out for a spin on a sunny day...would you believe I actually spotted a Heron while using it...perfect coincidence!

Poplar is one of the softer hardwoods so the blade and shaft are prone to scuffing and denting if used carelessly, but you can't beat it for lightness. I wouldn't really use it again for paddles I intend to use for tripping but for a starter project and pyrography artwork it is a great wood to use.


Check out posts on the very lively Canadian Canoe Routes Forums about the topic and you'll find unending debate about how to finish the paddle. Do you go with finicky varnish that's difficult to put on well but much more low maintenance, or oil which is a breeze to use but needs frequent re-application (some say as after each paddling use). The Canoe Museum Workshop provided each of us with enough Glossy Minwax® Helmsman® Spar Urethane (with a Material Safety Data Sheet printout) to provide 4 coats and thus far, I'm quite content with its use.

Varnishing safely requires a clean, well-ventilated area. For me that means working on the balcony to avoid fume buildup. I also rigged up a varnishing rack that allows me to hang the paddles vertically allowing any excess varnish to pool near the tip where more is needed to protect the end grain from water seepage. The real tip here is to use what you have...in my case, a folding laundry rack and an unused wall mount guitar hanger (for one of my other hobbies). I've since been able to rig up 3 paddles on the laundray racks using nothing but trigger-style grip clamps. A run to the dollar store to get an aluminium cooking tray to collect drips and a few foam brushes and I was in business.

The Hellsman Spar varnish says no thinning is required, but I always prefer applying many thin coats initially rather than apply this thick varnish in globs. Without being too obsessed with measures, I generally apply in the following order:
  • First Coat: Thinned out 50/50 with minerals spirits.
  • Sencond Coat: Thinned 70/30 with mineral spirits
  • Third Coat: Unthinned varnish
Between each coating, I generally scour with a fine 0000-grade steel wool to remove any pooling and allow for each successive layer of varnish to stick.

Some paddlers varnish the blade and oil the grip to prevent blisters. I haven't tried that yet but intend to on some of my upcoming designs.

Monday, January 28, 2008


After all this work, simply varnishing the paddle doesn't seem sufficient so I've tried to stimulate the creative side of my analytical brain to do some artwork on paddles.

At first, I dabbled a bit using acrylics and stencil patterns to paint silhouettes. On my very first paddle from the Canoe Museum workshop I tried a small Heron stencil...not as crisp as I would have liked but it looked better after the varnishing stage.

Later I decided to redecorate a beat-up commercial paddle I heavily use...a no-name poplar cherry laminated ottertail. Sanded off the finish and scuff marks and painted some free-hand artwork between the cherry strips. The pattern is based on old Ottoman Turkish floral motifs including the famed Ottoman Tulip that is found in many mosques and tilework from Turkey. Actually used photos from my 2006 trip to Turkey as inspiration. The shot below is the paddle with a backdrop of river grass from a 2007 spring daytrip on the Upper Gibson River in Muskoka

My real interest however is Pyrography. Burning images, particularly wildlife I've seen on trips has been a bit of motivation for me. I'm also an avid bird-watcher and have been inspired to imbibe each paddle with an avian motif based on some real-life inspiration from nature. I've seen countless Herons, Owls, Loons, Songbirds, Hawks, Falcons, Woodpeckers, etc while paddling in cottage country. I started off this artform with a cheapo pyrography kit ($30 CND) from an art store but outgrew the minimal tip style and inconsistent burning temperature after about 6 paddles. I've since graduated to a more expensive but worthwhile pyrography burner from the Canadian Manufacturer RazorTip...definitely a big difference! To the right is one of my earlier attempts of another Heron on a poplar Penobscot style paddle and a practice piece on a piece of rough poplar stock from which the paddle was carved.

Hope to showcase some more of the pyrography art in future postings

Sanding and Finishing

The most tedious part for me is the seemingly un-ending amount of sanding to be done to finish the paddle. In fact, I really don't have any photos of this process but basically, I use three grades of sandpaper to complete the job.

An initial sand with 80 grit, second sand with 150, and a final sanding with 220 grit sandpaper. Sanding really is self-explanatory and is truly difficult to entirely messup, except for one important step that must be done before any decorating and varnishing is done...wetting the grain.

After going through the 3 rounds of sanding, I use a dampened sponge to wet the wood if I'm in the city. The pic on the right is a laminated walnut maple paddle being wetted on the condo balcony "workshop". If I'm up at the cottage, I take the paddle for a dip in the lake and give it a brief test-drive. Either way, the resulting hydration causes the wood to raise and eventually dries forming tiny sharpened ridges following the grain pattern. This needs to be resanded with 220 grit to remove and results in a permanent smoothness to the wood. I'll confess that after handsanding a dozen or so paddles, I cracked and purchased a Random Orbital Sander to do most of the gruntwork. It's loud and dusty but saves the hassle and time to devote my energy to more creative things like the decorating.

At this stage, I hang the paddle in my locker room using some dollar store utility hooks suspended on the mesh wiring of the locker cage and reflect on some decorating inspiration. Hanging the paddle (rather than leaning against walls) ensures that the shaft doesn't warp and is the best way to preserve the paddle's integrity after doing all this carving work. Next up...paddle artwork.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Grip

Carving the grip is the most personal job in paddle making. Part of the reason I got into this hobby is that I felt most commercial grips were uncomfortable for my broad palms. After a few km of paddling, I'd get sore where they would bite into my hands. I also find the standard "pear" grip to be aesthetically bland and have always been curious as to the artistic & functional grips carved by First Nation natives.

For inspiration, I've used Adney's work, Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America which has some fantastic sketches of various styles, like the 3 Passamaquoddy styles in the image. Typically these elongated grips allowed for a more natural grip posture so that less correction and wrist strain is produced while paddling...a definite plus while paddling solo.

Doug Ingram's site, has a great section on various grip styles that he's produced over the years.

One of my favourites is also the also the simplest to make...the elongated Maliseet grip...basically an elongated (up to 12 inches) flattened rectangle that's cambered to fit nicely in your palm when placed along the side. These grips can also be grasped along the top and don't need any rasp work or other carving instruments to shape other than the basic spokeshave. It's basically like carving another smaller, thicker blade. For decoration, I used a round file to shape out 2 semicircles along the bottom edge of the grip.

Maliseet grip in the cut out blank...basically an elongated rectangle

Cambering the grip with a spokshave

Completed Maliseet grip

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Shaping the Blade (Part 2)

Once you've shaped the blade coursely to the outer guidelines with the block plane, begin shaping the blade more finely with a spokeshave. I purchased a relatively cheap $30 CND Stanley contractor spokeshave from a hardware store, in addition to a sharpening stone and honing guide.

Using a spokeshave takes practice but the trick is to angle the blade and pull or push with a slight skewing action rather than simply have the blade shave straight down the middle. When the blade begins to chatter across the wood, I alter the angle or direction
and try the area again. With practice the tool becomes an easy way to delicately shave off wood and shape the paddle blade with finesse.

Don't have photos for this, but using a pair of spring calipers set to 3/8 inches, I routinely measure the blade's thickness from the tip to the 2/3rds guideline previously marked on the paddle's edges until it's been shaved down to this measurement.

Beginning to shape with spokeshave

Shaving down to the shaded edge guidelines

Blade shaped to 3/8 inches thick

Pile of shavings from the completed blade

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Shaping the Blade (Part 1)

Now the grunt work begins. Using a simple block plane, begin shaving down the blank to the outer lines that you marked in the previous step. Depending on the sharpness of the plane's blade and the hardness of the wood, this can easily be done in an hour of steady work by hand.

The fully dressed paddle blank

Beginning the planning of the blade edges

One side fully shaved to the outer lines...the remaining wood to the shaded blade edge is shaped with more control with a spokeshave.

Some Tips:

1. Begin by shaving the edges on a 45 degree angle to bevel the edge and allow the plane to grip the wood.

2. Then gradually move towards the centre of the blade taking off more shavings with long strokes over the surface of the board to ensure that it is evenly shaped with a cambered surface (i.e. edges slightly thinner than centre)

3. Depending on the grain orientation, sometimes the plane direction may need to be reversed, especially near the shaft of the paddle

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Dressing the Paddle (Marking Out)

After cutting out a blank, the next step requires marking out the paddle with pencil lines to guide you in the shaving of the blade, shaft and grip. Warren's book has some templates that you can copy and cut out to help with marking, but I was taught a more hands-on method that allows better customization for every different paddle design. It involves simple measuring and marking with a straight-edge ruler and combination square.

Marking the Blade
1. If not already done, mark out the centre line on the whole face of the paddle (from grip to shaft). Even though you will be shaving off these lines, they are necessary for other paddle dimensions.

2. Measure the blade (from paddle tip to where it meets the shaft) and divide into thirds. Mark a line across the blade and down the edges 2/3rds up from the tip (ie, 30 inch blade would be marked at 20 inches from the tip). The markings on the edges are the real important guidelines...at these points the blade tapers up to form shoulders with the shaft.

3. Place the paddle on its edge (in a vise) and locate the centre by drawing a short line (maybe 2 inches). For a 1 1/8th thick piece of stock, the centre would be a 9/16ths. You don't need to extend this line all the way around. 

4. Take the combination sqaure and measure out 1/16th beyond the small centre line and extend this all the way around the entire paddle blade edge on both sides of the centre line. At this point you have about 1/8th edge guide that I like to shade in with a pencil

5. Adjust the combination square again to another 1/8th beyond the edge guide on either side and mark all the way around the blade up to the vertical marks on the side of the paddle that you marked 2/3rds of the way up the blade in step 2. These outer lines will be for guiding down roughly with a plane whereas space between these lines and the shaded edge guide will be more precisely shaved down with a spokeshave.

Marking the Shaft
Marking out the shaft can involve some complex formulaic methods with a compass and other techniques. To get a round shaft from a square piece of stock can be as simple or as complex as you want. I learned a simple method whereby a stock thickness of 1 1/8th can be rounded using a combination square set at 3/4 inch. Lines are drawn on  either edge of the shaft on all four faces for a total of 8 lines. These will be roughly shaped down to an octagon and then sanded to a round shaft

Marking the Shoulders
With the blade and shaft dressed, you can now connect the two at the shoulders. The lines from the shaft have to taper the the thickness of the shaded in edge guide from step 4 with additional rough planing lines added about 1/8th of an inch on either side. The picture below shows this tapering effect. Effectively, the shaded section is what will remain after the blade has been properly carved.

Marking the Grip
Given that grips are highly personalized, I won't go into details about marking out any specific grip. Warren's book has some great ideas for grip patterns, but frankly, this is where the most customization takes place. I'll have some pics later of some of the grip patters that I've worked on but they really are meant for my style of solo paddling with my broad, pudgy hands.

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