Friday, March 14, 2008

Omer Stringer Birch

One of the best canoe-related deals in my opinion is the fantastic booklet, The Canoeist's Manual, written by the one and only Omer Stringer. Any serious solo paddler knows about Omer, born and raised in Algonquin Park, master of the solo paddling technique now known as "omering" in his honour. Bill Mason, another canoeing icon, apparently refered to Omer as the King of Flatwater. Anyway, this gem of canoeing knowledge is sold for the unbelievable price of a 1 Canadian Dollar at the Algonquin Park Bookstore.

I first read about Omer's bio and intriguing technique online - a reprint of the 1999 Canoe Journal article written by Jeff Solway entitled "Omer Stringer - The Father of Modern Canoeing". Jeff had a paddle making business for a while, Nashwaak Paddles, with a downloadable copy of the article, but the site is no longer operational. For those of you still interested, the site and some of its contents are available through Web Archive. In particular, some of Jeff's informative PDF articles are still available for download by clicking here. Don't know how long these archives will last. I also just picked up the 2008 CanoeRoots Magazine Buyer's Guide edition which has a one page article on Omer written by the prolific paddling author, James Raffan.

Omer's technique is essentially what modern classic solo is about...heeling the boat so that the gunnel nearly reaches the waterline allowing the solo paddler to control the boat with subtle underwater recoveries and leverage strokes.

Anyway, back to the paddle making. The Canoeist's Manual has a sketch and paddle details of Omer's preferred design on page 6...basically a straight sided, narrow ottertail (5 inches at its widest) with a circular tip (2 inch radius). Instead of using photoshop, this paddle involved sketching the blade directly on the stock by determining the centreline and copying the dimensional info from the booklet. I wanted to try a new wood type and a different grip style, so decided on using Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis), a common local hardwood.

Marking out stock & Final Blank

The marking out and sawing out of the blank went as usual...about 3 hours of handsawing on and off (this was before I had discovered the Carpenter's Square DIY woodshop and had access to a bandsaw). As for the grip section, I wanted to try an artsy style grip not attempted yet...the carved Passamaquoddy grip Adney described on a decorated 1849 paddle and documented on Doug Ingram's fantastic webpage of Historic Canoe Paddles. Doug makes amazing paddles and I've been a silent admirer of his work for years now. This elongated grip is hollowed out along the centre so as to fit the palm when held along its longer edge. I believe the chipcarving pattern is Doug's own work and his site mentions his selection of Basswood (Tilia americana) for its ease of carving, but my paddle is the much harder Yellow Birch. Soon into shaping the grip, I realized that this wood would be challenging for delicate carving as it teared out easily and the grain would change direction frequently. So the grip would ultimately not match the intended design.

To carve out the centre of the grip, I used the spooning (hook) knife like in shaping the Northwoods Grip from the Walnut Passamaquoddy paddle. The birch really didn't carve out well, but tore out leaving an unsightly series of ridges. I also ended up using a round rasp to create a decorative indent along the edges. All this was eventually cleaned up using some Cabinet Scrapers purchased at Lee Valley. The curved scraper is particularly effective at shaving tight areas and helped to smooth the rough ridges from using the hook knife. The edges were sharp though and at the end of the day, my hand contained a bunch of superficial sliced cuts (like paper cuts) all over my palm and time I'll be using work gloves when handling this versatile tool. The pics below show the progession of the grip.

The blade was thinned down quite extensively as I was unsatisfied with the flex in the blade. Don't know if Omer used a flexy paddle, but given the larger area of the blade, I certainly wanted some give. Despite thinning it down extensively, the paddle is still not that flexible, something I'm assuming has something to do with the wood. Interesting to note that while re-reading the chapter on Native Canoe paddles (written by David Gidmark) in Warren Graham's book, there's a comment that Yellow Birch is unsuitable for carving with a crooked knife because the grain reverses frequently. This I certainly experienced this, but would still consider using birch again.

For the decoration, I was inspired by the fact that I've seen plenty of Yellow Bellied Sapsuckers that seem to target the yellow birches around the Cottage, leaving behind parallel rows of woodpecker holes. Unlike other woodpeckers that eat grubs, these guys lick out the birch sap with elongated tongues. Thought it was funny that a group of them is technically refered to as a slurp of sapsuckers. So for this yellow birch paddle, a Sapsucker image was in order. I burned the bird image first and then tried to fill in an appropriate background in perspective. I tried to give the forest a scratchy layered look but eventually the darkened background overly camouflaged the bird so it was sanded down with 220 grit sandpaper leaving it purposely lighter with and unfinished look. Compared to some of the work in the Galleries, I've got a lot of improvement to do in my background technique 

Burned Sapsucker Image without & with background

I had also marked out tiny spots on the main tree where I intended to burn woodpecker holes but then had an idea to make them more realistic...why not drill real holes? At first I was reluctant to drill into the blade of a paddle that was a real chore to carve, but wanted to experiment, so the drilling began with a 5/32 bit set at the slowest speed. I ended up drilling deeper holes at the top of the blade where it was thicker and then more shallow indents as the blade thinned toward the tip. My intention was to reveal the fresh wood under the burning and then highlight by scorching the outer rim of each hole, giving it a natural shadow effect. Turned out ok although it looks better from a distance than a closeup. Now the brainiac in me is wondering if I've increased the efficiency of the paddle by adding these dimples (more surface area within the same dimensions), kind of like how dimples make a golf ball fly straighter and farther.

Drilling holes & highlighting job

For the grip, the original carving idea was out of the question, but I did like Doug's carving of a sprig of vegetation. So did the obvious and burned a twig of Yellow Birch leaves from one of my father's Forestry Textbooks from the 1970s (amazing illustrations). Here are some shots.

Yellow Birch leaves on grip face

Close up of the blade

Here is the final paddle posing under a few brief moments of sunshine with my wife's prolific orchid (4 blossoms already on March 14th). Spring is around the corner and soon it'll be paddling time again!

Finished Paddle


Trevor said...

This is an old post, but I've been looking through your archives and had to comment. Omer (and therefore the rest of the family) used (as I understand) exclusively black cherry. I'm starting training paddles in Omer's style for my girls in a much lighter pine with a gorgeous grain-- use for a season and then retire for a better blade in cherry. But yeah-- all the Stringers make their paddles in cherry.

Murat said...

Thanks for the details. Always great to hear tidbits of info about this legendary paddler. Now, if there were any online videos of him paddling that would be a real treat!

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