Saturday, April 5, 2008

Aleut Kayak Paddle - Part 1

Back to paddlemaking. A few months ago, I wrote a post documenting an attempt to construct a laminated Greenland Style kayak paddle. For this project, I had obtained 1-1/8" strips of walnut & poplar at Century Mill as well as a large, narrow piece of walnut stock (dressed to 4" x 96" x 1-1/8") with the intention of making a solid one-piece if the lamination experiment failed (which it didn't). Soon after I had decided to carve another kayak paddle with this suitable walnut stock and settled on a different Aleut (Alaskan Inuit) style of blade.

A typical aleut paddle shape

Searches on the net revealed that this paddle is unique amongst traditional kayak-faring peoples in that it is a non-symmetrical paddle with only one side of the blade used as the power face. The blades are long (30+") linear extensions from the loom with full lengthwise spines forming a noticable ridge. The backface of the blades are curved similar to modern touring paddles, albeit on a much more shallow gradient.

After checking out some pages, like Lew Plumme's recreation of an Aleut Paddle in the Finland National Musuem as well as Wolgang Brink's paddle making pages, I figured it would be an interested project. Plans were hard to come by, but I did manage to find an online reprint of David Zimmerly's 1984 Sea Kayaker article entitled "Arctic Paddle Design" with a specific page (.pdf format) documenting an Aleut design. I also luckily came across the page of Swedish paddle expert, Bjorn Thomasson, who had some an Aleut plan (.pdf) as well as a few others. Thomasson's well drawn plan with side view, dimensional info, and loom cross-section diagram was the one I followed, although I was limited with the confines of my walnut piece. The linear lines of the blade were too similar to the Greenland Paddle I had already made so improvised and made the blades more similar to stretched beavertail designs. Because of the board's length, cutting out the blank by hand took a frustratingly huge amount of time. I should mention that this was done back in the Fall of '07. After exhausting myself out cutting the blank, I simply stored the paddle in the locker-room until I was ready to tackle this bigger job.

Cutting out blank & the warped paddle after storage

Flash forward a few months and decided it was time to finish this project, only to find out that blank had warped while being stored. The grain (especially in the loom) was slightly curved to one side but I had thought that because it seemed mostly contained, the paddle would still turn out ok. A new off-centre line had to be drawn which made affected the paddle's symmetry. Anyway, the paddle now "sags" a bit when held at the center, but it's not too bad so the paddle is still salvageable in my opinion.

After planing down the blades it was time to begin carving out the ridge. This was done with the trusty hook knife. Again, this walnut piece tended to have a bit of wavy grain (in retrospect I wouldn't have bought it had I paid more careful attention) so the wood tended to tear out unevenly. Despite my best efforts, the spine region is not perfectly straight and I honestly believe it could only be achieved with power tools (like a router) or by expert woodcarving hands (not at that level yet).

Planing down one side & carving out the spine

At this point the ugly, rough worked had to be sanded down and to do an even job along the ridge, I had wrapped a piece of 1-1/4" scrap dowel with 60 grit coarse sandpaper. After just a few passes on the blade... PAIN!!!! Two quarter inch slivers of wood jammed under my fingernail! Instant blood letting of course but at the time, my wife was taking a much deserved nap inside and I didn't want to wake I toughed it out in silence, grabed some tweezers and yanked the slivers out (all the while tearing out some fingernail bed flesh). The bleeding stoped with simple pressure and a day later the swollen nailbed receded leaving behind a mark showing how deep the wood got embedded. Guess my manly pain suppression worked because she didn't notice a thing. Hand sanding was not the way to go, so I scrounged for a solution and came across a sanding disk attachment to a drill in the growing tool pile. This vertical disk allowed for close sanding next to the spine and smoothed out the bumps in no time.

Sanding with dowel, fingernail aftermath, sanding with drill attachment

The other error I had miscalculated is that the stock had been planed down to 1 1/8" thickness (the standard thickness I've been using for canoe paddle shafts). The Aleut loom however is a distictly oval shape (almost egg shaped) and plans clearly cite a thicker dimensions (Zimmerly: 4.1cm = 1 5/8"; Thomasson: 3.1cm = 1 7/32"). To achieve this I would have to laminate another strip onto the loom. Rather than use walnut for this, a contrasting piece of scrap maple was cut and glued.

Laminating maple onto the loom

This 1-1/8" square piece meant that the total loom thickness was now 2-1/4" and of course would need to be planed down. I decided on a thicker loom and used Zimmerly's measurement of 1-5/8". A line was drawn to reflect this desired thickness. The Gorilla Glue foamed quite vigoursly and seeped out the edges, making the lamination job look quit messy. However, I knew that the egg-shaped cross-section of the loom would mean these unsightly glue blobs would be planed off. Quite easy with handtools which is why I enjoy using this glue rather than epoxy.

Drawn thickness line & one side smoothed

At this stage, the loom was left purposely thick and the paddle turned over to shape the backsides of the blades. As mentioned previously, the Aleut paddles had concave powerfaces and convex sided back face. This meant using the spokeshake to camber the backside and result in a curved surface. The pics really don't show this well.

Curved blade views

To be honest, this double blade has been quite tedious to work and the spine ridge has taken a toll on my patience. I've decided to take a bit of a break from finishing this one and will probably come back to it after I've spent more time on my current distraction with the Birchbark canoe model.

UPDATE - November 1, 2008: The paddle is now complete - Read Part 2.

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