Friday, May 2, 2008

17th Century Kayak Paddle Replica - Part 1

My Arctic buddy Anne recently commissioned a paddle from me for a retiring school Principal who's taking up kayaking. While the tiring experience with my still-unfinished Aleut paddle had me swore off double blades for a while, I figured that trying out a new constuction technique would maybe make it worth getting back into the double blade stuff.

I found a great little page documenting traditional kayak and paddle designs built by Harvey Golden. His page on Replica Traditional Paddles has some wonderful photos. Inspired by his work, I decided to try a 17th Century West Greenland paddle (no.13 on his main pic). This was quite different than most Greenland paddles marketed today which are quite linear, narrow and simple to build. This one looked like two mini ottertail blades on an elongated shaft. In addition, Harvey's replica had plastic edging to mimic the whalebone edging used by many Inuit.

For this piece, I went with one of the lightest woods suitable for paddlemaking - Basswood, also known as American Lime (Tilia americana).

Now that I think of it, I could have easily obtained some authentic whale bone edging last summer as a huge Bowhead whale carcass (decomposing for at least 4-5 years according to our Arctic guides) had washed up on shore near our Basecamp on uninhabitated Somerset Island. My Flickr album shows some pics of the huge bones of this behemoth. The stinky mess was the source of our 30+ polar bear sightings during the week and wouldn't have been appropriate to take back as a souvenir. There were also some "beached" whale bones located some 20km inland and at 75m above sea level in a virtual arctic desert where the ocean once covered. Our guide mentioned a sample of the bones had been dated at 7000 years old and I'm not a believer in taking such dated and well preserved relics away from their site of origin (like some sort of whale grave robber).

Beached Bowhead Whale Bones
Beached bowhead carcass; 7000 year old whale bones at 75m above sea level

Instead of using whale bone, I thought laminating a thin strip of cherry edging around the blade would be both decorative and functional, as basswood is light but not very durable. This would mean that the cherry would likely need to be steam-bent and glued around the gentle curve of the blades - a process I've never tried but seemed achievable.

The Basswood blank; Strip of cherry for edging

I figured I could Macgyver a basic steaming setup using some stuff in storage. Specifically - the single burner electic stovetop obtained earlier, a large metal tea kettle with cylindrical spout, and some plastic tubing. I set it up on a wooden plank layed across an open drawer in the kitchen so that the steaming tube would point under the exhaust fan to suck up the excess steam. With this rig, I ended up steaming a single piece of cherry strip that had been pre-soaked overnight in the tub.

The steaming setup

While the strip was steaming, I prepared the table with some waxed paper. I laminated this inside because the rain had moved in and the balcony wasn't feasible. With all my clamps layed out, I realized that I'd need a square edge to clamp properly. Good thing I had kept the blade off-cuts from my bandsaw session at the Carpenter's Square. Using one such scrap piece, I could clamp at least one edge square. By the time I had layed the glue down the centermark, the cherry strip had been steaming for a little over 10 minutes. It was already quite soft and somewhat pliable, so it was immediatedly bent around the edge, clamped loosely with trigger clamps, and then secured tightly with stronger F-Clamps.

Glueing down the centre line; Clamping; Underside showing smooth bend

An inch of cherry strip was purposely left to protude past the blade end because I intend to laminate a cherry tip after the edges are done. Normally this polyurethane glue completely sets in 2 hours but I'll be leaving the clamps on for a full day to let the cherry properly dry out. Given my limited number of clamps, I'll only be able to do one edge a day. But if the others work as easily as this was, the carving process will be good to go very shortly

MAY 8/08 Update: Part 2 has been posted

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