Sunday, November 29, 2009

Leather Paddle Whipping

Last year I ended up using some scrap leather to make a removable paddle sleeve to protect the shaft of the paddle from scraping against the harsh aluminum gunwales of my fiberglass canoe. This design has served its temporary purpose well and has been used on-and-off with many of the paddles in the growing collection. However, with the Attikamekw design being on of my preferred blades lately, I decided that a more permanent leather wrapping was in order.

The temporary paddle sleeve

One option was to use a single piece as before and tightly stitch it similar to oar leathers documented by David Churbuck's well-illustrated blog post using a Shaw & Tenny leather kit. However, with canoe paddles, it seems that whipping the paddle with some sort of cordage is the more common route. There's a brief article in CanoeRoots Magazine(Summer 2008) on page 13 that describes whipping the paddle, though the online pics are small. Charles Burchill's page has some pics of the final result although both sources seem to favour usings modern cordage that I find clashes with the feel and texture of a traditional one-piece paddle. By the way, doing an internet image search for "paddle whipping" leads you to all sorts of nasty pics of people with bruised buttocks...should've known that before blindly typing in keywords!

Back on topic. Instead of using whipping twine, some 1/2" wide saddle string was obtained from my neighbourhood leather supply shop. Along with tiny brass tacks, my goal is to make a permanently fastened leather wrap similar to some of the Turtle Paddle brand paddles I've seen. To ensure the bottom of the leather wrap was even with the shaft, a 4 inch length was snipped from the tip to the edge. Once soaked in water to thoroughly wet the leather, the thinned end was tacked onto the shaft just above the throat.

Trimmed end; Tacked into place

Then the soaked leather was very carefully wrapped by stretching with all my strength and carefully positioning it on the shaft. Believe it or not, it was really tiring work on the muscles. The stretching is necessary so the leather shrinks when it dries and forms a much tighter grip on the wood, otherwise it would likely loosen and unravel.

Stretch and wrap slowly

Nearing the end

Couldn't take pictures of the final tacking as I had to work fast and it was a bit tricky. Essentially, I stretched the end as much as it would go and gently pressed in the tack in my thumb to mark the spot. A clamp was put on the working end of the wrap to prevent it from unravelling and with the hands free, I pulled the end back to the marked spot and hammered in the tack. The wrap was left to dry in the sun for a while and then the it was treated with SnoSeal, a Beeswax based waterproofing agent, which not only works well but smells like the tastiest thing ever. I used it with leather hiking boots and snowshoe bindings with great results

The technique involves heating up the leather with a hair dryer and then applying liberal amounts of product with a brush. The pores of the leather open with heat and absorb much of the melted wax until a saturation point. At that stage, the excess is removed with rag and the leather buffed.

Heating up the leather

Applying the waterproofing beeswax formula

Despite chilly autumn temperatures, I was able to test out the wrap during a short jaunt on the lake. You can see the water beading off the leather and after a while of exaggerated prying off the gunwales, the leather is secure and hasn't shifted. Some experts might question the use of this paddle accessory, but it doesn't add much weight, protects the paddle sufficiently, and dampens the sound of paddling with strokes like the Canadian / Northwoods which requires the use of the gunwale as a leverage point.

Waterproofed leather holding up; View off the bow


Lee said...

Very nice man.
wondering if Birch bark could be used as well?Wonder how well it would hold up.

Murat said...

Never thought about using birch bark. I guess a thick enough piece of bark would work for ornamental purposes but I'd imagine it would likely delaminate into layers or crack with the constant abrasion on the gunnels if used excessively. I've got some extra bark from the canoe project so might give the idea a test run in the spring.

Dave said...

Neat idea. I have two questions if you don't mind. First of all, could you please elaborate on why the Attikamekw paddle is one of your favorites? Is it the shape, the size, or some other factor? Or a combination of these? Just wondering. I'm thinking of carving something similar before spring for myself.

Secondly, how do you like the feel of the leather. Personally I like having a couple of fingers on the top of the blade to feel what it's doing. I was wondering if that would put half my hand on the leather or not. When you paddle, does you hand hold onto the paddle below the leather? When I'm solo, I tend to grip much lower on the shaft. Then when paddling with a partner, I tend to have my hand about 4 or so inches up from the blade. I was just wondering, if I added a wrap to my paddle, would it be best to place it slightly higher on the shaft or not?

Murat said...

Hi Dave. I suppose I've begun to favour this blade design because it seemed to have many of the features to meet my my solo paddling needs. The narrow width of less than 5 inches means it doesn't tire me out with endless all day strokes like a wide-bladed, classic beavertail. The gradual taper at the throat means the paddle doesn't cavitate and lose power like the recurved design of "modern voyageur". With the widest point of the paddle at the bottom, the semi-circular tip is not so delicate yet provides sufficient power by maximizing surface area in deeper water compared to something like an ottertail with a tapering tip. Lastly, because of its long blade length, it is great for underwater recovery strokes and general solo paddling maneuvers. Of course this is just my own experience, I can't back up all these claims with paddling "science". The only real drawback I can think of is its very limited use in shallow water where another design may be more suited, but most of my paddling is done in deep lakewater anyway.

The leather feels really nice on the fingers, much better than say whipping the shaft with synthetic cord as I've seen on other paddles. Personally, I don't find touching the leather obtrusive as I don't tend to grasp the shaft tightly but maintain a relaxed lower hand grip and leverage off the gunwale for many strokes, very similar to Becky Mason's style of Classic Solo paddling. The reason for the wrapping was to protect the paddle, the gunwale finish, and to dampen the sound of using these leverage strokes. I think the only way to see if you contact the leather with your various paddling positions is to consider temporarily wrapping the shaft with some electrical tape or something and experimenting with the ideal placement. You could certainly use a much shorter piece of leather to leave space right above the blade if that's your preference. Hope that answers your questions.

Charles said...

I will have to admit the paddles that I only use with wooden gunwhales are not whipped - better connection/feel with style paddling.

Anonymous said...

I like your leather sleeve idea, but I am looking for something easier. Also something cushier, as I am developing callouses. Are you aware of any foam plastic sleeves for sale that can be slipped over the paddle handle?

Murat said...

Hi sorry for the delay in getting back to you. Just got internet back again after moving into a new place. Don't know of any specific product for paddles, but you might consider getting some of those foam insulation tube used for hot water copper piping. Home depot and the like sells them. They have a slit which can slip over the shaft of the paddle...not sure how comfortable soggy foam will be, but that's all I can think of.

The other idea is something like grip tape wrap used for axe handles and stuff. Should be easy enough to secure onto a paddle...not sure about its durability in watery situations.

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