When starting this project, I was surprised find relatively no Instructables on non-laminated canoe paddles, so I decided to make my own. That being said... I am no expert so if you are looking for a master you won't find him here. But if you are looking for proof that anyone can do this with a little time and a few tools, look no further.
This Instructable will aim to help guide you in the process of making a paddle. I don't have it down to an exact science as it was a discovery and an experimental learning project for myself. Hopefully the pictures and video will help you visualize my explanations. Good luck!
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Step 1: What You'll Need
Obviously the most important thing is a board big enough to make your paddle from (preferably dry to prevent warping later). All of the boards I used were sassafras and roughly ~ 7.25' long, ~8" wide, and 2" thick. Sassafras was not generally used for canoe paddles by Native Americans because for the most part they grow in the Midwest and Southeastern portion of the United States. A lot less paddling goes on around those parts, real "canoe country" is farther north in the Great Lakes area, Canada, and the Pacific Northwest. But many claim that sassafras has some of the best properties for single piece wooden paddles. It's lighter than ash (commonly used for canoe paddles), has nearly the same amount of flex, and contains natural oils that are rot resistant. Some other types of wood that can be used (from what I've heard) are ash, hard maple, and white birch.
All you technically need is a knife or a sharp rock. People have carved paddles that way for thousands of years and still do (many take the hand-carving approach). But if you don't want to take a lifetime completing this project and are fond of your power tools (and can afford the luxury) here are a few things I found useful:
- Powered hand planer
- Random orbital sander
- Some other optional ones discussed later
This is not the definitive list of tools for making a paddle. This is a combination of what I already had and what I bought (any excuse for new tools!) to complete the project. Many combinations of these things and other tools I didn't have can be used. Basically use whatever you can get your hands on that will make the job easier.
3. Other Materials
- Wood Stain
- Wood Finish
And of course standard safety gear: breathing mask/respirator, eye protection, earplugs, gloves (useful at times), etc. Or if you laugh in the face of danger and don't value your lungs, eyesight, hearing, or long-term health, feel free to skip this step.
Step 2: Prepare Your Board
Thoroughly inspect your boards for hairline cracks, knots, severe warping or anything that might cause serious problems later on or compromise the strength of your paddle. Most of the boards I used had nearly invisible cracks on the ends that extended inward some up to 6 or 8" (which I cut off with a circular saw). Even the most minuscule defects could have a devastating effect. If there isn't enough unblemished wood in the board to get one good paddle from you don't want to waste your time. Also check for insects. I found a pencil sized hole on the end of one board where I found a family of eight carpenter bees in a small tunnel.
My first step was to thin the boards to a more reasonable thickness. I had seven boards all approximately 2" thick. Most shafts on canoe paddles are approximately 1.25" thick so its good to have boards that are at least that. Slightly thicker is better (between 1.25" and 1.5") so it gives you some room for error, shaping and sanding. I used a planer to thin them down but not everyone has one of these. Thinning a board can also be achieved by using a router and cutting away the entire surface of each side by a fraction of an inch and then using a hand planer to get rid of the roughest spots. I used this method on two of my boards which I found to be painstakingly slow and meticulous but it can be done. Obviously better results are achieved with a bench-top planer which requires little effort but is quite expensive. Or if you buy-your-boards/have-them-cut to the correct size beforehand you can avoid this issue all together.
Step 3: Draw Your Outline
I started all of my outlines from a paddle that I already had lying around. Ideally one could draw a line down the center of a board (chalk lines are nice), draw the pattern on one side, cut it out and use the negative removed section to draw the other side. Similar to those symmetrical paper hearts or snowflakes you probably cut out in elementary school. I would have used this method except I had to avoid defects on most of my boards. So I placed the purchased paddle on the board, visually avoided all the wood defects I could, and did a bit of tracing and freehand sketching.
There are many styles and blade shapes of canoe paddles out there. One can easily find images online and even patterns available. I just kind of eyeballed mine and sketched them out with a pencil or permanent marker (which was easier to see while cutting in the next step).
The width and length are really up to you and what is most comfortable for you. A good rule of thumb for the length of the paddle is to place both hands on top of the grip and your chin should rest right on top. For the width I mostly just tried to make mine as wide as my board allowed so most were around 7" or 8".
Step 4: Cut Out Your Blank
To cut out the rough shape or blank of the paddle I used a jigsaw. Make sure you get a relatively sturdy yet flexible blade that can handle cutting the curves (I bent one blade out of shape). Sassafras is pretty hard so the cutting was a bit slow but overall it worked quite well. A jigsaw is relatively inexpensive, gives good control and smooth cuts. If you have a big band saw or access to one, that would have been far easier and quicker. On to shaping!
Step 5: Shaping the Shaft
To sculpt shaft of the paddle I used a handheld power planer to shave the corners down to a round/oval cross section. I started with one pass directly on the corner and then slightly rotated the paddle for another pass till the corners were rounded off. I kept repeating this process until I had the shape, thickness, and feel I wanted.
To remove some of the ridges from the planing process and to get the cross section of the shaft from a polygon to more of a smooth rounded shape I used a random orbital sander with a very rough 40 grit paper. I repeated the same process and ran the sander down the length of the shaft and rotated slightly before each pass and also went perpendicular to the length of the shaft.
Step 6: Shaping the Handle
To shape the end of the handle I used a stationary grinding wheel. Yeah I know probably not a true woodworking tool but it worked and it was the best thing I had. I simply ran the handle end back and forth over the top of wheel to get the concave dip in on each side. I applied a moderate amount of pressure, if you push too hard it causes burn marks (which will be sanded off later anyway). I also used the side of the wheel to round the edges and corners.
Step 7: Shaping the Blade
To begin shaping the blade of the paddle, measure and mark a line down the center of the width. Next mark two lines equidistant from the center line. This will be the final width of the blade and a guide while you are planing. I didn't want to make the blades too thin because I wasn't sure how well they'd hold up. I took the "better safe than sorry" approach. You can always thin them down and re-sand them later if you think the paddle is too thick. You can always take more material away but you can't put it back.
Next use a hand planer or power planer to get them as thin as you dare. Plane at a slight angle till you reach your marked thickness on the edges. I left a ridge in the center to give the blade a little added support. Looking from the end of the paddle the cross section would look kind of like a flattened diamond with the center being the thickest slanting down to the edges (the thinnest part).
Step 8: Sanding
I used a random orbital sander throughout the sanding process. There are a lot of sanding tools out there but I already had this, it is pretty versatile and it did the job. I started with a very rough 40 grit sandpaper to get out all ridges and cuts from planing, shed a little weight from the paddle and to hide any mistakes or imperfections I caused during the shaping process.
The better you are at shaping the less sanding you have to do. You can hide a lot of mistakes by sanding, there is more room for error.
I increased the grit to 60, 80, 120, and finally 220 and went over every surface of the paddle. I can't confirm that that much sanding was necessary but I preferred the paddles very smooth. Most stains and finishes recommend a 220 grit sand beforehand anyway.
Step 9: Finishing
I stained a few of the paddles just to give them all a slightly different look. I found it easiest to hang the paddles from a beam/rafter in the shop to do these steps. Just tie a thin string around the shaft just below the grip.
For a final layer of protection I used some spar urethane varnish. Originally spar varnish was used on ships which protected them from water damage, and could withstand constant flex and ultraviolet radiation from the sun. These are all qualities that make it an ideal finish for our paddles. Spar varnish can be made from several different oils and resins. I found tung oil with polyurethane recommended most often and many claim it is the most resistant and hardy combination. I followed the manufacturers instructions by coating the paddle, letting it dry, re-sanding at 220 grit, and then repeating the process. I gave each paddle three coats in the end. One and two coats were clearly not enough as they were not entirely smooth and didn't feel thick enough to the touch. I didn't feel like it would be that beneficial to do more than three so I stopped there and called it quits.
Step 10: Completion!
You did it! Now test it out, go on a day float or a canoe adventure with a paddle you fashioned from a single board! As for me, now all I need to do is build a canoe. Another project for another day.
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Here are some other good resources: