A little over four years ago I decided to try my hand at making canoe paddles. It was a lot of fun, and surprising less difficult than I had anticipated, and I kept on making paddles until I had made one (or more) for each of my kids, and one for a friend, and few experiments... Probably 8 or so paddles by the time I stopped.
Recently, partly on a whim, I decided to make myself another paddle. I was in the midst of planning a backcountry canoe trip, which undoubtedly influenced me a fair bit. Over the course of four days, working part-time only, I set about designing, making, and documenting another paddle build.
You can build a paddle out of one solid piece of wood. I prefer to make my paddles by laminating strips of lumber together. This saves on wood and allows me to mix and match species together to make a thing of beauty. It does complicate the build significantly, but I really like the results.
Step 1: Option: Video Build
If you would prefer, you can watch a video of this project build. Otherwise, read on!
Step 2: Make a Pattern
For reference material, I used the book "Canoecraft" by Ted Moores. It's mostly about building a cedar strip canoe, but it does contain an excellent chapter on paddle building. As well I had watched various youtube videos and found other online articles.
I had built myself a beaver tail paddle most recently -- that refers to the shape of the paddle. As well, my very first practise paddle had been an otter tail paddle. This time I wanted to make another otter tail type paddle, but I wanted one with a larger blade (mostly just longer). I started with a thin sheet of plywood to make the pattern. On this I made a centerline, and then pulled out the old pattern that I had used for my ottertail-style paddles and traced that on the pattern.
I then worked more on my new pattern. I held up my old paddle (#1 in the photo) to see how much longer I could make the blade, and I decided that I would make my new ottertail blade about three inches taller. Then I used the old pattern (#2) to roughly mark out the top and bottom portions of the pattern. I also pulled out some large french curves that I have to finesse and adjust the top and bottom of the paddle into a pleasing curve (#2, #3), using a straight edge to connect the curves.
I then cut out the pattern on the bandsaw. I only cut out HALF of a pattern. This is flipped over during use so that you get a perfect mirror image of the blade pattern on your cutting blank.
Step 3: Glue Up a Blank
The length of your paddle is determined by your own physical size. The shape of the blade is determined by what you want to do with it. (Different shapes are suited for rivers, whitewater, flatwater, lakes, etc, and I am NOT an expert on any of that.) The one dimension in making a paddle that is fixed is the size of the shaft in cross section. That size is 1.25" (32mm). This is recommended in Canoecraft as well. It is recommended that you START with a paddle blank where the shaft is 1.25" square, and then during the build process you will machine that down to about a circle a bit over 1" in diameter (depending on your preferences).
Therefore, I find it best to rip all my rough stock down to 1.25" in thickness, though the widths can vary. In this way the entire paddle blank is the same thickness which makes the machining MUCH easier. Trust me -- some of my first paddles involved wood that was an inconsistent thickness and working with it was a headache.
For this paddle I chose to use a thin strip of teak right up the center of the shaft, all the way from tip to grip. I've never done that before, but there is no reason why it should not work. In my case this decision was kind of forced on me based on what stock I had on hand -- I did not have any suitable 1.25" thick lumber.
Surrounding the Teak are two pieces of Hard Maple, and together that makes up the shaft. Beside that is a lamination Teak, Padauk, Teak -- the dark red Padauk contrasts beautifully with the brown Teak. Then a wider piece of Maple, and finally a piece of Black Cherry. This same arrangement is mirrored on both sides of the shaft. I love putting together contrasting woods like this, as I think the results can be stunning.
I was NOT prepared for how stressful the glue up turned out to be.
I've never made a paddle where the shaft was also laminated. So on previous paddles I can focus on clamping the grip, and get it all situated correctly, and then turn my attention to working on the blade. But in this case, because the shaft is also laminated, I needed to get it ALL done at the same time, and quickly, and of course it needed a LOT of clamps to ensure that the entire paddle -- grip, shaft, and blade, was fully and snugly clamped along it's entire length. I could not have gaps anywhere.
Step 4: Cut Out the Blank
After the glue had dried, I took it out of the clamps, and scraped off some of the squeeze-out with a chisel. The next step is to strike a centerline down the exact middle of the paddle blank.
I then moved on to tracing the blade pattern onto the paddle blank. One tip that I picked up from a video that I found online from Nick Offerman (well known actor who is also a well known woodworker) is to drill a hole along the center line of your paddle pattern. This makes it much easier to line it up on the center of your paddle blank, by viewing the blank centerline through those holes.
I also have a pattern for the grip, but I don't have a photo of that step.
I then took the paddle blank to the bandsaw and cut out the shape of the paddle.
The next step is to strike a center line down the SIDE of the paddle blank. A flexible ruler or flexible strip of wood will make this a bit easier. On the blade I also strike a line 1/8" on either side of the center line. Those lines are the ones that we will work towards to give us a final blade thickness of about 1/4" (6mm) A flexible ruler or flexible strip of wood will make this a bit easier. On the blade I also strike a line 1/8" on either side of the center line. That line is the line that we will work towards to give us a final blade thickness of about 1/4" (6mm)
I next went back to the bandsaw and sliced off the waste pieces of each side of the blade. I stayed outside those two lines that I just marked 1/8" on either side of center. This takes off almost a full half inch of stock from either side of the blade, which makes later shaping much easier. Some people leave a raised spine on the center of their paddle blades, which would NOT work with this method. I've always made my blades to be more flat, and it works for me. I then moved to the smaller bandsaw and just knocked off some of the corners from the shaft, and notched out a bit of the hand grip below the grip end of the paddle.
Step 5: Handwork and Shaping
You might want to watch the video for this step... A couple photos can't really convey it all.
The rest of my paddle shaping involves a lot of handwork. I primarily use the block plane from now on. I also use my small stationary belt sander a lot. Some people use spokeshaves for some of this shaping.
It's a good workout -- I actually started developing a blister on one of my fingers!
There is a lot of checking and re-checking. If I see a high spot, I scribble on it with a pencil and that helps guide the planing.
Because this is a laminated paddle, you can end up with wood grain that goes in opposing directions in adjancent laminations. This can lead to incidents of tearout. When I made a paddle using ash I found it very prone to tearout. This time I found that the maple and cherry planed very nicely. The teak and padauk strips are much narrower, so not as big an impact there. But a good sharp blade in your handplane is very helpful!
I have only included a few photos. But this is a fairly lengthy process. You can only plane one half of one side of the blade at a time. Then you need to reposition and reclamp the blade to plane the other half, and then the other side, and so on.
IMPORTANT: DO NOT plane or sand the edges of the paddle blade until the VERY LAST STEP of the paddle shaping process. You NEED to be able to see that center line often as you shape and plane the blade, to make sure that you are still straight, and to help you see how much thickness is left, and so on.
Step 6: Shaping the Shaft and Grip
After I was satisfied with the blade, I moved on to working on the shaft. Typically I would do this entirely with the block plane. It seems strange, since this is a flat blade in the block plane... However I just keep the plane moving, and I keep spinning the shaft as I work, and it quickly becomes round.
However, for this paddle I made use of a rather large round-over bit that I had recently acquired for my router. This gave a big headstart on rounding over the edges of the shaft. I probably didn't even need to use the bandsaw to turn it into an octagon two steps back.
Then I used the block plane to round the shaft, as describe previously. This step is surprisingly quick. It only takes me about 30-40 minutes to have a paddle shaft that is really quite circular. Trust your sense of touch. Slide your hands around and your fingers will tell you where there are ridges that need to be smoothed, or rough areas. Use your eye to site along the length to see where it needs more work to be more circular. It goes quickly.
I don't have a good photo/video of the next step. For shaping of the hand grip on the end of the paddle I stand up my stationary belt sander and use that to sand the inside curves. There is a lot of swinging of the paddle left and right so you need clearance around you! I also sand the top also. There is a lot of stopping and testing to see how it feels in my hand. This step is a tough one, because it is so subjective. After almost 10 paddles I think I'm finally starting to get acceptable results here. Practise is required!
Step 7: Sanding and Finishing
And then I finally pull out the random-orbit sander to go over the entier paddle, trying to make it smooth as silk -- especially around the grip and the lower part of the shaft, where my hands will be when I use the paddle.
NOW I finally will finesse the edges of the paddle blade, as I no longer need to see the center line.
For finishing I first drill a tiny hole in the top of the grip, and insert a small eyelet so that I can hang the paddle from the ceiling.
This allows me to finish all sides of the paddle at once. I use a spar urethane to finish my paddles. I wipe it on with a rag, as it really doesn't take much and it seems silly to get a brush wet for this and then have to clean out the brush and so on. After it dries I give it a light sanding and then repeat as many times as needed, usually four to seven light coats.
Step 8: Try It Out + Photo Gallery
Then it was time to try it out... Works great! I only took it on a short trial, but I'm looking forward to using it on my next backcountry canoe trip.
Thanks for reading!