The following is the process of building a West Greenland style Kayak Paddle, designed to your personal dimensions and based on an Inuit design that evolved over thousands of years. This is a paddle bred for speed, endurance and stealth.
Buying one of these can cost from $250 to $500, I made mine out of a $13.70 piece of cedar from a big box store. This is not a quick process, it's a lot of measuring and hand work. Although, after finishing my first one, I can't imagine paying someone to do it for me.
When I started doing some research I found that “wooden kayak paddle” is kind of broad, i.e. there are literally hundreds of variations, this is just one. These instructions are based off of Chuck Holst’s great work. Definitely recommend reading his pdf before you start to gain some better understanding of how this style of paddle evolved and how it was traditionally used.
First off, I’m no expert. I had the desire to build myself a Greenland style paddle and I documented the process to help me learn and thought I’d share. I also made a couple of mistakes and thought I'd share those too. There are some great sources of information and videos but I wanted to gather what I found into one step by step tutorial.
Since there are a lot of curves on very long and narrow board, that has a very uniform texture, it is hard to photograph so that you can see them. To help document this build, and to get a better understanding myself, I've included some images I created using Google Sketchup.
Step 1: Tools Used
- Hand Plane
- Yard long metal ruler
- Speed square
- Jig Saw
- Tung Oil
- Steel Wool
- Carving knife
Step 2: Select the Wood
Technically all you need is a 2”x4”x8’ piece of cedar that is knot free. Now good luck finding one, I swear all of them are cut from trees that they only got two pieces from. That being said, these instructions are based on the fact that I used a 2”x6”x8’. You can use whatever size you can find that has a 2x4 run that is knot free.
Step 3: Capture Your Dimensions for the Length
- The total length is arm span plus the distance from elbow to wrist or an arm span and a cubit (elbow to fingertip). You are supposed to be able to stand your paddle upright and with arm out stretched have your finger tips wrap over the top of the blade.
- I split the difference and measured from my elbow to the top of my palm, in the end this worked out for the “grabbing the top of the blade” thing.
- For me it’s 73” and 19” giving an overall length of 92”. Cut the total length to that.
Step 4: Figure Out Overall Width
- The width of the blade is based off of forming a C with your hand and measuring the distance. This is because some styles of paddling has you grabbing the end of the paddle. For me that is 3 1/2” which is why the 2”x4” works nicely.
- Since we need to do a lot of measuring based off of the width you can cut the piece down. However, I don’t have a table saw so I just drew a line on both sides of the board at 3 1/2”. This just means you have to do a little more math.
Step 5: Measure for Center Line
For me this is 46” since my overall length is 92”, measure and mark on all sides of the board. A lot of our measurements are based off of center.
Step 6: Measure and Mark Loom Height
- The loom is shoulder wide. An easy way to figure this out is to stand with your arms relaxed at your side with a yard long ruler in your hands, shoulder width is the outside of your hands. For me this is 23”.
- Cut this in half, measure from the center line and mark all four sides of the board.
Step 7: Measure and Mark Loom Width
- Alright, couldn’t exactly figure this one out so I made an “ok” sign with my hand and measured the diameter on the inside of it which came to 1 1/4”. This actually worked out in the end, loom feels nice, will have to wait and see when I get it in the water.
- Take half your blade width and subtract half of the loom width to mark one side. For me that would be 1 3/4” minus 5/8” giving me 1 1/8”.
- Since I’m using a 2”x6” add half the width of the blade to mark the other side. Take half your blade width and add half of the loom width to mark the other side. For me this is 1 3/4” plus 5/8” for 2 3/8”.
Step 8: Mark the Root of the Blade, I.e. the Shoulder
- Chuck says this is about 1” to 2” past the loom so, again, I split the difference at 1 1/2” and made a mark.
- The root of the blade is a quarter the width of the end of the blade. Since my blade width is 3 1/2” this made the root 7/8” for me. This is where I got a little confused by Chuck’s pdf, but the root is half as wide as the tip but we measure half that to mark off center; i.e. a quarter of the blade length.
- Take half the width of the blade and subtract the root. For me this is 1 3/4” minus 7/8” giving us 7/8”
- For the other side we take half the width of the blade and add the root. For me this is 1 3/4” plus 7/8” giving us 2 5/8”
- We then connect these to the lines we drew for the loom giving us our “shoulders”.
Step 9: Mark in From the End of the Blades the Width of the Blade
For me this is 3 1/2” We then connect these lines to the root of the blade (the shoulders) on both faces and both sides.
Step 10: Cut Out the Outside Shape of the Blade
- When cutting out the rough shape there are a couple of things to remember 1) Don’t try to cut right on the lines since a jigsaw isn’t the most precise piece of equipment out there 2) Life is much easier if you clamp everything down 3) It’s also much easier to go from the loom out to the end of the blades (I drilled some holes near the ends of the loom on all four corners).
- If you have a good band saw this step is probably a five minute job, but not all of us are that lucky.
- Once I cut out the rough shape I went back and did the final shaping with a hand plane and and a palm sander with 40 grit paper.
Step 11: Shave Down the Blade Taper
- The tip of the blade is 1/2” and since the board is 1 1/2” we measure down 1/2” and mark across the ends of the paddle. We then connect these lines with the blade root (shoulder).
- How you remove the material is up to you. You can use everything from a band saw to an electric planer to a block plane. I’m, apparently, masochistic and used a hand plane so it can be done that way also. I’ll be honest though, I got three faces down before I had to stop since I couldn’t hold onto any tools and finished it the next day.
- You want to make sure you take it down to the lines on both sides and that it’s flat. I worked until I got close and then used the plane laid on it’s side to check if I was level. I then used my speed square on the final passes.
Step 12: Mark and Cut Tips of Blades
- I saw everything from square ends to big radius curves, I just wanted to knock down the corners and simply used a Cool Whip lid as a template.
Step 13: Mark the Blade Edges
- This is from step four of Chuck’s pdf
- Alright, so everywhere I checked they kind of skipped this step and and the next, so I was doing all kinds of measurements and calculations (having a great time actually) but it wasn’t until I started writing up my notes that I realized there was an easier way. Basically, find the middle of the face and the edge of the blade and draw a light (since we have to sand it out later) line down the length of the blade. There, saved you an hour.
- It also wasn’t until I wrote this up that I realized I made a mistake with my paddle. After about five minutes straight swearing I decided to just fix my notes and make the change on paddle number two.
- The tips are 3/8” at the tips so we measure 3/16” off center and mark.
- It stays at 3/8” for two thirds of the blade. My blade is 33” so mark 3/16” off center 22” down the blade. This is where I made my mistake and just had a constant slope from the root down to the tip. Guess I just have to make another one and compare the two in the spring :)
- At the root of the blade it is 13/16” wide, I just fudged this a little and mark 3/8” off center and it stays at this width through the loom and until the other side of the paddle.
- Once you’re done marking you will then connect all of the marks.
Step 14: Mark the Blade Faces
- At the tip make a mark 5/8” out on either side of the center line.
- The blade then tapers down to a1/4” ridge at 1/2 the length of the blade. Since my blade is 33” long, I made a mark 1/8” off center 16 1/2” down the length of the blade.
- This ridge continues till ¾ of the way down the blade. For me this was 24 3/4” so mark 1/8” on either side of the center line.
- At the blade root it broadens out to 7/8” wide so mark 7/16” on either side of our center line.
- The loom itself is 1/2” wide so mark 1/4” off of our center line.
- Once you’re done marking you will then connect all of the marks.
Step 15: Cut Down the Paddle to Connect the Lines
- In Chuck’s pdf he mentions cutting the shape with a saw. Now considering all of the complex angles and how they change throughout the entire paddle, big props if you can do this.
- I used a small hand plane and some patience. It takes a little getting used to in order to plane it out, my first blade face took me 45 minutes, the last 15 and I can’t tell one from the other.
Step 16: Sand for a Couple of Hours
- Since you’ve worked so hard to connect the lines, you should have a good understanding of the shape we are looking for, we are just trying to smooth everything out.
- I mainly sanded by hand, but feel free to do whatever, guessing if you were willing to start this project you already know how to sand.
- Just a friendly reminder that if you sand everything down smooth and then get everything wet and sand it down again, finishing is much easier.
- This is also the part where you want to feel out the loom and if need be you can shave it down to fit better.
- Side note: If you look at the second image you will see the jig I used to keep the paddle from falling off of the end of the saw horse. I sanded everything down and then when I was cleaning up one of the tips the entire thing slipped off the end of the horse and out of my hand and I spent the next few hours swearing and sanding out all of the dents. It's just a 2x6 with some 4 inch screws on each corner. I then draped a towel over the entire thing, just looked like a rumpled towel when I took the pic so you get this one.
Step 17: Finishing Coating
- Kind of like the sanding, if you’ve made it this far you probably have an opinion on finishing.
- Personally I’ve always been a huge fan of Tung Oil, I just love the finish you can get with just a little patience. I brushed on a thicker coat and took off with 1 steel wool three times. I then put on a coat, with a rag, and took it down with 0. I then put on three more coats and increased how fine the steel wool was until I used 0000 on the last coat.
- Now, go paddle!