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laminated bent shaft wood canoe paddle building FAQs

Everybody has'em as the saying goes. Funny how doing something for the first time tends to bring out basic issues that prove surprisingly hard to answer. Below are some of the questions that have been asked and then figured over the years in the world of hand-powered wood working and canoe paddle building. In the DIY world, quite often there are no definitive answers. There are opinions and preferences, most often based on experience. You need to make your peace with that and instead of relying on someone else's answer, you do your own research, decide on what you think is right and go about gathering your own experience.

Q:  Why wood?

A: For me, I like the feel of wood in my hands. I like the warmth, the colors, and how they look, especially under epoxy, although varnish REALLY enhances wood color as well. quietwater paddles aim to be both art and fully functional. When I'm not using a paddle, it hangs on the wall and looks good. I like having functional art that means something and reminds the eye of past experiences. I feel good knowing that I built it.

I also like the fact that a wood shaft can be shaped to fit your hand/palm/grip. When you grip(*) something like a paddle shaft your lower hand makes more of an egg shape than a circle shape. Yet mass-built paddle shafts are exactly that - a circular shape. That is because it is easy to engineer a round shaft. NOT because a round shaft fits your hand. Your grip tends to be oblong or elliptical. Not round. Using hand tools, your hands and your eyes, you can make the shaft into more of an oblong profile that matches your grip more closely than a standard store bought paddle.

And so we get to carbon fiber and other high tech materials. Strong. Durable. Light. All true. For me, when I am out paddling I am in nature enjoying the space, most often on a hand built boat of one form or another. A stringy piece of bizarre chemical in my hands does not fit that picture as well as a wood paddle does.

Paddling anything is good, especially if the alternative is eating Cap'n Crunch watching Dr. Phil. So get out and paddle. When so doing I just happen to prefer wood over carbon fiber.

(*) I consider my ‘grip’ to be more of a three fingered hook. A grip, to me, implies a hand position that goes all the way around the shaft of the paddle. Most people SHOULD NOT do that. If you do, you will find out soon enough that a grip like this places a good amount of stress on your wrist. While some may have no problem, most paddlers will soon feel the stress a grip adds to the wrist. I like how simply ‘hooking’ my first three fingers over the top of the shaft feels on my wrist. Much more relaxing. Pinky finger is not really part of this position, which in my experience lets your wrist stay in its intended position. My .02. Your mileage may vary.

Q:  Why a kit?

A: With a quietwater kit, you get the wood strips and the blade pieces precut and ready to use. You don't need to own, borrow, impose on a neighbor, or use a table saw or a band saw to first rip the pieces from a bigger (and very expensive btw) piece of lumber. You don't need to stand a three+ inch tall piece on edge against a rip fence to rip it and get the blade pieces cut down to size.
     You also get a form for laminating the shaft strips and introducing the bend into the shaft, all in one soop fwell, as they say in Duluth (MN, that is - not sure how they say it in Georgia). The form has been pre-assembled and the parts all numbered for easy re-assembly. In addition to making it easy to laminate and bend the shaft strips, the form is easily portable. When it's time to eat, just pick it up off the kitchen counter and put it on the table in the living room (with one hand I might add).
     In addition, you don't have to buy the entire piece of lumber in order to get just a few pieces. You get enough wood for TWO paddles. You don't have to store the leftover wood or throw it away (gasp..but you wouldn't do that would you?). Likewise, you will not have to deal with 7/8 of a quart of left over epoxy in a large container with sticky leaks down the side.
     Did I mention not needing the space or all the big expensive tools to cut the wood?
     Finally, with a kit you get mixing cups, brushes, stir sticks, and wax paper that make 'the making' easier. All the utility stuff you need is in the kit, you don't have to go hunt for it, or borrow it from your neighbor.

Q:  What about the angle of the shaft to the blade?

Kind of a big question here, maybe more like three questions. Let me spill some virtual ink on these multiple parts. I would also point out that this is my opinion, based on my own experience. If you are a former competitive paddler with Olympic experience, you will likely feel strongly about one particular paddle setup. If you are a guide with experience in the BWCA your mileage may vary from someone who spent time training and racing as fast as possible in a straight line.
     A1:  First up is the issue of curve versus a join. quietwater paddles are made in a form with a ramp that imparts a bend to the shaft, one piece at a time. The only other style I've seen is laminating the shaft AND THEN cutting the shaft at an angle. The short piece of the cut shaft is then somehow rejoined with the long piece making an angle, a corner, NOT, in my opinion, a bend. Cutting and (re)joining is not really wrong. If that's how you want to make your paddle knock yourself out. Getting out on the water and enjoying your time is the bottom line here. Both styles work. I think there is a mechanical strength advantage to a bend with continuous pieces of wood going through the bend, but more than that, I like how it looks. A slice and dice will likely be strong enough as well, I think it comes down to stylistic preference. Some like bends and some like angles, as long as you are out paddling with it, I'm happy!
     A2:  Second is the angle of the bend/corner. I like 12 degrees. Will you even notice the difference between 11 and 13? Unlikely in real and pleasant usage. Maybe with some sensitive measuring equipment in a wave pool. Does it really matter? Unless you are a sponsored racer focussed on racing, I think you'll find the angle of the blade to the shaft UNimportant. In my paddling, I find technique to be of primary importance, e.g. keeping the shaft vertical during the stroke, keeping the stroke out in front of me, NEVER behind me , and always trying to use big back/core muscles and NOT little arm muscles. I do find the exercise of imagining the paddle to be stuck in cement out in front of me and pulling the board UP to the stuck paddle RATHER than pulling the paddle back to me - to be quite helpful.
     A3:  I feel the bend does one thing that makes it worthwhile - it encourages you to get the paddle and your power out in front of you. In theory then and related to the power part of the stroke being out in front of you, your stroke should end pretty much at your hip pocket. Force should not be applied to the paddle once the blade is past vertical and/or behind you.
     Finally, the ramp that comes with the quietwater form is cut with a 12 degree angle to it. However, if you feel strongly about this angle, we're happy to provide a ramp cut to your specific angle at no extra charge.

Q:  How much does a wood paddle weigh?

A: The kit builds a ‘Solid Citizen’ paddle. A standard Solid Citizen weighs about 16 ounces, give or take. Weight varies depending on wood type, paddle length, how much epoxy was used on the blade, and how much the handle was shaped.

In my experience, the biggest factor in weight is the weight of the paddler. Dropping ten pounds off the paddler will change performance outcomes more than virtually anything you do on the paddle. I have never finished a trip and gone home wishing I had a lighter paddle. Many times though, I have arrived at home and sworn off the late night bowls of Cap'n Crunch.

Paddlers are on a curve. At one end is the weight- and performance- conscious crowd. They strive to eliminate weight everywhere in order to minimize portaging effort. They cut their shoelaces in half and strip half the hydrogen ions off their water to save weight. That's what they're into. More power to'em. Others build their own boats and wear size 38s (maybe 40s) when they're not paddling.

Wood paddles are never going to be the lightest, but I find mine to be light enough. There's a whole vast flyover part of the USA that simply gets out and enjoys the water. No racing needed. You decide what you're into - shaving weight off equipment or getting something in your hand that you built yourself and feels good. You might also think about the impact of the chemicals used in making a plastic or carbon fiber paddle. We're all on a spectrum. No matter where you put yourself on that spectrum, just make sure you're putting yourself on the water on a regular basis!
     Finally, keep in mind that a store bought paddle is going to have a shaft that is black and round. Not much custom unless you count the sticker you throw on the blade. In building your own, you can select all sorts of different options to make your paddle the only one of its kind. A true custom. And yes, I can print on rice paper and make a sticker for the blade if you really want one.

Q:   I have no wood working experience. Can I do this?

A: Yes. Like so many other things in life, your first paddle building project might be a little rough around the edges. In which case, use that first paddle a few times, figure out what you want to change, and then go back and build the second paddle. The second paddle will be immensely better than the first and now you will have a spare paddle. I'm not claiming to be the world's expert, but I can demonstrate some basic paddle building concepts. I have confidence and experience with those basics. The intent behind this kit and the ‘basics’ is to give you a good starting point. Get through your first paddle. Then, once you have a little perspective, change things up and go your own way.
P.S. You can also build a few paddles with pine and Titebond III and THEN move 'up' to the expensive stuff - cedar and epoxy.

Q: Are wood paddles fragile?

A: If you try hard enough to break something you can do it. I have not yet broken a wooden SUP or canoe paddle. But - I don't surf (living in Wisconsin makes that a non-issue), I don't jam the tip in between rocks, I don't slam it in car doors, and my kids are old enough to know how to handle a paddle. Just like a fly rod. Nothing lasts forever though, and accidents do happen. That is part of the reason why the kits feature enough wood for two paddles.

Lots of 'eventful' things can happen in whitewater. Most of it is fun, but paddles can and do break. Please keep in mind that bent shaft paddles are not really intended for use in whitewater. It is more difficult to draw and pry (two CRITICAL maneuvers) with a bent shaft in whitewater. It is better to use a straight shaft paddle in whitewater, not because it is stronger, but because a straight shaft is a more versatile paddle for maneuvering your craft, whatever it may be, through whitewater. Also, a bent shaft paddle is pretty much one way, whereas a straight shaft paddle can generally be used either way and the handle can be held either way.

If a straight shaft is what you are after, no worries. This very same kit can be used to make a straight shaft paddle from the same components.

Q: Does the shape of the blade make a huge difference?

A: When I look at paddle blades I see teardrops more than anything else. However, the traditional world often thinks in terms of animal shapes, namely beavertail and ottertail. So my unofficial 'teardrop' in the 'official' world of paddling would be a 'beavertail'. This is the most common shape for 'normal' canoeing, used by paddlers in both bow and stern.
    Ottertail paddle blades are about ten inches longer and a couple inches narrower. They tend to be used most often by stern paddlers in more of a 'rudering' effort at steering a canoe. Solo canoers paddlers also tend to like this style of paddle and blade.

I do not have any ottertail blades amongst my personal paddles. I derive more than enought pleasure from the beavertail paddles that I have and use. Steering a canoe is not an issue with these paddles. However, we are in the pursuit of leisure. Recreation. Pleasure. So if paddling with an ottertail blade makes you feel good, by all means build one and use it. Just call with your order and make sure I have the dimension you want in your paddle blades.

Here I might point out that building pine paddles is a MUCH cheaper option if you are into experimenting with blade area and profile. Pine is much cheaper and far more abundant than western red cedar. Call me if you want to experiment. It's easy enough to add some pine pieces to your kit order, and the form is infinitely reusable.

Finally, my personal experience is that a ‘normal blade’ lessens the risk of shoulder injury by lessening the resistance per stroke and therefore lessening the strain on your shoulders in what, after all, is a highly repetitive motion. That normal blade lends itself well to a paddling cadence that is fairly quick. I think a fast cadence is better than a slow one, which is what you get as you try to work a larger blade through the water.

Perfecting your stroke is a lifetime endeavor. Comfortably reaching out in front of you and pulling the boat up to your paddle AND THEN stopping the motion when your lower hand reaches your pocket is the motion I keep in mind. All sorts of 'not good' things can happen if you continue the paddling motion once your low hand is behind you.

Q: What tools do you use?

A: First of all, I ALWAYS use the same metal ruler, silver with black printing. Good contrast, easy to see the numbers, and the tic marks. FAR better than a tape measure. I try never to mix and match using the ruler and a tape measure.

Beyond that, I use a mix of tools, both electric and hand-powered. Ripping shaft strips almost has to be done with a table saw and a sharp blade, while shaping the shaft is best done with hand tools. For shaping I use a Surform, spokeshave, block planes, rasp, and sand paper. I by far prefer the quiet of hand tools, but there's no getting away from the fast, smooth, and straight cuts a table saw can make.

The table saw and band saw are a big part of paddle building and kit manufacturing. With table saws - a sharp blade makes a huge difference! If you have not had your blade sharpened, or you use cheap blades, go get your blade sharpened or buy a new blade. A new (or sharp) blade feels like you just bought a new saw!

A good fence is an absolute as well. Dust collection is nice, although dust still gets all over. If the blade is dull the dust will really be dust, if the blade is sharp, it tends to make 'chips' rather than dust, the chips fall to the ground instead of floating in the air. Finally, it's my experience that ripping will make way more dust than chips regardless of blades sharpness.

I really like my Japanese pull saw. Kind of a funky handle and a thin flexible blade. It cuts on the 'pull' rather than the 'push', which is what American saws do. Use one a few times and you'll be hooked on it! Spokeshave and block plane come next. A scraper set is always out on the workbench. Bench dogs and a 'hold down' both make bracing and holding the wood fairly easy. Be sure and use the correct bit size when drilling the holes for the bench dog. I use sandpaper when nothing else will work. 100 grit for the occasional rough piece, down to 220 grit for sanding between coats of varnish.

Q: What if I do something wrong?

A: There is no right or wrong here. There are no rules requiring you to do this or that. There are some things that work better than others, but there is plenty of room for individual preference and pleasure. Your mileage may vary depending on tools, experience AND PATIENCE. One of the possibilities with material for two paddles is that you make the first paddle realizing that it is the first one. Making the first one will show many things that will lead to a much better second paddle. In our technology filled world, some pursuits like woodworking, are best learned by doing and by repetition. There really is not a shortcut, other than buying a ready made paddle.

Q:I cut the fiberglass too narrow! or, the fiberglass cloth in the kit is too narrow! How to fix this?

A: To start, I always cut the 4 oz. glass cloth in a rectangular shape, approximately 10 inches wide and 21 inches long. The paddle blade is most often a teardrop shape, which means there is alot of scrap cloth left after you get done trimming the cloth to closely fit the blade (DO THIS by the way!). If you are making an extra wide blade, you could take some of that scrap cloth and cut it to fit the narrow space along the edge where the main piece does not cover. Once the epoxy saturates the cloth you won't be able to see this seam and while it is not quite as strong as a single piece, it should still be plenty strong. The big piece covering the center of the blade is the workhorse here.....
The other note here is cautionary. The fiberglass being too narrow suggests a wider than usual blade. Wide blades add a considerable load to your arm joints. Your shoulder joint has lots of little muscles and equally small ligaments and tendons. High intensity repeated stress like a fast cadence with a big paddle blade can take its toll. Even well conditioned paddlers still tear ligaments. In my opinion, a faster cadence with less force per stroke, in other words using a smallish blade, is better for your shoulders than a slow cadence with the high load per stroke that a big blade inspires. But it is a free world - enjoy what you do!

Q: I've done some woodworking before. Can I modify the kit I order, if I already have pieces I want to use?

A: Yes, I am happy to modify a kit. Most often this means someone likes glue or they have leftover epoxy from a boatbuilding project. I have built a few Titebond III (not II, it's not quite up to snuff wrt being waterproof) glue paddles and they have held together so far. So I give Titebond III a cautious thumbs up. However, I don't sell it. It's easy enough to leave something out of a kit, just email or call and we can set it up. Always better to use what you have in lieu of ordering more. Unless of course you run out before you are done with your project. Make a good estimate!

Q: What is the difference between epoxy and resin?

A: In my simple mind, I consider resin to be part one and hardener to be part two of a two part epoxy. One might say that resin is the raw ingredient and epoxy is the term applied to the finished (and cured) end result. There is a more voluminous answer that I like over on Quora.

Q: What to do for the final finish?

A1: The 2nd edition of the book on paddlemaking (which I'm gonna finish soon - I swear!), covers this final finish in beaucoup detail.

A2: Broadly speaking, it comes down to oil or varnish. Personally, I'm a sucker for Captain Z's Spar varnish. I've just started doing oiled shafts, so I can't write much about them, except to note they are popular.

The knock on varnish seems to be that if your hands get wet, that a varnished surface and wet hands sets up a scene where wet hands stick (for lack of a better word) to the shaft and cause blisters and irritation. My hands are wet quite often when I paddle and I can't say I've noticed this. But - I switch hands all the time so it's not like I hold one position for very long. I paddle and stop quite a bit to smell the watery roses. So, I think my paddling style negates this issue, but your mileage may vary.

My point is that the mythical 'long hard day' of constant paddling might inspire this problem, much like running a marathon can cause a blister. But, other than three loonies canoeing in the Quetico with their heads down determined to cross the entire park in one day, no one I know paddles all that hard and non-stop. Here in flyover country, most of the lakes aren't big enough for an epic all day pain session paddling against the odds. I find paddling to be about getting out and enjoying the water, which is kind of the antithesis of the frenetic, heads down, go-hard style that is needed to inspire blisters and skin friction on varnish. Remember - this is basically a leisurely pastime. Adding timed contests to paddling merely brings to your recreation what you have to deal with in your work life. Leave work parameters at work. Feel free to lolligag while out paddling!

In short, I've not had a problem with a varnished wood surface on my paddles. I like how it looks, I like the UV protection that it adds, and I like the minimal coloring that Captain Z's adds to the wood. The wood surface changes very little.

A3:  A varnished surface is non-trivial. It's not exactly rocket science either, but it takes some attention and care to achieve a smooth surface. A loaded brush with a tip that stays wet and heavy is a big help. I find pulling the brush in one direction (no back and forth) and stopping to 'reload' the brush so that varnish is always 'flowing' out of the brush and onto the wood surface to be about 80% of the drill. Move the brush somewhat slowly, so the varnish has time to 'ooze' out of the brush reservoir and onto the wood. It's a decent little learning curve that mostly requires patience (not that much though). As soon as you see a dry spot happen behind the brush, stop and load the brush again, and resume at the dry spot.

I use one inch wide chip brushes for the varnishing. The same brushes I use for moving the epoxy around on the fiberglass. I know it's a sin on the environment, but these chip brushes are cheap enough that I throw them away after one coat. No cleaning and no reuse. Let them harden and then throw away. I would put forth an argument that avoiding the use of solvents (and its disposal) and the use of water to clean a cheap brush offsets the impact of throwing them away.

‘Bounced’ light makes it easy to see the dry spots on the wood surface, so be sure and have a couple lights that you can put at an angle to your wood surface. You will soon see how this makes solid clear varnish pop versus a dry spot.

What to do with varnish over epoxy is a frequent question. The answer is put the varnish right over the epoxy just like it's bare wood. In fact, this is a great symbiotic relationship here. The epoxy provides a good substrate for the varnish, while the varnish gives the epoxy some much needed UV protection.

One coat is never enough. The first coat is ALWAYS going to be rough. Also, forced air heating, or heated shop air full of dust will definitely drop minute particles onto the varnished surface. I use 180 and 220 grit on this first coat to 'knock' the rough stuff down. The goal is 'knocking down' not complete removal of what you just did. This is another instance where a refined patient behavior will go much further than the frequent heavy handed impatient approach that many people (myself included) exhibit. Being a reformed knuckle dragger, I will confess that this 'slow down and enjoy' the process is a hard learned lesson, that I still often fail to heed. The point of sanding is not to remove the varnish you just applied. The point of sanding is to remove JUST enough - and no more- of the varnished surface to make it smooth!

There's a certain 'Zen' to woodworking. This is a leisure pursuit just like paddling. It's when you rush and/or your attention span is frazzled that mistakes happen! A view to enjoying what you are doing, rather than rushing through it is critical. You will experience this urge to hurry up and finish sooner rather than later...grasshopper. And then you'll know what you need to do. I think this is in large part how coffee breaks and happy hours were invented. People realized they needed to slow down and reset their attention span before they messed something up...end rant back to topic...

The second coat flows on much easier. After the first coat I only use 220. For me, three coats is typical. You'll find (at least I do STILL) that holding the paddle in such a way that you can apply varnish to all surface is a big challenge, closely followed by applying enough varnish for that 'wet' look but not so much varnish that it drips and runs. Much of woodworking is experiential. You don't know what to do until you have experienced, e.g. 'the run' for the first time and then you know what to do the second time around, which is a big reason that each kit contains enough wood for TWO paddles!

Remember - 80% of paddle building happens in just a few hours. That final 20%, like so many other things in life, is what takes the time. I never say paddle building is hard. To me, what's hard is that woodworking in general requires patience and allowing for time in between steps or taking time to double check something. A typical American lifestyle is rush rush hurry hurry. Building something from wood with your hands often requires a slower approach and that can be a significant head space game for many people :)

ENJOY yourself! however you go about your paddle building project!