​“I made a cutting board once” - The Making of a Canoe Paddle

​“I made a cutting board once” - The Making of a Canoe Paddle

Jim: “I’m thinking about buying a Werner Bandit because they are awesome”

Dylan: “You should just make a paddle out of wood.”

Jim: “I have kind of wanted to make a wooden paddle for a long time.”

Dylan: “I made a cutting board once. It wasn’t that hard.”

And so my project began...

First off, let me just say that I know very little about fine woodworking. I’d consider myself an arts and crafts woodworker with a short stint of shop wood classes and some fun learning with dad. In the 3-6 months it took me to produce a single paddle, I learned a few things that I thought I might share. Obviously I wasn’t in much rush over the winter. For anyone considering making their own wooden paddle, the following is a step-by-step guide that may help get you there. And, in case any of you were wondering, making a canoe paddle is not quite the same as making a cutting board, but it is quite possible with patience, persistence, and some youtube videos (even for those of us with little woodworking experience).

Tools & materials you should beg, borrow, or buy before beginning your project:

The Basics- pencil, rulers, tape measure, angle copying tool, foam brushes, paint brush, clamps

Protective stuff- like dirty clothes, mask (many types of wood dust are toxic), gloves, and glasses.

Wood- Ash, Cherry, Maple and Walnut are heavier and strong - good for the shaft and majority of blade and edges. Softer woods may add more flex and decrease some weight but are less abrasion resistant and should be used sparingly as thin laminate strips that can add an awesome look to the paddle too.

Saws- table saw, jig saw, chop saw is handy

Wood shavers- spokeshave, hand planer, chisels, files, rasp, lots of sandpaper of different grits

Glues of sorts- g-flex epoxy, fiberglass epoxy and 2oz fiberglass cloth, spar varnish

Fun- wood burner, blade edge protection of some sort

Steps to build your own whitewater canoe paddle:

The blocky basic shape:

  • Use the table saw to create lengths of wood for the full length of your paddle and for pieces that will make up the blade
  • Use the chop saw for easy length cutting
  • Cut and G-flex epoxy the paddle shaft into a long rectangular chunk of wood (many clamps) / wait
  • Cut and G-flex epoxy the chunks of wood for the blade (many clamps) / wait
  • Cut and G-flex epoxy chunks for the t-grip, clamp / wait (can be done at same time as the above step)

At this point you have what looks like a paddle made by a toddler, (think square shaft with rectangular wood on the end)

Shape out the blade and T-grip:

  • Draw a centerline the length of the shaft and down the blade and on all sides/edges (don’t lose this line)
  • Create a form (cardboard shape) to pencil in a blade shape on each side of the centerline
  • Cut the basic blade shape with the jigsaw
  • Draw out the t-grip and cut the basic shape with the jigsaw

Start to shave:

  • Draw two more lines on each side of the centerline the length of the paddle shaft and use the jigsaw to cut away the corners to an octagon looking shaft.
  • Use the spokeshave to slowly create a round shaft, play with multiple shaving tools when board
  • Leave the spine of the backface high and then make it look good later
  • Use the hand planer to slowly eat away the blade until it seems thin and fragile on the edges (¼”) and slightly thicker towards the center
  • Play with other tools like the spokeshave when you want variety
  • Use chisels for detail work along the spine of the backface
  • Work down that spine and round out that t-grip

It looks great and you’re making great progress. *Tip Most of the paddle weight is in the wood so I used a kitchen scale to weigh my raw paddle. A Bandit weighed in at 23oz so I wanted to get as close to that as I could before moving on.

Smooth it out:

  • Sand 60grit-100-150-180-220
  • Wood burn something cool, cause it’s fun and personalizes your paddle
  • Clean the dust

Let’s finish it off!

The epoxy:

  • Cut the fiberglass cloth to hang past the edge and just onto the throat of the shaft by about an inch, you’ll trim the side edges after it dries
  • Wet the blade with epoxy and place 2oz fiberglass cloth on top, add more epoxy on top and squeegee any excess off, don’t over work it, but it get it smooth without excess
  • Sand - epoxy - wait - sand - epoxy wait; these coats will make the fiberglass disappear
  • Trim the edges; Next side repeat
  • Decide what you want to use to protect the tip of the blade and epoxy it on
  • Epoxy the shaft without the fiberglass cloth to add protection

Final step, protect it all:

  • Spar Varnish- follow directions on can, 3 coats or so. (provides UV protection) *Tip I hung it by the t-grip from a ceiling hook with a short cord to varnish a full coat on all of the paddle at once

Wait 24 hours, go paddle! *Tip Many folks like to tape the throat for grip and protection from gunwale hits.

Lessons learned:

  1. The right wood matters. I went scrounging around in the barn looking for fun wood to experiment with. I broke two paddle shafts just in practicing shaving them down, one was a thick walking stick that used to look cool, and the other turned out to be be hemlock (easily shattered…). After this practice I got the right wood, two great pieces- one of Ash and another of mahogany (less common for paddles cause its weak but looks amazing). Thanks, Dave!
  2. The right tools matter. While practicing I also realized that I would need more clamps, many more clamps. I borrowed a few and bought a couple. I also don’t own many of my own tools so it was time for an investment. I picked up a drill, a belt sander, a jig saw, a hand planer, and a spokeshave. The spokeshave is a cool two handed wood shaver, originally used to make the wooden spokes of wheels. This tool does a great job on paddle shafts and the blade too. I was two paddles in and already learning.
  3. The right glue matters. I was practicing with wood glue, but through research discovered G-flex epoxy was a better product for this project. G-flex is stronger and allows the shaft to flex. An addendum to this lesson - use the epoxy liberally! I did not apply enough epoxy when first sticking the strips together and later while shaving the strips of the blade separated... ugh. I went back to epoxy and clamps and it fixed easily. It is also possible to clamp too tightly, which squeezes out too much epoxy, to loose and you’ll have gaps.
  4. There are a lot of choices when it comes to fiberglass, epoxy, and other sealants. There is a sizable difference between fiberglass resin in the hardware store and fiberglass epoxy, which is much stronger (use epoxy). Most hardeners dry pretty clear but you can also get special clear hardener if interested. In retrospect and after learning more, a two ounce fiberglass cloth would have been better suited for the blades because it’s lighter and bleeds through better than the six ounce stuff in the hardware store that I used on this first go. Spar urethane is different than spar varnish but I still don’t really know how... I used what I had, Spar Urethane. Choose Spar though because it has UV protection it is better in water and will be more durable over time than regular varnish.
  5. Hollow core paddle shafts are best left to Fritz Orr (multiple mistakes made), and if you really want to do an exceptional job find someone that can vacuum bag the fiberglass/epoxy blade.

So, for the money and time I probably would have actually saved money, had a more durable, lighter, and longer lasting paddle with the Werner Bandit at $165, but can you really put a price on how fun this winter project was. Plus I’ve been dewy-eyed over how it came out, and the next one will be virtually free to make now that I have supplies. Every canoeist needs a spare, right? Happy Paddling

-Jim