Canoe Paddles:
A Complete Guide to Making Your Own

by Graham Warren, David Gidmark

By Joe White 
joe@nashvillebureau.com
 

A quick review of Canoe Paddles, A Complete Guide to Making Your Own, by Graham Warren and David Gidmark; 2001, Firefly Books, Buffalo. 160 pp.

Clumsy wood-butcher that I am, I learned long ago never to varnish or oil a woodworking project until you are absolutely finished. Varnish smells bad in the fireplace when you’re destroying the evidence.

But some things are easy enough even I can’t botch them too badly. Last winter I ran across a number of URLs about paddle-making, Jim Michalak’s article on making your own oars, and chapter 12 of Ted Moores’ excellent Canoecraft, and I set out to make some canoe paddles. 

With no band saw and no power planer, I treated myself to some new (cheap) hand tools – one of those medium-sized, flexible, Japanese-style pull saws, a really basic hand plane, a spokeshave. By accident I had plenty of clamps from other wood-gluing projects so laminating wood strips together was easy. I bought some new polyurethane glue with a great ape on the label. S’posed to be waterproof. Easier on tool edges than epoxy, anyway.

I made a rough replica of an old voyager-style, straight-sided paddle from cheap hardwood. Cut out a West Greenland-style double paddle from a decent piece of fir. Glued up a closet-pole, T-grip paddle with a square plywood blade paddle. None of them pretty, all of them weigh too much, but they’re first generation. I’ll get better.

Just when I thought I knew something about whittling paddles, along comes Graham Warren’s new book, Canoe Paddles, from the same (Canadian) government-subsidized Firefly Books that printed Canoecraft. 

Warren’s text is well-written and easy to understand. He breaks out the various parts of the paddle and makes the mechanical functions of different shapes understandable. I knew straight-sided, long narrow paddles were good for all-day, deep-water paddling and clumsy in the rapids. But who knew the voyager shape sheds water faster than a beavertail?

The information on different woods and how to paste them together is worth the price of the book. Cherry and ash, glued together with the grain the same way, is less likely to fail at the glue joint than if you turn one of the pieces 90 degrees. See table on page 62 for similar values for 10 different woods glued in different grain configurations. 

Warren’s approach is analytic, scientific, mathematical (Thrust is proportional to blade area times the squared stroke rate…hmmm). It has plans for nine good-looking paddles, including a bent-shaft paddle, which require you to work from boat-designer’s offsets. He gives you half a dozen ways to check and recheck your work and get it down to the nearest 32nd of an inch. 

About the time you think this is ’way too complicated, the author notes that there is a good deal of art in this and shows some simple ways to do the same quality control by eye. Mask off the center lines and edges of the finished paddle, spray paint the rest and plane off the painted part until it looks like a paddle. My kind of design work.

Then there’s the chapter by David Gidmark, a Native American who learned from Algonquin traditionalists how to split out a paddle blank with an ax and whittle it with a crooked knife. That’s the knife with the little curl at the tip end. Gidmark adds pictures on how to make your own crooked knife out of an old file. 

Even if you make positive use of the various Internet sites on paddle-making (and some are below) you’ll learn a lot from Warren’s book. If you’re a wood-butcher like me, just ignore the perfectionist part. Remember, 60-grit sandpaper will remove a lot of bobbles.

Warren, a Brit, maintains a webpage at http://homepages.tesco.net/~moosehead/ , that includes enough information to get started on your first paddle. I bought the book anyway.

See also:

http://www.wcha.org/paddles/   
Useful notes from a paddle-making seminar from Wooden Canoe Heritage Assn. 

http://www.canoe-kayak.org/pages/h21  
The “cheap and easy canoe paddles” with plywood blades from the excellent Minnesota Canoe Assn site. 

http://seakayak.hypermart.net/Kayakdocs/Wood%20Paddle%20making.htm  
is how this one printed out – “Wood paddle making” by Marshwiggl@aol.com. A 1996 e-article on kayak paddle making.

http://www.seacanoe.org/grnpadle.htm 
is Gerry David’s posted article on building a Greenland paddle. Includes a link to Tom Lucas’ article about how to use the strange paddle.

http://www.instantboats.com/oarmaking.htm  
The usual high-quality exposition from Harold Payson.
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