An excerpt from
Canoe Paddles
A Complete Guide to Making Your Own
by Graham Warren and David Gidmar


Although you can, to some extent, choose a wood to suit the intended use of the paddle, the major factor influencing the choice may well be availability. The following list gives properties of the more common woods and indicates particular applications where appropriate.

This information relates specifically to seasoned wood used for paddlemaking with contemporary tools. In Chapter 10, David Gidmark imparts extra advice about selecting woods for making paddles using an ax and crooked knife.

The properties of various woods can be blended in a laminated paddle so that you can make, for example, a tough but relatively light paddle by having something like basswood (light) for the inner laminations and ash (tough) for the outer ones. Strength and lightness are opposing characteristics, and some kind of compromise has to be reached, depending on the type of canoeing that you plan to do. A tough, hard and therefore weighty wood is a sensible choice for maneuvering a heavily laden canoe out on a trip or for whitewater canoeing, whereas a light paddle can be a joy to use for a short skim. on the lake in a light boat. A softwood shaft is more prone to damage by chafing against the gunwale than is a hardwood one.

Weight: heavy; 43 lb./cu.ft.
Abrasion resistance: high

Ash is perhaps the best all-round wood for paddlemaking and is the wood of choice for rugged tripping paddles. To work with it, you will need sharp tools but even so, the grain tends to pull easily if you plane it in the wrong direction. This makes carving laminated ash paddles—where the grain might run in several different irections—quite a frustrating experience for the beginner.

Several species of ash are harvested commercially, but their properties are quite similar. The wood can have a very attractive figure (pattern of growth rings) but has an open grain that makes it difficult to get an ultra-smooth finish. You will be able to find pieces of ash in a number of shades, ranging from almost white to a chocolaty brown. Combining these shades by laminating can result in subtly beautiful paddles. Another consequence of the open grain is that in laminated paddles, glue gets squeezed into the texture of the wood, mating the glue lines look ragged (although this is a problem only with dark glues).

Probably the strongest wood available is "sports-grade" ash (used for hockey sticks), which comes from rapidly growing trees—6 to 10 rings per inch—harvested before they are 80 years old.

Take care when sanding ash, because the dust is carcinogenic.

Weight: light; 26 lb./cu.ft.
Abrasion resistance: low

Basswood has some very good and some very bad characteristics. It is a truly easy wood to carve and, hence, a favorite for decoy carvers. It is also quite light, reasonably strong and inexpensive, at least in the United States. This is the good news. Basswood reveals the wayward side of its character, though, when it comes near water. It moves quite appreciably in response to changes in moisture content and consequently warps easily. As a result, basswood is perhaps best used stabilized by other woods in a laminated paddle. It is also porous and so sucks up water, especially from the exposed end grain at the tip of the paddle if the protective coating (varnish or oil) is damaged. Water creeps under varnish and will quickly lift off the finish. It follows that basswood must be kept well sealed.

Basswood makes light but high maintenance paddles.

Weight: heavy; 41 lb./cu.ft.
Abrasion resistance: high

Birch is a good wood for paddles, because it is strong and relatively easy to carve.

Weight: light; 22-25 lb./cu.ft.
Abrasion resistance: low

Properties vary markedly among the many different types of cedar. White cedar is better than western red, because it is not as brittle.

One-piece paddles that are to be used carefully in deep water can be made with cedar. Cedars are also a fine choice for feature strips in a blade, provided the tip is strongly splined crossways to reduce the risk of splitting. These woods are especially useful for paddles that are to be sheathed in fiberglass — you can then take full advantage of their good looks and light weight but not be at the mercy of their weakness.

Cedar dust is carcinogenic.

Weight: medium; 38 lb./cu.ft.
Abrasion resistance: medium

Cherry is an attractive, mid-toned wood. It is relatively easy to carve and very easy to sand. It is strong enough for one-piece "Sunday best" paddles that are going to be well looked after.

Douglas Fir
Weight: medium; 32 lb./cu.ft.
Abrasion resistance: medium

This wood is readily available in clear lengths. Pieces with a low number of growth rings (fewer than 10 lines per inch) have grain that pulls rather easily under the plane. Douglas fir has a reputation for splitting rather easily, and so it is probably best used as strips in laminated paddles, where it introduces an unusual tan color. It is best avoided in whitewater paddles unless they are to be fiberglassed.

Weight: medium/variable
Abrasion resistance: medium

The many species of mahogany are generally rather weak wood best used for dark feature strips.

Weight: heavy; 45 lb./cu.ft.
Abrasion resistance: high

Maple makes very good one-piece paddles and is also useful for exterior strips on laminated blades incorporating softer woods. It is quite easy to carve with sharp tools and sands to a smooth finish. If not kept well sealed against moisture, it has a slight tendency to split at the blade tip. A good choice for working paddles.

Weight: medium; 30 lb./cu.ft
Abrasion resistance: low

The general name "pine" covers several species of pine and fir, and their properties vary quite widely. Oregon and Columbian pine have been reported to splinter rather easily. The wood is readily workable because it is relatively soft and the grain cuts predictably, and so it is an excellent choice for the novice paddlemaker. Wood with a high resin content has the nasty habit of clogging sandpaper quickly.

Weight: light; 24-27 lb./cu.ft.
Abrasion resistance: low

Sitka spruce is by far the best of the several different types of spruce available. A spruce paddle is light and springy; the wood represents a good compromise between strength and lightness. It is a recommended wood for light-use paddles.

The density figures quoted here are average values. Within a species, the density can vary from tree to tree, depending on differences in genetic constitution and growth conditions; it can even vary between different parts of the same tree. Select the lighter ones, which are generally preferable, by lifting several pieces.

Bear in mind that you will be paying for the wood by total volume, not by the amount of usable material; so, unless you can use the lower-grade off-cuts for other projects, you may want to reject boards that contain good regions but an unacceptable amount of waste.

You are at a distinct advantage if you have the tools available to allow you to resaw your stock timber into usable pieces. Quite apart from saving the cost of having the supplier cut the wood for you, which can be considerable, resawing at home will give you time to think about the best way to divide up the pieces. This task is difficult to do amid the deafening confusion and seemingly life-threatening conditions in the sawmill, with the cost of the sawyer's time mounting all the while, but it is quite easy in the relative tranquility of your own workshop. As you gain experience, you will be able to utilize your wood more economically, using the "waste" between one-piece paddles for the shafts, blades or grips of laminated paddles, giving full consideration to the grain direction and position of imperfections such as small knots or kinks in the grain.

Another benefit of resawing is that by observing what happens when you cut into it, you get useful clues about the stresses that are locked within your plank. If the cut stays a uniform width and the piece simply falls in half, then you have yourself a good, relaxed board. If the cut is releasing pent-up stresses in the wood, the ends emerging from the blade may splay apart, arch up or down or bend inwards and trap the blade. Have a couple of slim wedges handy that you can insert into the cut if it does show signs of closing up. Stresses can build up in the structure of the wood if drying is uneven or if the original tree itself was twisted or grew on a slope. The stresses in kiln-dried wood are likely to be greater than in material that is air-dried, because in the latter, the fibers have more time to relax. To a large extent, the quality of kiln-dried wood depends on the drying regime used. Use air-dried timber if you have the choice. Wood that has bowed during resawing should be hung for at least a couple of weeks to let the twists come out fully, following which the timber can be trued up. Slightly bent strips can be used in laminated paddles directly by gluing up so that the bends in the individual pieces are opposing and thus cancel each other out.

It is easier to cut large pieces of wood with a hand-held circular saw than to maneuver the wood on a saw table. Note the small wedge used to push into the saw cit to prevent the wood from closing up on the blade. Watch out for end checks, as can be seen in this slab of Cherry.

You must also be aware that resawing is a dangerous activity. Take the time to learn a safe system of operation and never deviate from this, even if at times it seems overly determined. Having the system ingrained into your subconscious could be the only thing standing between you and disaster if you are distracted when sawing—a common cause of accidents. You must also take precautions against exposure to toxic wood dust by wearing a suitable mask and preferably using a dust extractor as well.

Large, heavy pieces of timber are quite difficult to resaw. Use a bandsaw, if possible. If you have to use a circular saw, it is usually better with very large pieces to use the saw hand-held, guided with a fence, if the starting piece happens to be straight, or by a batten securely clamped down. It is easier to move the saw than it is the wood. To reduce the risk of the blade jamming and causing the saw to kick back, you must use a saw fitted with a riving knife. Even when you take this precaution, however, there is a high risk when cutting thick pieces (3 inches or thicker) of hardwood if the cut releases stresses and the wood turns in and traps the blade. I know this from experience. Not only did I have an extremely ugly, out-of-control piece of machinery in my hands, but the episode also wrecked my $400 saw. If at all possible, have the basic cuts on thick stock done at the sawmill.

Adopt a routine when you bring new stock home. If it is newly cut wood, mark on the date so that you will know when it is fully seasoned. Look each board over closely on both sides, and mark boldly with a felt-tip pen the position of splits, knots and other imperfections. This will help you avoid using a piece of flawed timber inadvertently. Look the board over once again to double-check. Examine for wormholes, and treat these with wood preserver; you do not want to start an epidemic in your store of wood. It is good practice to go through all your stock periodically and check for new insect damage. Finally, store your timber correctly. The best way to do this is to stack it horizontally with thin battens between the individual pieces to allow air flow. Leaning pieces against a wall for prolonged periods may induce bending.

Certain pieces of wood are particularly suited for specific uses: a narrow piece with very straight grain may be especially good for the shafts of laminated paddles, and short lengths are good for blade laminations. I like to write this on the piece right away, before it goes on the stack.

You might like to keep a lockout for small pieces of unusual woods, such as yew or spalted material, which can be used to good effect for the grips of laminated paddles. Once word gets around that you collect wood, you may well be inundated with offers of small but usable pieces of timber at tree pruning time. Paint the ends to prevent rapid, water loss, and allow the wood to season slowly outside, under cover, rather than in a heated workshop. Rapid drying almost invariably causes cracking. The Woodworker's Bible provides excellent advice on seasoning wood.

Reclaimed wood is often a good source of material for paddles and can be of excellent quality if it belongs to an era when good wood was less scarce than it is today. But I am. always a bit on edge when using reclaimed wood because of the ever-present risk of hitting a well camouflaged nail, which could do possibly costly and certainly annoying damage to tools.

Always buy timber that is at least 6 inches longer — even longer is better—than the paddle that you want to make. This gives you a safety margin for discarding the ends of the board, which usually harbor drying-out cracks (end checks)

Canoe Paddles
A Complete Guide to Making Your Own
by Graham Warren and David Gidmark