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My First Paddle

Jun 15, 2022
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Spartanburg, SC
I am happy today; I just made my first paddle!

Many years ago I had picked up a copy of “Canoe Paddles A Complete Guide to Making Your Own” by Graham Warren and David Gidmark with the intention of learning how to make a paddle. As it often happens, life got in the way and the book sat on the shelf gathering dust. I would open and read through it occasionally, but the spark of interest never caught fire.

After purchasing my first wood canoe, a Northland, earlier this year I decided that I would like to have a longer bladed lake paddle than is found in my current quiver. I started looking at paddle designs and decided that I would like to try an Ottertail paddle. Since this style is not common in the South-east, I thought of the book and figured that I would give a try at making one. I measured the shaft length on one of my favorite paddles and added the length of the blade design that I chose and got the total length; it would be just over 60” long.

I have a woodworking shop full of tools and wood, so I had a good start. I chose a nice 5/4 (1 ¼” for you non-woodworkers) Cherry board that was in my wood rack. Being that close to my finished shaft diameter, I decided not to plane it down. Fortunately the board was already pretty level and smooth. I used the patterns in the book to make some templates of 1/8” plywood scrap, drew my centerline on the board, traced the templates and bandsawed the rough shape. It started looking like a paddle instead of a piece of lumber. I laid out my side centerlines and side patterns, bandsaw out the neck below the grip, sharpened my Record #4 plane and my Stanly spokeshave and started removing wood. After getting the unwanted wood removed, I started sanding and soon had a paddle that felt nice in my hands and ready for finishing. I put on my first coat of tung oil, wiped it down after 15 minutes and the paddle will dry until tomorrow when I apply my next coat. I will probably give a half dozen coats of so and then use spar varnish on the blade for additional protection. The paddle currently weighs in at 21 ounces and took a little over six hours to make.

I can’t wait to give it a try!


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Six hours! And only 21 oz. for a six foot cherry paddle. First time. That's all very impressive and it looks great.
When finishing a paddle, I like to leave the handle with just the oil finish. After the initial coat, I like to wet sand subsequent coats with 320 (apply oil and then sand using the oil), then 400 on any other coats.
This will give a nice silky finish on the handle, that your hand will be able to move over with little friction, making it comfortable to use, with little worry of blisters. Varnish tends to give a higher friction surface and with the amount of sliding over the surface, your handle hand does, it can be a less than optimum finish (IMO) promoting blisters.
Varnish is fine for the blade and shaft, it is tough, bright, shiny and smooth, and there is little hand motion here, so the tougher finish in this area is actually preferable (again IMO).

David Mitchell told me 40 years ago that when he was racing many years earlier that paddlers used to scrub their paddle grips with river sand to get them smooth, and that the grips would eventually become sufficiently oiled from from the natural oils from your hands. Therefore, he preferred to attach unoiled t-grips on his paddles unless the customer requested varnish.
I think the unfinished grip idea assumes A LOT of use of the same paddle. I bought some old paddles used and the grips were in terrible shape. Everywhere else was varnished and in good shape after decades.

I also think the varnish-blister thing is only a thing for some people some times. I have varnished paddles from Bruce Smith, Fishell, Bending Branches and Mitchell and haven't gotten a blister from any. I refinished oil finish paddles with 'oil', actually an oil blend with additives, and they developed a much more frictional finish that felt like it would cause blisters, which I had to sand with 400 grit. Paddler, grip styles and habits, conditions while paddling (sweat? rain?) , miles paddled per day, and seasonal break-in/callouses, all come into play. But, the OP said SouthernKevlar was only varnishing the blade anyway, so it's probably all moot!
Looks great and lots of good info here.

Inspired by you, Patrick & so many others, I roughed out my first paddle tonight (thread coming soon). I'm about 1/2 expecting it to be a disaster but we'll see...
Thanks all!
I have not dipped the new paddle into water yet; it seems like I've got too many irons in the fire to get anything finished. I did get it oiled with eight applications of oil, but had to give it a heavy sanding after the third coat; I let it sit to long as I became absorbed in another task and the oil got tacky. I gave it a few days for the tung oil to totally dry, sanded it all down, reapplied the oil and wiped it off at the proper time on this go around. After more oiling, wiping and waiting it looks and feel good, so the next step will be seeing how it works with a canoe.
After getting one paddle done, I am already planning my next one.
Cherry is a great material. I have some solid cherry dressers and night stands made by a friend of mine. In shop class I built a cherry display case for a knife collection. We can get it here in Nevada from old orchard trees that get replaced in the Sacto Valley. Makes great fire wood.

My hand made paddles are laminated mahogany, white ash and walnut.
You did a great job for your first paddle, I don't see much room for improvement.

The paddle in the center is my first. It was supposed to be a prototype to get some carving practice before tackling a better quality board. I thought this white spruce board was too short and had too many knots for a working paddle. It so happened that it fit my wife perfectly and the knots were small enough that they didn't effect it's strength. She's been tripping with it for about 25 years.

The paddle on the right was yellow cedar and I think it was my third. The one on the left was a sugar island style that I found at a portage landing with a cracked blade. I was able to reshape it into an otter tail, It's one of my favorites.


The first batch of paddles I carved before I bought the book, or even had a good paddle to use as a copy. I didn't even have a good idea of what I wanted. I did buy the book, but when I carved my second set of paddles I was in Pa. and the book was in Ak, so I had to wing it again.What I discovered was that a paddle doesn't have to look perfect to be perfectly useable. I also discovered that I can't do as good of a job as someone that does it for a living. I'm OK with that and bought a few Badgers that I really like.
Thanks Al, it turned out way better than I had expected for my first paddle.

I am pretty happy with the way my Ottertail paddle handles in the lake. I finally got it out this weekend and I liked the control that the long thin blade gives. I may have made the shaft an inch or so to short, but I am going to uses it "as is" for a while to see if it is just my reaction to a new paddle or if it continues to feel short. If needed, I know how to make another.

A side benefit from hand-planing down the cherry is that the shavings make a wonderful fire-starter for my woodstove and that Record #4 plane sure removes wood fast!