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My quest for the best custom made ottertail paddle in the world

Glenn MacGrady

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Being seduced in my dotage by certain possible hydrodynamic advantages of the ottertail blade shape for canoe cruising, but never having owned one amongst my dozens of paddles, I embarked on a quest in April to find the best custom paddle maker in North America.

With some candidates in mind, I learned that the first challenge was to actually get in touch with one of these small or one man shops. Or, if I could get in touch, to get any sort of firm commitment on a manufacture and ship date. Some of these folks had an annoying habit of being unavailable because they had the temerity to simply disappear . . . to . . . go . . . canoeing! How dare they!?

I finally settled on the fully hand-crafted paddles of the venerable Bruce Smith, who has been making custom paddles and wood-canvas canoes in the Fergus, Ontario, area since the 1970's, having been taught by the legendary Walter Walker, whose canoes can still fetch prices of over $20,000. Bruce's paddles feature his trademark version of a secondary grip, sometimes called a "running pry grip" in Canada or a "northwoods" or "guide" grip in Maine.

Bruce Smith Butternut Paddle4.jpg

I didn't want a heavy and especially a blade heavy animal tail "club", as some of my beavertails are, and had many emails and a phone call with Bruce about a lightweight wood choice with optimal shaft-blade balance. We settled on butternut, which is an increasingly rare wood in Canada because of a fungus killing live butternut trees en masse and powder puff beetles boring holes in the dead trees. But Bruce did have a nice butternut board for a 58" paddle with a pronounced plain sawn grain pattern, shown here next to a 57" blem butternut paddle:

Butternut board and paddle 1.jpg

Butternut board and paddle 3.jpg

Because Butternut has a fairly low Janka hardness and modulus of rupture -- i.e., is somewhat soft, breakable and subject to denting -- Bruce recommended laminating the shaft with a cousin wood, edge grain black walnut, to increase shaft strength and reduce denting, as used in the blem paddle shown above. I liked this idea for aesthetic reasons also, and further requested a matching black walnut inlay in the top grip.

Having settled all that over three months, Bruce of course went . . . canoeing.

However, he did make 21 custom paddles in August and just sent a picture of them all. Naturally, I already think mine is the most aesthetic. (Can you spot it?)

Bruce Smith paddles being oiled.jpg

Here is Bruce's description of what is going on with the paddle in the small bucket on the extreme right:

"If you look closely, you will see that I am soaking the tip of my black cherry modified Ottertail on the right. I am using about 80% boiled linseed oil mixed with 20% varsol or mineral spirits. The latter helps the oil penetrate better....deep into the cells. This routine about every 3 years for 4 or 5 days gives you a permanent water seal in the wood fibre at the tip. This keeps water out and prevents the wet/dry or expansion/contraction cycle that often leads to cracks at the tip. An old timer taught me this when I worked at the Ontario Camp Leadership in 1972.......been using this trick ever since."

"I have 4 soaker coats on today with about 50% varsol, 2 more tomorrow and one a day until Sunday. The walnut and butternut ones along with the maple ones will be given 4 coats of spar varnish."

So, I am now awaiting some sort of shipment and figuring out how to pay for it, but naturally Bruce also reports: "I will be leaving for Temagami next Tuesday evening so I would like to get them out on Monday or Tuesday at the latest." Oy vey!

When I finally get my long-awaited paddle, hopefully for some fall paddling, I'll take some close-up photos and report on the actual hydrodynamics.

You can watch video bio of Bruce Smith and his paddle making shop on this page:

 
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Nice looking paddles. Also appreciate the tip regarding soaking the tips, makes sense.

I run into butternut in the woods occasionally. Most of them a scarred by butternut canker. In some areas the canker jumps species into black walnut.

Could you explain the purpose of the running pry grip?
 

Glenn MacGrady

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Could you explain the purpose of the running pry grip?

Sure.

One of most effective and abrupt ways to turn a canoe to the off side is to use what's variously called a bow pry, bow jam or bow wedge. To do it, you jam the paddle against the gunwale or hull up near the bow with a slight inward pitch on the blade. You can do this with two hands on the paddle or, if really skilled, with one hand. Bruce Smith's secondary grip facilitates one-handed running and static pries.

Videos are easier to illustrate the techniques.

Here is Becky Mason demonstrating the two-handed bow pry:



Here she is demonstrating the one-handed running and static pries, holding onto the paddle's secondary grip:

 

Glenn MacGrady

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OK, I get it. Obedience training for your canoe.

Yes, but "Canadian style" paddling techniques with animal tail paddles long pre-dated the formalization of what is now called "freestyle" in the USA in the 1980's-1990's. Both terms refer to nothing more than basic and more advanced single-sided stroke techniques that were probably invented by native canoeists thousands of years ago.

An animal tail paddle like an ottertail allows the paddler to reach deeper, denser water than the more squashed tulip shapes of racing blades. I expect the ottertail to be slower than my carbon racing blades, Sugar Island and Lutra-type blades, but perhaps be better for certain turning and slicing maneuvers, as well as being easier on my shoulders due to the very narrow entry tip and overall narrow blade.

The secondary grip is also very useful simply for "shortening" the paddle, and also for executing the northwoods stroke, which I'll describe with videos in the near future in the Paddling Techniques forum.
 
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Good luck with your new paddle Glenn. I suspect you will use it a lot more for shortening the paddle and the northwoods stroke than for a one handed running bow pry. It's good to have different grip options if your hands get sore, and the more narrow blade shape will help with this too. I'm surprised that that style grip is even refered to as a running bow pry grip because it does so much more.
 
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A fine paddle is meant to be played like a fine guitar. Hands are never fixed. I like the variable grip with the pear end. The Northwoods stroke calls for draping the wrist over a flat surface on the shaft for comfort and the variable grip was designed for that. The grip also allows the good handle on the one handed running pry.. This is one stroke you don't want to lose control of your paddle on. Getting wet is a possibility ; more so for dedicated solos than tandems paddled Canadian Style ( your head can get pulled over the side more easily in a narrow solo)
The Ottertail is a fine paddle for precise maneuvers but in a solo boat doesn't have the width to provide enough torque to quickly turn that boat. Its more of a big boat paddle where the momentum for the turn comes from the mass of the canoe. Its fun to play with the slicing outer gimbal.

PS I like the category essential gear and garments! I am envisioning a wooden skirt made out of paddles... hmmm.
 
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Butternut paddles are great. I’ve been using one I made now for a couple years. Mind you I don’t get out in the canoe that often anymore.

a 1” board is generally to thin for paddles. By laminate extra on just the shaft like Bruce shows it make the thin board usable. I’m doing this now with a piece of Birdseye maple.

butternut is getting harder to find and more expensive by the day. When I do see some for sale I generally grab it.
 

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An animal tail paddle like an ottertail allows the paddler to reach deeper, denser water than the more squashed tulip shapes of racing blades. I expect the ottertail to be slower than my carbon racing blades, Sugar Island and Lutra-type blades, but perhaps be better for certain turning and slicing maneuvers, as well as being easier on my shoulders due to the very narrow entry tip and overall narrow blade.

The secondary grip is also very useful simply for "shortening" the paddle, and also for executing the northwoods stroke, which I'll describe with videos in the near future in the Paddling Techniques forum.

Glenn, this thread about your new custom ottertail has really gotten my interest. I had previously been contemplating acquiring a carbon, simply for the weight reduction. But your above comment about "being easier on my shoulders" has me reconsidering blade shape as well.
Was your choice of going with wood based on handle choice, or just general aesthetics and preference for wood over carbon?
 

Glenn MacGrady

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Butternut paddles are great. I’ve been using one I made now for a couple years. Mind you I don’t get out in the canoe that often anymore.

a 1” board is generally to thin for paddles. By laminate extra on just the shaft like Bruce shows it make the thin board usable.

Jamie, the butternut board pictured in my OP, which Bruce Smith used for my paddle, was a hair less than 2" thick according to Bruce.

butternut-board-and-paddle-1-jpg.127021


He said that he usually has to make the shaft of an all butternut paddle a little thicker than cherry, maple or ash paddles because butternut is weaker. However, the black walnut laminations in the shaft both increase the strength of the shaft and allow it to be normal thickness. Plus, I think it looks very custom and aesthetic. The 57" modified ottertail next to the board weighs a tad under 18 oz.

Glenn, this thread about your new custom ottertail has really gotten my interest. I had previously been contemplating acquiring a carbon, simply for the weight reduction. But your above comment about "being easier on my shoulders" has me reconsidering blade shape as well.
Was your choice of going with wood based on handle choice, or just general aesthetics and preference for wood over carbon?

Boatstall, I had been an all wood paddle guy until about 15 years ago when I bought my first ZRE bent carbon. The light weight hooked me immediately. A few years later I bought a ZRE carbon straight paddle also for weight reasons. So, for the last 10 years I have paddled almost exclusively with those two carbon blades.

But then I started to miss the aesthetics and feel of wood, and I have never had an ottertail. Nor have I ever had a paddle with the flat secondary grip, which I see being useful because I often paddle with my hand upper hand held horizontally on the grip. I have a couple of beavertails, but I don't like them because they are quite blade heavy and overall heavy, maybe 35 oz. So, because I value light weight, I decided to research whether there are lightweight, good-looking ottertail paddles, and Bruce Smith's secondary grip did stand out to me from other paddle makers.

The search ended with butternut as one of the lightest hardwoods used in paddles, and which can also have very attractive grain patterns. As I said above to Jamie, the pictured 57" modified ottertail weighs slightly less than 18 oz. I'm hoping my 58" regular ottertail comes in around 20 oz. with the slightly heavier walnut laminations.

In his current inventory, Bruce Smith not only has that 57" modified ottertail blem, which he said he will sell for $160 CAD (a great deal if the size fits), but also has had this 58.5" butternut regular ottertail in his inventory for over a year, which weighs 19 oz. and which he recently raised from $260 to $295 CAD:


His modified ottertail is slightly narrower at the tip than the regular ottertail, as explained on his website. And all his paddles are completely made with hand tools -- no automated CNC and copy lathe tools such as Badger, Redtail and others use.
 
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I had a Tremolo paddle made out of butternut and I liked it very much. It was just the right shaft size for my hand but as Bruce noted, the shaft is apt to break if too small. Mine did to my chagrin. I suspect Caleb Davis upped the shaft diameter on his later butternut paddles. As to ogling wood grain we found a wood store near home much to my husbands glee. He is out sanding a curly maple end table top now. If anyone is in Freeport let your wives shop the outlets while you go visit Days. https://www.dayshardwood.com/prices/
Glenn thanks for letting us know of another paddle craftsman.
 
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Bruce makes great paddles. I bought a Cherry Classic last year. Enjoy yours!
 
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Thanks Glenn for the insight on paddle choice criteria.
Leaning towards wood as of now. Got to thinking about how I can't stand synthetic stocks on guns, so the lightness of carbon may not override the need to feel comfortable in hand, especially in winter.

Would you mind after it arrives, posting the real weight of your new paddle from Bruce?

Decisions, decisions.
 
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I've had my Bruce Smith paddle for over 3 years, an Ottertail made of cherry with walnut. A great cruising paddle with flex and snap, I especially with my graphite Wenonah Voyager.
 

Glenn MacGrady

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I've had my Bruce Smith paddle for over 3 years, an Ottertail made of cherry with walnut. A great cruising paddle with flex and snap, I especially with my graphite Wenonah Voyager.

That's encouraging. I know the butternut won't have the flex of cherry. I dream of using my new ottertail in a wood-canvas canoe, but I don't own one anymore. So I further dream of buying a lightweight one.
 
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