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Paddles: Tell me about ottertail shape and butternut wood

Glenn MacGrady

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I have lots of canoes and paddles, but not an ottertail paddle and nothing made of butternut wood.

I don't like heavy paddles or blade heavy paddles, which is mainly why I don't like my beavertails. Back in 2009, I tried out the very narrow paddle that Yellowcanoe used for demonstrating solo Canadian style paddling a tandem, and didn't like it's weight, balance or propulsion. But it wasn't an ottertail -- more like a quill.

I'm now thinking of buying an expensive ottertail made of butternut that weighs only 19 ounces. However, it's from far away and I can't test it. So, I'd appreciate hearing any experiences with ottertail paddles and/or butternut wood.

First, let's be clear on paddle shape terminology. This isn't the paddle I'm considering, but on the left is an ottertail shape and on the right is a beavertail.

Ottertail vs Beavertail Paddle.jpg

For those of you who have ottertails -- and I know this is a repetitive question -- why do you like or dislike them? As to likes, I'd appreciate something more specific than that an ottertail is a good deep water lake paddle. I've been paddling deep lakes successfully with a variety of paddles for 68 years, so I'm looking for more performance, control or handling details.

For those of you who are familiar with butternut wood, what is your opinion of it for a paddle? I'm assuming it's on the soft, weak and breakable end of the spectrum, but I'm after light weight and would be very careful with the paddle.
 
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I like my ottertail paddles because with the longish shape, depending on how I leverage it, force can be applied variously along the blade for different effects and maneuverability. This comes into play with obvious strokes such as the Indian, Canadian, and the C, but also with bow rudder, posts and others. I also have a much narrower version made by Caleb Davis, called a "willow leaf" shaped blade.

Mine are all cherry wood. lightweight, but I suspect lighter weight butternut would be a bit more fragile.
 

Glenn MacGrady

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Yknpdlr, I know you like ottertails for recreation and also know you have much experience with carbon racing blades. My primary straight shaft for many years has been a 57" ZRE power surge with their traditional racing blade squashed teardrop shape. Is it your experience that an ottertail shape can give you more of the straight shaft control sophistication you describe, when paddling single-sided correction stroke, than the racing blade shape?
 
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I use butternut in most of my paddles. Lightweight and nice colour.

Otter Tail has been my preferred deep water paddle for a few years now. I like how it glides thru the water. The beaver tail is nice too, found that one pushed more water if you are looking for speed rather than endurance.
 

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Glenn MacGrady

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I use butternut in most of my paddles. Lightweight and nice colour.

Otter Tail has been my preferred deep water paddle for a few years now. I like how it glides thru the water. The beaver tail is nice too, found that one pushed more water if you are looking for speed rather than endurance.

Wow, Jamie, those are lovely paddles. I'm impressed.

Is that a one piece butternut on the left, or have you made one? If so, how would you characterize the shaft and blade flex and the breakage potential of an all butternut paddle? A knowledgeable source told me that to prevent breakage, a one piece butternut has to be made thicker than other woods and hence won't flex much if at all. That it will stay rather stiff until enough force will just surprisingly snap it. Do you agree with that?
 
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I guess I have a new winter project. We had a Butternut log sawn a year ago. It has clear 5/4 boards up to 22" wide and 12' long.P1270308 copy.JPG
 
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Yknpdlr, I know you like ottertails for recreation and also know you have much experience with carbon racing blades. My primary straight shaft for many years has been a 57" ZRE power surge with their traditional racing blade squashed teardrop shape. Is it your experience that an ottertail shape can give you more of the straight shaft control sophistication you describe, when paddling single-sided correction stroke, than the racing blade shape?
Absolutely. I do not have any straight short blade carbon paddles. My carbon bent racing paddles are for racing, or for moving under power when I need to put some quick miles behind me on a long lake or river stretch. My straight wood ottertails are for cruising and maneuvering pleasant recreational legs. I usually have both kinds of paddles in my Rapidfire or cedarstrip or larger C2 on any non-racing trip of any distance. While "some" common strokes are possible with a bent, it just seems awkward in performing a transition from a J to anything like a comfortable Canadian with a bent, and it is impossile to do a palm roll Indian stroke with one. My stright wood paddles all have a thin knife edge which efficiently slice through the water on edge.

Slow cruising finds me almost automatically slipping iinto the Indian, or to go a llittle faster, the Canadian. I just feel that the long blade and hand leverage application manuverability gives me more precise boat maneuverability control where I want it. I was taught to test my boat handling control skill by finding a recdtangular dock and to sideslip my canoe perpendicular to it while holding the bow a constant just 2 inches away, even while squaring the turns around the dock corners. it seems so much easier to do with a long blade ottertail compared to even a sttraight beavertail or other shape, as transition from one kind of control movement to another is automatic and seamless.
 
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I have settled on an ottertail design of my own as a second paddle for my solo lake/portage type trips. My primary paddle is a ZRE bent shaft. I switch between the two paddles just for the variety on a normal day but usually stick with the bent shaft because it's so darn light. My ottertail is all cedar, laminated, with 2oz glass on both sides of the blade and poly cord as a tip protector, so it's pretty light too. Where the ottertail really shines is when I'm fighting a tail wind or a quartering tail wind. The paddle has a slightly longer shaft than the ZRE, but the blade is a lot longer, allowing for easy correction and the ability to reach back and keep the boat from broaching when the canoe accelerates. Figuring this out has made my Kite a lot more friendly to paddle.

Mark.
 
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Aah Glenn the paddle you tried was for inwater recoveries. Cherry and a modified voyageur shape. That is : an ottertail overall but with the widest part high toward the shaft. Its designed for Canadian Style where the paddle never leaves the water. It is very heavy.. It is not balanced for strokes that are not inwater or fulcrumed off the knee.. So its not your style. It could be your shape with a longer shaft and a lighter wood. I did take one of Caleb Davis' paddle making classes and made an ottertail ( and I would disagree with your illustration.. the right is more of an ottertail than a beaver tail..grab your nearest rodent beaver and look at the tail). It was a thing of beauty and so light.. Until I snapped it on the second outing. Butternut is flexy and I broke the shaft. . If you want to try paddle making butternut is a learner's godsend but make the shaft a little thicker.
 
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Save your money, you probably won't like it. I've played with ottertails, built quite a few (easy to sell), I really don't know what the buzz is all about, besides the romantic appeal. Or wall hanging. I've still got a few hanging around, well actually in the corner of the garage, I use them as loaners.
 

Glenn MacGrady

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I would disagree with your illustration.. the right is more of an ottertail than a beaver tail..grab your nearest rodent beaver and look at the tail

We have had this shape discussion before, but the edit function frustratingly no longer works after about a day on this site and I can't replace the disappeared pictures in that thread.

Searching paddle maker sites does reveal that the name "otter tail" (or "ottertail") is confusingly given to a variety of different shapes. Some so-called otter tails look more like beaver tails and others look like what I would call symmetrical willow leaf shapes, some skinnier willows than others. Here's actual nature:

Beaver tail:

Beaver tail actual.jpg

Otter tail:

Otter tail real.jpg

Badger tail:

BadgerTail actual.jpg

Willow leaf:

Willow leaf.jpg


I'm sticking with the shape terminology I pictured above in post #1, my OP. Whatever an otter tail is, nature says it must be wider at the top than at the tip. It can't be symmetrically shaped from top to tip, nor can it be rectangular. I can't make a paddle, but I can tell when a paddle maker is using arbitrary or confusing names.

This shape business is crucially important to paddle performance because, among many other hydrodynamic things, it determines where the center of pressure is on the paddle blade and how far under the water the center of pressure will be when the blade is fully immersed. I will leave it for a later physics discussion as to the arc-radial leverage differences between having a deep or shallow blade center of pressure.

Now that I've buttered that nut, I'm still seeking further experiences with anyone who has worked with butternut wood. The wood question is probably more of mystery to me than the shape question. I have laminated paddles from Gillespie, Mitchell, Sawyer and the late Al Camp that have butternut, basswood, cedar and even foam components, but I don't know whether an all wood paddle with such a low Janka Hardness and Modulus of Rupture as butternut makes sense, much less expensive sense.
 
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I have no experience using a butternut ottertail paddle, but some experience using butternut for interior finish trim. Around here butternut is sometimes referred to as "poor man's black walnut". It is a joy to work with. Light, soft, stable, but not particularly strong. I'm curious as to whether the paddle you're considering is crafted from a single board or a laminated assembly. I think butternut's relatively low strength could be mitigated by a thoughtful layup paying attention to grain orientation in particular. A paddle from a single plank could also work, but would require exceptional wood to start with.
 

Glenn MacGrady

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I have no experience using a butternut ottertail paddle, but some experience using butternut for interior finish trim. Around here butternut is sometimes referred to as "poor man's black walnut". It is a joy to work with. Light, soft, stable, but not particularly strong. I'm curious as to whether the paddle you're considering is crafted from a single board or a laminated assembly. I think butternut's relatively low strength could be mitigated by a thoughtful layup paying attention to grain orientation in particular. A paddle from a single plank could also work, but would require exceptional wood to start with.

The paddle I was initially considering is carved from a single board of butternut. I've called that a "solid wood" or "one piece" paddle, which could be confusing, and perhaps I should use a term such as a "single board" paddle. Subsequently, I have found a maker of light-ish weight otter tail and beaver tail paddles, Redtail Paddle Co., who laminates butternut paddle blades onto a shaft of laminated basswood and walnut.
 
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Still playing with shapes and woods.
Butternut paddle on left in photo is 55” 508g or 18 oz., my wife paddled with it in the bow for 15 years, I borrowed it to solo with until last year when I broke it on a heavy solo stroke in a new canoe. Yet to see how effective the repair is – need to finish the new paddle to be ready if it does fail. Very light, attractive wood, would be inclined to use it in a narrower than wider blade design. Otter tail likely appropriate...
Basswood (57”, 629g right now) is in process, much easier to work than Butternut, seems similar in weight, strength to be determined, shoulders seem a little low to my eye but will try it out.
I made the Poplar laminate paddle (625g) for my son and has survived a fair bit of heavy paddling.
Cherry paddle – modified otter tail (?) 60” 763g has been my go to for 20+ years. Very happy with it, always go back to it, pulls more water than any of the others except perhaps the Butternut paddle, but I broke that one.
Basswood is more complete, fashioned a g-flex/WS 105 tip, too much g-flex, very light but too narrow for me in a deep boat, fine for my straight ahead solo.

Both Butternut and Basswood are very soft and quite light. The combination of stronger, harder woods in a laminate would make a good combination but the "full board" paddles are beautifully light...and a Butternut paddle can be beautiful in its own right. Basswood, looks better painted...
 

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