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Making a Canoe Paddle

Can You Do It  | Choosing a Design | Ordering Plans | Step by Step | A Traditional Finish

 

INTRODUCTION

My hope is that this page will help prospective purchasers and builders select wisely when choosing a paddle that best suits their purposes, paddling style, and physiology.

The paddle shapes we offer are modern iterations of classic blades designed for those who prefer Canadian style paddling. Even though each blade and grip is designed for specific types of conditions or preferences there’s no need to be overly dogmatic about one or the other. A smart lad or lassie will end up with all three in their quiver eventually.

And whilst I don’t discuss asymmetric or bent shaft blades in particular, the lessons herein are broadly applicable and will be equally relevant for non-traditional paddles.

What follows are the things one might wish to consider when choosing a paddle. They are laid out in what I hope is a logical sequence.

  • Paddle Shape
  • Surface Area
  • Blade Thickness
  • Shaft Length
  • Grip Style
  • Balance and Symmetry
  • Center of Effort
  • Materials
  • Finish

So let’s have at it …

PADDLE SHAPE

Generally, a longer, narrower blade enters the water more quietly and offers the paddler a greater amount of control and finesse. Conversely, shorter, wider blades offer more power and are better suited to shallow water.

Beyond that, here are some things to think about.

  • A longer blade will maintain “bite” in a chop.
  • A narrower blade is quieter and will enter and exit the water with less turbulence.
  • A broad blade is more powerful and will be better suited for moving water.
  • A broad blade, surface area being equal, will be better suited for shallow water.
  • A blade with sloping “shoulders” will have a lower center of effort, surface area being equal.
  • A blade with sharper corners will have a quicker “catch”.
  • A blade with sharper corners will offer a tad more control and finesse.
  • But … a blade with sharper corners can also get in its own way and cause a paddler to “stumble”.

Generally, a “Guide” style paddle will be more powerful, a “Beavertail” will be more versatile, and an “Ottertail” will offer the greatest finesse.

BEAVERTAIL

A traditional all-rounder. Allows for a day long steady pace, and when built with a fine edge still allows for finesse strokes and subtle boat control. If a paddler were to insist on having just one paddle, this should be it.

Surface Area – 124 sq”
Blade – 28″ x 6.75″
Grip – 3.75″ x 5″

GUIDE

A powerful workhorse. Designed to move lots of water on demand. Suited for strong paddlers or those who find themselves in moving and /or shallow water, or who simply want to get from here to there, fast.

Surface Area – 132 sq”
Blade – 24″ x 8″
Grip – 4.5″ x 4.0″

OTTERTAIL

For precise control and a meditative pace. The ottertail enters the water quietly and is adaptable to a wide variety of strokes. It’s longer reach makes it a friend of solo paddlers.

Surface Area – 124 sq”
Blade – 30″ x 6.0″
Grip – 3.5″ x 7.0″

Paddle Templates for Making Your Own Canoe Paddle

I should add a quick note about the blade shapes common to bent shaft paddles. They are similar in shape to the Guide template shown above, though perhaps a tad wider and shorter. Bending Branches makes particularly beautiful iterations of this style.

Paddles of this sort are marvelous things, highly efficient and will get you down water at a grand clip. If hit-and-switch or marathon style paddling is your thing chances are they are already a part of any quiver … and if not, onwards we go.

SURFACE AREA of BLADE

Commercial paddle makers offer blades with a surface area between 120 and 150 sq inches. The paddle templates that Ashes offer fall on the lower end of this spectrum. They are for average folks with average strength and most paddlers will find themselves content with the volume as drawn.

That said, there are a number of things to consider before setting forth.

Power

A larger volume blade has more power. Duh.
This is good if you want to get somewhere fast, or if you find yourself in conditions where you need instant maneuverability; in moving water for instance or in a steep moving chop. A paddler may also wish to up-size their blade if they find themselves out of sync with their paddling partner.

Fatigue

Ideally, a paddler will choose a paddle that allows them to paddle the exact amount of time they intend to be on the water without tiring. For a marathon tripper, this could mean 6 hours at a time with no breaks. For an angler, it could mean 10 minutes of paddling to get the fishing hole, and 10 minutes back again.

I would be a fool to tell you who you are and what you need. What I would say though, is that if you’re unsure of what you need and if you fall with the norms, start with the templates; you can always build another if you get it wrong.

Control

A larger paddle has greater purchase on the water. A stern paddler fighting a stiff cross wind will appreciate extra volume and the control that comes with it when things get tough.
But, a larger blade can get in its own way and trip all over itself. If it’s bigger than needed a large paddle will require extra attention and might just rob you of that easy evening solo reverie you’d been so hoping for.
A smart paddler will know there is not perfect single blade and find the perfect middle. Each and every time. Insert smiley.

Strong paddlers may wish to increase the surface area somewhat by enlarging the pattern by a quarter inch all around which will increase the surface areas of each by roughly 15 square inches.

Likewise smaller paddlers might wish to reduce the surface area accordingly. The only thing I’d keep in mind as you think about resizing the blade is that its easier to reduce surface area AFTER sea trials than it is to increase it!

CENTER of EFFORT

A paddle’s center of effort is:

The point on the immersed blade at which the application of the whole resistant force of the water would produce an effect identical with that produced by its distribution over the entirety of the immersed blade.

Too many words?
Suffice it to say that the center of effort is lower on a blade like the Scout, and higher on a blade like an Ottertail. It becomes relevant for those trying to understand the forces that might determine shaft length, or suitability for varied water conditions.

A good way to think about it is that a lower center of effort will produce more leverage than a higher one, all else being equal. Whilst this may seem like an obvious plus, it should be measured against the desire of many who use varied and finesse strokes and for whom the ability to control how much paddle is in the water at any given time is an asset.

BLADE THICKNESS

I like a thin blade with a with a sharp(ish) edge for my everyday paddle. It enters the water quietly and I like that. A thin blade has some flex too and will be lighter, both of which make long days more tolerable. We regularly build and sell paddles that taper to an 1/8 of an inch at the edges.

Conversely, a thin blade can give up power; and unless well formed and balanced might flutter. Urgh. Of course neither of these are considerations if you’re purchasing a composite blade from Werner or some other recognized manufacturer.

On the other hand if you’re making your own paddle AND if getting somewhere quickly matters to you, or strong and quick maneuvers are essential, stick to a thicker blade; 1/4 of an inch at the edges will work.

And in all cases you’ll want to consider how gentle or abusive you might be. Obviously if you’re going to be prying the thing against rocks and digging your waste-holes with it, a thicker blade will be your friend. But of course, that’s not you is it?

SHAFT LENGTH

The folk wisdom around the campfire is to purchase a paddle that comes up to the bottom of your nose whilst standing. No wait! The bottom of your chin! Hold on! The width of two hands outstretched! Yes but!

Those who have read a book or two will suggest the following method. To determine length of a paddle:

  • sit upright in a chair
  • measure the distance between the seat and the bridge of your nose
  • this equals the length of your shaft
  • dd the length of the blade and you’ve  got your total length.
  • if you’re a solo paddler you may wish to add an inch or two.
  • if you sit low in your boat, subtract an inch or two.
  • if you’re a real stickler for perfection, go up and re-read the part about center-of-effort.

I’d say the sitting method is preferable and will generally yield satisfactory results. I’d also say that spending some hours in a boat will teach you what works and what doesn’t and that making those hours into years, you’ll know the perfect paddle when it falls into your hands.

GRIP STYLE

Like much else, a paddler’s preference for one grip or another isn’t mine to determine.None-the-less, in the drawings I’ve suggested a different grip for each blade variant.

A t-grip such as that drawn for the Guide is typical of a paddle designed for efficiency. An elongated heart shaped grip offers perhaps more options for finger and hand placement whilst using finesse strokes. And the middle option, the one suggested for the Beavertail, is a time and tested classic.

To my druthers the Beavertail grip nestles just perfectly into my hand and provides plenty of options when tendons or fingers start to fatigue and chaff.

Astute observers will note that in the drawings for the second edition I’ve suggested a somewhat wider grip than what one might first think is the norm. I think this provides more control and balance … but, feel free to disagree with me should you wish.

On his comprehensive paddle making blog Murkat (which by the way, any paddle geek needs to visit now!) documents a large number of historical paddles hardly any grip at all.

And of course, don’t be afraid to mix and match.

BALANCE and SYMMETRY

I’d be remiss by not mentioning some of the intangibles that make or break a great paddle.

Resonance

Old time paddle makers will hold a paddle at the neck and tap the blade with their knuckles. If it lands with a dull thud they know they have some work ahead of them. If it hums with a harmonic resonance, they know they’re getting close achieving something special.

Weight and Balance

An experienced paddler will have a sense of their preferred balance point; the spot just above the blade where the paddle is weighted equally towards both the grip and blade. Do the following to determine the balance point.

– grip the paddle betwixt two fingers at the point you would place your lower hand
the paddle will remain level, tip towards the grip, or tip towards the blade
– if you haven’t developed your own preferences, choose one which is balanced
if you are building your own paddle and the balance is off, you have some work to do

Flutter

You won’t know that your paddle suffers from it until you paddle with it. It’s what happens when there is something not quite right with the blade; perhaps it’s symmetry is out of whack, or it’s improperly weighted, or there is a flaw in the materials. 

Whilst many paddles flutter, particularly in a recovery phase of the stroke, I prefer the ones that don’t. You can do your best to avoid it by purchasing from an experienced maker, or by taking care to keep things precise with your own paddle making practice.

Materials

If you’re building your own paddle the quality of your building stock is paramount. We’ve built paddles out of century old timbers that have lived long and hard lives and which were not amenable to our desire for a fine edged blade. On the other hand, we’ve found exquisite straight grained ash in the wood bins at Lowes.

As for wood choices, Ashes builds paddles from Canadian hardwoods. I use cherry, ash, basswood, walnut, maple and from time to time I’ve used chestnut, oak, butternut, and whatever else is lying around the back-fourty.

I’d say use what looks good, but keep in mind, a tight grained wood has a nicer feel on the hand. And, if given a choice, build from a lighter wood rather than a heavier one.

Regardless, look for straight strong grain, especially for paddle shafts. Stock that comes from a twisted limb can cause problems 4 weeks after you’ve presented the thing to your best customer’s second daughter’s husband on their wedding.

On the other hand, if you’re reading this page whilst doing due-diligence before purchasing a paddle, I’d say stick with composites over plastics and northern hard-woods over softer or tropical hard-woods.

Finish

If you’re making a paddle, you’ll have to choose between a traditional oiled finish, a spar varnish, or an acrylic finish. Your options will be limited to the latter two should you choose to glass your blade.

For my part, I’m a big fan of a traditional finish, the directions and recipe for which can be found here:

Those purchasing a paddle, unless from a boutique or custom builder, will be limited as to their choices. What I would say is that an oil and waxed finish is easier on the callouses at the end of a long day than is a varnished or epoxied finish.

And that, I think, is that!

Enjoy, boa sorte, and bon voyage
Trevor Paetkau
Proprietor, Ashes Still Water Boats


 

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