Making a paddle

Hi, I’m new to the forums and I’m sorry if this has been answered somewhere, but I’ve been searching on Google and haven’t found any info on the topic. I’ve been making my own canoe paddles and I’ve been trying to figure out why they don’t sell paddles with really large surface area … widthwise. If the wood is lightweight, and you don’t have any problem with it, why wouldn’t someone want a large and wide paddle. I understand that if you were going solo it would push you back and forth too much because of how much force goes into one stroke, but I go out with a friend almost every time and if we’re paddling on opposite sides shouldn’t his force and my force counteract and just push us forward with more force … in other words faster. We’ve been paddling for 6 hours to 12 hours at a time sometimes, and there have been occasions where the wind has been nearly too strong for us to paddle through. I would like to cut down our paddle times. We’ve just been using the small cheap wooden paddles from Walmart that are 4 feet and don’t have a very large face and they don’t seem to be cutting it anymore. Any comments suggestions that anyone could offer on this subject would be greatly appreciated. Thanks alot

added thought
Is there a subject on this somewhere. It seems like it makes sense according to the laws of physics … right?

Thoughts on what’s “big enough”

– Last Updated: Dec-06-12 2:06 PM EST –

To start out, you have some slightly-erroneous ideas about paddling mechanics. The idea that a blade could supply "too much" power to be useful when soloing isn't correct because with proper technique, the turning force applied to the boat is very small. What little bit of turning force can't be avoided is cancelled-out by corrective action in controlling the paddle, usually at the end of the stroke (but various kinds of corrections can be applied during the beginning and middle of the stroke too). These same correction techniques can be used when paddling tandem, more commonly by the stern paddler, but there are plenty of things the bow paddler can do as well. On a related note (mostly) regarding solo paddling, some boats tend to track pretty straight while others are "eager" to turn. A boat that's eager to turn will veer way off course if even one stroke is poorly done, while a harder-tracking boat might need ten of the same poorly-done strokes to be affected as much. This is just to illustrate that how the paddle is controlled is the main thing.

To get to my specific ideas about blade size, I have noticed that some smaller blades do not "grab" the water well enough for some of the strokes I do at times, and in those cases a bigger blade is nice. How big? I see no reason to go any bigger than the blades of my whitewater paddles, ever, and my favorite cruising paddle that has a blade that's just slightly smaller is perfect for me. If I were at home I could give you the blade dimensions, but I'm guessing the whitewater blades are about 8.5 inches wide (or "maybe" 9 inches) and 16 or 18 inches long.

Racing paddles tend to have rather small blades, and that should be a clue that size isn't the whole story. You CAN get all the power you need from blades that size, with the right technique, and racers like to take very short strokes at a high number of strokes per minute, so I'm sure the extra weight of a wider blade, as well as the extra resistance of blade entry and exit in that case, makes more of a difference for racers too. Such paddles might not start the boat as fast, but do well once underway. I think a person is more likely to notice "slippage" when making abrupt maneuvers than when looking for sheer forward power while cruising along, and I think that's part of the reason whitewater blades are bigger (they also might be bigger so they lose less grip when the water they are in is partly full of air).

I don't doubt that your cheap paddles don't grip the water well enough, but I doubt that it's necessary to use wider blades than what's the norm for good examples of modern paddles. Look at the blade sizes of well-known paddler makers, and you will see that very few of the modern designs (blades that are not very "tall") are wider than about 8 inches (again, that's an "eyeball" estimation from memory, since I can't actually measure any blades right now). I think the efficiency of good technique applied over many strokes outweighs any extra grip that can be provided by brute force for occasional strokes with an over-size blade. You really can't pull THAT hard, thousands of times per day, to get an advantage from all that extra grip on the water provided by a bigger-than-normal blade.

That's my non-scientific view. I'm sure someone has analyzed this pretty carefully though, and yet no super-sized blades were invented as a result.

Oh, one more thing. Your canoe will only go so fast. As you approach the boat's theoretical top speed (called "hull speed", in case you want to read about it), each increment of additional effort you apply provides less and less additional speed. Wind is another issue, and more paddling power will do more to increase your speed into the wind than it will do to increase your speed through the water. This just helps to show that nothing is black and white though. I'm as interested as you regarding how "ideal" blade sizes are chosen by designers.

Okay, here's "one more" thing, and this time I think I'm done. I have noticed a mistake by a lot of beginning paddlers, and I made the same mistake with my first "good" rowboat, which I bought a couple years before any of my canoes. Again, this has to do with the boat's maximum speed. People tend to want to "paddle harder" to make the boat go faster, and often they don't realize that their speed has already entered that realm where large amounts of additional effort result in very little additional speed. There are two ways to "cure" this problem. One is experience and lots and lots of time on the water. The other is a wonderful shortcut called a "GPS". Monitor your speed with a GPS, and you will quickly figure out how much of your hard work "just isn't worth it" in terms of realized benefit. It might turn out that you change your mind about needing extra paddle power. You might be working too hard for the speed your are getting no matter what paddle you use.

My best advice is to buy some decent paddles - "real" paddles rather than what can be gotten at ANY big-box store (stay away from places like Dicks and Gander Mountain too!). Get them in the right length too. THEN start experimenting with various degrees of effort and the speed you go as a result. It might be a good idea to learn about the basics of stroke efficiency too (and since I mentioned it, here are the basics on stroke efficiency in a nutshell: For each stroke, the shaft should be vertical as seen from the front or back (not "reaching out" to the side at all). Each stroke should be in a straight line that is parallel to the long axis of the boat, not following the curve of the gunwale. Each stroke should end before your lower hand passes your hip (racers don't even let the blade go past their hip) so that you don't waste energy "lifting water". I break that last rule quite a bit to improve correction leverage, but it's a good rule NOT to break when you want the most forward power per energy expended).

canoe paddle blade width
If you are using an inexpensive straight shaft paddle with an overall length of only 48", you are probably using too short a paddle, unless you have a very short torso and sit very close to the water.

I still prefer wide bladed paddles (up to 8 1/2" wide), especially for whitewater, but the trend has been toward shorter paddles with narrower blades. There are some good reasons.

First, a paddle with a larger blade is going to be heavier, regardless how light the wood is. All canoe paddles are somewhat “unbalanced” in that the blade is always significantly heavier than the grip. This is increasingly true for cheaper paddles and those with large blade surface area. The weight difference might not seem that significant, but it does add up over the miles and hours and increases paddler fatigue.

Second, a paddle with an extremely wide blade may force you to take your stroke too far away from the keel line of the boat, to avoid hitting or scraping the side of the boat. The further lateral from the keel line of your boat that your stroke is taken, the greater will be the tendency or your stroke to turn the boat, and the more correction you will need to use. The more correction you are required to use, the less efficient you will be.

Third, any racer will tell you that one of the most important factors involved in going fast is paddle cadence. The more strokes you take per minute the faster you will go (99% of the time, anyway). A heavier paddle with a larger blade will tend to slow your cadence. If you paddle “sit and switch” or use cross strokes, the paddle with the wider blade will be somewhat more awkward and somewhat slower to swing across the boat from one side to the other. Wider bladed paddles are also more likely to be adversely affected by a strong wind.

Having said that, I do like wide bladed paddles for whitewater use. This is largely due to their improved bracing effect, since the wider blade simply provides more support. Also in whitewater it is often important to get a maximal amount of forward force out of a single stroke, or a couple of strokes. That is virtually never the case in flat water canoeing. In flat water touring it really doesn’t matter much if you need to take an extra stroke or two to get the boat up to speed. More important is the ease with which you can keep the boat maintained at cruising speed once you get it there. And most folks seem to find that it is easier to do that with a somewhat narrower paddle blade.

I can’t possibly expound or
improve on that, but I can recommend a gentleman who makes great paddles and sells them cheap. I don’t just mean reasonable. I mean cheap. I think I’ve seen him mentioned favorably here before, but here’s the link. They’re not the lightest sticks around so they don’t work for everyone, but I’m guessing weight isn’t of paramount importance to you. I have the sixty inch beavertail and absolutely love it. Again, they’re not for everyone, but I think they’d work well for you.

My experience

– Last Updated: Dec-06-12 3:43 PM EST –

I just tried to find the article but couldnt in the 5 mins I have. Some researcher looked into this and determined that with a larger blade will allow you to go faster for about an hour. After that you actually go slower because unless you are in Olympic shape, you get tired and cant maintain the higher level of force over an extended period of time. So if you're sprinting, a larger paddle has advantages. If you're doing a marathon or extended touring, it may have drawbacks. As others have said, Whitewater also benefits from more surface area because you need to "sprint" for a few strokes to make a correction then relax and let the water do the work. If you do some searching you might be able to track down the study I referenced to give you the scientific data behind this theory.

Here's my non scientific experience:

I bought 3 wood paddles from a guy on craigslist for my first real paddles. A Kailoa Nani (9.25" wide) a Wenonah Quetico (8" wide) and a Bending Branches BB Special (8" wide but REALLY long). It didnt take me much paddling to realize that the wenonah was my favorite. I prefer the smaller tear drop shaped blade. The nani was ok, just not my style and I didnt like the BB at all.(Im trying to sell my Nani if you want to buy a large bladed paddle)

Well, mid way through the summer I started racing and ordered a ZRE with a 19 x 8.25" blade (their standard width). I used that for about 2 months but found my shoulders would get sore from over exertion. I found a good deal on a used power surge light with a 18 x 8" blade and its my favorite paddle so far. One reason is that it is the lightest paddle I own, but more so it has the smallest surface area of all my paddles. My shoulders would still be sore after a race but it was not as bad. Also, I felt that I could paddle harder for longer.

Some people talk about "slipping" in the water but I never found this to be an issue (this statement doesn't apply to whitewater or sprint racing). I'm 27, male, fairly strong and athletic, so I feel like if you're not an Olympic athlete, slipping shouldn't be an issue for you. In fact, when I order another ZRE paddle I will order their smallest available power surge blade at 7.5".

As other have said, the "correct" way to go faster is to increase your cadence, not your power.

Bottom line: I like a paddle width around 7.75-8" and recommend most people get something around that for general touring.

Also, this page has a lot of good info:

Racing improves the breed.
In slalom racing, blade width and length has settled on ~20" long by 7 3/4" wide. I use slalom paddles. I ordered one just 1/2" wider than the “standard,” and there was too much load per stroke, lowering the rate I needed to make tracks.

In marathon flatwater racing, blade width, length, and area, have also been standardized by what makes for winning, over at least 5 decades of experience.

So, while you fool around with physics (I have 6 semesters at MIT), keep focused on what has worked for those most serious at covering water, the racers.

I make paddles

– Last Updated: Dec-06-12 5:14 PM EST –

I make and use my own paddles. I find that there is a "sweet spot" for any combination of paddle area, boat, and paddler. Making the paddle area bigger just makes the paddling "heavy".
I like straight shafted traditional paddles with a 5-1/2 to 6 inch blade width, about 23 inches long, and beavertail for the solo paddling that I do because I find that a beavertail does a nice job in a J-stroke. I also like the narrow traditional blade because it enters the water quietly, smoothly and gradually. I enjoy using those "old" designs much better than any store-bought paddle that've owned.
You see, some of my preferences are qualitative, not quantitative.
By the way, I am an engineer...numbers aren't everything they're cracked up to be.

Blade width
Much has been already said by others, regarding blade width. Pete spoke about how a wide blade would cause the boat to turn, because it would need to be held far out from the boat (I’m paraphrasing here). Let me elaborate.

Ideally, we’d be able to place the paddle through the center line of the boat, with the shaft vertical, and stroke straight back. If we installed the equivalent of a centerboard trunk (anyone who sails will visualize this) this might theoretically be possible, but the truck would cause other issues. The further offset the paddle is from the center or keel line of the canoe, the more the canoe will turn toward the offside, with each forward stroke. This is called yaw.

Other factors which limit yaw have already been discussed by others.

For practical purposes, this means we want the shaft to be held vertical, with the blade at rt. angles to the keel line and as close to the gunwale as possible during the stroke. (Note: The path of the blade is front to back in a straight line, not following the curve of the gunwale.) If the grip hand is held out past the gunwale, it is possible to have the blade partially beneath the hull (closer to the center line). Well designed paddles are shaped so that the upper portion of the blade is relieved so that it will allow the lower portions to “fit under” the hull.

The point of this is that making the blade excessively wide, would force the shaft further away from the side of the hull and thus further from the Keel line resulting in excessive yaw. Any potential gain from the larger blade would be offset by the increased correction necessary as a result of the yaw.

From what was originally stated, I’d suggest (as others have already) that improvements to your technique may do much to improve your performance. A properly sized (length) paddle is also necessary. I’d suggest trying several before investing in one.

I don’t know where in Florida you are located but from March 15- 18 will be the Florida Canoe Symposium in Yulee, just N. of Jacksonville. You’ll not only have access to top notch instruction there, but also the ability to try out many paddles and canoes. Full information about the symposium is available from the home page at

Marc Ornstein

Dogpaddle Canoe Works

Custom Canoe Paddles and Woodstrip Canoes

WalMart paddles are for the closet. They would make a great self defense weapon against an intruder armed with a wreaking bar.

Get a real paddle.