New paddle selection question(s)

Just started in the canoe world and need to get some paddles. I’ve got a Sawyer x17.

We’ll be mainly in lakes and saltwater inshore (so some shallows). Right now thinking a bent shaft for the bow person and a beaver tail for the stern paddler. Or can we use a bent shaft for both positions? We are all experienced kayakers but new with the canoe. And right now not comfortable dropping $ for carbon paddles just yet.

Is there a big difference between Bending Branches or Wenonah (Grey Owl)? Looking to spend around $100- $120 per paddle. Any other brands I should investigate?

Bending Branches: BB Special for the bent shaft and the Beavertail for the straight.
Wenonah: Boundary Waters for the bent shaft and ? for the straight
Grey Owl: Sprite for the bent and the Guide? for straight

Thanks for any advice!

Check out Foxworks paddles.

All of those should be acceptable to start. Mostly I’d think that you would want bent at both ends. I do tend to switch to straight when things get bouncy.

What ever you get you can always us as spares when you do go for the Carbon.

Bent shaft paddles are a bit less efficient for executing draws and pries but the type of paddling you describe does not suggest that you will need to execute very quick, precise maneuvering.

Beaver tail paddles appeal to traditionalists, but long, narrow paddle blades are particularly inefficient in the shallows.

I would suggest bent shaft paddles for both members of the team.

Hi, scrapiron,

I agree with pblanc and rival51, you’re probably better off starting out with bent shaft paddles. The beaver-tail and otter-tail style paddles are fun to use but not so good in shallows or for covering the miles. Bent shaft paddles (using a sit-and-switch style of paddling) aren’t quite as good for maneuvering but they get you where you want to go with efficiency. You can learn to maneuver with them (just look at some of the freestyle paddlers that use them) so it’s not much of a handicap.

About the only time I use a straight shaft paddle in a tandem canoe is if the bow paddler isn’t really contributing much power and I’m using a J-stroke or Canadian stroke. (Or in whitewater, which isn’t applicable in your case.) Having a straight shaft paddle when using J-strokes makes it a bit easier to hold a line, especially in the wind. I carry a straight shaft paddle as a spare so I have both available. But again, you can learn to use a bent shaft in all conditions.

Whatever you decide, keep paddle weight in mind. It really does make a difference when you’re out for a day of paddling. Even several ounces can make a difference if you consider that you’ll make thousands of canoe strokes in just a couple hours. Since you aren’t ready to spend much money on lightweight paddles, there are alternatives to Bending Branches and Wenonah that shave some weight for a reasonable cost. Like string mentioned, FoxWorx makes a decent paddle for the money. I’ve been using the Roka straight shaft version of their carbon blade paddles and it’s a good paddle. Well balanced and seems fairly durable. The Foxfire, their bent shaft version, weighs 17oz. and is only $30 more than you budgeted for. (Their Microlight version is an ounce heavier and the blade may not be as durable as the Foxfire.)

In my experience get the best canoe paddle you can afford. I bought two heavier paddles (24 oz.) when I first started out, and they worked fine, but those paddles now sit in the basement collecting dust. (I do appreciate the wood work that goes into a beautiful canoe paddle, but not for long days paddling into a head wind.) I ended up buying Zaveral bent shaft paddles and although they were expensive, I’ve never regretted the purchase. That was almost 20 years ago and I wish I’d bought them a decade earlier than that. =)

And make sure you buy paddles that fit the paddler. There are many rules-of-thumb, a number of them are outdated in my opinion, but the best sizing technique for bent shaft paddles that I’ve found is the one Zaveral uses:

  • For recreational bent shaft paddling (not racing) measure seat to eye-level for shaft length and add blade length plus 1 to 2 inches. I prefer to add 2" for stern paddling in a tandem canoe and 1" for bow paddling.
    And for straight shaft sizing, basically:
  • For straight shaft paddles measure seat to eye-level and add blade length plus 2-3 inches. Some people prefer a bit longer straight shaft paddle and add 4" but that’s not what I’ve found to be most comfortable for general flat water paddling.

Paddle sizing is demonstrated pretty well in this YouTube video, although I’d add an inch or two to the bent shaft paddle length he comes up with for recreational paddling: - Canoe Paddle Sizing Guidelines - Joe O’s Channel

Probably (definitely) said way too much but hopefully you find something of value.


Bent can definitely be used in both positions. For most longer trips I go with a bent shaft in the stern, but it’s all a little bit preference. In consistently deep water a beaver/ottertail is kinda nice.

I work for Sanborn Canoe Co so I’ll throw our paddles in the mix, though only our simplest one, the Minnewashta, is comfortably in your price range, with the others being a bit more. The Minnewashta only comes in a straight shaft.

While I think not going with carbon fiber probably makes sense if you don’t have a specific itch for it, a lightweight paddle really does stay comfortable over longer days on the water, so whatever you end up going with I wouldn’t undersell that feature.

Peter, that Borealis paddle is nice looking; I like the blade shape. But the lightweight Nessmuk is a beauty at 13 oz., and the price for the unfinished handle is a good price.


Thanks! We’re probably going to discontinue the Borealis going into the new year. We just started offering the Nessmuk with a hardwood and standard option, so the Borealis is a little bit redundant in the lineup, being pretty much the same blade shape, but it’s a cool paddle. Smaller-blade paddles are pretty underrated I think.

I think the big blades are an artifact of the old days when canoes were heavier, not all that efficient in design (basically workhorses), and correction strokes were the norm. That and whitewater was more often part of the paddling experience. But for a sleek (not necessarily racing) canoe on calmer waters the smaller blades are far more comfortable over the course of a day’s paddling. At least that’s been my experience. Big blades have their uses, that’s for sure, but I’m glad to see that paddle designers are changing the paradigm. =)

Thanks Peter. Not sure if I should spend $ now or see how it goes. My inclination is to spend now and forego the paddle merry-go-round. So is the Nessmuk Standard 13oz.? Or is that for the Ultralight?

Definitely going for bent shaft for both paddlers.

I know what you mean by the merry-go-round. But it is a chunk of change for a canoe paddle. If you’re planning on getting out canoeing a fair number of times each year then the cost of a good paddle doesn’t look so bad. A $175-$200 paddle if taken out 5-10 times a year for 10-20 years is pretty inexpensive fun on a per trip basis, especially if you consider just the difference in cost.

How’s that for rationalizing? '-)

I’ve used that rationale on every boat or other toy I’ve bought.

LOL- I’ll have to start using that one! Carbon paddles here we come! Hahaha.

Yeah the lightweight version is 13oz, with the standard being closer to 16, and the hardwood version is about 19oz. This will vary a little bit depending on the length, as adding or removing 2" on the length changes the weight by about a half ounce on average. I’m glad you asked too, since it drew my attention to the fact that I forgot to put that weight information on the product page.

Couple of thoughts on top of the advice already given (some overlap, obviously). All represent my own views and prejudices (I’m primarily a straight shaft paddler).

Straight v. Bent: I’d say bent, particularly when used with sit and switch technique, is more focused on the destination while straight a bit more on the journey to get there. Bent is more efficient on the straight (your experience may vary), straight provides more flexibility is stoke selection, blending strokes and adjusting to changing circumstances.

Paddle length: The techniques described all work for getting close - actual experience will let you fine tune (and your first paddle will make a great spare). As a bit of background: the goal is to have a shaft length that puts your top (grip) hand at about shoulder height, your lower (shaft) hand at about the gunwale, and the extends enough below your shaft hand so the blade is fully in the water. Blade length and shape are focused on what you’re doing with paddle in what kind of water. So size for shaft length and select the blade for what you’re doing. Your challenge is manufacturers tend to provide overall length, which really doesn’t do you much good for fitting the paddle. Give’m a call to find out shaft lengths.

Paddle selection: Well, you always carry a spare, right (up the creek without, etc.)? So mix it up a bit. Even large rivers and lake have shallow areas, and smaller rivers can get really thin. I generally launch with a beaver/otter tail (longer blade) and a Sugar Island (shorter wider blade). And if I know I’m going to end up in really shallow stuff or weedy backwaters I also bring a pole.

Oil v. Varnish: One thing not mentioned is the paddle finish. Some paddles are varnished, some have an oil finish. I prefer oil myself. For me it’s easier on the hands - I’ve never blistered with an oil finish, but have multiple times with varnish. If you fall in love with a varnish paddle, but have issues with blisters, sandpaper is a wonderful thing - I’ve sanded the shafts of two varnished paddles and converted them to oil with no problems.

Oil: Badger Paddles uses food safe hemp oil on their paddles. I tried it on my paddles and it works well. (google milk paint hemp oil). One side benefit is that it doesn’t contain solvents, so you don’t need gloves or to worry about spontaneous combustion of the rags.

Big blades: What I find interesting (applies to kayaking too) is that cultures (open ocean Bering Strait and Greenland Inuit) and working paddlers (voyageurs) who were focused on paddling to live or for a living, and covering distance primarily used narrow blades to get the job done. And it wasn’t from lack of wood (Inuit had access to significant amounts of drift logs and had other craft - umiaks - that were propelled by large bladed oars). It’s more about wear and tear on the body over time.

Well, hope that’s helpful and for sure your first paddles won’t be your last paddles, so experiment and don’t lock in too early. Remember, there are only three goals for paddling: go out, come back, and smile.

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Great perspective and advice on canoe paddles, kattenbo.

I will make one comment and that’s on manufacturers providing true blade lengths; I’ve been able to accurately order canoe paddles from Zaveral, Bending Branches, FoxWorx, and Northstar and I’m sure if I checked I could find many more. Unless the limited information is more common among paddles sold by box store retailers. I could see that happening.