Paddle Making

Does anybody have any experience making wooden canoe paddles? I’ve got access to bunch of chestnut that came off an old barn.

I was thinking about making some paddles out of it and wanted to know if anyone had some experience making their own. Looking for some tips/advice!

Pick up a copy of…
…David Gidmark’s book “Canoe Paddles”. It should tell you everything you need to know.

It’s not too difficult and a lot of fun.
Once you start, it’s a quest for the perfect paddle. A planer would help but I just use a belt sander to thin the blade. Then I switch to a random orbital sander, next a palm sander, and finally just hand sanding the paddle. I guarantee that you’ll enjoy the project. You can use soft woods, but then you have to fiberglass the blade.

Paddle Carving
As has been mentioned a few books on the topic will prove helpful. First and foremost I’d recommend that you get the Graham Warren & David Gidmark book: “Canoe Paddles”. FWIW, Graham (from the UK) wrote the majority of that book, Gidmark (from Canada) wrote only one short overview chapter on using a hook knife - how he ended up listed as co-author is a mystery to me. Another useful book is Graham’s earlier title: “Making Canoe Paddles in Wood”. That one is not as complete as his other title, but is nice to have as an additional reference. The second Warren title was published in the UK and can be hard to find in the States. I was able to find a copy online at Graham Warren is an amateur woodworker, not a classically trained craftsman, but he offers many sound ideas that are well worth looking into. He stresses the use of simple hand tools and gives invaluable tips on lay-outs. He also shows several very good patterns in his books with an emphasis on traditional aboriginal North American long bladed paddles (ottertails, beavertails, etc).

Other texts of some interest for canoe paddle-making are “Canoe Craft” by Ted Moores and Gil Gilpatrick’s “Building a Strip Canoe”. As is typical of Moores he offers some sound ideas with a craftsman-like approach. Gilpatrick takes a ‘hack it out any old way & glob it together with epoxy’ sort of approach, but it makes for a good thumb through if nothing else. And of course anyone interested in traditional paddle craft and paddles will want to have a copy of “The Bark Canoe and Skin Boats of North America” by Adney & Chapelle.

Regarding chestnut: It’s a relatively light-weight wood compared to many other hardwoods. It’s lighter in weight than white oak or ash (as examples), yet actually quite similar in appearance to oak. As you are probably aware the American chestnut is extinct for all practical purposes (killed off by blight in the first half of the 20th Century) so any American chestnut lumber is old. The wood you have will probably be a bit brash from having been dried and seasoned for so many years as part of a barn. It may or may not be strong enough to make a good paddle – only trial and error will determine that.

Paddle carving is a fun way to spend time in the shop especially since there’s a lot more to making a quality paddle than first meets the eye. Making paddles can be rewarding by allowing you to explore various paddle shapes while learning new skills. I recommend that paddle-makers forget the power tool approach and instead invest in a few good hand tools. You’ll want to have a couple of spokeshaves, a decent smoothing plane, a block plane, a set of scrapers and etc. If you work primarily with hand tools you’ll have better control than you will by grinding it out with belt/drum sanders - both are notorious for the trouble they cause rather than the problems they solve. As a bonus hand tools are quieter, less dusty and simply more fun to work with (in my opinion). Unfortunately few people are willing to discipline themselves enough to learn how to work with simple traditional hand tools these days… …and their work often suffers. I’d go so far as to say 9 out of 10 poorly carved paddles I’ve seen (lumpy/asymmetric blades & wacky grips) can trace their problems back to heavy-handed belt sanding.

There are however two woodworking machines I would not like to have to do without for the process: a planer for establishing initial thickness and a bandsaw for cutting out the profile. If you don’t have the former you can plane to thickness by hand or hire it out. The latter can be accomplished with a saber saw or even a coping saw, but both are poor substitutes for a bandsaw.

Once you get into this I’d be happy to offer some paddle making tips via e-mail if you’d like. Just drop me a line whenever you want.

Best of luck! Randall

I have tried my hand at 2 paddles, one kayak one canoe. They are rather stiff and heavy but it was fun. The best thing I did when I made them was LISTEN TO RANDALL. This guy knows his stuff. Not only has he been working with wood for much longer than I have been alive but as a paddler he knows what a good paddle feels like.

On top of that he is a rather good teacher.

I have used a few of his paddles and they are probably the best wood paddles I have ever tried, comercialy produced or otherwise.


carving paddles
Another very good resource for carving traditional paddles is Caleb Davis’ video “Welcome to Making Tradionally Shaped Canoe and Greenland Kayak Paddles with Caleb Davis”. You can purchase it at Newfound Woodworks

Caleb works principally with hand tools and gives not only an excellant “how to” carve, but good theory on paddle shape.