Paddle Refinishing Advice

My Sawyer bent shaft is long overdue for another coat of varnish, and I don’t want to screw this one up. I actually have worn through the varnish in one spot from rubbing on the gunnel, so that has to be done. The rest really isn’t too awfully bad.

My plan was to lightly sand and coat the whole paddle with probably 2 coats of clear spar varnish, and then do probably about 5 coats in the problem areas.

I think this is the correct thing to do, but no having varnished, painted, or sanded a lot I could use some technical advice.

  1. What grit of sandpaper should be used.
  2. Do I sand in between coats?
  3. How can I keep the varnish from running when I’m painting the round and sloping contours of a bent shaft paddle? Does it need to be super thin? I don’t want streaks running down my paddle.
  4. I’m thinking about stripping and oiling the handle. Any thoughts on this? The factory varnish is quite thick, so I’m wondering if this would be more trouble than it is worth?

    Any technical/procedural advice of this sort would be appreciated. I just stripped and varnished my canoe thwarts and they turned out ok, but did have some drips/runs which needed to be sanded out. I’m hoping to avoid this with my paddle as much as possible.

Treat it like a GP and oil it instead. Get it down to bare wood. Oil it with tung oil finish; 2 or 3 coats; rub with fine steel wool between coats. Use the steel wool after the last coat to get rid of the gloss. (It’s nice to feel wood in your hand and not varnish.)

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Differing opinion
Is the paddle laminated? I assume so. I have recently heard that exposing the edge of glue joints (as would happen with oil) may lead to delamination. Remember, I just recently heard/read/dreamed this.

Having made that statement, I have used oil on a Bending Branches that I was progressively shaving down as a project. I shaved, oiled, tested, and repeated numerous times. No problems that I could discern. And I have oiled laminated grips for decades with no problem.

If anyone else has more concrete info, please post!


Spar Varnish is best.

Spray Spar Varnish?
I just found some spray-on spar varnish at Farm and Fleet today. Seems like this would be ideal fo all of the rounded and sloped edges of the paddle. Has anyone had experience with these types of products?

Are you suggesting tung oil or one of the commercial tung oil “finishes” like Minwax or Formsby?

Tung Oil ‘Finish’

– Last Updated: Jul-02-10 5:47 PM EST –

(Formby's) and not much of it.

Wood is somewhat stronger if the
moisture content is kept low. When paddles are oil finished, the moisture content is not going to stay as low as it will if a paddle is carefully varnished.

For some types of paddle, such as GPs and many lake paddles, ultimate strength is not so much of an issue. But for whitewater paddles, and any paddle that bonks or grabs the river bottom often, an oil finish will allow the wood to gain water weight, and the wood can break more easily. Spar varnish, or even better, spar varnish over epoxy, will keep moisture out of the wood.

I oil finish musical instruments and furniture, but I varnish paddles, except for the grips, which I oil.

moisture content
If you’re not going to epoxy the entire paddle, don’t epoxy any of it, it’ll hold the moisture in rather than keep it out.

I’ve got both varnished canoe paddles and oiled GP’s, I much prefer the feel of the oiled wood, the canoe paddles though can take a beating without complaint. Depends on how much time I’ll be holding the paddle. On the GP I’ll use it all day sometimes on the canoe paddle it’s a toy, I use it for a couple hours usually max. If I’ll be using the paddle all day it’ll be oiled.

Bill H.

Griffin, where do you come up with these
ideas? Moisture does not move across epoxy glue joints, which exist in blade laminations, blade-to-shaft connection, shaft laminations, and in the shaft-to-grip connection.

Make two identical paddles, epoxy one except for the grip, and oil the other. Weigh both before use. Use them an equal length of time and weigh again. The oiled paddle will have gained more water weight.

If your paddle comes under significant
stress, enough that breaking may be an issue, then data on how increased moisture content (usually) lowers wood strength may cause you to consider whether using epoxy plus varnish will leave a higher strength margin than an all oil finish. The data was obtained regarding airplane construction, and is reprinted on page 75 of “Wooden Boat Restoration and Repair,” a free pdf download from the West epoxy site.

Note that the link is long enough that you may have to copy by hand and paste to get the document.

Especially notable is the effect of moisture content on weakening woods such as Port Orford Cedar, white cedar, and western red cedar. These are popular woods for GP paddle carving and oil finishing. Probably the saving factor is that GP paddles usually are not under the intense strain seen in lake and whitewater wooden paddles. Oil finish will continue to be popular, but paddle owners need to know that for maximum strength, moisture must be kept out of the wood.

a little experience might help
Having a little experience might help. The laminations on all the paddles I’ve seen are lenthwise not across the paddle, thus the epoxy joints that the moisture can’t cross aren’t in the way.

Look at your paddle.

Bill H.

varnishing paddles
I showed Marc Ornstein (of Dogpaddle Paddles) a paddle a couple of weeks ago that required re-varnishing and asked his advice. Mine also was bright finished (varnished) with the finish worn through in spots.

Marc suggested sanding down the whole paddle, to natural colored wood in the worn areas, but just to rough up the intact varnish where it was not worn through. He said using something like 120 grit paper for this purpose would be fine. After getting down to clean wood and allowing it to dry thoroughly, he suggested using spar varnish. While a high quality varnish like Epiphanes or Z-Spar Captain’s or Flagship varnish certainly looks nice, it is expensive, and a paddle would require only a small portion of a can and the unused portion would probably go bad unless you had another use for it.

Marc said he has gotten good results with Cabot’s which is relatively inexpensive and available at Lowe’s. I have also heard good things about Behr spar varnish which I believe is available at Home Depot. Marc said he has had trouble with sags and runs when using Minwax Helmsman spar varnish, and I have observed that as well. Marc said he uses inexpensive disposable foam brushes.

When I finished my wooden sea kayaks I wet sanded with 1500 grit paper between varnish coats. I have been told three coats is the minimum, and the more coats (up to seven or so) the nicer the finish.

I have heard some claim that varnished paddle grips and shafts are more likely to cause blisters. Frankly, I am skeptical about that idea, but I understand some prefer the feel of an oiled grip and/or shaft. I think a varnished finish looks better.

OK, look at it this way. How does the
moisture you postulate as “trapped” get into the paddle in the first place, if it was made “dry” and then epoxied? Go to the West site and read up. Epoxy does not trap water in wood, it keeps it out. Otherwise you would see people oiling wooden yachts and speedboats, instead of using epoxy.

Check out people who still race using wooden bent shafts. See how many oil their paddles rather than varnishing them. And I assume you read the data I posted on how moisture content weakens most wood.

I started using epoxy with wooden boats, oars, and sculls, in 1960. I did my own repairs, but I never noticed our riggers oiling the oars rather than varnishing them. Around 1962, Pocock started putting a thin layer of glass and epoxy around their shells, for strength and to further reduce the risk of water infiltration. Guess it trapped that water in there real good, huh? I made my first wood and epoxy paddle in about 1976, and it is still light and devoid of waterlogging.

As I said, there are many paddlers who can oil rather than varnish their blades if they want to. Their paddles will be a little heavier and a little weaker, but for some purposes that does not matter.

Finally, do you have ANY real evidence that properly varnished or epoxied paddles “trap” moisture inside, rather than holding it outside?

Make my own grips, have varnished
some but have come to prefer oiling for grips. A bit better traction when I need it. Appreciate your passing along those tips from Dogpaddle. I have some dogwood set aside for paddle grips and a clear varnish may preserve the pinkish color better.
gives one the option of ordering online. And you can order 250ml cans of varnish. They are expensive, but if you routinely have varnish go south between projects then it might be an option.