Paddle woods

The little diversions and digressions on which the Internet takes me never cease to amaze. I was wondering why “seasoned oak” is the holy grail of fuel for wood-burning stoves, when other woods, such as locust, hickory and maple seem to do real well. An Internet search later, I stumbled into a table of wood properties (density, strength, flex., etc) that had me contemplating the next paddle I want to build.

Reviewing the table, my choice seemed obvious: spruce. But sources for spruce don’t exactly abound. A random misclick/diversion on this page took me to the bending branches site, and I was looking at the woods they use:

basswood, butternut, willow, and maple.

I’m familiar with basswood, having had a basswood pole. It was very light, straight grained, VERY flexible, and it took getting it into a bind while poking it through an ice-covered pond to break it, i.e. it had good strength given how light and flexible it was. I have some maple lying around the shop. I know it is a hardwood, but the table indicated it is middle-of-the-road for strength and hardness and on the heavy side for density. Butternut? Don’t know anything about that or willow.

My local specialty wood guys, who got me 16’ ash stock for gunwales, have a website ( that indicates they source basswood, butternut and willow, along with many other species. They don’t mention spruce.

My next paddle will be a shortie, single blade, for use in the kayak. In shallow water, I’ll use the double blade, because with its lower angle the double gets more blade and more bite. So I don’t expect to do a lot of rock bashing with this paddle. Being short, maybe I can get away with a little less strength in the shaft than a longer paddle would require. Laminating is an option but I don’t feel a particular need to layer.

This post is to solicit your suggestions for a short, light, straight blade/shaft paddle. TIA for advice.


Shortie rescue paddle
I made a delightful shortie sea kayak paddle from the very fist canoe paddle I ever owned many moons ago. I chopped down the shaft and ginned up a new palm grip. I fashioned the blade into a mini otter tail. I can motor along at about 1/2 throttle and roll with it on either side. I actually roll better with it than a full size paddle.

Paddle wood

– Last Updated: Dec-05-08 12:03 PM EST –

I've got a bunch of white spruce stickered in my wood cache. But here are a couple cons for spruce your book doesn't get into. Northwoods spruce tends to have limbs from the ground to tip top - usually knotty wood all the way. So it's going to be very difficult to find a clear, straight grain chunk of spruce lumber big enough to carve a one piece paddle from. And small knots are OK to work with if they are tight. Spruce knots are not always tight nor are they small. The wood also has the nasty trait of having voids that fill with pitch. You may not realize that a void is there in your workpiece until pitch starts oozing out later making a mess. A similar strenght / weight substitute would be doug fir - which is available most anywhere in clear, straight grained 2X pieces.

A local wood down your way that would make a nice one piece paddle would be cypress. Otherwise order white ash for durablility; black cherry or black ash for beauty; western red cedar, northern white cedar, redwood or red alder for lightness. Of the light weight softwoods, red alder probably is the most resistent to splitting.

Shaw and Tenney
makes paddles out of spruce, but I have no idea who supplies their wood.

They offer sassafras paddles and
they speak well of it as a paddle wood. I’m thinking of ordering a sassafras double blade. I’m sure it will cost extra, as they say sassafras wide enough is grown only in a few places.

Sitka spruce is used for wooden airplane spars, and also for keyboard and guitar soundboards. It is not cheap, but it is one of the strongest woods for weight. I have a 10’ by 6" by 1" in the basement that is very close-grained and absolutely free of knots. But sitka spruce does not stand up well to water, and so if I made a greenland paddle out of it, serious varnishing would be necessary. And spruce is kind of like carbon, very stiff for weight, but beyond a certain point, it breaks. Ash is rather the opposite. For my whitewater paddling, I prefer ash. Clement paddles used to be made of spruce, probably white rather than Sitka. They laminated them from thin stock so they could avoid knots. I have several Clements left from the 70s. They are strong, stiff, but the spruce will snap when you don’t expect it to.

I think basswood and willow are regarded as light filler woods by builders who use them. I have harpsichord and clavichord keyboards made of basswood. It works easily and is very stable. Usually basswood and willow are laminated next to tougher, heavier woods to reach a durable result. FG facing of the paddle blade is advisable.

Clear spruce
is hard to come by. Aircraft Spruce and Specialties probably has it but hold onto your wallet. Aircraft grade spruce is used for spars when building wings for home builts.

That said, I occasionally find a suitable 2x4 in the white wood pile at Home Depot.

sitka spruce used in paddles
Hi Dave,

The core of the Aleutian paddle I have been using almost exclusively since 2003 is sitka. It is protected by a few coats of Daily’s Sea Fin Oil (an oil finish like Watco and many others) and shows no damage from water. I made four more last winter and insisted on using sitka for the core of them.

Shaw and Tenney sassafras paddles are light weight and seem strong. I don’t own any, just held them at shows and tested the flex.


Hi Chip …

– Last Updated: Dec-05-08 7:44 PM EST –

..... not sure if you've ever tried a Carlisle wood paddle , but I can't help but tell you how much I like mine .

I use the 8" Beavertail and they say it wighs 23 oz. .
If that's what 23 oz, feels like , then 23 oz. is very light .

Carlisle offers the Owlet also , which is smaller version of the Beavertail , marketed towards youth because it is smaller . Would probably make a very nice short paddle because it's shortest length available is 36" I think , graduating longer from there .

Anyway , the Carlisle wood paddles are "Basswood" , and I can tell you , it is an excellent wood for paddles , light , strong and durable , close straight grain ... a pleasure to work with .

Here's a quick link to the Carlisle Owlet ... check the Beavertail while your there ... it's one fantastic paddle at a very reasonable cost .

ps., ... you can order any Carlisle direct from Old Town Canoe .

If you keep them oiled, they should be
fine. I had Sitka gunwales on a canoe and I was lazy about maintaining them. They dry rotted badly. Thanks for the report on sassafras.

Yeah, that’s exactly how I got mine.
A friend had built a biplane and let me have some of the sitka he didn’t use.

Ash Canoe Paddles
We have two paddles made for us by a paddling friend - they are made of ash, and we love 'em. Light, tough as nails, good flex - can’t imagi9ne a better wood for the purpose.

I build most of my paddles
out of clear, western red cedar reinforced with various hardwoods. The blade is faced with fiberglass.

Tight grained, red cedar is not very stiff but will flex significantly without breaking. It is also a very light weight wood. By facing the the shaft with hardwoods such as ash, the beam strength and stiffness is greatly increased. Facing the blade with fiberglass accomplishes the same. Other soft, light woods such as basswood could be substituted for the cedar, with a similar laminating schedule.

The characteristics of any paddle made from a single piece of wood will be constrained by the properties of that particular species. In general, if the entire paddle is made of a hardwood such as maple, oak or cherry, it will be strong and heavy. If made from a softwood such as basswood, pine or cedar it will be weak, and easily dent but will also be light. By laminating various woods, the best characteristics of each can be taken advantage of.

An additional advantage of building a laminated paddle is that the individual components are small. One doesn’t have to find a large clear board to begin with. This makes for a far more efficient use of dwindling resources.

Marc Ornstein

Dogpaddle Canoe Works

Custom Paddles and Cedar Strip Canoes

Western red cedar used to be
used for the skins of rowing shells. The skin sometimes “checked” or cracked along the grain if the shell hit a floating log at speed. But checks were easily repaired. I suppose the flexibility of the cedar was what helped the builders wrap it into the desired shape. In the '60s, Pocock began surfacing the outside of the cedar with a light layer of FG. It seemed to help. Of course, later on, Kevlar and carbon came in, and saved a few cedars for other purposes.

Carlisle …

– Last Updated: Dec-06-08 8:25 AM EST –

.... I just went back and checked what I said about the Owlet paddle ... my mistake , it's "only" offered at 42" , not 36" graduating to longer lengths . The great news is the 42" owlet weighs only 14-15 oz. . I wonder if one would remeber they have a paddle in thier hands at that weight ??

The Carlisle "Ausable" is the one that starts at 36" .
The Ausable is shown as weighing 28 oz. in 60" length . My guess is it's a bit heavier duty (thicker) paddle , because they say it's a utility grade . It also seems to have a pretty long blade .

My thought here is that the Ausable only cost $18. , so for that it might be worth getting one and customizing it yourself . Easy enough to shorten shaft w/clean cut and dowel just under grip , shorten and thin up blade if desired also .

Lots a fun to find a new paddle inside an already existing heavier one .

One more plug for the Carlisle 8" Beavertail , once you use one , you understand why I love mine .

ya know , Basswood is not a specific tree so to speak , it's many different trees with very close characteristics , a genus I guess .

Also I believe the laminating of woods in the blade , helps to maintain stability of the finish product because the grains are reversed as they are layed up which should be most helpful in thin applications like paddle blades .

Adding glass skin to a paddle makes no sense to me ... defeats any reasonable purpose . If you want a harder paddle surface , use a harder wood . If you are concerned about the occasional small dent , then don't use your paddle for paddling . All wood paddles are easy and fun to sevice , except for the shattered ones .

There's something about paddles that always gets my attention . Some I obviously don't like at all . Others I see potential in . And yet others , I think must be as close to perfect as it can get . What is it that attracks us to paddles so much ... is it thier shapes ?? ... I am definately the traditional 8" Beavertail type myself .

Facing paddle blades with fiberglass
allows one to use soft, light weight wood and still achieve a stiff rugged blade. It’s the same principle used in the manufacture of many carbon fiber blades; a soft light inner core (usually foam) and a tough, high tensil outer shell or skins of carbon fiber.

I’ve nothing against solid wood paddles. I’ve owned plenty of fine ones myself. Lamination and the use of glass facings however allows one to engineer other, here to fore unavailable characteristics.

Marc Ornstein

Dogpaddle Canoe Works

Custom Paddles and Cedar Strip Canoes

Hey Mark … Have you guys tinkered with
bamboo yet ???

Just wondering…

Seen some nice (wood) canoe blades down here with balsa too

I’ve not used any bamboo. I’m not sure what type of processing has to take place to get from a hollow “stem” to flat boards. I suspect that alone is an involved process.

I’ve picked up some pieces of bamboo flooring and they are not particularly light. As to strength characteristices, I have no idea.

If someone else has some insight about this, I’m all ears.

Marc Ornstein

Dogpaddle Canoe Works

Custom Paddles and Cedar Strip Canoes

Fiberglassing the paddle
I don’t know if the dents that Marc was referring to are on the blade, or shaft. My paddles get dented on the shaft, and any time I paddle a river where I end up doing lots of prys, I end up with dents in the shaft.

Fiberglassing the blade allows a very skinny blade to be very strong. Someday you might decide to set aside those “warclubs” you use now and spend a day with a well-made cedar paddle (or splurge and try a nice composite). Put enough miles on the boat in a day using a well-made lightweight paddle and one that weighs 28 ounces will never again feel “light” in your hands. Also, once you get used to a paddle that knifes through the water and makes underwater recoveries and various sculling actions effortless, a cheap paddle is no longer any fun at all. As is true for anything else, what “feels” like a good paddle changes with experience.

Actually, I wasn’t the one who mentioned
dents, but getting to the last point, I glass the blades and throat for stiffness, not the shafts. I hestitate to put glass on the shafts because if it does get damaged, the paddler is going to end up with a hand full of fiberglass slivers. Personally, I am fond of the feel of a well finished wood shaft.

My shafts generally have hardwood facings on the front and back of them making them stiff and dent resistant. The sides are generally cedar and the cedar does get dented. Those small dents become part of the paddle’s patina. I’ve occasionally put hardwood cheeks on a shaft but in my opinion, it’s not worth the added weight.

Marc Ornstein

Dogpaddle Canoe Works

Custom Paddles and Cedar Strip Canoes

Right you are
I see that now. It was Pilotwings’ implicating that the purpose of fiberglass wrapping was to provide dent protection that made me assume you must have mentioned dents. Looking at what you actually wrote, I must now assume that the statement about preventing dents by using fiberglass came out of thin air. I don’t get too worked-up about dents either, but sometimes I need to wear light gloves to keep them from wearing on my hands too badly, and then I’ll sand the shaft enough to smooth-off the sharper dent edges. Square-edged vinyl gunwales are murder on paddle shafts.