Wood Paddle Finish Question

We are getting ready to put the finish on a freshly cut wood paddle for my daughters 4-H project. What finish would be best for both show and long life durability? We cut the paddle from a very old piece of fir.

I like epoxy. Some will say tung oil,
some polyurethane.Will it actually be used?

for glossy tough finish
Get a spray can of Minnwax Helmsman spar polyurethane at your local hardware / home store (or just a pint of the stuff if you have spray finishing equipment). Hammer 3-5 finish mails about an inch apart, in a straight line, and equal height into two short chunk of 2X, and position these chunks of 2X so the paddle lays on the mail heads at at the blade and at the grip. First day spray coat both sides of the paddle and respray areas where finger smudges will be from turning paddle over. You want to just cover the wood so the spray droplets fuse together for a nice smooth finish. Too much spraying will cause runs in the finish. Next day in the morning rub down finish with a new 3M green or yellow pot scrubber to smooth out any trapped bubbles or dust. If there are any runs, they will have to be sanded down to smooth. Use a clean cloth to wipe any dust of sanding debris off the paddle. Starting second day spray one side of the paddle in the morning then in the evening flip the paddle and spray the other side. Do this for 3 more days, using your pot scrubber and clean cloth between coats.

Just curious
as I’m about to attempt carving my first GP soon.

Wouldn’t one want a penetrating water repelling stuff applied before sealing the wood with a urethane or epoxy? I suspect if so, then adhesion of the top coat may be affected, but without a penetrant I think the wood would be very susceptible to water penetrating thru the top coat and swelling/twisting, etc.

What’s the prefered approach for durability in water?

I don’t use water repelling sealer

– Last Updated: Aug-08-08 8:50 AM EST –

I have never used Thompson's or similar product underneath a paddle finish as a water repelling sealer. My paddles get hard use (4 to 6 hours a day on 8 to 10 consecutive days on trips) and I don't have problems with wood absorbing water. I tend to select water resistant woods for making paddles, but also use willow and butternut as light weight blade wood; woods that are not water resistant. But I do encase the blade tip (where most water absorption would occur) in resin. And I also recoat the deep scratches and nicks in the paddle finish at least once a year (winter) to keep water away from raw wood.

So many options
I use Epifanes Clear High-Gloss exclusively on my paddles, except where an oiled (tung) grip or shaft is wanted. For one paddle, it’s probably not worth it to pay for a top shelf marine spar unless you really want to. But I prefer oil base over PU finishes. There are many, many to choose from.

You could Helmsman PU spar it, you could tung oil it. IMHO epoxy is a bad idea, nothing gained by it. Just more toxic, harder to work with, and no UV inhibitors to keep it from dying faster. Unless you’re glassing a blade and overcoating with a spar varnish, stay away from epoxy.

I have finished many projects with poly, including the spray. Then I used a high-grade varnish and wondered why I ever used the poly. Varnish is much easier to work–doesn’t run as much and self-levels better than poly. Then I used Watco. It’s the easiest of all, and it may have an advantage over both varnish and poly in that it penetrates rather than sits on top of the wood. When you put the inevitable scratch or ding in the wood, water will get under the surface seals, and once under, has only limited surface area to evaporate (back out through the same hole it came in through). So basically, the water is trapped. The penetrating oil finishes don’t form a tight seal, like poly and varnish.

The varnish finish looks best for the longest time. The oil finish (Watco) has a nice sheen when its new, but quickly goes flat. Oil needs to be periodically reapplied, and upon reapplication, quickly regains its look.

Varnish is probably the most common finish for paddles. I think that after many years, paddle makers have figured out works best, and it’s varnish.

When the time comes, I plan to varnish the canoe paddle on my workbench. But for a project with a child, an oil like Watco will be easiest, is fast, clean-up is easy, and the result will look good.

~~Chip (paddle making novice)

Spar over Watco
You can use a spar over Watco, provided you let the Watco cure fully enough. In fact, on more than one outdoor piece (not paddle) I have used Watco for easier finish buildup than the Epifanes schedule.

Interesting. I am using Watco on ash
gunwales never treated with anything else, and it sure is taking a long time to harden. Right now it is waxy and a bit sticky, and I sure wouldn’t varnish over it now.

I wonder whether I should have used my favorite furniture oil, Minwax 209, which is more penetrating and leaves a harder wood surface than Watco. The Minwax 209 is compatible with a wide range of varnishes.

For paddles, I have usually used West epoxy followed by a varnish with a UV inhibitor.

advice from Mad River
website on the advantage of oil on something that flexes like a paddle or gunwale.


Advice from Jimi Snyder

Yes, owning some MR boats, I’ve had
that information, but I don’t think it necessarily applies to paddles. I’ve never seen a slalom paddle oiled rather than varnished or epoxied and varnished. My Nashwaak cruiser came varnished. Paddles that are just oiled rather than sealed can pick up some ounces of weight, and it is generally recognized that wood needs to stay relarively low in water content to stay dry.

Gunwales are another matter. However, I owned a Mad River Compatriot which Jim Henry supplied with varnished sitka spruce gunwales. They lasted pretty well, but succumbed to neglect earlier than ash would have done.

Kocho, the key reason West Epoxy
has been so successful in the marine field is that it is impervious to water infiltration. So the only way water can get through a properly applied epoxy coat is through knicks or gaps in the coating. Actually, even with my old Clement paddles, coated only with polyurethane varnish, infiltration of water has not been a problem.

DuluthMoose, thanks for the spray varnishing tips. I’ve never tried a spray for varnish.

the term "varnish"
I find the MR explanation very simplistic. Shellac is technically a varnish. Most quality marine spar varnishes are tung oil based. PU varnish. Lacquers. Etc. All these have wildly different characteristics. Who knows what MR means in their FAQ when they say “varnish” vs. “oil?”

Shellac is NOT a varnish
Not all film finishes are “varnish”.

By definition, varnishes are conversion coatings, that is they cure using oxygen from the air and the cured finish is chemically different from the liquid varnish. Cured varnish will not dissolve in the thinner that was in it in the liquid state (usually mineral spirits, a.k.a., “paint thinner”).

Shellac is a solvent-based finish that doesn’t cure, it simply dries. It can be re-dissolved in the same solvent that was used to dilute it (typically alcohol). in that regard, it has more in common with lacquer paints.

Expert Opinion
Well, I consider that jimmystix link an expert opinion. Polyurethane, eh? It will darken considerably over time (unless you paddle in the dark, and then who cares what it looks like), but if you are looking to preserve the paddle, sounds like poly is the stuff.

I wonder if it is because upon flexing it cracks less than varnish. We really need the results of McCrae’s finish tests here, but his universe of samples is stationary. Simulated paddling will be a much harder test.

I don’t like the way polyurethane runs, but that may just mean my application of the finish is unskilled.


Whose definition? Specious claims.
You’re taking a definition from some book and saying that is “the” definition.

Sorry, but shellac is a varnish.

I hear that Mike has trained
his Maine Coon cat to flex the samples several times per day to simulate paddling.


from real experts
check out this discussion from the WCHA.


most are boatbuilders

Harpsichord makers do not class
shellac as a varnish. They specifically say NOT to use varnish on the soundboard, but instead specify two coats of clear shellac. The shellac is there just to make the soundboard easier to dust and keep clean.