Wooden paddle finish voodoo



Best Wishes


I use the finish Phil uses. He;s the one that told me.

Yet more
"Thank you for your in depth contributions. Do you mind saying something about your background in this area."

It’s pretty simple really, I’ve read a lot about finishes and I’ve experimented with them on paddles and SOF frames.

“You say that one should use “pure” oils in order to know what you are actually using. That sounds reasonable. But the only oils I’ve heard about so far are tung and linseed (not counting beeswax). You’ve said you use tung.”

You can buy pure linseed oil - either raw or boiled - just about anywhere. I don’t recall ever seeing any products advertised as linseed oil that weren’t actually that. Tung oil is another matter, as there are myriad “Tung Oil Finish” products on the market that are wiping varnishes or blends. You can get pure tung oil, but generally you have to get it through a woodworking supplier, as the stuff you find on the shelves at home centers and hardware stores is suspect unless it actually says “100% tung oil” on the container.

“Not to be argumentative, but one of the authors whose comment about tung you called BS is the same author you recommended earlier, Bob Flexner. He says in the article I linked:

“But tung oil is too difficult for most people to use by itself as a finish. You apply tung oil just like linseed oil or oil/varnish blend, but you have to sand tung oil after every coat, not just after the first, and it takes five to seven coats, allowing two to three days drying time between each, to achieve a smooth, attractive sheen.”

This kind of statement deters a novice like me from even trying tung. Would you mind elaborating on why you are saying tung doesn’t have to be vigorously sanded and dried multiple times. Is it because you are cutting the tung with varnish in the first place?”

That’s interesting, but without context, I can only assume he’s talking about using it as a furniture finish, which is his primary business. Personally, I wouldn’t use straight tung or linseed oil as a furniture finish, as it’s not durable enough and I wouldn’t want to be renewing it constantly.

As a paddle finish, none of what he said is true unless you’re determined to have a flawless, furniture-grade finish on your paddle. I used straight tung oil on a number or paddles (and straight boiled linseed oil, too) before I experimented with blends and ultimately switched to them. It was a wipe-on, wipe off process, just as with linseed oil; there were no special techniques or other gyrations involved. It couldn’t have been easier.

I understand your confusion, as the subject of wood finishing is full of myth, folklore and just plain nonsense that’s been passed down for ages. Bob’s book helps shed some light on the subject, but as you can see, there’s still a lot of variability in finishing and it is entirely dependent on the nature of the object you’re finishing and how it will be used.

Vaclav has done some great work…
…in the area of fabrics and epoxies, among other things. Keep in mind that these are the results of an extreme test. Unless you leave your paddles out exposed to the weather year-round, you won’t see the kind of degradation that he did for quite a while.

Whether to use epoxy and fiberglass should be a decision based on whether you need the reinforcement or not; it’s really not about finishing. Epoxy and glass are structural components, not just cosmetic coatings like finishing products. If you don’t need their structural properties, there is absolutely no point in using them.

Billionaires and paddles

I called Phil and he said he was making a canoe for a billionaire in Connecticut. I told him that wasn’t me, but I did have $87.95 to splurge on a paddle.

Turns out he’s from Connecticut, too, and we had a great chat talking about paddling in the uber-magnificent Sparkelberry Swamp and rolling canoes with S-blades. He sent me his DVD, which is breathtaking.

What’s a mere $3,500 for an ancient wood paddle when you are buying a $130,000 ebony canoe to hang in the boathouse of your $30,000,000 yacht?

He should have charged him much more . . . .


WOW lots of good info
So here’s my 2cents. I often use a coat or two of Watco Danish oil on my recently completed paddles…but my favorite stick (which I made in Don Beale’s class at SSTIKS a few years ago) doesn’t have any finish at all. That said, it has acquired a “patina” especially in the loom-shoulder area. I think it is some kind of “natural” oil from my hands.

Many of my creations are in WRC and they have a certain amount of natural resins in them anyway. The white Pine, Spruce and other “white wood” sticks usually get the Watco treatment.

Personal voodoo
So far, this is a pretty polite and informative thread, and I’ll only contribute my personal wood finish voodoo, a combination of study, experience, and refusal to admit what I did last time was actually a mistake.

My whitewater paddle is laminated wood, glass fiber/epoxy. Spar varnish on top of that. It works fine, doesn’t have to be babied, and it survive d a major overhaul and refinishing a few years ago.

My canoe poles live in a harsher environment, much more susceptible to crushing-type damage. They get a couple of coats of epoxy, applied (carefully) with a heat gun in the manner recommended by the Gougeon Brothers. About 18" of the working ends get epoxy+filler+graphite with the faith/assumption/design/hope that that’ll be less likely to wedge. The regular epoxy gets a couple of coats of spar varnish, steel wool to break the glaze, and old-fashioned x-country ski wax for grip.

Tung Oil
Beale reccomends tung oil. You control how glossy it gets with the number of coats. I have two cedar gp’s from him and this is what I use. I figure Beale knows best, just look at the paddles he builds!

A thought
on UV protection and discoloration. The tests cited and illustrated make a great point BUT, paddle exposure is generally quite limited compared to the test samples.

Most people use their paddles intermittently and store them under cover when not in use. Even when in use, part of the paddle is most always shaded ( or shadowed) or in the water. Even for those of us who use their paddles heavily, it would likely take multiple lifetimes to gain the same UV exposure as the cited test samples.

Marc Ornstein

Dogpaddle Canoe Works

Custom Paddles and Cedar Strip Canoes

Beale vs. bnystrom; what tung?

– Last Updated: Aug-18-09 3:15 AM EST –

Beale's web page for solid paddles says he uses two coats of an unnamed oil over a coat of epoxy:


This conflicts with bnystrom's advice not to put epoxy under oil.

In addition, if Beale is using tung oil, I think it is important to know whether he is using pure tung, tung mixed with thinner, or tung mixed with varnish. We now know there are differences.

In contrast, Beale's web page for laminated paddles says he uses three coats of spar varnish over one coat of epoxy:


So, fellow aficionados of voodoo and juju, why do you think he treats solid western red cedar differently from laminated red cedar? Maybe that accounts for the $150 price difference.

Good thought
Bnystrom and Mornstein are surely correct to point out that those test panels have been continuously exposed to the weather for a year, whereas a paddle blade would not be so extremely exposed.

Especially the paddle blade of the Dogpaddle CEO, who favors palm rolls and in-water returns.

Those test panels do look like my unfortunate Old Town OTCA, and may provide interesting data on the quality and longevity of different epoxy products.

CLC: how to varnish over epoxy
Here is CLC’s advice page on how to varnish a hull over epoxy:


Some nuggets I noticed:

– All epoxies have no UV protection, will break down in sunlight and turn yellow and brittle.

– Because of epoxy “amine blush” you can’t varnish properly over epoxy until the epoxy is fully cured, which may take weeks or months.

– You can avoid amine blush and most of the varnishing delay by using an amine free brand such as MAS epoxy.

– “Spar varnishes” sold in hardware stores aren’t likely to have much UV protection or durability.

– You need at least three coats of quality varnish to get UV protection for the epoxy, five is good, eight is probably overkill.

the $150 price difference…
… is pretty obvious to anyone who has made both solid and laminated paddles - pretty reasonable - and seems to be pretty consistent among makers (though nothing else may be).

Balls of lanolin
from sheep armpits, rubbed into bare wood and warmed between coats with a heat gun.

Easy to apply, easy to touch up, nourishes the wood. A bit aromatic though.


what a hard-surface makes one do…

– Last Updated: Aug-18-09 5:10 PM EST –

HA..now that I can't change my Subject line...
Has always seemed like a hard surfaced shaft & grip will force a paddler, over time, to increase one's grip to totally control...thus limiting dexterity and comfort, but then the mass produced paddles for the recreational paddler aren't made for paddlers that spend more than an hour or two(at the most) out on the water.
Great stuff...great topic Glenn!!! Oils/wax (of some nature) going into the raw wood and given time to cure...imho. Can't remember where but read of rubbing the oil/fat? off chicken bones..into the wood. Granddad's old paddles were painted...but I'd go with the cured oil(s). My existing and next paddles are and aren't treated...but will be... with some mix of linseed, but that's just my $.01. VERY nice articles on the woods..!!!
*I have done the epoxy-thing to cheaper paddle throats/blades...at some point, but was mostly cause of the weaker paddle's pricing...etc.

Price was a throwaway line
My serious question was why oil a solid paddle and varnish a laminated paddle.

If there is no structural reason to do so, I’ll hazard a guess that it’s purely visual aesthetics. He wants the higher gloss to show off the laminations more strikingly.

There are reasons
Mostly the way the surface grain can respond differently with different wood types, and the differential rates of expansion, when they can breath under an oil finish (more as it gets time to refresh). To keep a nice feels it makes the most sense to just go ahead and seal laminated paddles with epoxy (and then UV protect the epoxy with varnish). This is a non issue with solid - and you can use whatever you prefer with no worries.

That said, I’ve done several laminated paddles (epoxy for laminations and tips) and oiled them. Sort of a do as I say not as I do thing - and odd cases where they were either all cedar strips or cedar and pine. Not as huge a difference as with softwood/hardwood combinations. Have to ask fellow Pnetters like BrazilBrasil and Moparharn how they’re holding up for them.

There is no answer to this question
You can’t dictate the perfect finish for every paddle any more than you can dictate the perfect finish for a roll top desk. Some would use shellac, some danish oil, some lacquer, etc. Woodworkers are like cooks, they all have different recipes. Some work as well as any other, some are O.K., some suck. The sticking point is that unless it’s totally botched, the preference is all subjective. Technical advantages are limited enough that debate has raged for years with little or no advance.

It’s not hard to find a 70, 80, 100 year old paddle that just needs some sanding and a new coat of whatever works.

Bottom line, several things work. From there it’s just what you mesh with. There isn’t the one finish above all others.

Harvesting lanolin?
Can you expand on the harvesting of the lanolin from sheep. My wife is a weaver & has 30 Shetland sheep. Is the paddle run across the armpit, and what do the sheep think of this?

My tentative voodoo conclusions

– Last Updated: Aug-19-09 3:05 PM EST –

Clearly, much about finishes is simply subjective or aesthetic preference. However, there has to be some objective truth as to WHETHER and HOW some of these treatments work functionally. This is where the voodoo is.

I think the least amount of voodoo inheres in varnish. It seems to be well understood that varnish functionally provides a microscopically hardened surface veneer, seals out water, provides some UV protection, and makes things look shiny.

Oil seems a little more voodooish to me in terms of how it actually interacts with the wood, whether and how much it hardens, how long it lasts, and how best to apply it (pure, thinned, mixed, sanded, not sanded).

The most voodoo, to me, surrounds epoxy. I am not convinced it has a useful purpose on a paddle. We do know it has a negative: UV cracks and crumbles epoxy into a whitish or yellowish powder. So what virtue offsets this negative? None, in my tentative opinion.

One virtue, it is said, but not consistently or empirically, is that epoxy "hardens" the wood. Well, I can certainly see how epoxy provides a microscopically thin hard surface veneer like a varnish, but why is that important if I am going to apply several coats varnish anyway?

Absent test results, it seems very unlikely to me that epoxy can actually "strengthen" the wood itself in terms of any important characteristic such as breaking, tensile, compression or expansion strength. Hence, I tentatively reject wood "strengthening" as a virtue of epoxy.

The only virtue left attributed to epoxy is that is seals the wood against water. I accept that, but don't find it to be a persuasive reason to put epoxy on a paddle.

If I am going to put several coats of varnish on a paddle, it seems to be completely redundant and unnecessary to put another water-sealing material underneath all that varnish, particularly a material that degrades under UV. You then will have a maintenance problem that involves touching up two different materials.

If, on the other hand, I am going to finish my paddle with oil, I am persuaded by the argument that epoxy will interfere with the proper action of the oil. This makes logical sense. If the epoxy so hardens and fills in a wood surface as to seal out water, the epoxy must also seal out an overcoat of oil from properly penetrating into the wood. Properly penetrated and polymerized oil will seal out the water, making the water-sealing action of epoxy unnecessary. Moreover, epoxy under oil will have no UV protection and will degrade very fast. Hence, epoxy under oil seems not only to be contradictory, but an actual functional detriment.

(And Watco will also harden the wood surface somewhat. I have just tested that with my fingernail on basswood. This is possibly because of the varnish in Watco.)

The GP'ers have dominated this thread, but I started out talking about a canoe paddle. My tentative conclusions for my single blade paddle are:

-- No epoxy.

-- A surface hardening, chip resistant, clear finish, which won’t alter color, on the blade and about 7” up the shaft where the paddle may be pried of the gunwale during a northwoods stroke. First choice: a two-part urethane such as Interthane Perfection Varnish. Second choice: single part marine polyurethane.

-- “Oil” on the rest of shaft and grip. I like Watco because it is a pre-blend of linseed oil, varnish, thinners and driers – and many furniture finishing experts say good things about it. Plus, I’ve used it for 30 years with good results on gunwales and paddle grips. One change I will make is to apply pure boiled linseed after two or three coats of the Watco. To me, pure linseed is a known oil and will be consistent with Watco. Pure tung sounds a little too controversial for me.

YMMV, and so may mine after my next brush with more information.