Autonomous Motion

Canoe Paddles


Guide to oar-making

After a week plying a rented aluminum and plastic paddle on a scouting canoe trip, I wondered just how difficult it would be to make my own out of wood. The answer: not too difficult. As this book explains, making a canoe paddle is part woodworking, part sculpture, part whittling and well within the grasp of anyone willing to work patiently. It requires a minimal number of basic tools (consider that Native Americans used very primitive tools to make theirs). Naturally, power tools will speed things up a bit but they aren’t required. Ten or fifteen hours of pleasant work will yield a paddle every bit as good as one you can buy.

Canoe Paddles guides the reader through selecting the right material, laying out the pattern and shaping the complex profile of a paddle step by step. Gidmark and Warren explain and illustrate each operation clearly and offer options for using power or hand tools. They include a thorough treatment of the history and function of this deceptively-simple ancient tool to convey to the reader the huge importance of proper paddle geometry. The book also includes twenty pages of patterns and specifications along with advice on selecting the right paddle for different types of paddling.

I bought this book right after using that rented paddle and returned for our annual canoe trip the next year with my own homemade paddle, which is now a veteran of four or five trips. I couldn’t be happier with the way it performs. The paddle is a glue-up of ash, cherry and mahogany, but as the book shows, paddles can be made from commonly-available woods found just about anywhere in the world.

-- Clarke Greene 03/10/09


Choice of grip is subjective. To be comfortable, it must conform to the shape of your hand; if you paddle both sides, you should verify that it is comfortable in both hands. If it is too thick or too thin, you will probably have to grip it too tightly, which will result in premature muscle fatigue. It should be significantly scooped away at the sides to relieve pressure on the inside of the thumb, which is the classic site of blisters.

At sometime or another most woods have probably been used to make canoe paddles. Native paddle makers surely would have selected the most suitable local woods where possible but might have been forced to use less desirable species in emergencies or when traveling in regions where good trees were scarce... Although you can, to some extent, choose a wood to suit the use of the paddle, the major factor influencing the choice may well be availability.

Woods that aren't recommended are oaks, because they are hard to carve; elm and beech, because they warp severely; hemlock and tamarack, because they are knotty and splinter easily; balsam, because it breaks; and walnut and mahogany, because they are not necessary -- they are for show-offs.

-Understand how to exploit the inherent accuracy of your tools.
-Break down the the complex shape into simpler ones that you can crave accurately.
-The blank [ed.: wood cut to a basic paddle shape] is symmetrical just like the paddle that your are hoping to produce. So you don't have to create symmetry but preserve it. Whatever you remove from one side of the blank remove from the other.
- Recognize the best sighting points to be able to spot flaws.
- The most important tool in carving a paddle is not a spokeshave (or equivalent) but a pencil -- for shading areas of wood to be removed.

You can make a canoe paddle with very simple or very complex tools. Traditionally paddles were made with an ax, a crooked knife, and a piece of glass or slate to scrape the surface of the wood to a smooth finish... Different people want different things from paddle making from the complete involvement of using an ax and a crooked knife through to the creative challenge of dreaming up jigs and templates to allow the production of this complex shape with power tools. But even if you start out just wanting a canoe paddle in the minimum time with the minimum effort, it is quite likely that you will become caught up in the process and be moved to slow down and appreciate the greater level of active participation that simple hand tools bring.