Building a Canoe Paddle

From the moment he stepped foot in a canoe, my son has never been satisfied with just sitting and taking in the views….. He wanted to paddle! He was not even 2 years old and at the time there was not a paddle small enough for him. This was my chance to make him one. As with all projects, we both learned a lot and had a blast making it.

His first canoe trip.

Selecting the wood:

Traditionally, canoe paddles are made from hardwoods. The definition of a hardwood is a species of tree that will yield a seed that has a coating on it, either in the form of a fruit or a shell. (Oak, maple etc). Softwoods, yield seeds that do not have any particular coating. Example: many conifers. The terminology is sometimes misleading because there are some softwoods that are actually harder than hardwoods, but in general, hardwoods are usually indeed harder. These trees take much longer to grow to the equivalent size and as a result are usually denser.

For a project such as this, you will likely not find the board of wood that you need from Lowes or Home Depot. Your best bet is to go to your local lumber mill or wood working store. In this case, we were fortunate enough to find our wood from Woodcraft. If you haven’t spent much time in a lumbar yard, some of the terminology might be confusing. You will hear the term “board foot”. This is the unit for which wood is sold. IT is misleading because it is actually a unit of VOLUME not length. A board foot describes a piece of wood that is 1inch thick, by 12 inches wide, by 12 inches long. Hence 144 cubic inches. For our project, we used a 3′ x 1” x 4”  foot long piece of hard maple.

When you are selecting the wood, make sure that there aren’t any knots or wood defects in the areas that you will be using, ESPECIALLY in the shaft of the paddle. These knots can lead to weakness in the paddle and could eventually fracture down the road.

Equipment/Materials:

  • hand bench plane (I used a #4 Wood River plane)
  • spokeshave
  • jigsaw or bandsaw
  • sandpaper (120 and 220 grit)
  • woodburning pen (optional, if you want to add designs to the wood)
  • clamps
  • tack rag
  • spar varnish
  • woodstain (if you want to stain the wood)
  • linseed oil (optional)
  • orbital/hand sander
  • protective eyewear

Selecting the design:

When selecting the design of the paddle, keep in the mind where the paddle will be primarily used. Is it flat water? whitewater? tripping? leisure paddling? There are numerous types of canoe paddle designs to choose from. These mostly differ in the shape of the blade of the paddle. Different paddle shapes will move different amounts of water. I’ve always prefered the beaver shape paddle, it is not too wide and it is not too narrow.

The Woodworkers Journal: provided a template for one of their Northwoods canoe paddle. A beavertail shaped paddle. I didn’t use these exact dimensions because we are completing a scaled down version for my 2.5 year old son. But I was influenced by the overall shape. Notice how the design templates are for one half of the paddle, when you are finished tracing that half, flip it over and trace it again to create the complimentary side. This will allow for the most symmetrical template possible. If you’re going to making many paddles over the years, consider making this template out of wood for safe-keeping over the years.

Once the outline has been drawn on the paddle, use a bandsaw or a jigsaw to cut out the paddle. If you spend extra time making the cuts as precise as possible, this will save you time later with the hand carving, shaving and sanding. I used a Bosch jigsaw.

Here is the video of the northwoods canoe paddle making process.

2. Planing

The key point to make during the remainder of the carving process is to maintain symmetry through the axis as well as throughout thickness. Use a gauge to mark the very center of the board on it’s axis as well as its thickness. The line, will let you know how close you are to your desired thickness of the blade. You may decide to vary the wood thickness based on the type of wood as well.

When working on a project like this, I want to emphasize the importance of knowing your tools and how to maintain them and to keep them functioning at their very best. There is no better example than the bench hand plane. If your tool is properly sharpened, maintained and tuned, this part of the project can be the best part. If your plane is not set up correctly, this could lead to a very frustrating experience.

In addition to keeping your tools finely honed, it is crucial to take into account the wood’s grain direction. Ideally your board is free of knots, this will make for the easiest planing. If there are knots, just be cautious of the grain drain direction change in these areas which could leave to tear outs. One way to battle this is to take shallower cuts if necessary. There are numerous tutorials online about how to read grain direction on a board.

Here is a useful video on how to set up a hand plane.

The Handle

The handle is probably the most difficult part of the carving process. There are many different methods to tackle this portion. Some paddle companies will actually do this part all by a large drum sander. Others will use files to whittle away the handle. I prefer to use the spokeshave, although this can be a little, especially if you are making sharp turns. I sanded parts of the handle afterwards with a belt sander.

Watch this craftsman at Shaw and Tenney (an oar and paddle company based in Maine) shape most of the paddle using a large drum sander. Some people will say that this method is not truly “hand made”. Nevertheless, the precision is impressive.

Woodburning

This step is entirely optional; I really wanted to put a logo on our canoe paddle, with a maple leaf (representing our Canadian heritage) and an oak leaf to represent our currrent home, Virginia. Similar to the wannigan I constructed, the wood burning process is a very enjoyable part of the paddle making process. Now if you were a professional furniture or paddle maker, you could consider just getting an ironing brand. Who knows? Maybe one day we will start canoe paddle business. It certainly seems like there are quite a few out there. There is one paddle company in Minnesota named: “Sanborn Canoe Company” that appears to be doing well. They specialize in artisan paddles.

The finish:

There are different ways that you can finish your canoe paddle handle. While some people will varnish the entire paddle, others leave the handle unfinished. I opted for the latter. I left the handle unfinished and unvarnished. I later added 3 coats of boiled linseed oil on the handle. The decision to oil or varnish your handgrip is purely personal preference. I found that over long canoe trips, the feeling of a varnished hand grip can make your hand a little raw after thousands of strokes. Finishing with linseed oil, gives the handle a buttery smoothness, similar to an axe handle. Over the years of use, the grip will darken naturally.

Personal preference, but I left the handle, unstained and unvarnished. I used 3 coats of boiled linseed oil to give it a buttery smooth finish, that will feel much better in the hands. Over time, the wood will darken naturally from the oils on your hand as well as the elements.

In conclusion:

For the canoe enthusiast, I can’t think of a more rewarding experience than using a paddling that you’ve created. It is also a fantastic father son bonding experience. As with other projects, I always find that I learn so much from even the smallest of projects. In this case, the big take home point, is that maintenance of your tools and knowing how to calibrate and hone them is essential to getting a precision job done. The hand plane was a joy to use once sharpened and calibrated. This holds true for the spokeshaves as well. Obviously with any project, the use of a work bench with clamps to suspend your work also makes the task of carving your paddle infinitely easier. Have fun.

**This is the best canoe paddle carving I have found on the internet. It features Ted Moores (craftsman) and this video from the 1990s was produced in Ontario, Canada.**

Jockey’s Ridge State Park – Nagshead, North Carolina

In the middle of the Outer Banks in North Carolina, you would never expect to find the tallest active sand dune on the east coast. At Jockey’s Ridge State Park, you can explore these sand dunes and more. The park covers an area of 427 acres and is the most visited park in the North Carolina park system.

The temperatures can apparently be truly desert-like in the hot summer months. Reaching 110 degrees F and the sand can be up to 30 degrees hotter. Our visit was in late September so there was virtually no one when we arrived. For our son, this was the largest sandbox he’d ever seen and he was thrilled.

* Make sure to bring plenty of water on those hot days. Sunglasses help too even if it’s not sunny, especially on windy days

Boreal to Barrenlands “Crossing Labrador” – a video series

I came across this great canoe video series, following the journey of four young men, as they make their way across Newfoundland and Labrador. There appear to be 13 episodes in total. I thought I’ve been in some buggy areas before in my life, but it is a fraction of what these guys endured. Amazing journey. Enjoy!

 

“On July 12th, 2019, Noah Booth, Alex Traynor, Dave Greene and Chris Giard will embark on a 35-day canoe expedition where they will paddle, portage and track their canoes 700 kms from the Menihek Hydro Dam to the coastal village of Nain, Labrador’s northernmost permanent settlement. The route is designed to traverse Labrador in its entirety where they will travel through three major ecosystems, and cross two heights of lands.

The key objective of the expedition is to gain a cultural and environmental perspective of one of Canada’s last remaining wilderness frontiers and become the first modern day team to connect Labrador City to Nain in one trip. Throughout, the journey will be captured through film to produce a documentary that will be submitted to film festivals, as well as be promoted through their social media platforms and sponsors. In doing so, they will highlight and pay homage to the historic travellers such as the Naskapi and Montagnais Innu people who have used these lands for generations as ancestral hunting grounds as well as the European explorers such as A.P. Low, William Cabot and most recently Herb Pohl who have mapped these lands through extraordinary exploration.”

Check out their website and blog here

Goshen Pass Natural Area Preserve – Goshen, Virginia

I remember the simple days back when it was just me and my wife. If we wanted to take a day trip out to the mountains, such a feat could be accomplished within a moments notice. Some light packing, some food and water and we were good to go. These days, with two kiddos, a simple day excursion requires enough packing for an expedition – everything from maps, first aid kits, spare clothing, food, water, toys for the car, diapers, and the list goes on. Although it definitely takes more energy to embark on such trips, the reward is also greater. There is nothing better than seeing a child’s reaction to the marvels of our natural world. Every breath of brisk, fresh air seems to infuse them with energy as they are pulled from one discovery to another. Whether they are seeing a new animal for the first time – hearing the rush of the river as it crashes into rocks, or feeling the textures of different tree barks, I believe that there is not a better classroom out there.

For Earth Day 2020, we planned for a trip to the scenic, 936-acre, Goshen Pass Natural Preserve in Goshen, Virginia just outside of Lexington in RockBridge County. Elevation: 1,350 ft (411 m). We were blessed with absolute perfect weather. High of 64F and sunny. We knew that our prime spring hiking days were coming to a close so we wanted to get out there before the Virginia vegetation took over. Even this late in April, it was still perfect, the mountains were later to bloom than the city. Awesome. Mountain flowers were in bloom and the new buds emerging on trees, created an emerald backdrop with beautiful displays of every hue of green.

Enjoying Earth Day 2020 on the Maury River in Goshen Pass.
As of April 22, 2020, the swinging bridge at Goshen Pass appeared to be boarded up and closed to the public possibly due to precautions for COVID-19. Unfortunately, they did not list this on their website.

The drive from Richmond to Goshen Pass is about 2 hours from Richmond, and it is a pretty one. The gentle rolling hills, and well kept farms provide a peaceful journey as you course your way through the mountain. The natural preserve is Virginia’s oldest state-managed natural area. The region was acquired in 1954 to protect the gorgeous 3.7 long gorge along the specatcular Maury River. There is certainly magic here still yet to be discovered. There is an old-age chestnut oak forest, pine-oak-heath woodland and rare species of plants.

Our original plan was to hike a 3.0 mile circuit that started at the famous Swing Bridge over the Maury River. Despite the website, saying that this area was open, we arrived to find that the bridge had actually been boarded shut! Fortunately, this area is large enough to explore without the main hike. We drove back 2 miles on Route 39 to reach the Maury Memorial overlooking the Maury River. This area has a shelter, several well kept picnic areas, grills, portable restrooms and best of all, great access to the Maury River. We decided to spend the day here, catching crayfish, observing wildlife, tenkara fly fishing and just enjoying the outdoors. Surprisingly the area was really quiet. Other than one other family, we had the whole river access to ourselves. I learned later that this segment of the Maury River was popular for whitewater kayakers during certain parts of the year. This is certainly something I would like to check out in the future. The area by the swinging bridge appeared like a good put in for a fun run. I guess what they say is true, the Goshen Pass area is one of the most beautiful spots in Virginia.

  • Public access for hiking at Goshen Pass Natural Area Preserve is available via a parking area off Route 39 and swinging bridge across the Maury River, both maintained by the
    Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF) as an access point for the Goshen-Little North Mountain Wildlife Management Area (WMA). DGIF requires a WMA Access Permit
    for visitors age 17 years and older who do not possess a valid Virginia hunting, freshwater fishing or trapping license, or boat registration. Contact: the DGIF Field Office in Verona (540) 248-9360 or go to http://www.dgif.virginia.gov/access-permit/ for information on acquiring a WMA Access Permit.
  • preserve guide factsheet (PDF) and map are available to assist in planning your visit.

Happy Earth Day 2020

As we continue the fight against covid-19, don’t forget to take a moment to go for a walk, go for a hike, go for a bike ride – whatever you have to do to recharge and reconnect with Mother Earth. Hopefully, once this is all over, we will also learn to treat our planet and home better too…please be healthy and safe.

Deep Bottom Park & Four Mile Creek – Henrico, VA

Deep Bottom Park is special not only for its historic significance, but also for its position on a unique part of the James River known as — the oxbow. The U-shape bend of the river at this section of the James resembles the harness for an ox. The river in this section is also unusually deep, hence the name of the park.

“…Gabriel Archer, who along with John Smith and a band of other Jamestown colonists first traveled through here in May 1607, estimated the depth at “five or six fadom eight oars’ length from the shore.” ” – National Park Service, US Department of Interior.

This portion of the river is also part of the Captain John Smith Chesapeake national Historic Trail, one of only two water trails designated as a “National Historic Trail”, the other being the Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail. The Captain John Smith trail consists of a series of waterways in the eastern USA covering approximately 3000 miles (4800km) flowing along the Chesapeake Bay. The waterways are of historic significance as they trace the 1607-1609 voyages of Captain John Smith on his expedition to chart the land and waterways of the Chesapeake.

In 1612, years after his expedition, John Smith was able to publish his map of Virginia, a masterpiece that would continue to be used for 7 decades.

Deep Bottom Park is a quiet and small getaway on the James River. About 20 minutes out from Richmond, the park provides access to the two boat ramps – one is a canoe launch facing Four Mile Creek, and the second is the main boat launch out to the James River. This section of the James River is uncharacteristically deep (hence the name of the park).

We were blessed with another beautiful spring day. The sun was out with temperatures in the low 60s F. Although not designed as a biking trail, our toddler found plenty of suitable ground to blaze through. We spent most of our time at the canoe launch, where we had the dock all to ourselves. From here, we were able to immerse ourselves into the surroundings and the wildlife welcomed us. We saw a large osprey, a large blue heron, fish jumping out of the water and countless frogs and tadpoles and everything in between.

From what I could see from the dock, the waterway up to Four Mile Creek, looked like a good one to paddle. The water was calm, and the wildlife viewing appeared promising. Whether your interest is history, wildlife, the river or fishing, there is something here for everyone. (Be safe out there, and always make sure you have your personal flotation device, PFDs).

Deep Bottom Park also offers picnic facilities, restrooms, and fishing are available at this site. The boat ramps are available twenty-four hours a day to launch and retrieve boats. The park grounds are open from dawn to dusk.

9525 Deep Bottom Road | Henrico, VA   23231

Map of the area.