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.**

Building a Wannigan: In the Hudson’s Bay Tradition

If you have spent some time canoeing up north, you might have run into paddlers lugging around a heavy wooden box along for the ride. Oddly enough, the paddlers hoisted this box on their back, with a thick leather strap banded across their forehead to support the weight. Inside this mysterious box were plenty of camping treasures: pots, pans, lights, games, matches and more. This traditional piece of canoe gear is known as the wannigan or wanigan. Essentially, it is a wooden box that serves as a mini camp kitchen – storing cookware, food and goods on a canoe or snowsledding trip.

The tumplines that are used for carrying these boxes are just as interesting. They are thick and durable bands of leather that serve as a harness for these heavy boxes, and they allow the wannigans to be “tumped”. For over 200 years, wannigans have been on canoe voyages. Their use can be tracked as far back in the hands of the hardy voyageurs (french canadian fur trappers). For them however, this was not a recreational camping box, but functional storage device that they hoisted through hundreds of miles of mosquito-ridden boreal forest, day in and day out. Life for them, was certainly hard.

The wannigan can make even the most remote of places, feel like home.

Today, the spirit of the wannigan is very much alive and well in all parts of canada and the northern USA. There are certain camps in Ontario that continue to use traditional equipment such as wannigans on their canoe trips. Camp Keewaydin is a fine example. At these camps, children hoist these heavy boxes with them through Canadian boreal lands as they make their way through expeditions on their own.

 

There are those that feel that the wannigan is impractical or just downright unnecessary in the age of waterproof plastic bins. Love them or hate them, I believe that wannigans help remind us to exercise a little bit more caution on canoe trips. They remind us of the history of canoeing in Canada and serve as an important link to our past.

I’ve always wanted to build one to for the family and to keep traditional way of canoe camping alive. More importantly, I wanted something to build and share lasting memories for the kids.

Step 1: The design

The iconic Hudson’s Bay Company stripes on one of their point blankets.

The most important part of designing your wannigan is building one that actually fits your canoe! Since most canoe hulls are pretty close in size, the dimensions of all wannigans are relatively similar. Most wannigans are simple box designs, although there are some out there that are actually curved to the hull of the canoe.

Most wannigans are stained after their completion in a wood stain of one’s choice. I decided I wanted to create on in a more artisan fashion. In keeping with the tradition of this old piece of gear and the history of canoeing in Canada, I decided to paint this wannigan in the tradition of the Hudson’s Bay company. Known as one of the greatest companies in the world, this British company played an integral role in shaping the landscape of Canada and the fur trade. I always thought the classic Hudson’s Bay color scheme looked pretty cool. Basically plain white, with stripes of indigo, yellow, red and green, in that order. This color scheme and pattern was originally used on the Hudson’s Bay “Point Blanket”. This wool blanket was sold during the 1700 and 1800s and an item frequently traded with amongst First Nations people. The “point” system was a series of black lines at the corner of each blanket along the selvage. The number of lines would indicate how large the blanket was when it was unfolded. The pattern and design is seen today on numerous Hudson’s Bay Company goods, such as mugs, clothes, towels, canoes and even stuff animals.

If you are interested in learning more about the Hudson’s Bay Company, here are two great links.

 

Most wannigans have a lid that is flush with the sides, making the outline an even box. My brother created a wannigan in this style and we noticed that on trips with heavy rainfall, the wannigan actually started collecting water inside. To combat this problem, he cleverly sewed a Hudson Bay flag skirt for the wannigan which eventually worked to keep things dry. I decided in my design that I wanted to avoid this problem all together. I was going to make a lid that was slightly larger than the dimensions of my main compartment.

Duluth waxed canvas canoe packs, and wannigan with HBC skirt.

Creating a lid with a lip, would also allow me to wood burn a chessboard on the under surface to play during rainy day under the tarp or by campfire at night. The lip, would work to naturally keep the chess pieces from falling off the sides.

Step 2: The frame

I wanted to create a wannigan that did not have any metal screws. This one is held together by it’s joints as well as occasional wooden pegs and of course wood glue. The the large sides are from plywood and the ends are pine. While constructing the box, it certainly helps to invest in several large clamps at the ready. I subsequently applied several layers of colonial maple wood stain on the wannigan.

Finishing the lid.

Step 4: The fiberglass.

While some May consider this next step to be unnecessary, I knew it would add many benefits. Yes, I’m talking about adding a layer of fiberglass on the inside of the wannigan. This layer would not only strengthen the box, but would also make the inside waterproof – also making spills infinitely easier to clean. I’ve never worked with fiberglass or epoxy resin for that matter and this proved to be the most challenging step. One thing I learned was to mix small batches! In larger quantities I found that the epoxy and resin once mixed generated a lot of heat and solidified very quickly. It is of utmost importance to mix as accurate ratios as instructed as possible. This is a messy business so make sure you’re protected and working in a well ventilated area.

Step 4: Wood-burning

This was one of my favorite parts of the project. With the help of my brother, we tracked down several hudson bay logos on the internet. I was looking for one that was actually NOT as finely detailed because that would prove to be much more difficult to burn. Once you are satisfied with your design, print the logo out in “reverse”. From there, I used the hot pen and a flat surface to heat the paper and ink onto the wood. This would allow just enough ink transfer onto the wood so you can burn your design into it. I noticed that woodburning is not as easy on a softwood such as pine. Woodburning the cheeseboard also proved to be quite laborious however still enjoyable.

 

Step 4: The painting

This hbc canoe, and it’s contrast of wood and paint was where I got my inspiration for this wannigan design

This process actually took the longest. To ensure that the white was actually as “white” as it could be with clean stripes, I had to make some careful preparations. First off, it is critical to use a primer before the paint to soak up any stain. I gave this layer of primer a full 24 hours to dry, I wanted to prevent any peeling of paint because I was going to be using a lot of paint tape. After it was completely dried, I applied 3 coats of white paint, latex, and water based. Once this layer was completely dried I carefully taped the areas that would be striped. To make sure that the colored stripes would NOT BLEED ONTO the white paint, I actually painted OVER the taped margins with white paint to fill any possible micro gaps and for capillary action to soak up any potential paint. This is a CRITICAL STEP.

Step 5: The finish

Choosing the finish was actually more difficult than I thought. Typically, for any stained wood surface, you have a variety of options. For something that is going to brave the elements, you want it to be UV protected as well as water resistant. For such purposes, marine spar varnish (an oil base) is usually preferred. I realized that my project was different than just stained wood…I was working with stained wood as well as carefully painted pattern with a mostly white background. The pure white color posed an issue. Most spar varnishes will actually YELLOW the white.

I had to search for quite some time before I was able to find the finish that would NOT stain the white. It was a water based spar varnish that particularly says: “no yellowing”, make sure you look for that statement, because there are plenty of water based varnishes that will actually YELLOW your project. Believe me, you do not want to sand and re apply the finish. Another method is to have a sample test piece of wood that you can test the finish on. The water based varnish dries very quickly so you have to work relatively fast. Once the coat is totally dry, usually in about 3 hours, VERY gently run a 400 grit sandpaper over the surface to remove any bumps that may have developed. You ARE NOT sanding at this point, it is a VERY gentle grazing with the sandpaper. I ended up applying 5 coats of water based varnish to the wannigan.

Step 6: The tumpline

Another piece of traditional canoe wear, is the tumpline. Classically this Is a piece of leather strap that is tied to the canoe or waningan to assist in carrying and distributing the weight. The broad band of leather is placed over the forehead and the load is rested on the upper back. It sounds like an unusual way to carry loads but it actually works to help ease weight from the shoulders.

you can virtually use any type of rope for the tumpline but I wanted this thing to last the years and also to be crafted in the traditional sense. I purchased a leather tumpline from “Pole and Paddle” for $85. A bit pricey but worth it in terms of quality.

Conclusion:

As with most projects, the construction of this wannigan, turned out to be a much larger task than expected! I certainly don’t consider myself a woodworker but I tackled this project to also learn more about the craft. I was happy that I got my first experience with epoxy resin and fiber glass. I also have a much larger respect for the construction of a level and even box! I also got to try wood burning for the first time. All of these skills will come in handy in the future for bigger projects. At the end of the day, I was certainly glad that I built it. Although large, difficult to carry and heavy…….a canoe trip just wouldn’t be the same without this treasure chest. When you are out in the middle of boreal forest, with the water lapping on the sides of your canoe, and the distant calls of the loon fill the air, it brings me great satisfaction to know that I have a trusty kitchen with me, filled with tools, games and memories.

As I stare at this untouched wannigan, I wonder where this box will take us? How many seasons will it last? How many lakes will it see? how many portages shall it endure? and what adventures lie ahead? Only time will tell….