Finding the Current

I made my earliest attempt at earning a living through woodworking as a teenager by making canoe paddles. I had a table saw, a Stanley block plane, a palm sander, a small bandsaw, and inspiration. I built a workbench with a particle-board top and fastened a cheap vise to the corner, and also employed one of those Black & Decker Workmate portable benches (still, the Pinnacle of Portable Workholding, in my mind). I had recently taken up canoeing, my brother and I having saved to buy a red plastic 15' Coleman craft for our voyageur adventuring in the local waterways. Problem was, the only paddles available were those ugly plastic-and-aluminum t-handled things you see everywhere, as well as flat and uninspiring wooden versions made from a series of 7/8"-thick laminations. Wood being better than plastic, we bought two of the latter variety. It didn’t take long for me to snap mine in half on account of it being badly made junk. I knew there had to be a better way.

A few survivors from those paddle-making days.

I went to the library to do some research (remember going to the library to do research?) and dialed up the ol’ Prodigy internet to see what I could find on the message boards. Surprisingly, there was quite a bit. Most professional paddle makers were turning out exotic laminated, bent-shaft, carbon-fiber-tipped wonders that cost more, much more, than our red plastic boat. But the paddles were gorgeous – I remember watching with excitement while the photos were slowly revealed as they loaded on the page. These makers shared about design considerations, shaft size, length, blade design, materials, you name it. I was grateful and amazed that so much information was freely available and willingly exchanged. Feeling well-equipped, I set out to make my own.

Seeing as how my budget was exceedingly limited (something around $10), I started with a spruce 2x4. I could cut this to length, rip the shaft out, then laminate the offcut 2x4 stock to the shaft for the blade and handle. I went with epoxy for adhesive and got the whole thing clamped up. As the glue did its thing, I made a graceful-looking half-pattern for the blade and assessed my options for thinning it down. I decided to go with the Stanley block plane – after all, didn’t that Roy Underhill guy on PBS use a plane to thickness his stock? Although I was quite sure at the time that any “real” woodworker had to use machines if they wanted to get anything done, the idea of using hand tools was quite appealing. I was never very comfortable with that table saw. I felt like it was looking for an opportunity to take a bite.

Half an hour into thicknessing the paddle blade with a block plane and I was reconsidering my interest in hand tools. I had established a nice pile of wispy shavings but was not making much progress in removing the over-an-inch of spruce that had to be planed away. I sat down, scratched my head, and pondered. What did I need? This should not be so hard. Those message boards gave me my next bright idea: a handheld power planer! That was the key! Now to find one, and cheap…

I was stuck in the matrix, where every new operation required a new machine to accomplish, where the solution was to tool up, not skill up. I did find a used power planer at a yard sale that year, which worked okay, and I was able to make a paddle for myself and for my brother. I really enjoyed the process and found some interest for “handmade” paddles among friends and family. By that time, I’d found an excellent book by Graham Warren and David Gidmark, Canoe Paddles: A Complete Guide to Making Your Own. Unlike many typical how-to woodworking books these days, this one delves into the history of canoe paddles, different patterns and styles, and their cultural and geographical significance. And it commends the reader to try to make a paddle the old way: “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.” There are instructions on how to hold an axe and use it to remove material, and even a lovely chapter on making your own crooked knife. I was once again drawn to the world of hand tools and learning more of the skills of the past.

I never earned much from making and selling paddles, but I’d like to think that each one was better than the last. My most profitable (and most recent, although it's been a few years) was a Greenland-style kayak paddle with a carbon-fiber ferrule, custom-fit to the paddler’s height and arm length. But late last year I decided to dust off the old skillset, pull out the Warren/Gidmark book, and make my wife a canoe paddle for Christmas – actually by hand this time. It’s a spruce shaft, red cedar blade (with fiberglass-laminated tip), triple-chevron voyageur decoration, and a cherry handle that is an amalgamation of a t-handle and traditional guide grip. Now we just need some open water and fair winds, and we’ll be ready for adventure.


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