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Lumber choice for durable solid-wood paddles

Discussion in 'Paddles and Paddle Making' started by Tsuga88, Sep 23, 2021.


What's your favorite wood for a solid one-piece tripping paddle?

  1. ash

    3 vote(s)
  2. maple

    1 vote(s)
  3. cherry

    3 vote(s)
  4. sassafras

    1 vote(s)
  5. spruce

    2 vote(s)
  6. Western cedar

    0 vote(s)
  7. Other

    0 vote(s)
  1. Tsuga88

    Tsuga88 Curious about Wooden Canoes

    I've read a fair bit about different woods and their characteristics, which for the most common seem to range from most durable/heaviest/harder-to-work to lighter/easier-to-work/less durable with something like: ash > maple > cherry > sassafras > spruce > western cedar, at least among the more common woods.

    What I'd like to understand is how that translates into use. I'd like a paddle I can use for lake and slow river travel. I'm not planning on running rapids or non-stop poling with it, but from time-to-time have the need to push off rocks, logs, gravel and sand bottoms, etc., and maybe even push over a short shallow spot or low beaver dam.

    How much do the above woods need to be babied, assuming a standard oil or varnish finish (no fiberglass)?

    Is ash overkill if I'm not running the Allagash? Is sassafras too frail to push off with at all? I have it in my head that softer woods should only ever be used in deep water - is this true? How soft is soft enough that it should never touch rock?

    What paddles (woods) do you actually take on the water with you for regular use?
  2. Dan Lindberg

    Dan Lindberg Ex Wood Hoarder

    This could get interesting.

    My lake tripping paddles are laminated, with a mix of hard wood edges and soft wood inners, about 1.6 lbs.
    For casual lake playing, usually a 1 piece, either hardwood, ash or cherry, (only because that's what I have, I would love a nice spruce 1 piece.)
    Shallow rivers, ash 1 piece.
    Deep rivers, see lakes above.

    Tsuga88 likes this.
  3. Greg Nolan

    Greg Nolan enthusiast

    We currently have some 20 paddles of various shapes and materials – materials not on your list include walnut, basswood, mixed-wood laminates, and even plastic/aluminum. Over decades of paddling I have used these and others, have made a couple of paddles, repaired a few, and even modified the work of a master paddle maker to suit my preferences.

    These days when my wife and I paddle together, we usually have three paddles in the canoe, one each for paddling, and one as a spare in case of dropping a paddle as we poke about. She now almost always uses a spruce Shaw and Tenney paddle, and has always preferred a lighter paddle to a heavier. I mostly alternate between a Shaw and Tenney spruce paddle and an ash northwoods style made by Alexandra Conover Bennett. And once in a while, I use a maple paddle carved by birchbark canoe builder Steve Cayard.

    I like the light weight of the Shaw and Tenney; I prefer the grip of the Alexandra Conover – and the extra length of that paddle is useful once in a while as wehn paddling while standing. With Alexandra's blessing, I thinned the shaft of her paddle a bit, trading unneeded (for me) stoutness for a more comfortable (for me) thinness. I have found both materials quite durable enough for the kind of paddling we do – similar to what you describe – easy lake and river paddling with the need to push off from a stray rock or sand/gravel. Bar. And while the ash paddle is noticeably heavier than the spruce (even after thinning), I have used it on all-day paddles and multi-day trips with the weight causing no actual problem.

    I really like the Cayard paddle best – because of the way it is carved, it is fairly light – almost as light as the spruce Shaw and Tenney, though it is probably not as durable for hard use as most ash or other hardwood paddles, but again, it is certainly tough enough for the kind of paddling we generally do. But it is just too nice – a real work of art – to regularly risk subjecting it to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that even ordinary paddling can present.

    I did once did an easy repair/reinforcement of the somewhat battered tip of an ash paddle that I bought used at a yard sale – sanding and trimming the tip lightly to remove damaged material, then coating/filling with epoxy to which I added graphite. The repair has withstood use well, though I don’t know if it actually added any strength. But it looks better that the abused blade tip as bought. It might give some pre-emptive protection to a new paddle, either hard or soft wood, and would be essentially invisible with clear epoxy.
    100_5910 s.JPG

    All of which is to say that a paddle’s material is only one factor to consider, and not necessarily the most important (though at my age – 77 in a couple of days – I pay more attention to weight than I once did.) Balance, feel, length, grip, and blade shape are at least as important, if not more important. And I believe that a properly made paddle of any of these woods should be durable enough for the kind of paddling you describe – just be sure that the blade tip is neither too pointed nor to thin – and you have to be the judge of what “too” means for your paddling. But all other things being equal (they never are), I would probably go for spruce.
    Tsuga88 likes this.
  4. pklonowski

    pklonowski Unrepentant Canoeist

    I'll agree with all of the above, though I use almost exclusively laminated paddles; making one-piece paddles wastes a lot of wood. But don't rule out mahogany, either Honduras or African, as they make beautiful paddles (albeit a tad on the heavy side). The one single-piece paddle I use is ash, and the tip was getting pretty beaten up on the industrial and agricultural debris in my local waterways, so it ended up getting 1/4" taken off the tip, and then the bottom 3" got glassed. Just a little bit of glass like that doesn't add a whole lot of weight, though it might be noticeable on a well-balanced paddle. It's another option.
    Tsuga88 likes this.
  5. OP

    Tsuga88 Curious about Wooden Canoes

    Great discussion, thanks all. In hindsight, I suppose I shouldn't have limited the discussion to solid wood paddles - really I was curious about the wood characteristics but it could just as well apply to laminated paddles. Someone recently showed me some laminated paddles they'd made, with maple shafts and Western red cedar for the bulk of the blade, which surprised me given that red cedar seems to dent so easily. I also wondered whether you really need the strength of a maple shaft if the blades aren't made to put up with much.

    For what it's worth, I realize fiber-glassed glades and epoxied tips are good solutions - I have a Bending Branches paddle with both a glassed blade and epoxy along the entire edge of the blade for the days I know I'll be encountering a lot of obstacles or pushing off a lot (or to carry as a spare when I'm out with a nicer paddle, in case I encounter tougher conditions), and I have some cheap aluminum/plastic paddles for whitewater trips.

    But the discussion of wood properties was helpful for me nonetheless, both for knowing how much to baby a solid cherry paddle I recently aquired, and as I think about trying to make some of my own.
  6. Gil Cramer

    Gil Cramer The wooden canoe Shop, Inc.

    I have never seen a 60's vintage or before Old Town paddle that wasn't straight-grained spruce.
    Tsuga88 likes this.
  7. pklonowski

    pklonowski Unrepentant Canoeist

    Cherry makes for a wonderful paddle, but I baby mine... deep water only.
    Tsuga88 likes this.
  8. Todd Bradshaw

    Todd Bradshaw Sailmaker


    Left to right:
    #1 - A very old and fairly plain maple paddle.
    #2 - This one started life as an 8" wide, 6' long Old Town ash beavertail (1970s). It was basically better suited to be a bear club than a canoe paddle. It was then narrowed and much excess wood thickness was removed from the blade with a spokeshave in order to give it decent weight and balance. It was in progress and unfinished when the photo was taken. I have two of them and they do extra duty for the bow and stern paddlers in my fur trade canoe.
    #3 - A late '60s Old Town spruce paddle with a rather large diameter round shaft.
    #4 - Another Old Town spruce from about 1980 with a more typical, slightly oval shaft.
    #5 - This one is special, maple, and most likely well over 100 years old. It is one of my favorite paddles to use. I have a feeling that it was made by someone familiar with making spars for sailing craft. The long grip is actually eight-sided with the corners smoothed off. It continues down, eight-sided for maybe 18" where the eight-siding ends with a little crown and the shaft becomes round for an inch or so. Moving downward the shaft slowly becomes quite oval in the lower grip area. The blade is thin with a slight ridge down the middle up high and sort of a bulb on the bottom edge for durability. So far, nobody has figured out who made it and when. It is pictured in the separate photo next to an Old Town spruce and you can see how much thinning and shaping was done to yield a hardwood paddle with durability, fairly low weight and excellent balance. I hate paddles which are blade-heavy. I want them to hang from my arm, balancing and seeking a level attitude around the lower grip area.
    #6 and #7 are laminated bent shaft paddles (supposedly made by Camp) for marathon racing, though we also used them at times for Quetico tripping in strippers.


    As you can see, I like good balance in paddles and plenty of cargo room in my "solo" canoes. I originally built that one because I wondered how it felt to paddle and steer a big fur trade canoe. Norm Sims and I built it diagonally in his garage with about a foot to spare at the ends to be able to get around it. The answer was that it paddles and steers pretty much like any other canoe. If you know anybody who is looking for a 22' fur trade canoe let me know. I'm getting too old to horse this thing around.

    paddle-2a.jpg 017a.jpg
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