Making a Greenland Paddle
Note: this was originally produced for a class on paddle making. All prices are approximate and in Canadian dollars.
First of all, download the instructions: Making a West Greenland Paddle by Chuck Holst.
You’ll find the link on the Qajaq USA Kayaks, Paddles, Gear web page.
Scroll down past the book references; and you’ll see it at the top of the Paddles and Paddle Making section.
There’s also a paddle making video at Matt Johnson’s web site. It is 32 minutes long.
Paddle Supply List
Every student is required to supply their own tools and materials.
The following are required:
- Western Red Cedar, 2×4 eight feet long
- Low angle block plane
- Drawknife or good carving knife
- Dust mask
- Wet-dry sandpaper. Several sheets from 120 to 400 grit. Must be waterproof.
- Pencil ; HB or softer.
- Long straightedge
- Ruler or measuring tape
- Garbage bag for shavings
The following items are optional.
- Rasp or Microplane
- Tung oil
- Small paint brush (< 1″)
- Clean rags or good paper towels.
- Protective gloves
In addition, please bring a solid chair or bench to sit on while carving. You’ll be working outside, so dress accordingly and hope it doesn’t rain.
Read the following sections to decide; which optional items you may wish to purchase.
There are many types of wood that can be used to make a Greenland-style paddle. I am going to recommend only one ; Western Red Cedar (WRC).
You can use other woods. But WRC is suitably light, strong, easy to carve, resistant to rot and easy to acquire locally.
Don’t even think about buying the wood the night before the paddle making session!
No one sells paddle-making blanks around here ; they sell lumber. You are going to have to find a piece of lumber that is suitable for use as a paddle-making blank. What you have to look for is good; straight grain end to end. The grain must be tight and free of knots.
I have had luck finding such wood at Home Depot. But not all of their stores sell the right type of WRC. When I find a Home Depot that stocks the right kind, I end up going through a dozen pieces to find perhaps one that is suitable. Often, I find that I have to go to several stores before I find a suitable piece.
Plan on spending some time looking for a good piece of Western Red Cedar.
The only cedar that’s right is “Select grade” or “Architectural grade” wood. That is sold in the aisle where they sell premium grade oak, maple, poplar, and select pine wood that is finished on all sides. It is not fence grade or construction grade wood. I checked recently and the current price for an 8 foot piece of 2×4 WRC is $34.00. Remember that most of what you put into making a paddle is effort and time, so saving a few dollars on an inferior piece of wood is not a good idea.
By the way ; the shavings you create while making the paddle are good for mulch. Bring a garbage bag to take them with you.
Selecting Wood for Your Paddle
The ideal piece of lumber will have long, clear grain that is straight from end to end. This is an example ; the grain does not significantly run out on the side and is straight, not wavey.
If the grain runs out, as in the following, the paddle will tend to break on an angle following the grain. A paddle made with a piece like this will not be as strong as one made from a piece like the above.
Flat sawn boards will sometimes show a Vee shaped grain pattern. You do not want wood like this.
The worst wood is construction or fence grade that is full of knots and has grain that wanders all over the board. Don’t even consider a board like this.
This is what tight, straight grain looks like. You want to see grain lines on millimeter centers. I’m not certain. But I’m guessing that this kind of wood is from old growth, where slow growth creates fine grain. Newer forests result in faster growth and wider rings.
More open grain looks like the following. The grain lines are several millimeters apart. This kind of grain will not be a strong as the one above. You can get this kind of grain showing in wood that is flat sawn with the grain at a shallow angle to the face. This photo is the same scale as the one above.
When inspecting end grain, do not confuse the marks from the circular saw pattern with the grain itself. Since the end of most sawn lumber is quite rough and dirty, it is sometimes hard to tell the difference. Some lumberyards won’t mind if you lightly shave down the end to see the pattern clearly ; a reason for buying your low angle block plane first.
- This is the end grain pattern seen with quartersawn lumber. This is the ideal wood to get. You will not find this in many places, as quartersawn wood is more expensive than flatsawn and is considered a specialty item. You can find this at some lumber mills.
- This is almost as good as quartersawn. The grain is at an angle to the side of the wood. But is fairly straight and parallel. You can usually find something like this even at Home Depot.
- This is very good flatsawn lumber. The grain is relatively straight and parallel and runs mostly from one narrow side to the other with only a little grain running out to the long side.
- This is a poor piece of wood. The grain lines are noticeably curved and the wood clearly has been cut close to the center of the tree.
- Another poor grain pattern. Similar to the previous, the grain is noticeably curved. This is the pattern that corresponds to a Vee grain pattern on the adjacent face.
You want to find something that resembles 1, 2 or 3. You are most likely to find something like 2 ; just avoid a piece with significantly curved grain; try for the straightest end grain.
Tools You Need in Order to Make a Paddle
There are many tools that folks use to carve a paddle. I find I prefer two for most work ; a low angle block plane and a small drawknife. I also use a spokeshave and Microplane at times. Sandpaper is used to finish the paddle.
The initial shaping of the paddle is done with a saw. You draw the shape of the paddle on the 2×4 and then cut away large chunks of wood to get the rough shape and size. After that, it’s all carving.
In this session, I’ll be using a bandsaw to cut the paddle blanks once you have drawn the size marks on the surface. That will speed up the work a lot. Using a hand saw to cut this wood is quite time consuming.
Most of the blade shaping uses a block plane. The plane must be razor sharp and well adjusted to shave off a paper-thin layer of wood on each stroke. This allows you to take the paddle down to its final shape with little effort. But a lot of strokes. It also allows you to approach the final shape slowly and cautiously, without making too deep a cut at any time. Since the paddle blades are long and have smooth faces, the block plane ensures a smooth even surface.
To get the most out of any cutting tool, it is important to keep it razor sharp. There are some excellent sharpening instructions on the web ; search for “scary sharp” for one technique. Leonard Lee of Lee Valley also wrote an excellent book on sharpening ; The Complete Guide to Sharpening.
The following are recommendations on tools available locally. We’re lucky to have ready access to one of the finest woodworking tool makers in the world ; Lee Valley Tools & Veritas. I have no connection to the company other than being a pleased customer. I have no hesitation in recommending their products ; they are good to superb quality and fairly priced.
There are a number of choices for a low angle block plane. Forget about the under $40 versions at the hardware store ; they are junk. One of the best places to find and compare low angle block planes is at Lee Valley Tools. There are three stores in the GTA ; in Scarborough at Sheppard and Morningside, in Weston on Steeles west of Weston Rd and in Burlington east of Guelph Line just north of the QEW (behind the Home Depot).
There is also a store in Ottawa on Greenbank Rd just south of the Queensway if you’re up that way. The following list is in decreasing order of preference. The Veritas models are only available at Lee Valley (well, they are available at other suppliers. But those are hard to find). The links will take you to the Lee Valley web site.
- Veritas Low-Angle Block Plane ($139)
Fine Woodworking magazine selected this plane as the best overall value in low angle models. You can get better. But you’ll pay about four times the price. Definitely worth the money if you plan on making more than one paddle or are interested in woodworking.
- Veritas Apron Plane ($89/$99)
This is a simple little low-angle plane that is affordable and suitable for smaller hands. The only thing that is missing on this model compared to the above is an adjustable mouth. The prices reflect two different blade options.
- Stanley Contractor Grade Low Angle Block Plane ($59)
A decent plane if sharp and set up well. Compare this one to the Veritas ones and you’ll see what quality the extra money buys.
- Record #60 1/2 Low Angle Block Plane ($79)
Not quite as good as the Stanley, though very similar (the Stanley supports the blade edge a bit better). May be hard to find and for an extra $10, the Veritas Apron plane is a much better deal.
- Holtey A31 Thumb Plane ($4600.00)
I’m sure this is a fabulous plane. But I’m just kidding here. I just thought some of you would like to see how much you could pay if you got carried away.
One of the best places to find and compare these tools is at Lee Valley Tools as well.
- Veritas Flat Spokeshaves ($85)
Nice tool. But pricy unless you plan on using one a lot.
- Veritas Low-Angle Spokeshave ($65)
A sweet spokeshave according to those that have one. If I was to buy one today, this is the one I’d get.
- Contour Planes ($17.50/$15.50)
I haven’t used these. But they look like a decent deal for the occasional user. You’d have to keep them sharp.
- Record Spokeshave ($39)
A barely adequate spokeshave that takes a lot of work to sharpen and set up so that it can be used. Not recommended
- Stanley Spokeshave ($30)
- Mastercraft or Footprint or other brand Spokeshave ($cheap)
- Veritas Carver’s Drawknife ($60)
Most drawknives are too large for comfortable use on paddles. This one is a good size. But pricy unless you plan on using one a lot. I have this one and use it a lot.
- The All-Purpose Pushknife ($21.50)
I’ve looked at this one and it looks like a reasonable tool. It can be used as a drawknife and is a decent price.
- Sloyd Knife ($12-$13.50)
Sloyd is the Swedish word for craft. These are good, inexpensive knives that hold an edge. To quote Greg Stamer: “Builders Svend Ulstrup, Mark Rogers and Bob Boucher use them extensively for SOF kayak building.” Choose the one where the blade length is compatible with the size of your hand and your strength.
- Crooked Knife
Traditional canoe maker’s carving knife. If you know where to get a good one at a decent price, buy one. Check Lee Valley’s stock ; they usually have a carving knive with a crooked knife blade. Note that a crooked knife is sold as left-handed or right handed.
There are other knives you can use for carving ; even a good X-acto knife can be used. However, really good knives specific to carving are expensive and the preferences are personal. For your first paddle, a smaller knife will be used mostly around the shoulder of the paddle.
Almost anything will do for now ; even a sharp Swiss Army Knife. Only the long cuts on the loom need something more robust like a drawknife or spokeshave. On a budget, the Pushknife above may be a good choice. Both a pushknife and a contour plane would be redundant for a beginner.
One of the best places to find and compare these tools is at Lee Valley Tools as well. You can get the sandpaper at any good hardware store.
- Microplane Shaping Rasps ($10-$15)
Microplane Handled Rasps ($16)
These are excellent shaping tools. They can be used to shape the loom. The round ones are good for shaping the inside of the loom shoulder and the flat one for the loom itself. They are definitely optional, as you can do the same with other tools.
Also consider: Stainless-Steel Rasp and Zester Holder ($20)
I know the latter may sound crazy. But everyone I know who’s seen one of these in the kitchen has gone out and bought one. You could use it for your paddle and then clean it for use in the kitchen.
- Stanley Shurform rasp.
These tools are similar to the Microplanes; but make a much rougher cut. I did have an older model that was quite nice. But they no longer make that model and the blades for it are history. They are not much cheaper than the Microplanes, so I’d not recommend them ; get the Microplane instead.
- Nicholson (or similar) rasp
These look like files with rough cutting surfaces. I wouldn’t bother.
You will need at least two, better three, 8.5 x 11 inch sheets. One at 120 grit will take down the high points and remove a lot of wood quickly to fine tune the shape. Another at about 240 grit will smooth out the wood well and one at 360-400 grit will make the finish very smooth. Make sure that the sandpaper iswet-dry, as you will use these to wet sand the wood for a fine finish. If it is not waterproof paper, it will disintegrate when wet.
With cedar, finishing is optional. Cedar will stand up well to water. However, I prefer to finish the paddle with tung oil.
There are many finishes that can be used
Hard finishes like varnish or epoxy, are not great. They don’t give a nice finish for grip. Some folks use techniques to give a less glossy finish so that the surface isn’t slippery, however, I don’t think it’s worth the trouble. As well, if the hard finish is damaged, it traps water beneath it and that will result in spots on the paddle.
Oil finishes will penetrate the wood and form a polymerized finish in the wood fiber. The finish is very thin and doesn’t penetrate deeply. But it seals the wood reasonably well. If the finish is damaged, it is easy to fix by just re-oiling. There are many oil finishes that can be used; tung oil seems to be the most waterproof.
If you find tung oil in a store, check the label carefully
Not all tung oils are equal and some actually contain no tung oil at all!!! You want a fairly pure tung oil with dryers added so that it would polymerize quickly. Tung oil without polymerizing dryers will take a long time to cure. Most will contain some petroleum distillates, mineral spirits or turpentine to thin them. The finest tung oils are very expensive and may be overkill. I find that Circa 1850 brand is a good choice as it is reasonably priced and works well (available in the paint and wood finishing section of a good hardware store or Home Depot. It’s in a pale yellow can.) You’ll only need a bit ; a half-liter is a lot. But that’s the size that’s common.
Applying tung oil requires a small paint brush (one-half to one inch wide is fine) or some lint free rags or good paper towels. You paint on the tung oil, wait about ten minutes and then wipe off the excess. Wait several hours and then apply another coat. Repeat for about 4-6 coats. I heat the oil carefully before painting it on to keep it very fluid and thin for penetration. You’ll want to do this outside, since tung oil has a strong oil-paint smell.
Note that the rags will be susceptible to spontaneous combustion! The tung oil polymerizes in an exothermic reaction and the heat can cause the rags to ignite. I lay the rags out flat and not balled up so that the heat is dissipated. As well, I keep them outside until the oil has cured. Once cured, the stuff is safe. You can also store them in a covered metal can with water in it.
Tip and Edge Reinforcement
For the most part, making special tip or edge protection for the paddle is outside the scope of this paddle making session. If you check through the into on paddle making on the web or on Qajaq USA’a web site, you will find that there are some interesting approaches using bone, plastics, hardwood lamination and other techniques. Feel free to experiment with these on future paddles.
I find that just coating the tip of the paddle with good quality epoxy provides all the protection I need. It is important to use a high quality marine epoxy and not a cheap 5-minute epoxy. Make sure that the epoxy soaks into the end grain at the tip. This makes the tip fairly tough and resistant to splitting. If you want to use epoxy on the tip apply it before oiling the wood.
I have also used a thin layer of fiberglass over the tip; however, I think this is more than is necessary. My most used paddle only has epoxy and it handles a lot of abuse. Another approach to toughening the tip is to add cabosil (fumed silica) to the epoxy.
The biggest problem is that the best epoxies are hard to find in small quantities. However, the shelf life is a few years and you can use it for many kayak repairs and projects. Look for West Systems, East Systems, MAS, Industrial Formulators or similar brands at a marine supply shop or Lee Valley.
Safety for Making a Paddle
You need to use a mask when dry sanding and sawing wood. Cedar dust is toxic; so you don’t want to breathe it in. Standard dust masks are made for those without beards. Make sure the ones you buy are rated for wood dusts ; masks have different ratings; the higher the rating, the better. Avoid the masks sold at drug stores and such ; they are not designed for stopping noxious dust. You can also consider pleated dust masks. If you wear glasses (including safety glasses); the anti-fog dust masks are an option.
If you have a beard, dust masks don’t work ; they will not seal on your face. In fact, even a bit of stubble will make a dust mask useless. You need a positive-pressure system and they get expensive ; upwards of $300.
Gloves can protect your hands from cuts when carving. But they also reduce your control of the tools. When carving with a knife, you may consider using High-Friction Guard Tape instead of gloves.
For applying tung oil; you need to use protective gloves. Latex and nitrile gloves are good while vinyl gloves are less resistant to tung oil. You can buy these at most paint stores, at Home Depot or at Lee Valley. Cheapest in boxes of 100, they can also be found in packs of 10 or a dozen. Details on Kayak Wiki
I don’t use eye protection except when sawing. However, I do have break-resistant glasses, so I always have at least some protection.
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