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Building a Canoe Paddle From a Piece of Wood

Building a canoe paddle has always been a dream of mine. Other than my cutting boards, I seldom get to actually use and experience my woodworking projects. Creating canoe paddle from a solid piece of wood will put my hand tool skills to the test but I expect it to be very rewarding.

I'm going to design, build and use a canoe paddle that I'm going to make from a piece of wood from my shop. I'm designing a paddle that is going to be used for primarily for lake voyages. Over the next few days (or weeks depending on how busy I am at work) I'm going to share my experiences making my first canoe paddle.

Many of the ideas and techniques that I'm going to use I learned from reading the book Canoe Paddles A Complete Guide to Making Your Own. This book is very comprehensive and answered all of the questions I had when I decided to build my own canoe paddle. It is a real page-turner if you're interested in canoe paddle making.

Step 1 - Selecting the right wood.

Selecting the wood for my paddle was a very difficult decision. There isn't one perfect canoe paddle wood. If you choose to make your canoe out of just one wood, there will inevitably be some type of compromise. My two leading candidates were ash and cherry.

Ash is a very versatile wood and it is also good for canoe paddles. This wood serves other sports equipment well since it is used for making baseball bats and hockey sticks. Ash's combination of strength and shock resistance makes it ideal for sports equipment. The downside of using ash is its weight, it is roughly as dense as oak so it is a little on the heavy side.

Cherry is very average wood in many regards. It is medium strength and density. Because of its medium density, cherry is relatively easy to work with both hand and power tools. Unlike ash, cherry is not known for its shock resistance but my canoe paddle isn't going to be a whitewater paddle so its ultimate strength isn't as important for me. The medium weight is certainly an advantage. Long days paddling are less of a grind when your shoulders don't hurt from lifting a heavy paddle out of the water. Another reason for choosing cherry is its appearance. No domestic hardwood has such natural beauty to my eyes.

For my first paddle, I chose to use cherry. Ultimately, I think it is going to be a good choice since it is going to be a little easier to work using hand tools than ash.

Stock selection is paramount in canoe paddle making. This is one project where wild grain is absolutely forbidden. The strength of the handle as well as the blade is dependent on straight grain. The grain must run parallel to the handle. If it doesn't, the paddle will almost certainly split in half. The idea of using a half of a paddle to get back to shore is very unappealing so I'll have to choose wisely.

A trip to my woodpile turned up this board. The rough sawn edges apeared to show relatively straight grain. A few passes with my trusty plane revealed the grain was indeed straight. It should go without saying but selecting a board free of any bends is also critical.

Next Step - Designing the Paddle (stay tuned)


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