The Sawdust Factory Presents


Greenland Paddle Making


This Episode: Yet Another Way To Carve A Stick



Greetings, and welcome to another exciting Sawdust Factory episode, where today we look at how one man makes his own traditionally styled Greenland paddles. Now first of all, I use the term Greenland style because I make no claims towards authentic replication of genuine Inuit artifacts. I originally learned how to fashion them not from Native Peoples, but, honestly, right here on The Interwebs. Whatever, my paddles are built for function first and foremost, and function they do. For my money I cannot get my hands on a better paddle, bar none.

Please note that general Greenland style paddle layout, carving, and finishing methods are described in detail elsewhere on the web and in print, see links below. Also, what I show here is just my way, and not necessarily the best or only way. But I've been making my own paddles pretty much just like this since spring 2005, use them exclusively, paddle almost every day here on the Texas Gulf Coast, and continue to use this method . . . so it must be working pretty well!

When I first began making paddles, the first several were carved from solid 2x4's of pine and cedar. That's the "easy" way to begin, and with them one may experiment with lengths, widths, shapes, and generally just tinker around exploring and discovering personal preferences. Once my idea of a sweet paddle firmed up a bit, I began making up laminated blanks. These evolved from very simple straight stackings to the more complex build-up that follows. But that's not to say it's complicated; in fact, the method presented below actually makes things a lot easier in a lot of ways.



Here, I'm gonna make a paddle that'll be 81" long, with an 18 1/2" loom, and a 4" maximum blade width. It will be made up of western red cedar and redwood, and sport 4" basswood tips. I originally thought about using rock maple for the tips, but chickened out when I thought about sanding it, and the much softer cedar, together. Basswood is a much better choice, sharing many of the attributes that make cedar and redwood so perfect for boats and paddles: it's cheap, readily available, easy to work, looks great, is lightweight, etc., etc. It has proven a great choice after much hard use.

I begin with a 3/4" thick x 1 1/2" wide x full length strip of light colored cedar, and 8 strips of redwood and light colored cedar for the blades that are also 3/4" thick. Calculate widths to arrive at whatever final blade width you want.

I'm using Titebond II carpenter's glue, as usual. Lots of folks will consider this questionable choice of adhesive, but I have unbounded faith in the stuff, and have never experienced a failure of any kind. A lot of people use epoxy; others polyurethane glue. Use whatever you're most comfortable with.


Right: the resulting primary build-up out of the clamps, and after a couple passes through the planer to even up surfaces for the next pieces.


Left: I've glued a 1/4" thick x 1 1/2" wide strip of chocolate colored cedar to each face of the blank.



In this step, first glue one face piece on and apply a few clamps. Then wait ten minutes or so for the glue to tack. Then remove the clamps, stick the other one onto the other face, then apply all the clamps and let it cure overnight as usual. That's the easy way to glue both face pieces on in one step without having a gooey mess that slides out of position while you attempt to clamp it up.


Here, I'm attaching decorative basswood tip pieces using two 1/4" diameter x 3" long dowels for strength. Epoxy will be the glue of choice here.

Drilling the holes for the dowels is done by hand, and is surprisingly easy when you know the trick. Go slowly and trust your eye when drilling holes in blank ends. Then drill corresponding holes in basswood going increasingly oversize until everything can line up correctly when dry-fitting. Now use thickened epoxy in the oversized holes. Pre-coat all bonding surfaces with plenty of unthickened epoxy, and use some thickened epoxy between the mating surfaces to eliminate any possibility of gaps. Take your time and be generous when pre-coating, all this end grain can really sponge up the goo.


It's well worth repeating: always pre-coat with plenty of unthickened epoxy when bonding bare wood to bare wood. If the wood drinks up all the glue and nothing is left in the seam, you're going to be experiencing joinery failures. NOT a good thing!


Here's how I clamp the end pieces to the paddle blank. Two clamps hold two 3/4" square pieces of scrap to the end piece, one to each side, and ditto for the blade. Then one clamp on top, and another on bottom, on opposing sides, draws everything tightly together in a predictable and controllable manner.

Works like a champ.


Voila! A completed blank ready for shaping.


Here we are in the final throes of the shaping process. It takes me about two hours to reach the fine sanding phase.

I like to cut the basic shape on the band saw, then rough in the bevels with a draw knife. The good old low-angle block plane then takes over to bring it on down to the lines I'm looking for, then it's on to sanding.

I shape the edges with a small thumb plane and 80-grit sand paper, and shape the shoulders with a piece of 80-grit. When I'm happy with everything, I chase it all with 150-grit, and apply the first epoxy seal coat.


 After seal coat of epoxy is applied and the wood has been "petrified", fiberglass about 8" of each blade tip with 3.25 oz. fine weave cloth for durability.


The finished paddle.

I glass the faces, then trim and sand all edges smooth, and then glass around the edges. The fine weave cloth conforms easily.

After filling the weave and sanding everything smooth, I brush a thin coat of epoxy over the whole thing, then wipe it back off with a rag asap, while still wet. This results in what looks and feels like a boiled linseed oil finish.

I continue to experiment with final finishes. Glossy varnish looks best, but is way too slippery.  So far, nothing beats the wiped-off final coat of epoxy for best "feel". Looks must come second to performance, for a slippery paddle is most definitely NOT a good thing.


Here are a few of the paddles I have made. Note that several of the Greenland paddles look about the same, and all the others have more or less obvious differences. Some actually are redundant since I keep three or four paddles ready for routine use at all times. This is one of the chief advantages of homemade paddles - you can afford to stock up with spares, experimental, and specialized units! Can't do that with store bought carbon paddles unless you're a millionaire or own a paddle shop. 

 At right are what's left of my earliest efforts at paddle carving, made from solid 2x4 lumber. The one to extreme far right is actually carved from a construction grade yellow pine 2x4.


Finally, those "sawed-off" looking short Greenland paddles are called Storm Paddles. The Inuit used them in heavy weather using a sliding stroke, the idea being to keep the upper blade out of the gales. The shortened length also made the paddle convenient to carry on deck as a spare. The blades are the same as the full paddle, only the loom is shortened.

I never, ever leave shore without a spare paddle, and when kayaking it's almost always a stormy, just as the original kayakers did.





A Few Greenland Paddle Making Links:


Chuck Holst's classic presentation, the definitive instructions most of us use, or at least, started with.

John Caldeira's GP making page.

Ross Leidy's GP making page.

A fine carving video by Matt Johnson.

And an excellent book by Brian Nystrom -- yes, a real book made of actual paper!



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