The Sawdust Factory Presents


Paddle Making


Episode Three: A Simple Beavertail Style Canoe Paddle




Here is a basic and good-looking canoe paddle that's very easy to make using straightforward methods, utilizing western red cedar to keep it cheap, light and strong. The finished paddle is 57" overall, blade is 6 1/4" wide by 28" long by 5/16" thick, and the loom, or shaft, is oval in cross section, measuring 1 1/8" x 1 1/4", which doesn't sound like much, but feels very distinct. The handle is a basic T-grip, and final weight is a hair over one pound.




First things first: get a plan, or draw one up. Here at The Sawdust Factory we happen to have the fine old book "Canoe Paddles" by Graham Warren & David Gidmark (search ISBN 1552095258 on, and from a table of offsets given in it,  have lofted and cut out a half-blade shape to a thin piece of plywood for a durable pattern we can use over and over if we wish. Half-plans are ever the order of the day for boat stuff around here, to guarantee perfect symmetry.


Building gets started with lumber selection. First, we grab a board with unusual and uneven coloration to make interesting and pretty blade features, and then a chocolate colored board is picked for the central lamination piece that gives a decorative dark center stripe feature, and runs end to end for continuity -- or in other words, the center "strip" will connect blade, loom, and grip into one unit. The center strip is 1 1/8" wide (width of the loom) x 5/16" thick (thickness of the blade) x 57" long (overall length of the paddle). For the blade, 5/16" thick strips are ripped off the colorful board, and then ripped again to a width that'll cause a 6 1/4" wide blade to happen. Here at The Sawdust Factory, we adhere to a strict policy of never doing math in public, so you're on your own on that one. The inner blade pieces will be 28", or the length of the blade; and the outer two will be shorter, use the pattern to determine.

The blade will be essentially flat, with rounded edges. A "squashed oval" cross section is more typically used on this sort of paddle, but a flat one is far easier to make; and since ease of manufacture is a very desirable feature in a homemade paddle, we will just have to try it and see how it works.



Here's how to clamp up a wide, but thin, paddle blade. First, find a scrap of plywood that's big enough for the job, and please make sure it's flat, thank you. In this case, a retired kitchen cabinet door serves perfectly.

Cover it with Saran Wrap. Then clamp or screw a solid chunk of wood to one side to act as a fence, as seen at top in this photo.

Do a dry run with all your paddle blade pieces, lay 'em all down against the fence. Now screw or clamp a few blocks of scrap wood along the side opposite the fence, leave just the right amount of room for some wedges, which we use to apply clamping pressure. Now take apart, apply glue, reinstall, and give it a big ol' wedgie by tapping 'em in gently with a light hammer.

Stack weights on top to prevent bowing, and keep it flat. Use more Saran Wrap to keep the weights un-gluey.

Nuthin' to it.



Incidentally, we like Titebond II waterproof wood glue best. You should use whatever you are most comfortable with.



Next day -- and don't even think about giving it less than a full 24 hours to cure -- unclamp and sand flat. Better yet, run the blank through a planer, drum sander, or wide belt sander. The idea is to make it look like a paddle that got run over by a giant steam roller. Then use your pattern to mark the outline.


In this case I messed up a little, and cut the outer panels of the blade a little short. No problem, I just used the pattern as kind of a French curve to fake it. Don't sweat the little things.


I cut out the top outline right away so the corners won't catch on things, but leave the end square so it can absorb any abuse while I work on the shaft and grip. Shaping the blade edges is always the very last step in paddle making, otherwise repairing dings along the edges will be a recurring theme.


Handy shop hint: keep a small bucket on the floor near your band saw to catch scrap pieces. Really helps keep the shop neat.


The center portion of the blank, as seen in the photo above, is 5/16" thick, or the thickness of the blade. Just making sure you're keeping up here.




In the photo at right, I add two face pieces to the loom, each of which has been ripped to a thickness painstakingly calculated by experts in the field to arrive at a total overall thickness of 1 1/4".




Just a couple clamps oughta do . . . 


So here's what it ends up looking like.



Now to start on the handle. I never was any good at visualizing how to work up a laminated blank, so I just play it by ear and use the final result as a model to work from to get the next one right.


Gotta start somewhere, so here we have two 1 1/4" thick blocks glued to the sides of the loom, after the loom sides have been planed or sanded flat and true for a good glue joint.


Having a nice "hook" to the handle shape, as opposed to tapering gracefully into the loom, serves two purposes: first, the paddle can be used to grapple a boat that's drifting away, and secondly, using less wood means less weight. Both are pretty  convincing arguments for this style of handle.


Then a couple face pieces are glued onto that. The only real plan here is to make sure cross grain pieces bridge the glue joints underneath, for strength.

I have learned to make T-grips generously proportioned to give a good fat handful for paddling comfort. I learned it from my Zaveral paddles' very nice grips, and from my own really crummy ones.


Draw your outline, and take it to the band saw for a little loving attention. Profiling may not be politically correct, but it's just the thing for wood carvers.



Again, note that the grain in the darker pieces runs vertically, to match the shaft, and goes horizontally in the lighter colored pieces, to build strength.


With the blank properly built up and duly profiled, it's now time to start carving.

Here are the tools of the trade: large and small draw knife; round bladed micro plane; the ever-efficient Shinto rasp; the beloved block plane, and last but not least: the 25-pound bag of no. 8 bird shot.

The bag of shot is indispensable for converting the work table from a Waltzing Matilda to a solid work bench that stays put while you poke, carve, and gouge the victim into submission.




In order to arrive at uniformly round surfaces, it is exceedingly wise to stay very flat and un-round until the very last minute. Chamfers are your friend at this critical time in your young paddle's highly impressionable life.


Chamfers are easy to gage by eye for consistency, and easy to maintain halfway accurately as you work. Start with four at 45 degrees, or so, to create an octagon cross section. The more accurate your chamfers are, the more consistent your finished roundness will be.


The blade ends of the face pieces on the loom have been ramped from full thickness at the paddle throat, to feather edges where they end, about two-fifths the way down the blade. Nothing scientific here, just "doing what looks about right".


Again, chamfers are where it's at. One must remain scrupulously flat in order to become profoundly round, or risk becoming lumpy and uneven.


Please scroll down towards the bottom of THIS PAGE for more on accurately shaping symmetrical roundy-round things.



When you're happy with your octagon-shaped loom, then you may go back and knock off the corners with a plane, sanding block, or rasp. Again, chamfer the corners off -- do not begin trying to make it round just yet. Watch the flats you create like an eagle, try to keep 'em reasonably consistent.




Okay, good. Now you may begin rounding. I know it was hard to resist the temptation to start rounding before you got permission, but aren't you glad you were so patient now?


Yep, that's sexy.

Not so sure I like the lamination scheme on the grip, though; but at least I'm confident it'll be strong and comfortable.

What the heck, the primary purpose of this paddle was to crank out a fast and easy project and see how light I could make a traditional style beavertail canoe paddle.



After all, every paddle you make is merely practice for the next paddle you make, so it is well not to get carried away with details.


In fact, it is my experience that first paddles are seldom, if ever, much more than prototypes. My first stab at an beavertail paddle, the one on the right in photo at right, is a perfect example: it's not easy to love because it's a little heavy, and because the grip isn't all that comfortable. But it certainly has potential, and is still lots of fun to use. So voila: A new and improved version! Why not? Making it was a fun and pleasant diversion.


Final weight for the new paddle is 16.1 oz. I can already tell it's plenty strong; Plan B was to add fiberglass, but I am going to skip it as unnecessary.  The original came in at 22.8 oz. Now that's what we call progress here at The Sawdust Factory.


IF the flat blade cross section works out, that is. Stay tuned, there may be a third beavertail rendition coming to a shade tree woodshop near you soon! But anyway, that's how to make a paddle. 


Finishing Note: There'z at least a million options for paddle finishes, everything from bare wood, to oil, to epoxy & fiberglass. Consistent with my OCD for lightest weight to strength and durability ratio, in most cases I give the wood a very light coating of epoxy that's immediately smeared/rubbed off with a rag, and then a second, more normal coat applied with a brush. This method keeps raw wood from sucking up too much resin, yet results in a nice hard shell surface for ding resistance. I then sand the blade smooth, and apply varnish for a pretty finish; but leave a plain epoxy finish on the loom and grip to prevent a slippery feel. It's a tough thing, whereas you want a nice shiny glossy finish to be proud of, but an oily slippery paddle is not a lot of fun to honk on.


User Report: This paddle turns out to be an outstanding success on the water, have no idea why there was ever any doubt. While I generally play with my homemade paddles for a dutiful amount of time so I can say I did, I almost always revert back to my beloved Zaveral Power Surge for huffing it back to the put-in because I am an aggressive paddler and cherish high performance stuff. But this one remained in my paws all the way back, and that's really saying something. It just has a very pleasant and fun feel. Who knows, maybe it'll even encourage me to slow my pace down a little .... nah.




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