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How to Carve a Canoe Paddle in Your Spare Time

Or, What really happens during setup at JLC Live Shows

I love making things out of wood. That’s why I’m a carpenter; that’s probably why you’re a carpenter, too. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that, with a little spare time on my hands, I went looking for a woodworking project.

I’ve specialized in stair building for most of my career, and for more than ten years, I’ve been writing about and teaching carpentry, too. Last fall, just as I finished setting up my clinic at the JLC LIVE! show in Seattle, a stack of boards a few booths away caught my eye. The Western Red Cedar Lumber Association was setting up a demonstration, and they had some beautiful old-growth redwood. I asked nicely, and they let me take 5 ft. off the end of a 2×8. The piece was almost perfectly quarter-sawn, with extraordinarily close grain, and just about totally clear. I counted 30 rings to the inch—that 2×8 took 240 years to grow! What could I make out of it? I had a nice set of tools, mostly donated to the clinic by my sponsor Festool. And I had my trusty spokeshave, which I use to fair the joints between handrail fittings.

Most carpentry consists of cutting up boards and moldings, and rejoining them into bigger things like doors, windows, bookcases, and floors. Carpenters rarely get a chance to get under the surface of wood: The sawmill finds a board inside a tree; the mill-shop finds a molding inside a board; but most carpenters only rip boards to width and cut moldings to length. Most carpenters don’t even know that the real glory of wood happens when we cut curves, when we make wood bend, when we carve into the heart of a tree and find the magic inside.

A few weeks before that show, I spent a Saturday afternoon canoeing and picnicking with my wife, Helen, and some old friends. We had a lot of fun. It was a sunny, colorful fall day. Not many motor boats. Calm enough so we could talk as we paddled around the lake. I have an old yard-sale wood-and-canvas canoe, a little leaky, but eye-catching, like a classic motorcycle. I love that canoe, but I’ve never liked the paddles. One is plastic and aluminum; the other is a glue-up from mismatched strips of wood, machine-carved to a graceless hunk. To my eye, those paddles never shared the same design or spirit as the canoe—strong only where it had to be and light where it could be.

I’ll never forget the paddles my Dad had when I was a kid. Maybe he had them since he was a Boy Scout in the late thirties. I think my brother has them now (he doesn’t get all the good stuff: I got Dad’s Ford tractor). Those paddles were carved from basswood, or Doug Fir, light colored, and lightweight. The blades were thin and rounded, the handles cut to fit the shape of a hand. Even then, my small hands could hold one of those paddles for hours. And the throat, where the shaft flairs out into the blade, was gracefully strong, and comfortable, too.

Somehow, I just knew there was a perfect canoe paddle inside that piece of old-growth 2×8 redwood.

A canoe paddle is supposed to be as high as your armpit, or maybe it’s your nose—I can’t remember. Anyway, I cut the board off at 58 in., (I’m no giant). Next, I held my tape measure as if I were paddling (see photo, above, right), and figured the shaft should be about 44 in. long.

First I traced the inside of my fist to get a good idea of how thick the handle or shaft should be.

Then I set my combination square at 3 in. and drew lines down both sides of the board for a 1 1/2 in. wide shaft.
Next, holding the pencil in my hand with about 4 in. sticking out, I let my wrist be a compass and drew the curves of the blade—out to the full width of the board and back again at the end.
Tightening up my wrist and the pencil, I drew the smaller radius of the handgrip.
My drawing wasn’t as symmetrical as I wanted, so I picked the best side and, using my saber saw, cut one side of the paddle to the line.
I picked up the piece that fell off and used it to improve the line on the other side. There is no better way to guarantee symmetry.

What was left of that 2×8 looked pretty funky when I held it up, but there was definitely a paddle in that piece of redwood.

I wanted to put a little bend in the design, so the blade would be vertical in the water right at the middle of the power stroke. I also wanted to make the paddle slightly hollow on the back side—like your hand when you’re swimming the crawl. I figured that hollow would give it a better grip on the water. I’d seen racing paddles with similar designs. With 1 3/4 in. of wood, I had some extra material to work with. The thickest part of the paddle, the handle, needed to be 1 1/4 in., so I could work almost 3/4 in. of bend (and a lot of hollow) into the blade!

The quickest way to remove wood is with a power plane. Both the Festool HL 850 and the EHL 65E work great for the job. The smaller plane can be held easily in one hand. Even with these planes set to cut the maximum depth (about 1/8 in.), the dust collector sucks up almost all the chips. First, I planed the ends of the paddle on one side, and the middle on the other side to put in the bend.

Next, I cut a hollow on the concave side of the blade, and tapered the other side as much as I dared.

The whole planing process took only about 5 minutes, and the paddle was quite a bit lighter when I finished. The final shape had to be cut with a spokeshave, then cleaned up with sandpaper.

The spokeshave is one of my favorite tools. We use them in my shop a lot, to make curved handrail parts. A spokeshave is really just a very short hand plane with handles on the side. The one I used here is a Stanley or Record Model 51, available from almost any good hardware store. Often these tools need some work before they can be used. I always grind the chip breaker back at about a 45-degree angle, which provides a bigger opening for the chips to pass through. A belt sander will do that job in less than a minute (see photo, above). I also sharpen the blade so that it will shave hair off my arm.

Like any tool, the spokeshave won’t do the job by itself. I’ve been handling these small planes for years; they’re as natural as riding a bicycle. But when I watched my friend Gary Katz try it for the first time—and he stubbed the plane repeatedly into the grain—I remembered that its not as easy as it looks. Here are a few tips:

Adjust the tool carefully. Set the blade adjustment screws so the shaving is paper-thin and perfectly even. Because the sole is so short, spokeshaves can be used to make surfaces flat or curved.
Keep the sole flat on the work. Hold the tool down hard, and don’t rock it while cutting.
Cut out of the grain or diagonally across it, otherwise you’ll stub the plane in the grain or jam the throat with shavings.
Plan ahead. Take off just the wood that has to be removed. Imagine the shape within the board. The tool is amazingly fast—even if each stroke removes only a 1/64 in., 16 quick strokes will remove a 1/4 in. in about 16 seconds!

First, I shaved the corners off the shaft to make it octagonal, then took those corners off to make it almost round. Then I shaved the blade on the concave side to get the shape I wanted; then on the other side to get the right thickness. The blade is only about 1/4 in. thick on the edges for lightness, and about 3/4 in. thick in the center for strength. I kept putting my eyeball on it to check for straightness. I also held the paddle an arms-length away, to check for symmetry. I paid special attention to the throat, where the blade meets the shaft: that transition must look right, and it must feel right, too—that’s the spot I’ll always be holding while paddling.

To work the handle, I clamped the blade end down and supported the handle against my leg. I checked the shape of the handle with my eyes closed—trusting that my hand would know the right shape better than my eyes. The faces of the handle are deeply concave, so I extended the blade of the spokeshave out more in order to reach the bottom of the hollow cuts.

The spokeshave took the paddle down to its final weight and shape. And it left a pile of shavings on the floor—the only real mess I made! Everything else was in the vacuum.

Sanding was the last step, and the Festool sander picked up that dust, too. I used the sander to take down the ridges left by the spokeshave, and to smooth out the pick-outs where Gary shaved the grain in the wrong direction. The Rotex cuts pretty fast. I probably could have started with a coarse grain paper, like 50-grit Crystal, and done a lot of the carving with the sander, too. Festool’s Crystal paper is an open grit that won’t clog while sanding paint or softwoods. I was able to smooth out the paddle pretty well with 80-grit Rubin, Festool’s normal sandpaper for wood. I took out the fine scratches with 120-grit.

For hand sanding I went back to #80, using a full sheet folded into thirds the long way to make it stiff enough for fairing. I sanded long strokes with the grain, to take out some flurbles that were easy to feel with the sandpaper, but were hard to see while machine-sanding. I used the #80 to break the sharp edges of the blade, too, and rolled it into a hollow curve to even up the rounded-over shape of the top of the handle. Then I went over it again with 120-grit paper, and then 180. The 180-grit polished the wood ’til it was almost shiny, but it also showed up some scratches and low spots that I hadn’t seen with the coarser grits. I went back to 80 to fix a few spots, then 120, then 180 again. With the sanding complete, the paddle was ready for finishing.

Spar varnish has to be the best finish for a paddle: after all, spars are wooden sailing ship masts, booms, and yardarms. I bought a pint at a nearby paint store along with a couple of foam throw-away brushes, a sheet of 400-grit waterproof paper, and a tack cloth. I blew the dust off the paddle, and laid the varnish on with the grain, everywhere except the handle. The handles are always left raw on old paddles, probably to improve the grip, but also because the finish would wear off anyway.

I hung the paddle up to dry with a spring clamp gripped on the handle. In all, I put on three coats of finish, sanding between each with the 400-grit, which I crumpled up under a running faucet, to keep it from clogging up with varnish. Between each coat, I wiped off the paddle with a rag and took the dust off with the tack cloth. I put the last coat on and let it dry in the least dusty place I could find.

Those of you who have attended my seminars and clinics might have noticed that I broke my Number One rule while making this paddle: Always design your work before you build it! But it still looks pretty cool. I’ll give it the real test this summer.

Comments/Discussion

10 Responses to “How to Carve a Canoe Paddle in Your Spare Time”

  1. Ray Menard

    “But it still looks pretty cool.” Well lets see it Jed!

    Hand made a 22′ sitka spruce tapered flag pole once upon a time. It was great fun working quietly & patiently with spokeshaves & hand planes, all the while standing in the midst of an ever increasing pile of shavings. Carving into the heart of the wood & finding the magic inside – indeed. Great way to pass the time, but canoeing with your own hand made paddle, now that’s THE GIFT. Good for you Jed.

    Reply
  2. Sim Ayers

    Jed,

    Great tips on the spokeshave. I always cut diagonal to the grain with my spokeshave. I thought it was wrong, but the only way to use my spokeshave without leaving chatter marks.

    Anyone looking for a woodworking project?
    http://www.sbebuilders.com/pdf/Platonic-Solids.pdf
    The platonic solid icosahedron is 30 pieces of wood with 120 compound cuts. The real trick is to assemble the 30 pieces and have it form the icosahedron.

    Sim

    Reply
  3. Mike

    Nice article. That piece of redwood would have made a nice guitar soundboard as well…..in fact a guitar can also double as a canoe paddle in a pinch.
    I have seen the finished canoe paddle. It is beautiful, graceful, light and strong. It should be a real pleasure to use it. A busy woodworker needs to set aside some time for canoeing/fishing ;)
    Mike

    Reply
  4. Gary Roberts

    Just to be contrary, a drawknife would have been faster, quieter and cleaner than the power tools for dimensioning the paddle. A rasp for forming, the spokeshave for final work and then the sandpaper…

    Gary

    Reply
  5. Jed Dixon

    Here’s me with my new western red cedar paddle, and my dad’s ash boy scout paddle from the 30′s.

    Reply
    • Gary Katz

      Nice photo, Jed. I like your dad’s paddle, too. Lucky you have it.
      Gary

      Reply
  6. Georgia

    I recently carved a 5 foot length of 2″x6″ cherry exclusively with a spokeshave. It was a one-day course I attended at Lee Valley and took about 9 hours. It was hard physical work and I was drenched with perspiration for the initial part of the day, until the “heavier” work was done. The only other “tool” I used was sandpaper. It turned out beautifully and I’ve let it “age” for a few months to let the gorgeous colours naturalize. I’ll soon seal it.
    Just want to mention, I’m a 57-yr old (5′; 115lb.) female and I was able to manage this project just fine. And I just did it for kicks, but I’m very proud of my paddle!

    Reply
  7. Dean Gentry

    Wow, great job!
    Thank you for sharing! Do you sell plans or a How to video?
    I need to make a couple paddles for a guy. How long should I budget using your series of techniques? Since you do not know
    how fast I work, I guess I am asking you how long it took you, to make your 1st paddle?

    I plan to use cypress or maybe redwood if I can find it?

    Again, your design and craftmanship look great!

    Reply

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