Loon Island Boatworks

The Paddle Project

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Part 1 - Laying Out the Paddles

The best part about making your own paddles is that you can make it any shape you want. So of course the first day of our paddle project was spent having the Scouts choosing their paddle pattern, choosing a piece of wood, and marking out the patter on the board.

In preparation for marking out the paddles, I had taken the boards out to my buddy Scott's place and we had run them all through the thickness planer to clean up one side. The boards turned out to have bigger knots that I was expecting. However, while we hoped to get 2 paddles from each piece, we only needed 18 paddles out of the 16 boards so we had lots of wood to let us workaround the knots.

The three main parts of the paddle are the:

  1. Grip
  2. Shaft
  3. Blade

The first steps in the layout were figuring out the shaft length and then marking a center line. We used the "bent arms" method to have the Scouts determine what length of shaft they should use. For the "bent arms" method you hold a paddle up over your head with one hand on the grip and the other on the shaft. You make a 90° angle with each of your elbows so that your arms, shoulders, and the paddle make a rectangle. Keeping your bottom hand in position on the shaft, bring the paddle down and measure from the top of the grip to the bottom of your lower hand. That gives you the shaft length.

Since the wood was far from being perfectly clear, figuring out the shaft length was an important first step. Once we had the shaft length, we could then figure out where on the board to lay out the paddle that would minimize, or preferably avoid, getting any knots in the paddle shaft. At the very least, we could ensure that we avoided having knots in either the grip or the throat area where the lower hand sits on the paddle shaft.

With the shaft length figured out, the Scouts were ready to mark the center line. Once we have the center line marked, all of the other measurements will be taken from the center line. This avoids any inconsistencies being picked up trying to use the outside edge of the board as a guide. Even on dressed lumber the boards can have a bend to them, so you need to create your own straight center line. If you have a 6' long straight edge, then that would be ideal for laying out the center line. I don't have a straight edge that long so I use a 4' level as the best available option.

When marking the center line, you can start by measuring from the edge of the board and marking the midpoint in 2 spots, roughly the length of your straight edge apart. You can then draw the first section of the centerline using those midpoints. However, since most of the paddles are over 4' long, after drawing the first length of the centerline, you then have to extend the line - don't measure a third midpoint since that would just introduce any curve from the edge of the board to your centerline and that is the problem you are trying to avoid in the first place. Another approach is to run a taut line the full length of the paddle and make marks along the line that you can then connect with your straight edge. The taut line technique can work well and I use it when setting up the strong back for making a canoe or kayak, However, I felt it was a little too complex to try with the Scouts and since the paddles were only going to be about 5' long anyway, I decided that extending the center line using the straight edge would be accurate enough.

Now, depending on the blade shape chosen, there could be some leeway to angle the centerline to one edge of the board or the other in order to avoid or minimize the inclusion of knots, particularly for those parts of the shaft or grip that will be in your hands all day long.

Once the center line was marked, we then marked the shaft width measuring 3/4" on each side of the center line. This gives us a shaft width of 1 1/2" to work with while rough cutting on the bandsaw. The plan is to end up with a finished shaft width of approximately 1 1/4". The extra 1/4" leaves a bit of safety margin for us in rough cutting and it gives room for the Scouts to practice working with the spokeshaves before getting down to the finished thickness. If you choose to use a hardwood like Maple then you can plan on a 1 1/8" shaft since the Maple is stronger than Pine.

To help speed things up, and to avoid the layout becoming too tedious, I had made up a few blade templates to start with. The Scouts could choose one of the 3 blade templates I had prepared or mark out their own custom shape. The blade templates were:

  1. Otter Tail
  2. Stretched Beaver Tail
  3. Voyageur

You will notice that the templates are only half of a full blade. This was a tip that I had picked up from "Canoe Paddles: A Complete Guide to Making Your Own" by Graham Warren and David Gidmark. By making the template up as only half of a blade, you can ensure that the 2 halves of the blade are laid out identically by marking one half and then flipping the template over to mark the second half.

Several of the Scouts looked through the "Canoe Paddles" book for ideas. One Scout drew his own Beaver Tail pattern, another drew a 'Straight sided, pointed' style that Warren & Gidmark list as being characteristic of the Dogrib or Slave Native American tribes.

The last piece that was marked out was the grip. Grips could be traced from an existing paddle ( I brought 3 or 4 along as samples), graphed from a template in the book, or created on spot.


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