Building your own canoe paddle is not as difficult as you might think and the activity itself can be calming and exhilarating. We’re going to make sure that you do a great job too by sharing a complete guide on making a canoe paddle.
So many of us would love the opportunity to build something with our own two hands. And when it comes to canoeing or kayaking, your best friend will be your paddle. Your paddle is what connects you to the water and what helps guide you downstream.
While investing in a ready-made canoe paddle will not break the bank (we have recommended the best ones here) it sometimes just makes you feel better to know that you were able to build your own and use it during your adventures.
So, instead of buying one, why not make your own canoe paddle? Read on and you’ll be able to make your own in no time.
Building your canoe paddle: Step by Step
Before you start chopping down a tree, it’s best that look at what you’re going to need in making a canoe paddle.
So, let’s look at the types of wood to choose from, the various paddle shapes and the tools you’ll be needing. This way, you’ll be well prepared before making your paddle.
1. Types of wood
There are various types of wood that you can use for a canoe paddle. Each species of wood is different and offers paddlers various strengths and weaknesses.
Let’s look at the options and you can then choose which type of wood would suit your needs the best (I’ll also have a recommendation in case you can’t decide)
Ash is one of the most well-rounded types of wood for a canoe paddle. Ash is considered sports-grade used typically for hockey sticks, so, it’s highly durable and abrasion resistant.
You can find various shades of ash, so you’ll be able to combine them and make your paddle with your own eclectic style.
Basswood is very easy to carve, is lightweight, fairly durable and cheap to buy. However, it’s porous, so it does have a tendency to suck up water.
If you’re going to use basswood, it’s recommended that you use it with other wood in a laminated paddle. It must be sealed very well.
So, if you want a lightweight paddle, basswood is an option, but expect to invest time and resources maintaining the paddle.
Birch is a highly abrasion-resistant wood which is great for paddles. It’s very strong wood and if you’re new in wood carving, birch is relatively easy to carve. An excellent choice for beginner paddle makers.
There are a couple types of cedar, from white cedar to western red. However, all carry different characteristics. Paddles used for deep water canoeing are typically made with cedar.
However, cedar is typically used for paddles that are encased in fiberglass. So, if you’re going to use cedar, make sure it’s sheathed in fiberglass. That way you can really reap the benefits of this wood.
Cherry is ideal if you’re making a one-piece paddle. It’s mid-toned wood and is easy to carve. So, if you’re a beginner in wood carving, perhaps Cherry is the way to go.
Cherry shouldn’t be used if you’re planning on doing heavy duty canoeing. It’s more ideal for weekend canoeing.
Douglas fir has medium abrasion resistance but is known for splitting easily. So, if you’re going to use it, it’s best to use it as strips in a laminated paddle. Unless it’s sheathed in fiberglass.
Mahogany comes in a couple varieties. However, generally, it’s known to have medium abrasion resistance and to be a weaker wood. If you’re going to use this wood, use it as strips for darker accents.
If you’re making a one-piece paddle, maple is great wood. You can use it as strips in laminated paddles as well. It’s very easy to carve into and has a high level of abrasion resistance. One thing to note: you have to make sure maple is properly sealed or else it’ll split the blade.
If you’re going to use spruce, use Sitka spruce. Out of all the various types of spruce, it’s lightweight and springy.
Spruce is known for being well balanced between weight and strength. If you’re using your paddle for weekend use, then spruce is a great choice.
What’s the best wood to choose for your canoe paddle?
When building your paddle, it’s best to go for any wood that is locally and readily available. If you can be picky, you should go for hardwood like Ash or Birch as they offer better resistance and are still flexible enough.
2. The paddle’s shape
Now that you picked your wood, you’ll need to decide on the design of your paddle. The design can determine they type of canoeing you’ll be doing so make sure to always build the paddle based on this.
You have a few choices, so let’s take a look at them!
- Algonquin paddle: Algonquin paddles have a small blade surface which allows you to paddle with high frequency for long periods of time. They’re easy to maneuver and typically meant for long, flat water journeys.
- Ottertail paddle: Ottertail paddles come in various sizes and some with slightly different angle designs. The tip is narrower which allows the paddle to enter the water smoothly. The blade surface is larger, thus you have more power when paddling.
- Beavertail paddle: This is generally the most common and classic paddle. If you’re going to be using a classic canoe, then this is probably the design you’ll be using for your paddle. It does require more manpower when paddling, so it’s not great for long distance trips.
- Sugar Island paddle: Sugar Island paddles are shorter and their blades are wider than most paddles. Sugar Island paddles are best used for shallow river canoeing where you’ll need more control for paddle strokes.
Related: Read more about canoe paddle sizing.
Now that you have the concept of your paddle figured out, you’ll need some tools.
3. Tools needed for your DIY canoe paddle
To build a canoe paddle, you won’t need any complicated tools. However, there are some essentials you’ll need hanging off your tool belt.
Before we show you how to make your paddle, here’s the list of the tools you’ll need to get the job done right.
- Square angle ruler
- Straight blade saw
- Sand Paper
- Stanley Surform
- Block plane
Recommended tools (additional)
You may not need these tools below, but it’ll definitely make the job easier if you have them while making your paddle.
- Adjustable circular saw
- Power band sander
- Power plane
- Low angle plane
- Power wheel grindstone or flat hand grindstone
Now you have everything you need to make your paddle. This was the easy part. Now let’s see how to actually build your own canoe paddle!
4. Making the canoe paddle
The instructions below will show you how to make a traditional, solid wood canoe paddle. You can also laminate multiple pieces together using the same technique, though.
If this is your first time making a paddle, we suggest making a traditional solid wood paddle and be prepared for it not being perfect.
1. You’ll want to download a canoe paddle template which you’ll use to create the paddle outline on your piece of wood. If you have an actual paddle, you can use that to trace your outline as well.
2. On the wood, draw a center axis in order to keep your paddle and shaft properly aligned. Make sure that you look at the wood’s growth ring pattern at the end of the board. This will ensure you that you’ll have flat grain wood.
3. Then, with your canoe paddle template, you’ll want to draw the outline of your paddle onto the piece of wood. You template will come into two pieces: the shaft and paddle.
Trace the shaft first and then the paddle. The outline should be traced on both sides of the centerline. Make sure to place the paddle outline away from wood nodes.
4. Now that you have your outline traced, you’ll want to cut the outline out with the jig saw. You can also use a bandsaw. Before using the saw, make sure that the blade is sharp.
5. Now that your paddle is cut out, you’ll have to mark a line along paddle which will determine the width of the paddle. With a pencil, mark lines down the shaft that are ¼” in from the edges of the top and bottom faces.
6. Then, with your pencil, mark lines 5/16” in from each edge on the side faces.
7. With your paddle template, there will be a Side View template included. You’ll want to trace the side view template onto the side of the handle.
8. Now, you have your paddle properly marked and ready to be shaped. The tip and edges of the paddle’s blade should be ¼” thick. You’ll want to mark this thickness on the edge of your blade.
9. Once marked, you’ll want to use a jack or smoothing plane for thinning the face of the blade. You’ll want to start this around 2” below where the shaft and paddle meet. If you make an error in cutting, you can use the Stanley Surform to adjust any imperfections.
10. You’ll need to draw a new centerline on the blades face. Then, use a block plane to taper from the centerline to the edges of the blade. Make sure your taper is flat rather than rounded.
11. Now, you’ll need to take your spokeshave to shape the area where your paddle meets the shaft. Here, you’re trying to make a smooth transition. Make sure to only remove small amounts of shaving from each side and constantly check for symmetry,
12. The lines that you drew on the shaft earlier will now be put to use. Follow the lines you drew on the shaft, around the edges to help provide you grip on the shaft. Make sure to leave a small section in the middle of the shaft for clamping.
13. On the corners at the end of the handle, you want to draw radius corners. The amount of radius is a personal preference, depending on whether you want a flatter or more rounded handle.
14. With you spokeshave, create the concaves of your handle, making sure to follow the lines you’ve drawn on it. Make sure to test the groves to make sure it’s comfortable for you.
15. Now that your radius corners are drawn, use the block plane to shape the corners. You’ll want to shape the handle using a block plane, spokeshave and carving knives to get your ideal shape.
16. You’ll now need to round the top of the handle. Your goal is to make a smooth transition from the handle to the shaft.
17. You final step in shaping your paddle in to reposition the clamp on a finished part of the shaft [See Step 12]. Then you’ll be able to shape the last section of the shaft.
18. Now, it’s time to finish the paddle. You can either do one of two things: use a marine varnish or an oil finish.
A marine varnish requires more maintenance, but it provides exceptional protection. An oil finish must be applied frequently, but also acts as a seal. Either option works, although I would recommend the marine varnish.
With the steps above, you’ll be able to make a canoe paddle in no time! Now that you know the types of wood used for canoe paddles, the types of paddles and the tools you’ll be needing, you’re well equipped to make your perfect paddle.
And if you still need help afterwards, I also wrote a guide on how to actually paddle a canoe. Make sure to check it out if you need to improve your technique.
Follow the instructions above carefully and with each step, you’ll get closer to sitting in a canoe with your handmade paddle. It might not turn out perfect on your first try, but practice makes perfect!
If DIY projects are your thing and you want to build more for your canoe, why not continue with a project for a DIY canoe stabilizer?