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How to Make a Canoe Paddle: Easy Instruction for a DIY Project

paddle wooden table
Neal Walker
Written by Neal Walker

There is arguably no greater satisfaction than making your own equipment to use on various activities you’re into. That’s because it makes you feel proud and completely invested in your hobby. And if you love canoeing as well as crafting homemade gear, we’re here to tell you how to make a canoe paddle with minimal equipment and in an efficient manner.

However, be prepared that it will take some time, maybe even a whole weekend if you’re not a DIY expert. So start by asking yourself:

Why make a canoe paddle?

Whether you’re a beginner or versed canoeist, you’ve probably looked at some online paddles so far. But making a canoe paddle of your own can be more appealing than buying a ready-made one, particularly if you have a knack for DIY projects.

See also: DIY Canoe Stabilizer: Tips for Not Tipping Over

So let’s look at some pros and cons before you actually start this work at home.

Advantages of building your own paddle:

  • It’s a personal experience.
  • It’s a fun project.
  • It helps develop new skills.
  • It exercises the skills you already possess.
  • You can shape the paddle anyway you like it, combining different designs.
  • You’ll know exactly how sturdy it is.
  • You can improve it constantly.
  • It may cost less than a store-bought paddle.
  • You can test your paddle as you go.
  • You can make a really custom-fit paddle.

Disadvantages of building your own paddle:

  • The materials you use aren’t always top-notch: wood, for instance, isn’t as good as fiberglass.
  • You may make some rookie mistakes.
  • Worst case scenario, these mistakes can end up costing you more than a new paddle.
  • Your craftsmanship, however good, isn’t always as good as machine work.
  • The paddle can be less durable than one retailed by a trustworthy brand.
  • There’s a lot of time invested in this project.
  • As with all DIY projects, there’s a risk of injury.

So basically it’s all up to you. However, if you’re canoeing for professional reasons, maybe taking part in a contest, or you’re sailing in extreme weather and rough water conditions, a professional paddle may be a better idea.

paddle multicolor

A homemade paddle is better intended for leisure, and fun, maybe some light canoeing. With that in mind, if you’re really sure you want to start this project, read along. See also our tips on how to size your canoe paddle by reading our earlier article on this.

Tools and materials

All the tools you’ll use here are hand tools which don’t cost so much, and we’re sure everyone has them in their toolbox. You may even have professional tools, in which case you can definitely use those to save more time and execute better, more precise carvings.

The wood

The general rule is that the wood you’re using for this has to be resistant to water. That’s because otherwise it will absorb the water while you’re canoeing, and therefore make paddling inefficient.

On the other hand, other voices state that’s not a mandatory thing if you use a strong enough coating and let your paddle dry every time you use it.

basswood

But really important characteristics of the wood you’re choosing is its low weight and strength. That’s because you want a paddle that’s easy to handle and to hold, but at the same time resistant enough to withstand many uses.

So you can easily get something like:

  • White cedar
  • Yellow cedar
  • Red cedar
  • Basswood

These are great because their grains render them easy to work with, apart from being lightweight. Hardwood paddles are sturdy too, but they’re heavier and they’re also more difficult to make, especially when it’s time to plane them.

That being said, we’ll work with a piece of wood with these dimensions: 1.25 inches (height) x 7 inches (width) x 60 inches (length).

The tools

Once you’ve gotten the right type of wood, you need the right tools to work with.

collage woodwork

Drawknives

A drawknife’s primary use regards giving shape to the wood because that’s your first step too. There are different types of such tools, but each will have a long, narrow blade.

Make sure you have an appropriate shaving knife for dealing with heavier wood that will probably be bigger and more rugged, and one that’s better suited to help you with the details.

Block plane

This is a hand plane you can use for giving shape to your wood, because it planes the grain particularly well, especially if you’ve chosen a board made from one of the woods above. That’s because it can be used with just one hand, and it complements the use of your drawknives thanks to its angular build, giving shape to the ends of your wooden board.

But you can also use this tool for clean up work or even chamfering during this whole project.

Curved knife

Since at some point you’re going to give a rounded shape to your paddle in various points, you’ll need a tool that can cut the grain from curved shapes too. That’s what a curved knife is for, and you’ll recognize it by its plane blade that’s only sharp at the top, with a flat bottom that can’t cut through the wood.

Rasps

You need some good patternmaker rasps in order to get the job done because they’re great when it comes to giving the final shape to your paddle. They work well when it comes to detail, fine work, especially the grip of your paddle.

Angle gauge

This tool is essential for making a canoe paddle, seeing as it can give shape to the wooden surface you’re working with. It can either make it flat or give it an angle so you’re sure that the blade is thin enough and the shaft is squared properly.

Card scraper and sandpaper

This is used for cleaning purposes and giving the finishing touches. It’s a tool better intended for hardwood, but you can use it on the woods we’ve recommended too. If you don’t have a card scraper, you can easily replace it with sandpaper but you’ll have to work a bit harder with sandpaper in order to achieve a clean surface.

The card scraper can remove even the smallest protrusions on your board and in areas where your hand plane would have difficulty reaching or even cause damages. Besides, this wonderful tool is great for not leaving a lot of dust and fibers to stopper the wood you’re working with.

Shaving horse

Good for giving a round profile to your paddle, this combination between a workbench and a vice will ease your woodworking endeavors considerably because it’s fast, comfortable and easy to use.

Instructions

Once you have all these tools, it’s time to get to work! Are you ready?

Draw the shape of your paddle

  1. Sketch the top view.
  2. You can choose any design you like.
  3. The blade and shaft can be inspired from different models, that’s the advantage of homemade paddles.
  4. Try to respect the end dimensions of the finished product as closely as possible, but leave a margin of error on the plus side. So don’t make your paddle too small, to begin with.
  5. Mark the centerline of the paddle. This should split the paddle in two equal parts vertically from one end to the other, and you’ll use it as a reference down the line.

Tips and tricks:

  • You can choose to draw the shape of your paddle on the other side of your board too. Some people prefer that for accuracy, while others think it can completely ruin your work if you happen to make some mistakes. In this case, you’ll never know which line is right and you may end up with a mutant paddle.
  • The centerline has to split the paddle into two symmetrical parts, not the wooden board.
  • Once you start tracing this centerline, you don’t have to make it exactly straight if your board has some protrusions you want to avoid.

Cut the unnecessary wood

  1. With the help of the bigger drawknife, start getting rid of the wood you won’t use.
  2. Follow the shape you’ve sketched before.
  3. Stop about 0.3 inches away from the contour of your paddle, at which point you can use the block plane to shape the wood more minutely.
  4. Square off the edges of your paddle once you get closer to the contour with the help of the block plane, especially for the shaft.
  5. At this point, your paddle should have taken the right shape.

Tips and tricks:

  • You can work faster at first, but once you come near to the contour you’ve drawn take it a bit easier.
  • Use the grain to your advantage, but try not to let it influence your cutting once you near the reference line. That’s because following the grains can make you cut into the shape you’ve drawn, not around it.
  • If you’ve accidentally cut into your paddle, turn the wooden board on the other side and start cutting against the grain to repair your mistake.

Draw the side profile

  1. Draw a centerline on both sides of the paddle for increased accuracy.
  2. Draw two lines perpendicularly to the centerlines at the throat and where the grip starts. That will tell you where the parts of your paddle are located.
  3. Draw the shape of your shaft, making it either oval or round.
  4. Draw the blade, making the shaft increasingly less thick, until you get a 0.25 inches thickness at the blade’s tip.
  5. Draw the grip, making sure it’s symmetrical.

Tips and tricks

  • You will draw the shaft and the blade on the side part of your wooden board. The first step of these instructions determined the top look, while this is for figuring out the thickness.
  • Unlike the first center line you drew at the first step, if this one isn’t straight, your paddle won’t be either.
  • Use a ruler to make sure the centerline is drawn accurately.
  • To make a symmetrical grip, use a cardboard template that depicts half of it and then simply mirrors it on the other side of the centerline.

Cut around the blade

  1. Keep the blade square until you’ve about finished.
  2. Use the drawknives cut near the shape until you’ve reached about 0.25 inches from the tip and 0.35 inches from the sides.
  3. At this point, you can start using the block plane for more precision.
  4. Cut the wood between the contour line of your blade and the centerline, but not below that.
  5. Your blade isn’t finished yet at this point since it isn’t rounded yet.

man cutting paddle with machine

Tips and tricks:

  • This will take a lot of time and effort, so don’t be in a hurry.
  • Once you begin to take out a lot of the blade’s thickness, you’ll find it’s easier to err.
  • The rasps can also be used alongside the block plane, especially if you’re not so confident about how you plane.
  • Remember to err on the plus-side: better to live a bit of extra than to cut more than required.

Cut around the grip

  1. Use the drawknives to cut near the contour line.
  2. Once you’ve gotten close to the contour line, use the block plane to give more shape to your grip, making it larger or smaller according to your preferences.
  3. This is the rough draft of your end grip, so don’t try to finish it off.

Tips and tricks:

  • Much like the previous step, this is finesse work too, so you need to take your time.
  • Don’t remove the contour lines.
  • Use the rasp, especially if you’re a beginner, because it will give you more accuracy. On the other hand, using the rasp takes longer than the block plane.
  • The finished grip is the last part of your project.

Cut the wood around the shaft

  1. Cut around the contour line.
  2. Keep your shaft square by using the angle gauge.

Tips and tricks:

  • This should be the easiest part since the shaft is drawn in a straight line.
  • Don’t worry if your contour line isn’t completely straight, though. It will require some shaping down the line, but it’s still better than cutting too much off your board.

Give more shape to the corners

  1. Shape the blade by making it look less angular with the curved knife.
  2. Give shape to the throat of your paddle, by using the curved knife and the plane.
  3. Use the plane to start smoothing out the edges of your shaft.
  4. Continue smoothing the shaft with the rasps.
  5. Use the card scrapers to make your blade look even smoother.
  6. You can even use very fine sandpaper to make your paddle look better if your wood block was soft wood.
  7. Spray some water on your paddle so the grains can raise.
  8. Let the paddle dry.
  9. Use the sandpaper again to smooth out these grains too.

Tips and tricks:

  • The shaft and the blade should be constantly turned from one side to the other so as to make both sides as symmetrical as possible.
  • Check for asymmetries and correct your mistakes frequently.
  • Although you’ll have a tendency to keep following your initial measurements and contour lines, it’s better to follow your instinct too. That’s easier said than done for beginners.

Apply the finish

  1. Apply an oil coating to the shaft, mixing it with beeswax.
  2. Wet-sand and let it breathe for half an hour.
  3. Rub the shaft with a clean, cotton cloth.
  4. Apply two more coatings to your shaft, following the same process.
  5. Apply the desired finish on your blade.
  6. Submerge the blade in water and let it soak well.
  7. Let the blade dry for about 10 hours.
  8. Use sandpaper to smooth the blade out.
  9. Apply two more coatings to your blade, following the same process.

Tips and tricks:

  • Which finish you apply to your paddle depends on various factors, for instance, varnish is better for the blade, while oil is better for the shaft seeing as varnish becomes sticky when exposed to water.
  • Make sure the oil coating for the shaft is really absorbed by the wood, so use a hairdryer.
  • Coat your paddle as often as possible, especially for the paddles you frequently use.
  • If you don’t use a paddle too often, coat it at the beginning and at the end of the canoeing season.

Test the paddle

After you’ve finished with these steps, make sure the paddle works. Check that it cuts the water surface smoothly, and that it flexes a bit when you’re paddling forward.

See also: How to Paddle A Canoe: Make Your Way On The Water

A stiff paddle is less ergonomic and less efficient, making your muscles sore because you have to put more effort into it.

Is your paddle ready?

At this point, you’re probably wondering whether you can use these instructions for making a canoe paddle with a bent-shaft too. And the answer is yes, you can draw whichever shape you want for your paddle at the first step when using the top view. To keep you informed on how to select the top canoe paddle, check our additional tips for reference.

 3 paddles with cool design

So let us know if you’ve followed our instructions and how that worked out for you. Is this your first DIY project? Is there anything we need to have made clearer? Are there any other tips and tricks you can share with our other readers? Drop us a line, the comment section is right below.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Neal Walker

Neal Walker

Neal Walker started fishing when he was 4. His father took him to the fishing trips all over USA and Canada. Later he took Angling Education Program at Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, but most of his knowledge comes from experience. Now he takes his sons with him to share his passion.