Paddle Building 101
Paddle Building 101
I love making paddles. They are the interface between my body, the board I am paddling and the water. Paddles have history. The surface of the earth is 97% water so you know humans have been paddling something for a long time. We, as paddle building craftspeople, have a rich tradition to help guide our efforts. Modern materials such a carbon fiber and graphite are wonderful materials for high quality production paddles. But if you want us to make you a paddle or guide you in making your own beautifully soulful paddle that has most of the qualities of the high end production paddle, wood is the medium of choice. With the right combinations of woods you can create a paddle that has the butter smooth pull you want and is beautiful!
The following is an overview of the process of building your own stand up paddleboard paddle. This paddle-making description will provide all the information you will need to build your own high quality stand up paddleboard paddle. Or, if you would prefer, we can build one for you.
The key to building a paddle that is light, strong and beautiful starts with the woods you choose. Paddles can be built from virtually any wood but, in order to build one that is strong and light, the wood you select is critical. If your interest in building your own paddle does not include making the lightest possible paddle, no problem! You will still be able to enjoy having made your own paddle.
My choices for woods have much to do with what I have available in my locale. In my case, I use three different woods: paulownia for strength and lightness, salvaged redwood for both beauty and strength, and douglas fir for strength and flex. Other combinations of wood will work but I have found that in order to get the weight of the finished paddle under two pounds and to create the strength and flex I want, the woods highlighted above give me a paddle that has all the characteristics I am trying to achieve. We can also help you source the materials you will need to build your own high quality wood paddle.
I have tried many different kinds of waterproof glue for paddle construction. Some glues, such as the “foaming” type polyurathane and “Titebond III”, either have some water in them or need moisture for a proper cure. Epoxy (I haven’t tried the water-based epoxies) is the one adhesive that has proven to be the best for achieving a straight and true paddle shaft. My experience with foaming polyurethane and Titebond III has led to shafts that don’t stay straight. My hunch is that the water in the product or the water introduced to enhance cure led to enough instability so that the shaft warped. So, for me, epoxy is the adhesive of choice for a trouble-free lamination.
Paddle Blade Shape
Over the course of the last couple of years my paddles have evolved into “tools” that I love to handle and use. The blades have gradually become smaller in size and the refinements to the power face of the blade have evolved through a process of building and using paddles nearly every day. What I have found with blade shape is that a slight dihedral on the power face and a very small “kick” to the tip creates a paddle with a smooth and powerful stroke. The shape needed for a sweet paddle is achievable with very little investment in special tools. The primary shaping tool I use is a 4 ½” grinder with grinding disks appropriate for wood. You can shape a blade with a jig saw, 4 ½” grinder and hand sandpaper. Harbor Freight Tools has a 4 ½” grinder for under $25. A table saw is what I use to mill up all the parts in preparation for glue up.
The “foundation” of the blade is an extension of the paddle shaft. The assembled shaft and each face of the blade is then laminated with fiberglass and epoxy to approximately 6″ above the top of the blade.
The paddle shafts I make are seven-piece laminations. The shaft dimensions are 1 1/4″ x 1 1/8″, a very slight oval. These are the dimensions that I have found to be comfortable to grip for most paddlers, provide the right amount of flex and have the strength necessary for years of paddling. The jig for gluing the shaft is a straight 2×4 screwed to a flat work table. The seven-piece lamination is then clamped to the straight 2×4 and when the glue has cured you have the basics of a beautiful hand-crafted paddle shaft. Flex characteristics can be affected by which way the laminations are oriented relative to the blade. Perpendicular to the plane of the blade for a softer flex and parallel to the plane of the blade for a bit stiffer flex are the two basic ways to go about constructing your shaft. Personally, with my bad shoulders I like a softer flex so I orient the shaft laminations so they are perpendicular to the plane of the blade. There are other ways of producing a paddle shaft, such as hollow shaft construction, but I have found that a solid seven-piece lamination provides what I want in terms of flex, strength and ease of building.
The termination at the end of the shaft really gets personal! You will probably grip this part of your paddle on nearly every stroke you take and if you have been paddling for a while I’m sure you have a favorite shape. My choice is an ergonomic “T” that I size and shape to fit my hand. This looks like a complicated shape when you first look at it but if you break the shape down to the individual parts of the handle it is quite straightforward to shape this part of your paddle with a rasp and sandpaper. As I mentioned in the introduction, my paddles have evolved quite a bit in the last couple of years and paddle length is no exception. You will see in the drawing that adjusting the length is possible with a wood paddle shaft but in all likelihood your wood SUP paddle is not your first paddle so you probably already know what you want for length. But should you change your mind about overall paddle length it is possible to shorten or lengthen your paddle with basic woodworking tools and a bit of adhesive.
We will soon be providing step-by-step instructions with photographs on our blog so you can see exactly how a quality paddle is made.