bespoke East and West Greenland paddles UK paddle canoe custom
tools, woods and finishes
I have seen a photograph of a man whittling his paddle against a rock on the Greenland shore with his hunting knife, from driftwood.
The tools available to me are a luxury in comparison to what was available to him. His paddle is a tool to enable him to hunt, eat and live. My paddles are for your pleasure, nowhere near as important as his!
In the interests of purism I could abandon all tools other than those I could make or find. I could whittle your paddle using a sheep's jaw and flint, but I don't think you would like it.
I need few tools to carve your paddle, more important than the tools is the knowledge of how and when to use them.
Jack plane info...
My No. 5 jack plane was a present from my wife a few years ago. I wanted to return to woodworking and she thought this would help get me started. Until I discovered West Greenland paddles I was always looking for an excuse to get it out and use. Now it is essential and used on every paddle.
It is Chinese made, but long gone are the where everything manufactured in China was poor quality. This is a solid workhorse with no shortcomings.
The blade is 3.2mm thick, which is thicker than a standard Record / Stanley blade, in fact it is a thick as a Veritas plane blade. It takes a while to get a keen edge on, but keeps it well. The blade is hardened to Rc 60-64, which is the same class as Veritas A2 and O1 plane blades.
I love my plane, it makes light work of initial blade shaping and the smell of the wood as it peels off the block is marvellous. I love it because my wife gave it to me, so she has a hand in every paddle I make.
I shaped my first paddle with a £4 spokeshave. The Inuit carve theirs with even less.
I have several spokeshaves but my favourite is another present from my wife: a Veritas flat spokeshave. It cost a little more than my first £4 spokeshave, but the quality really shows. It is a joy to use. You know the sweet spot? I hit it time and time again with this tool. It is so good . . .
The blue spokeshave in the photo is a curved base £4 one, used to shape the shoulders after initial chiselling (see below).
Used primarily to shape the shoulders and tips.
Western red cedar is so soft you can just push these chisels through the wood.
Another present, this time from a friend who saw my first few paddles and thought that I could make better use of his unused chisel set.
Muchas gracias Señor Phil!
I have three Japanese water stones and a Veritas Honing Guide. The stones are graded just like sandpaper:
If I need to use this stone, I have done something very silly, like drop a chisel on to bare concrete. It is for grinding back to coarse but flat surface after damaging a chisel, plane or spokeshave blade.
For general sharpening.
For honing the back of blades and applying a micro bevel (the tiny extra edge of ultra sharpness right at the blade tip).
The stones are completely soaked before use, and you keep lubricating them with water whilst sharpening. Never use oil, ever! Get an oil stone for that.
There are loads of websites out there showing you hoe to use them properly. Some folk can get a little obsessive about sharpening blades.
Other tools info...
Other tools include a rip saw, rulers, tape measure (many cos you can never find one), engineer's set square, combination square, pencils and pens, a compass, sandpapers, set of cabinet scrapers (Veritas, of course!)
I have several big nasty electric tools: jigsaw, bench saw, routers, a thickness planer, bandsaw, electric planer but I don't use them anymore when making paddles. Why not? They don't do a clean and nice a job as hand tools frankly. They all attack and chew at the wood and make loads of noise, dust and mess. I'm not a Luddite, but the hand tools seem to do better job in the same time.
Western red cedar info...
The standard for West Greenland paddles. Why? Because traditionally it is the wood to use. It is also light, strong yet flexible, floats in water, easy on your tools when carving and shaping and finishes well. It is also classed as durable, which means it is resistant to rot and insect damage. Western red cedar is a beautiful wood, with many subtle variations in colour.
The grain can sometimes shows up gloriously where the paddle is shaped around the shoulders. A correctly chosen piece will have no knots causing any potential weak points.
So what's the downside to Western red cedar? It is quite soft and dents easily.
I have found Douglas fir a joy to work with, even though it is harder and heavier than Western red cedar. It has a closer grain thus making it denser and therefore stronger and more resistant to accidental denting. It is a much paler wood, creamy white sometimes with a slight hint of pink. Douglas fir is my favourite wood to work with.
The final result may weight roughly 20% more than a Western red cedar paddle. I aim to get a 2.2m Douglas fir paddle to around 1000g / 2.2lb / 34oz / one bag of sugar (technical obscure UK weight).
I carved my first West Greenland paddle from Meranti, so I have a soft spot for this wood. The grain rises and falls along the length which can cause problems when carving as the tool blades can run both with and against the grain on the same stroke causing tear-out. To overcome this one must shave considerably less off with each planing stroke.
Apparently there can be significant amounts of silica in the wood, which can also cause premature blunting of plane blades and chisels, but that's my problem, not yours! I wonder if the presence of the silica is the cause of some final carved paddle grain almost to glitter in sunlight.
other woods info...
pros and cons
If you like I would try and carve you a paddle out of mahogany, (but I don't think you'd like the cost) or Lignum vitae (again, the cost - aaargh, oh, and it doesn't float).
If you really want me to experiment with a favourite wood I will with pleasure.
Danish oil info...
The original and almost the best, probably.
Danish oil is is a blend of pure Tung oil, synthetic resins, vegetable oils, some solvents and drying agents. It is relatively easy to apply and maintain. It soaks in well offering excellent water repellent properties. As it soaks into the wood, the surface is not coated, leaving you a better feel of the wood surface, which many people prefer.
It is an exterior oil, often used on exposed wood like doors and windows, it really does work very well on your paddle.
After 5 or 6 coats it leaves the paddle with a gentle satin sheen.
Here is good ol" Wikipedia entry on Danish oil.
Tung oil info...
Do not listen to what the purists say about Tung oil. I have tried it and it is horrible, not a practical finish for a paddle if you are actually going to use it.
I read somewhere (damned internet) that is was the mutt's nuts, so I tried it on Development Paddle No. 9.
Using Tung oil brought up the grain and colour of the Western red cedar but it wore off after less than one hour's paddling on the River Avon. Now I know the Avon isn't the cleanest river in the world, but there must have been some world class chemicals in that water to strip off the Tung oil so effectively and quickly.
Please take my advice and just don't request it because it is really bad as a practical kayak paddle finish.
I am not the first person to realise the limitations of Tung oil. Here is a link to a FAQ page on The Weathered Paddle, he makes Greenland paddles in Maryland , USA and also has a fairly low opinion of Tung oil.
Floor oil info...
This is my preferred final finish over the top of Danish oil. It is similar in formulation to Danish oil but with added hardeners to form a stronger final coat. Unless specifically requested, I put 2 - 3 coats of floor oil over the top of a paddle that has already had several coats of Danish oil. It makes the paddle finish slightly more glossy, without being totally bling nasty. I think it offers slightly more grip when wet.
How did I find it? I had some left over from fitting a parquet floor in our home. The blurb on the tin said it was ideal for kitchens and bathrooms, both high wear areas with the potential for water. The tin said it was water and alcohol resistant (don't drink and paddle people). I have found that is very non-slip when wet,
useful on a paddle. You wouldn't want your prize and joy escaping from your grasp like a bar of soap in the shower, would you?
I believe floor oil over the top of Danish oil offers the best final finish as it provides a strong protective coating, excellent grip in use, and shows off a paddle very nicely thank you very much.
The only downside to this finish is occasionally your paddle squeaks in use.
Yacht varnish info...
Proper yacht varnish is an absolute bollocks to work with.
It takes 16 to 24 hours for each coat to dry, and you need at least 3 coats. So that's 2 sides to a paddle x 3 coats = 6 days. In a dust-free environment. Hello! It's a woodwork shop, no dust here obviously . . . and I have a dog. She doesn't moult much, but you can guarantee when she does her fur is drawn magnetically to a just-varnished paddle.
Which is a shame because it shows the colour and grain of meranti very well. Except that it doesn't coat very smoothly. It seems to retract away from the exposed grain ends leaving a slight undulating surface.
It coats Western red cedar well, I have polished it to deep lustrous glass-finish on Development Paddle No. 3. It does darken the wood down. It takes moderate knocks and bangs very well as it is quite elastic. However like all surface finishes it can chip and crack thus creating tiny pockets where water can get in and cause further possible damage.
Once completely dried (about a week!), you can polish yacht varnish to a very high sheen.
A paddle finished with yacht varnish squeaks more than other finishes. Not much, but it can. Also it is not quite as grippy when wet.
I am still looking for the ultimate yacht varnish, one that is easy to apply, as tough as old boots and lasts forever. If you know of such a product, I'd love to know too.
Polyurethane varnish info...
Fine for a paddle that never gets used. It has very little flexibility, not enough protection and chips too easily .
Cheap rubbish, walk away. Enough said.
Other finishes info...
As you can see I have researched and tried a few finishes.
If you know of something I have not tried and you think it could make a good paddle finish I am more than glad to receive (sensible) suggestions.
Emails to the usual address, thanks.