Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata)
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.
Dougls-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii)
photo here eventually!
Douglas-fir is 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.
I have recently completed a very light paddle in Obeche with Sapele edges. If you like I will 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 want me to experiment with a favourite wood I will with pleasure.
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.
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.
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 low opinion of Tung oil.
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 bath, 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.
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 newly 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.
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.