Greenland Style Paddle Building

By George Ellis


This is a paddle building technique based on an article in Sea Kayaker Magazine by John Heath. I have slightly modified it to accommodate those who have little or no woodworking experience.

The shape and size of the paddle is defined by the size of the paddler. Its length is the greatest height one can reach with one hand and still curl the fingers over the end. The blade width is determined by the span between the thumb and second finger while forming a wide "C". The distance from blade end to blade end is the distance between the outer sides of the fore fingers with the hands hanging in a normal position at the sides. The loom or shaft is the diameter of the circle formed with the thumb and forefinger.

The wood I prefer to use for those building their first paddle is "quarter sawn" (vertical grained) Douglas Fir. This is not the lightest of woods, but still some what light. Normally it has few or no knots, straight grain, thus presents no surprises and is fairly easy to work with. Quarter-sawn Douglas Fir can be found at most woodworking shops, window manufacturers, and some lumber yards. What you want is a rough sawn 2 inch by 6 inch by 8 foot planks. If all you can find is finished lumber the minimum dimensions are: 1.5 inches thick, 5.5 inches wide and 8 feet long. If you're 6 feet tall or more, you probably will want a longer plank, wider too if you have a large handspan.

The tools are non-powered hand tools. A 6 inch block plane, a cheap hand saw and a sanding block. The block plane can be found in any hardware store, building supply, even K-MART. They cost any where from $9.00 to $23.00.

I recommend one that you can get replacement blades for at the place you buy the plane. The sanding block is made from a 1 " x 4 " x 2 4 " piece of cheap white wood. The following dimensions for the sanding block fit a 3 " x 2 4 " sanding belt. First the width of the 1'x4" is reduced to 3" (use your new plane) .

Then cut the first board at 11 1/8", the second board at 1 1/4". Slip one of the 3" x 24" sanding belts (2 coarse, 2 fine) over the first block . Then slide the second block in side the sanding belt perpendicular to the longer one.

I use clamps, but any thing that can be used to fasten the paddle blank down will work. Be advised the work area will become covered in wood shaving sand dust. At home I work outdoors in the shade of several large oak trees. If you follow the system as outlined you should be able to complete a paddle in 20 hours or less . I can now finish one in an eight hour day .

One other tool (?) you will need is a straight edge. Mine is a 1/2 inch slice off a very straight 8 foot 2 inch plank. It can be anything - a yardstick will do IF it is straight. Using the straight edge mark a center line the length of all four sides and the ends. Also mark the end to center of the blank. now transfer YOUR measurements onto the blank. At the root of the blade (center end) I'll make that the thickness the same as my index finger. The angle about 16 degrees. This is a good starting place. After you've built 3 or more you'll probably come up with your own ideas on what any and all the dimensions should be.

At this point yon have to make a decision; 1) do you cut this out yourself with your handsaw, or 2) do you take it to a woodworking shop and have them do it for you on a large band saw? I own a small bandsaw, BUT I have a friend who owns a wood working shop and I use his big band saw. I checked around and most shops said they would do a job like that for less than twenty bucks. Money well spent. Your choice.

Once the blank is outlined the fun begins. If your dimension and center lines are gone reestablish them. Fasten one end of the blank to your workbench. Start with the block plane. Begin with very little blade at first. All you want to begin with is a small curl of wood coming off. The initial goal is to establish a slightly ovaled surface running the length of one half of one blade side, starting from the centerline on the wide flat surface to the centerline on the edge. Try to go close to but not over the centerlines. If you go over it, STOP and reestablish it right then and there. This is the only means you have for alignment in your work. Take your time, learn how to use the tools and become familiar with the wood. Don't work to completion, just take it down to where it is recognizable as part of a paddle. Then go on to the other side. When you've done that turn the blank over and begin again on the other side of the same end. Then proceed on to the other end and do both sides. Using the coarse sanding belt on the sanding block, sand each face first lengthwise. Now turn the sanding block over with the short leg pointing down. Using the long side run the sanding block forth from centerline to centerline. This will help smooth out the irregularities from the plane and sander.

To work the curved area of the root of the blade and the loom, take the plane apart. Use just the blade. You may want to wear gloves or place tape around the back edge of the plane blade. It can cut the palm of your hand or cause a blister. Use the plane blade as you would a chisel or knife and gently carve out the shape you want. To sand use the sander in the upside down mode. If you ease the tension slightly it will conform to curved surfaces more easily.

At this point you can begin sanding with the fine sanding belt. Following this I usually go to flat sand paper, about a 150 grit. Followed by wet-or dry 300 grit sandpaper.

You should now have a usable paddle Whether you decide to put a finish on it or not (I don't), use it first, take it out in salt or fresh water and paddle with it some, get a feel for it. ~Then let it dry out for about a week. If you want to make changes, go ahead,~just be sure that's what you want. If you're satisfied just go over it again with the 300 grit pap~r. Do this again after using it for several months. This will take care of any fine ends that may stick up from time to time. It's wood and will get dinged up sooner or later. When that happens use a medium to course~? sandpaper to reshape the area then smooth it out and so on to a fine finish.

Now a word of caution that perhaps I should have started with. BEWARE of well intentionecl friends who are wood workers and who are willing to loan you some of their tools - a drawknife, a spokeshave, or perhaps power tools. Unless you are familiar with wood working tools I strongly advise against it. The tools I have listed here will do a good job for you with a minimal outlay of monev. I have power tools in my shop at home, but for some unknown reason I prefer to use these same basic tools and a few others that lend themselves to build all my paddles. The kayakers of Greenland built paddles without even this much.

If you have any questions, or want to send me a photo of the finished product I'd be glad to hear from you.

George Ellis
626-45th Avenue South
St. Petersburg, Florida 33705

For more information about Greenland paddles look here.




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