Douglas Alderson's Paddles

Douglas Alderson

Sidney, BC. Canada V8L 5L8


After reading Matt Broze's article A Quest For The Perfect Paddle, Sea Kayaker, Spring 1992, I decided not to become too comfortable with my favorite paddle. I would begin my own quest.

Sufficient materials to build a paddle are always in my woodshop and one nice thing about building paddles is that I am not reluctant to put one through the band saw and change its shape or size. At present I have five paddles hanging up on the rack, two that I like and one that I prefer. All have Douglas Fir / fiberglass laminated shafts and blades formed from 1/8" marine plywood, both sides fiberglassed with two layers of 6oz cloth. Epoxy resin is used throughout.

My first several paddles explored different construction techniques and blade shapes, the overall length remained a constant 96". In time I found a blade shape and area that I liked; symmetric, curved, with no spoon and no ridge on the working face. Development then turned to building paddles with shorter shaft lengths. Each shorter paddle had a slightly better feel to it. No one change in blade size, shape or length felt overwhelmingly different, just a little better. Very early trials using a borrowed, short, 86" paddle led me to believe that this length was definitely too short. However, with the opportunity to change incrementally, and have the time to make repeated sea trials, I found myself liking the shorter lengths. When the overall length reached 88" (shaft length 52") is was clear that shortening the shaft further would cause the blade to be only partially submerged and also result in frequent banging against the deck. Much to my surprise I had whittled away 10" off the length. I was now using an 88" paddle with 18" blades.

Despite suggestions of increased leverage and a more gentle stroke with longer paddles I found that using the shorter lengths yielded better overall performance. With the shorter paddles my sustained speed was higher, and effort was reduced. All aspects of my strokes seemed to improve. Bracing and rolling were quicker and easier. I had to build just one more paddle, a little more sturdy and with a better finish. With this accomplished felt that now I had a really good paddle (paddle C on the chart below).

 

lengths in inches, area in square inches,

paddle    shaft     blade     blade      blade     overall    weight   
version   length    length    width      area      length    lbs.-oz.   
A           60        18      5.75       81.4        96       2-15
B           56        18      5.75       81.4        92       2-14
C           52        18      5.75       81.4        88       3-2
D           52        16      6.60       81.4        84       2-11

I was very comfortable with paddle C and for 18 months I used it exclusively. I became accustom to the feel of it. My quest however was based on exploration and curiosity and in particular avoiding becoming too comfortable with any one paddle. I re-read Matt Broze's article.

I had to make just one more alteration. Shaft size, shaft length, blade area and curvature would all remain constant. I had investigated the extremes of these measurements and settled on what for me seemed to be the best. Matt's argument on behalf of shorter paddles had been working out and I wanted to pursue it a bit farther, I would take 2" of the blade length. This would reduce the overall length 4". In order to maintain the same blade area the new shorter blade would need to be wider. My 'sturdy' paddle C had felt slightly clumsy and so with greater care I during construction I would also try to reduce the blade weight. These were to turn out to be a dramatic changes.

During the first sea trials my impression of the shorter wider blade was that it was inadequate. It went through the water too quickly and too lightly leaving, me with little sensation that I was propelling the boat (remember that the blade area is unchanged). The notably increased cadence of this shortest paddle was unfamiliar, I felt that I was 'spinning my wheels.' I hung up Paddle D feeling satisfied that my search for the perfect paddle had been thorough and my favorite, paddle C, was as good as it was going to get. I hung up paddle D in the shop. Weeks latter curiosity drew me back to use this paddle again, and then once again.

In time it became clear that my first impressions were only half right. With the opportunity for extended testing I found that with this new paddle, I was clearly not working as hard, and upon closer scrutiny, boat speed was actually as good or better than before. The increased cadence was becoming comfortable and was likely responsible for greater boat speed. Decreased stroke effort resulted in a higher boat speed sustainable for a longer period of time. Surprisingly these characteristics were difficult to accept. I had to keep going back and forth between paddles. Instinctively I felt that if I was working harder I must be going faster. Reluctantly at first, then with ever increasing commitment, my preference shifted. A new favorite emerged, responsive, light, fast and short, 84" overall.

Without the opportunity for incremental changes and extended testing I would have never become comfortable with what I now find to be a much superior paddle. My quest is now suspended, however, there are still a few paddles left to make, maybe a slightly larger shaft but made of Spruce to keep the weight down, maybe Kevlar cloth?


Throughout the quest here is what I found to be significant:

 

  1. Variations as little as 1/16" in shaft diameter are significant on grip.
  2. Shaft length can be set based on your size, boat beam and paddling style.
  3. Changes in blade area have a less than anticipated effect on performance.
  4. Changes in blades length has greater than anticipated effect on performance.
  5. Lightening blades is more significant than lightening shafts.
  6. Higher cadence is easier to maintain and requires less overall effort but does not return the same sense of propulsion.
  7. When rolling & bracing, the quicker response and sweep of a shorter paddle is an advantage, which offsets any reduced leverage.
  8. First impressions are not to be trusted.

Douglas Alderson



Rough notes for the curious:

A quick guide to paddle construction.

Shaft material is cut from well seasoned clear lumber or premium kiln dried stock. (Douglas Fir or Sitka Spruce) A good quality carbide tablesaw blade can leave a surface suitable for gluing without further machining.

Five or seven laminations of wood and 6oz fiberglass cloth are laid up on a long flat surface. I have a 9 foot long piece of heavy angle iron that does a very good job. Clamping down to a 5 foot long work bench can also produce satisfactory results.

 

update:

The middle three layers can have 3/8" holes drilled every 1 1/4" to lighten the shaft. Lay up the 'holey' layers so that no two holes intersect each other. No loss in strength - worth the effort. To drill the holes - drill the rough stock before riping to thickness. Outside laminations can be of Fir or Ash instead of Spruce. Spruce is lighter but is not very resistant to knocking about - it blemishes easily. I use Spruce - keep it light.

 

I also now drill 3/8" holes thoughout the blade to reduce blade weight by 15%. Just make sure that holes fall in a non'linear pattern. My last best paddle weighs 2.5 lbs (1150 gr.)

 

 

note: approximately 1 fluid ounce of resin is required for each of the shaft laminations and each layer of cloth on the paddle blade (80 sq in).

Once the shaft is glued and dried it needs to be cleaned up and sized to overall rectangular dimensions with a saw and a plane. Preliminary rounding of the shaft can occur at this time. It is most important at this time not to round the shaft in the area where the blades are to be attached.

Glue a piece of scrap solid wood to each end. Use white glue and sandwich a piece of regular bond paper between the scrap and the shaft.

Cut out the curvature for the blade. A bandsaw is the very best tool for this job. Clean up the cut surface with a spoke shave as needed.

Pay close attention to keep the curved surface free if twist. Placing straight sticks on this surface and eyeing balling down the length of the shaft will help you see any twist. In the same manner compare both ends and check that the blades are parallel or feathered as required.

Cut out the blade shape from marine grade 1/8" plywood. To set the curve into the blade place it in boiling water for not more than 1.5 minutes, (a cookie sheet with 1/4" of water in it works fine). Take the hot wet plywood and clamp or staple it to the shaft. Leave it to dry thoroughly. Dis-assemble it, apply epoxy resin and one layer of fiberglass cloth to the back side. Now staple the fiberglassed blade securely back into place, fiberglassed side underneath. Roll over the entire assembly and use a plastic squeegie to draw off all excess resin. Finish tidying up, and leave it to set for two days.

Cut out the blade shape from marine grade 1/8" plywood. To set the curve into the blade place it in boiling water for not more than 1.5 minutes, (a cookie sheet with 1/4" of water in it works fine). Take the hot wet plywood and clamp or staple it to the shaft. Leave it to dry thoroughly. Dis-assemble it, apply epoxy resin and one layer of fiberglass cloth to the back side. Now staple the fiberglassed blade securely back into place, fiberglassed side underneath. Roll over the entire assembly and use a plastic squeegie to draw off all excess resin. Finish tidying up, and leave it to set for two days.

Pull out the staples and clean up the upper side of the blade and round off the shaft as it meets the blade. Apply two layers of 6oz fiberglass cloth and epoxy resin to the working side of the blade. Let these layers run about 2" up and around the shaft. Again, use a squeegie to remove all excess resin to keep the blade weight to a minimum. When this layer is good and set (2 days) apply a chisel to the paper line between the shaft and the scrap. The scrap and shaft will shear off with ease.

You are now free to shape the shaft with spoke shave, rasp, plane or router. When this careful process is complete a final layer of fiberglass cloth can be placed over the back side of the blade and shaft and this last layer adds a great deal of strength and stiffness.

Epoxy resin will set up in one day, be sandable in two days and continues to become stronger and stiffer for many more days. Your paddle will show its true characteristics after a week in the house in good warm temperatures. My choice of finish is 2 coats of epoxy over the shaft and followed by 3 coats of spar varnish. The blades are painted with 2 or three coats of yellow tinted primer, well sanded between coats and then painted yellow, for maximum visibility. I paint and accent ring about 1.5" wide on the shaft at the end of the blade in a color which matches the boat's color.

From beginning to end this whole process takes 3 or 4 weeks. Don't rush it, there is are several layers that need to dry and set properly before moving on. At all times follow manufacturers suggested application methods and safety instructions.

Douglas Alderson

 

Doug has a book coming out "SeaKayaker's Savvy Paddler 200+ tips for better cheaper safer paddling" Look out for it.

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