With few exceptions, I’ve always preferred using my own handmade canoe paddles over any that I could buy from even the most reputable outdoors retailers. My dad started making them for resale back in 1996 and I thought they would be inferior to store-bought models, but I was WRONG!
Table of Contents
Tools I Used
Most videos or posts online showing you how to make a paddle use professional tools that only a very well-equipped (typically full-time professional) woodworking business would have. I’ve seen band saws and oscillating spindle sanders and planing tables to name a few tools. Most normal guys don’t have a fully-equipped woodshop, and neither do I. Below is a list of what I had on hand, and I’ve linked them to Amazon’s best prices.
You could grab some at Harbour Freight Tools, but the low quality of their tools can be more of a hassle than just using a better quality tool. Amazon sells them for as good a price or better than Home Depot, but the selection is about 700 times better on Amazon, and it’ll save you a trip!
- Belt Sander
- Table Saw
- Palm Sander
- Angle Finder (protractor)
- 4 – 6 wood clamps
- Planer (I had electric but I like manual better)
- Jig Saw (I didn’t like using it – I used the table saw instead)
- Hand Operated Router (Don’t need this for sure!)
Supplies You’ll Need
- Medium sized bottle of Gorilla Glue (or similar wood glue)
- Selection of sandpaper grades
- Spar marine varnish
- 6 foot long piece of 2×10 plank (any wood)
- 10 – 12 foot long 2×4 (pine – softwood)
What’s the Best Wood To Use For a Canoe Paddle?
While there is no obvious or definitive answer to this, Basswood seems to be a favorite for its strength to weight ratio. Other popular choices are poplar, cedar, pine and even hardwoods like oak or maple. Hardwoods are excellent for strength, but the weighted feel of the paddles can be burdensome over long expeditions and it’s harder to shape and sand.
My choice of wood for paddle-making is simple pine available inexpensively at any home improvement store. It’s light, offers flexibility, is incredibly inexpensive and in my experience, offers excellent strength when properly glued.
How To Determine the Right Canoe Paddle Length
The short, simple answer for finding the right paddle length is to simply place one hand on the top grip of a paddle, and place the other hand at the neck of the shaft (right where the shaft meets the blade) and hold the paddle horizontally just above your head. If your arms are at a 90-degree angle, the paddle is a roughly good fit.
However, there are more factors to consider such as the type of canoe you’ll be paddling and if you’ll be using a bent shaft paddle or a straight shaft paddle.
If your canoe is wide and/or has higher seats, you’ll need a longer paddle. This is typical of a recreational canoe. If your canoe is narrower with lower seats (like a flatwater expedition canoe) the length of your paddle should be shorter. My rule is to go with the shortest paddle you can use comfortably. Your grip hand should be no lower than your chin about halfway through your stroke.
You can check out our full post on all things related to canoe paddles on ruggedoutdoorguide.com
9 Steps to a (nearly) Perfect Custom Bent Shaft Paddle
1 – Make a “shaft press” to create the bend in the shaft
The first item of business is to determine the general length of the finished paddle. I knew mine was going to be about 52 inches, so I made a press that could accommodate about 60 inches of wood.
The next thing you’ll need to do is determine the angle of the bend. Most bends tend to be somewhere around 10 – 14 degrees. I chose 11 degrees.
With my 2×10 board cut down to about 60 inches, I drew out the general location of the shaft length along the wide side of the board with my 11-degree bend about 36 inches from one end and 24 inches from the other.
You’ll then use your table saw to rip the cut. Be careful not to cut too far underneath past your angle since table saws have a nasty habit of cutting farther under your board than on top.
2 – Determine Blade Shape and Size
Here’s where the fun begins! You can choose any blade style and size you like, but I might suggest you stick with a slightly wider blade than most (I chose 8 inches) and I went with a rather generous length of 20 inches for the blade from the throat to the bottom of the blade.
Those dimensions will allow for a paddle that is dedicated more for speed and forward thrust (particularly for the bow paddler) as well as good control in shallow water.
Once you have a general idea of the size and shape, draw it out as best you can on a piece of large paper (or tape multiple sheets together). Then, fold it in half top to bottom so you can see only half of the paddle. You can tweak the design/dimensions and then cut out that half. Unfold it and you should have a perfectly symmetrical blade template in the actual size of your finished blade.
3 – Preparing the Shaft
This next step is where the “magic” occurs. It’s the process whereby you actually “bend” the shaft to nearly whatever shape you want in just a few minutes. While it’s not actually a secret, it’s kind of kept as one of the special “secrets” of craftsmanship much like magicians try to keep their illusions a secret.
The first step here is to cut a piece of 2×4 down to about 55 – 60 inches in length. Then, on one cut end, measure six – 1/4″ sections to be ripped from your board to create 6 – 55″ long strips of wood 1/4″ wide.
By cutting 6 strips at the given dimensions, you’ll end up with a workable shaft starting piece that’s about 1.5 inches on all 4 sides (more like 1.5″x1.7″). Eventually, you’ll plane and sand it down to a 1-1/4″ or slightly smaller round or oval profile.
Use a table saw to rip your 6 pieces which will then be prepared for the “bending” process.
4 – Glue the Strips Together to Create Your Shaft and Blade Center Piece
Lay your 6 strips down on a bench with an underlay of plastic or paper to protect the bench from excess glue. Then, quickly apply glue to one side of all the strips. I used Gorilla Glue and I’m happy with its strength. However, because it was relatively thin in consistency, it didn’t squeeze out like I wanted to see. I would lay it on as thick as I could for my next paddle shaft.
Place all your pieces together so all of them are glued to the next piece, but no glue on the outside of the end pieces. Then, place your composite shaft into the shaft press and clamp the whole thing together pretty tightly. I used 3 clamps along the length, but a couple more wouldn’t hurt.
You want to see at least a little bit of glue squeeze out from every seam to be sure there is glue everywhere to hold with maximum efficiency.
After about a 10-hour dry time (to be safe), you’ll need to run at least the SIDES of the shaft (where you’ll glue your blade pieces) through a table saw (with a guide to ensure a flat surface). I would suggest running the entire shaft length through the saw to ensure all 4 sides of the shaft are flat. You’ll need a flat area at the top of the shaft to glue your grip pieces as well.
5 – Cut Blade Pieces To Fit General Shape and Size of Your Blade Template
There’s no best practices procedure here, but I cut 3 separate pieces for each side of the blade. They were arranged in the same way with the same wood pieces in the same order for each side of the center shaft. I stained my pieces as a bit of an experiment to see how deep the stain would penetrate, but ultimately the stain was planed away to reveal the very white wood underneath.
My blade pieces were just under 1″ thick. They were 1.5″ wide. An optional step I took (because I had the wood laying around) which doesn’t help paddle performance, but it does add visual interest, is to add different strips from different woods which will have a different color once sanded and varnished.
I had some Black Walnut on hand so I added a couple of 1/2″ strips on each side.
I also decided while I was at it to put a “wear guard” on the bottom of the blade. Many paddle manufacturers use an epoxy resin to combat wear, but I like the idea of adding hardwood instead… especially since I already had some in my shop. I used more of the Black Walnut that I had in my blade, for my wear guard.
6 – Glue All Blade Pieces Together With Optional Items
After determining the size of each blade piece and its location (in order to fit the paper template of your blade which you made in step 2, glue all pieces together (I used a mock shaft between them to get a good idea of the final product).
Epoxy is a great adhesive, but I’ve had lots of great luck with Gorilla Glue. As long as it’s eventually coated with up to 6 coats of marine varnish, it’s one of the strongest glues I’ve found, even after many years of use.
I let my glue dry for about 10 hours after clamping. The glue could hold well enough after 3 hours, but I knew the next step would cause lots of stress to the jointed surfaces.
7 – Shape and Install Grip Handle Pieces
While the glue was drying on my blade, I cut and shaped the grip pieces. You can just “eyeball” the pieces and cut them according to how you want your final grip to look and feel, but I used 2 pieces on each side that were the same thickness as my unfinished shaft (about 1.5″).
The side pieces also extended out from the shaft another 1.5″. I cut an angle off the bottom of each piece to give me a head start on the final shaping with my belt sander. I then added yet another piece to the front of the grip to allow my fingers to wrap around for better comfort and control.
That piece was also 1.5″ x 1.5″ x 3.5″. I flipped my belt sander upside down and clamped it to my workbench. I then grabbed the piece of wood and just rounded the edges by dragging it over the upturned sanding belt.
Keep in mind that with a bent-shaft paddle, you’ll only ever use one side of the blade to push the water so the paddle will always be used with the same side facing forward. That means you can shape your grip so one end is also always facing forward. There’s no need to make the grip symmetrical or “dual-directional” since you’ll never flip the paddle over to use the other blade face.
This reality allows you to make a grip that is custom fit for your hand BETTER than a dual-direction grip.
8 – Cut Out Blade and Start Shaping
Once your paddle is fully glued together with grip pieces and blade pieces attached to the square shaft, it’s time to start the shaping process. I started with the blade.
I first layed out the blade template on the wood blade itself as best I could line it up visually. Any irregularities or angular errors are easily overcome when you start shaping with your belt sander and heavy grit.
Once I finished tracing the blade shape, I started using lots of power tools I had to shape the blade as well as the grip. Keep in mind that if you have access to a band saw, this would be the best tool to use for cutting out the blade. My jigsaw was awkward.
I used my electric planer to thin the top and bottom of the blade, and I used my router to give me a head start at shaping the shaft profile.
Once I got the edges rounded on my shaft and some higher ridges removed from my blade, I started with my belt sander using the heaviest grit I could buy.
It’s worth noting that I used tools I had on hand without purchasing anything. If I had to purchase a tool for this job of rough shaping, I’d use an angle grinder and a shaping disk
After my blade was taking shape, I tackled my grip with my belt sander but found that I also needed to manually use a sanding block with the same heavy grit on my belt sander, to shape edges that I could not get with a belt sander. This is where the shaping disk would be REALLY helpful.
It’s important to also mention that you’ll want to check the feel of the grip very often (like every 20 seconds if you’re using a heavy grit on your grinder or belt sander). I wanted a slightly oval grip (especially near the throat) so I was careful to shape it to my taste without accidentally removing too much wood!
9 – Finish Sand and Cover with Marine Varnish
After about an hour of sanding (outdoors if you have the option), I had the blade to the thickness I wanted (about 2/3″ at the thickest point), I changed over to a finishing sander with a finer grit.
It’s important to note at this point that whatever thickness you choose for your paddle, you’ll want to taper the edges of the paddle to enter the water nicely without a splashing, clunky entry. Many DIY paddles feel like awkward “clubs” because the edges of the paddle do not taper to a thin, sleek edge.
Once the finish sanding process was complete, I decided that I would NOT fiberglass the blade for added durability. That would have increased my time commitment and my cost, not to mention the weight of the paddle. In the past, I’ve had excellent luck with non-glassed blades, so I decided to just add my graphics/logo to the bare wood and start applying 5 coats of SPAR MARINE VARNISH. This is hands down the best coating I’ve found, but I’m positive there are others.
I waited about 8 hours between coats and I sanded with 400-grit sandpaper (lightly) between coats. I was fairly successful (though not quite 100%) in my attempt to minimize any drip patterns in the varnish as it dried on my paddle (especially the blade).
My finished blade attracted lots of attention from my family and was noticed immediately by visiting friends a few days later. Of course, that could be because I had the paddle in my hand as I greeted them at my front door, but that’s just a minor detail!
Thanks for taking the time to join me on this journey of paddle-making. You can see the process in far more visual detail in this video!
DIY Bent Shaft Canoe Paddle for $20
Here’s the most helpful DIY bent shaft paddle-making video online! (yes, I’m biased okay!!)