Paddle design is at least as varied as the materials used to make them. Let’s take a paddle apart and address design component by component, starting with the blade.
Blade shape or design varies depending on usage and on the limitations of the materials used to make the paddle.
Traditional paddles featured long narrow blades, usually no wider than 6 or 6 ½”. The two primary reasons for this shape are the available raw materials of the time and the type of usage in which the paddles were employed, mostly in deep water conditions. The extended length of the blade was dictated by the narrow width as a minimum amount of surface area was required for the paddle to be effective. If it wasn’t available side to side, it had to be made up end to end.
There are two primary blade shapes in traditional paddles: the “Beavertail” with widest point of the blade near the tip and the “Ottertail” with widest point of blade up close to the shaft/blade junction. Both function much the same, choice is a matter of personal preference.
As canoeing has evolved, so has blade shape. Contemporary blade shapes are wider and shorter than in the past with an “average” size blade measuring about 20”+/- long and 8 ½” +/- wide. These dimensions facilitate use in more varied waters from shallow rivers to deep lakes and open water.
Actual shape of the blade can differ slightly but most shapes offer similar performance. The thing to look at is surface area. If you anticipate that your paddling style will be somewhat casual, coasting along in no great hurry, you’re probably going to be better served with a smaller blade. If you’re looking for a work out or want to eat up the miles or paddle in rougher water, a larger blade would be the ticket.
One might think that it’s advisable to opt for a big blade so that you have the power to kick in when wanted but the downside to that approach is you have to pull that blade through the water every stroke, regardless of whether you want to pick up the pace or not. With a smaller blade you can up the pace simply by switching to a more rapid stroke cadence and have the opportunity to back off when you want.
The greatest value to a big blade is actually the ability to deploy stronger braces. A brace is when the paddle is used to help recover a canoe that has been leaned over a mite too far. By laying the blade horizontally on the water surface and applying pressure in what’s called a low brace, you can bring a canoe back to upright position. A “high brace” is used when boat is leaning away from your paddle side.
Most paddles feature rounded corners for a couple of reasons. One is that a round corner as compared to a 90o sharp corner is less susceptible to being chipped or damaged. The other is the softer corner allows for a quieter entry and exit from the water, an important feature especially for the fishing or hunting paddler. The tip is also usually arced or radiused for the same reasons.
The shaft is a key component of the paddle for strength and also for comfort and control. A round shaft can have a tendency to rotate in your grip particularly when you are paddling hard, trying to pull the paddle blade through the water aggressively. This makes the blade “flutter” and wobble, making it less efficient under those circumstances.
An oval shaft gives you some reference as to exactly what the blade position is and also provides a form-fitting grip for your lower hand. This measurably enhances control and also minimizes blisters as the shaft has less tendency to want to rotate or spin in your hand. This is also less fatiguing as you don’t have to grip the paddle as hard to keep it steady, it fits the hand better and provides easier control.
The grip is another component you want to pay attention to. You want a grip shape that fits well in your hand. The two primary grip shapes are a “T” grip and a “Palm” grip.
As the name suggests, the T-grip forms a “T” at the top of the shaft. It is the preferred grip of many whitewater paddlers as it gives a very positive grip to the hand and it also is in line with the blade of the paddle. This allows the paddler to know the exact blade position when they are mixing diverse paddle strokes such as forward, reverse, draw, and bracing strokes without having to look at their blade. This allows them to concentrate fully on the obstacles in the river.
T-grips are often flat on top and bottom to provide that defined shape that such paddlers need.
The alternative grip, the Palm grip, finds favor with paddlers paddling more diverse waters. It’s shape is not as pronounced side to side as the T-grip and the top and bottom are often radiused to more comfortably fit the hand as it closes over the grip. Some palm grips have extra thickness added to the front and back of the grip to further fit the hand contours. This is a feature usually found on more expensive paddles as it requires extra material and labor to build the handle and shape it properly.
The palm grip has the advantage of the paddler being able to change how he or she grasps the grip. A proper palm grip has enough shape that it can provide a firm grip when needed yet can also be more loosely grabbed when conditions allow a more leisurely pace.
Regardless of which grip you prefer, test fit a number of different grips to see what fits your hand the best. Most synthetic grips come out of molds and are the same but you may find subtle differences in wood grips on the same model of paddle. It’s a good idea to try different samples of the model you prefer to find the best grip.
You should also sight down the paddle from the grip to make sure the grip is aligned with the blade and not offset in any way. This can also be tested by laying the paddle on a flat surface and checking to see if contact on each side of grip and each side of blade are consistent.
Last, feel for smoothness throughout the grip. Any rough spot or surface will aggravate your palm while paddling and could result in blisters. Most of the time raised rough spots such as might come from where the paddle was hung when it was varnished, can be knocked down pretty easily and quickly with sand paper. But it is important to make sure you can “fix” the offending area, living with it is not a pleasing experience.