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Wood remains the material of choice for most canoeists. It’s warm, looks good, has a natural flex that’s especially appreciated towards the end of a long day, durable, and can be made into impressively light but strong paddles.
Synthetic paddles tend to fall into two categories and at opposite ends of the pricing spectrum. Paddles with plastic blades and aluminum shafts represent value priced paddles. Their primary appeal is care-free durability. On the down side, they tend to be heavy, stiff, and the aluminum shafts can be uncomfortably cold or hot unless covered with a sleeve. Many paddlers start with one of these due to cost but move on to a wood paddle when able. These paddles do make great spare paddles should a paddle be broken or lost or you’re in shallow rocky waters that might damage a more expensive paddle.
At the other end of the price spectrum are the graphite or carbon paddles that are incredibly light and impressively expensive. These paddles are favored by racers and have been adopted by ambitious paddlers. They can be absurdly light, to the point where they’ve been blown from paddlers hands by a gust of wind. They are also very stiff as competitors want paddles that will not absorb any energy but will transmit that energy fully into moving the canoe forward. For many paddlers, that stiffness can be fatiguing as there’s no “give” to the paddle.
When it comes to wood, there a lot of different woods and ways to build paddles. Traditionally paddles were carved out of one piece of wood, usually a hardwood such as maple, ash, cherry and these paddles are still available today. Due to the lack of availability of such woods in larger sizes these paddles tend to have longer narrower blades, which is fine for deep waters but not so good for shallow water. What good is the part of the blade sticking out of the water when you make a stroke?
There’s also a lot of variation in weight in these paddles, depending on the type of wood and the grain structure. Paddles made of the same wood can be significantly different though of the same size. Careful attention to grain is important in selecting one of these paddles. Look for long straight grain with a minimum of knots, particularly on the shaft or at the junction of the shaft and the blade. Knots make weak spots, it’s that simple. Be wary as well of the lighter of these paddles as about the only way they can be made lighter is to remove material, making the blade or shaft thinner or smaller, possibly to the point where they are fragile.
The majority of paddles offered today are laminated paddles where the manufacturer takes smaller pieces of different woods and glues them together to create a paddle. This process has the advantage of making paddles that are consistently lighter and stronger as the maker can mix various hard and soft woods to get the best attributes of each. Plus the adhesives available today are often stronger than the woods they’re gluing, so that’s not a liability.
Hardwoods such as ash, walnut, cherry, maple provide stiffness and strength and durability, while softwoods such as cedar, fir, pine, basswood offer lightweight and flex. There’s no prescribed or universal formula to building a laminated paddle. Makers will often use locally available woods.
Generally speaking, the more laminations in a paddle the more expensive it will be. The simplest laminated paddles feature a one piece shaft glued to a blade with large panels. This process can make strong paddles but often at a weight penalty. To compensate for the weight, some makers use softwoods in the outer parts of the blade where they’re subject to splitting or getting banged and dinged. Such paddles are better suited to deeper waters.
Better paddles will utilize a series of thinner laminates, perhaps 2” wide or often less and will often sandwich softwoods between the shaft and the edges of the blade. On the outside of the blade you’ll often find thin laminates of hardwood which provides a much more durable edge to the blade than a softwood edge.
A desirable feature on any wood paddle is some form of tip protection. Often the most vulnerable part of a paddle is the tip where hitting obstacles can cause the end of the grain to split. Better paddles provide reinforcement in this are to prevent splitting. Tip protection can take the form of a fiberglass or other synthetic tip to the blade or a crosslaid (horizontal) wood veneer overlay. Such protection will add years to the usable life of a paddle.
Some paddles will extend that technology up the sides of the blade as well, furnishing 360 degree protection to the blade. As you might expect, this feature does add cost to the paddle but if you expect to be paddling in a hostile environment it might well be a good investment.
For added durability paddles may have fiberglass overlaid blades, The fiberglass guards against impacts and scrapes and reduces necessary maintenance. Cosmetically the fiberglass has very little impact as it is clear. It will add some weight to the paddle but again it’s a trade-off that’s often worth it. The one part of the blade that is not protected by the fiberglass is the edges as the ‘glass does not easily wrap around such a sharp edge.
You’ll also likely to encounter blades with a black carbon surface. This is added to increase the stiffness in a blade and to be able to reduce thickness and is usually overlaid over a wood core. The synthetic topcoat does add protection and reduce maintenance as well. Some paddles will feature graphite/carbon on one blade face or on both depending on design intent and use.
Beyond the blade you’ll encounter the shaft. Shafts can be one-piece wood or of laminated construction. Reasons to laminate a shaft include making it lighter and “dialing” in desired stiffness or flex. There’s an advantage as well for paddles that will be used in extremely demanding conditions, such as heavy whitewater or remote wilderness tripping to have a shaft that is “faced” with a hardwood and better able to take abuse and hard knocks. A one piece hardwood shaft tends to be heavy and finding unblemished straight stock can be a challenge so opting for a laminated shaft is a viable option on a number of reasons.
Another advantage of a laminate shaft is an increased resistance to warping or bowing though you can keep a one piece shaft true by being diligent in protecting it with a varnish top coat.
Crowning the shaft is the grip. Most grips are laminated in one form or another to achieve the desired shape on each side of the shaft. Grips can either be extensions of the shaft in center or glued onto the top of the shaft.
Some folks might shy away from wood anticipating long hours spent at the workbench sanding and varnishing their paddles. The finishes used on today’s wood paddles are very durable and usually you can let the paddle acquire a collection of battle scars before having to redo the finish. It’s not a difficult process, basically sanding the areas where it’s chipped or dented as well as those that are discolored (indicates moisture got in under the varnish top coat. Once prep work is complete, use an exterior spar or polyurethane varnish, following manufacturers’ instructions. It’s rare that a paddle will require more than an hour or two of rehab.
If your paddling aspirations include a lot of white water or down river paddling, you may be better served getting a carefree synthetic paddle to better stand up to the bruises and the nicks. Synthetic “sticks” are also often a good idea for beginning paddlers as they’re pretty tolerant of a steep learning curve. Many paddlers will stow a synthetic paddle as their spare paddle in case the water gets bony or unruly.