Have you checked the price of canoe paddles lately? Good ones cost over $100; great ones approach $300 — and they're worth it. But at these prices, they better last a long time. Here's how to make your favorite paddles last almost forever:
Wooden paddles may warp if stored flat or stacked helter-skelter in a barrel. A good method for home storage is to tie short cords around the grips and hang them from nails or pegs. Scratches and gouges that break the finish of wooden paddles should be repaired as soon as possible. Polyurethane varnish is fast and easy, but marine spar varnish is much tougher.
Preparation: Sand lightly (not back to bare wood), then polish with progressively finer grits of sandpaper until the surface is baby-bottom smooth. Two coats of marine spar varnish (sand lightly between coats) are enough. Varnish adds weight, so don’t overdo it. Not all varnishes have UV inhibitors; choose one that does.
Refinishing: If you have to completely re-finish a wooden paddle—that is, sand it to bare wood, "whisker" the bare wood before you varnish. Here's how: thoroughly wet the wood then hold the paddle over a heat source (stove flame)—but not too close! Keep turning the paddle as it heats. The heat will encourage the grain to rise. When dry, the wood will feel rough. Sand the wood smooth then whisker it again. Repeat this process several times until the wood no longer feels rough. Then varnish. This is the standard procedure when finishing gun-stocks.
Storage: In camp, paddles should be set flat on the ground, not leaned against a tree where they can fall and become damaged. Bent-shaft paddles are less likely to break if stepped upon, if you set them on the ground, "blade up".
Fabric paddle bags protect the finish of your paddle while driving bumpy roads.
Most of today's best wooden paddles have tough synthetic edges that will take quite a beating. Cracks and gouges in the edging can be repaired with boat-building epoxy and fiberglass or Kevlar cloth. Even a small repair adds weight to the blade of a paddle - which adversely affects balance — so confine your work to the immediate damaged area and sand out the over-flow. Cracks in shafts and blades are easily repaired with epoxy and fiberglass/Kevlar.
Old time canoe books emphasized that to prevent blisters, wooden paddle grips should be left unfinished (or oil-finished), never varnished. I disagree. Better to sand and varnish them then lightly sand and polish smooth. Whisker the wood as described above if you want the smoothest finish. I've always done that to my wooden paddles and I've never had a blister.
I'm completely won over to carbon-fiber paddles. They are lighter, better-balanced, smoother and quieter in the water, extremely durable and generally, more maintenance-free than wooden paddles. But there are some concerns:
Important: Never run your finger along the edge of a carbon-fiber blade to test for nicks. Small nicks expose microscopic carbon-fibers which act like fine saw-teeth. Carbon-fiber cuts are extremely painful! Instead, examine the edge in bright light, as you would when checking a knife for nicks and dull spots.
When to get a new paddle?
If you love your paddle, you’ll keep it forever, or until it breaks, or until you buy another canoe that is significantly different than the one you currently own. For example, a high-seated canoe will require a longer paddle; a low-seated canoe, a shorter one; a whitewater canoe a very strong, dedicated straight paddle with rock-resistant edging and a T-grip. A FreeStyle canoe will require a feather-light straight paddle with a broad blade, and so it goes. One can never have too many canoe paddles!
Cliff Jacobson is a professional canoe guide and outfitter for the Science Museum of Minnesota, a wilderness canoeing consultant, and the author of more than a dozen top-selling books on camping and canoeing.