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Traditional Paddles and Wood

Posted by Darren Bush on 2/15/2013 to Canoe
Used to be that you didn’t have much of a wood choice for a paddle. You either got cedar (which is soft but light and rot-resistant) or ash (which can be used as a war club, but isn’t very light and is mostly rot-resistant). Canadians liked cherry, New Englanders liked ash. Not hard and fast rules, but certainly a decent synopsis.

Fast forward a few years. Now we have traditional paddles making a resurgence—they didn’t use those shapes for a thousand years for nothing, right? Now we have artisans making lovely paddles out of exotic (but not necessarily rain forest) woods like Australian Lacewood, Quilted and Curly Maple. So what’s a paddler to do?

When choosing a wood for a canoe paddle, you’ve got to ask yourself a few questions about weight, durability, and aesthetics.

Weight and Durability


Woods have different densities, based on cell structure, growth patterns, and a host of other biological factors as well as meteorological ones—cold weather trees grow slower and therefore have closer growth rings and are more dense.

Wood that is more dense is obviously heavier (density and weight are not the same thing—ask Archimedes). And usually, though not always, heavier wood means more durable wood. So people can choose a heavier paddle (like ash or sometimes even oak) if they want a paddle that’s indestructible. The opposite would be to choose a lightweight wood for a paddle (like cedar for example) that is easier to swing and lift. If all you ever contact is water, you’re likely to have a paddle that lasts a lifetime. I have a cedar paddle that I love, but it touches nothing but air and water.

So choose a wood carefully. Woods that are more dense are likely to last longer, but are not as much fun to use. Woods that are lighter are more likely to be damaged if you’re not careful. Your call.

I think the best compromise is cherry—not too heavy, and quite tough.

Aesthetics


A paddle that paddles well but is sorta ugly is better than a paddle that doesn’t paddle well but looks great. That said, it’s pretty easy to find a paddle that does both very easily. Exotic woods don’t make a paddle better or worse, just prettier. They’re all pretty good, dense woods and your paddle will last. Just pick one you like. Play with it, bond with it, make it yours.

Cherry, if you expose it to the sun, will gradually darken into a dark, well, cherry color. It’s normal, and it looks cool. Walnut, however, if exposed to light, will lighten more and more, but it is also a beautiful color as it goes from a dark black walnut color to a more chocolate brown. Just something to keep in mind.

Doesn’t matter what you choose, just so long as you like it. That’s what’s most important.

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