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Old 05-31-2017, 03:39 PM   #1
Join Date: Aug 2012
Posts: 163
Canoe Paddle Redux

Not sure if this is the right section of the forums, but what the heck.

I thought it might be helpful to share my experience restoring some old canoe paddles and what I would do different.

First let me start by saying that this project was not an attempt to create museum quality pieces or even make them look like new. I had 4 old paddles that are essentially just cheap utility paddles that I have had since (my best guess) the early 80's. In cleaning up the camp last fall my wife decided they were too far gone and she wanted to throw them on the bonfire for "ring of fire" night on Sacandaga. They we moldy, split, most of the old varnish flaked off and some missing pieces.

I tend to be a waste-not-want-not kind of guy so I brought them home and put them in the garage and figured as a winter project I would see what I could do. Of course, they sat in the garage all winter and when it was time to get the gear out this spring they were still untouched (except by mice who nibbled the blade of one) from the fall. It was time for action!
Step one was to sand the crap out of the paddles. A palm sander with 60 grit discs worked fine for this.

Comment 1: It’s not worth sanding all the mold away. Most of it gets deep enough in the grain of the wood that you would have to remove too much material to get rid of it all. Also, it adds character, kind of like spalting in other hardwoods.

The loose varnish popped right off and a bit of aggressive pressure removed the rest.

Next step was to make repairs. The worst paddle was missing the cheeks on the pommel and one side of the blade had almost completely split off (so I helped it finish breaking off). I took 2 chunks of maple I had leftover and with some 2-part epoxy I glued them to each side of the grip. These were 1” thick and just square. I also goobered the epoxy in the other splits and glued broken piece off the blade. In the vice to close the splits overnight and in the morning it was ready.

Shaping the grip was pretty easy. I traced the pommel from another paddle on the blocks I glued to this on and cut it out on the bandsaw. Then I hogged out some chunks with the bandsaw on the faces till it was roughly 60% shaped right. The belt sander got me to 90% right, a half round file got me to 98% and a sanding sponge got me the rest of the way there.
The three other paddles didn’t need new parts, just to have the blade splits closed up. Once again 2-part epoxy was the choice and pressure from the vice forced the gaps closed.

Comment 2: I was worried that the stress in the wood might be too strong for the epoxy. After releasing the pressure only one paddle had the split open again. In retrospect I wish I had done 2 things. 1 – mixed the epoxy with sawdust and packed it in the gap without forcing it closed. 2 – sawed a kerf in the tip of the blade and added a fiberglass or wood splint running across the grain.

With each paddle I used the extra epoxy to coat the tip of the blade and let it soak into the endgrain. After all paddles were repaired I went back to the 60 grit palm sander to knock down the epoxy.

Finish sanding was done with 120 on the palm sander and then 220 on a sanding block. All sanding probably took less than 2 hours for 4 paddles (including the original stripping).

Now for the finish and I went straight to the interwebs to see what the world had to say. I should say that I am a fairly competent woodworker and am very familiar with all the available finishes but I have never done canoe paddles before. The search quickly narrowed to 2 options. An oil finish would be the nicest looking and feel the best on the hands. A marine spar varnish/urethane would be the most durable but give the paddles a “plasticky” feel. Some people even claimed that it gave them blisters. As I mentioned, these are pure utility paddles and would live outside most of the summer. This is the first time they have ever been cared for in 30+ years so I didn’t want to turn them in to something that needed annual attention.

Several years ago I met this guy Bill Bush at the NE woodworkers show at the Saratoga Civic center. He is a woodworker out of Amsterdam NY and he sells a finishing system with a proprietary oil and a step-by-step finishing schedule. From that point on I was a total convert. The stuff I finished with his system always came out phenomenal without a huge effort. Even if I don’t use his oil, from then on, I used wipe-on finishes for everything. So I am well aware of the far superior feel of a well applied oil finish over a thick brushed on polyurethane. I have done some wipe on poly finishes that come pretty close to a nice oil finish though.

Unfortunately, with an oil finish I would have to keep the paddles covered or inside and would be reapplying every year. I happened to have a can of Minwax Semi-gloss spar urethane on the shelf that I used for a lamp post and even though the can said “do not thin” I did some googling and found a couple of people that thinned with mineral spirits and used it as a wiping finish. So I figured I’d give it a try. I used a 50-50 mix of urethane and mineral spirits and it wicked into the wood really nice.

Comment 3:
when using a wipe on finish you need to apply at least twice as many coats as you would with the brush. However, they dry very quick so you can reapply in about half the time. Wiping eliminates brush marks, sags and drips, bubbles and because it dries so quick you don’t collect as much dust on the wet surface. No need to sand between coats, only at the end.
So 7 coats of thinned spar urethane and I felt like I had built up enough thickness. I did a quick rub down with a scotch brite pad to make it silky smooth and then wiped a final ultra-thin coat on. I have to say the feel is really nice. It’s not as nice as an oil finish, but darn close. It only has a little bit of plasticky feel.

Comment 4: With any poly finish it always better to apply full gloss regardless of the final look you are going for. Satin, matte and semi-gloss contain flattening agents suspended in the poly that reduce the final gloss. The result is that when using anything but gloss you end up with a cloudy look that obscures the wood as you build up coats. If you want a finish that is not glossy you should apply gloss first for all you build up coats, then apply a final coat with the proper sheen. Even better would be to use all gloss and then knock it down with steel wool until you get the sheen you want. With more traditional finishes, you polish up to the gloss you want, with poly you scuff down to the gloss you want.

Since this was a cheap-o project, I just used what I had on the shelf, but it would have come out nicer if I used the gloss. I had regular gloss poly, but the “spar” type has UV inhibitors that the standard poly doesn’t.
So, the results are really satisfactory. For a few hours work I have 4 paddles that feel better than store bought ones and may last longer. They still have the mold/fungus splotches and you can see the repairs, but at least they are not going in the garbage. Truthfully only time will tell how they hold up and I will post a follow up at the end of the season.

Sorry for the long post, I didn’t expect to write this much myself. I mostly wanted to report that I’m totally convinced that a wiping spar urethane finish is the best balance between feel, appearance, and durability. I also thought this might be of help to someone contemplating the same type of project. Save those paddles!
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Old 05-31-2017, 07:59 PM   #2
mgc's Avatar
Join Date: Aug 2012
Posts: 298
It's worth saving old paddles so well done.
My approach is a bit different.. first strip the old varnish, then if there are stains or mold treat with TSP and follow with Snappy Teak-nu to remove the discoloration. It doesn't take long to do. Follow the varnish removal and bleaching with sanding.
To each their own for paddles are treated with high quality spar varnish and if it's an old one I will put Epifanes Matte on as the final coat. I do the same for my boat hulls. The matte knocks down the shine...
One further point...I do not varnish the top of the paddle where the top hand lives...treat that with an oil finish....

Old collectable paddles (yes, there are such things) are best left un-restored...
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