Ryan recently asked me to get involved with a few contributions to the bushcrafts NZ blog site, which I am thrilled to do as bushcraft is something I have been learning for many years and am passionate about. I am not sure how often I will be able to contribute, but when something interesting crops up then I’ll be sure to write a few words. I thought
I’d start with a post about canoeing, one of my favourite pastimes.
As with so many things in bushcrafts, practice is fundamental to success; it is a process of learning that builds skills and knowledge. Finding opportunities to practice is therefore key to progression; the skills you learn in your own back yard are transferable to the great outdoors, making backcountry trips much easier, more fulfilling and (ultimately) safer as the skills and knowledge could easily save your life. Making a canoe paddle has been something of a learning project for me, ever since I witnessed the British bushcrafts icon Ray Mears make one on TV years ago (what an inspiration that guy is). So, using tools that accord with the principles of bushcrafts (simple, robust and able to be carried around with you on a trip into the woods) I set about this task using my trusty bush knife, a small hand axe, a folding pruning saw, a bit of leather and some sand (the latter two could be easily improvised if you weren’t carrying them with you) and, something a little more elaborate, a crooked-knife. This last item might seem like an added extra but it really makes the job easier and, quite frankly, will now always be in my kit list for a wilderness canoe trip.
To make a paddle, you want a log that’s about the same thickness as the paddle blade that you’re after and as straight as possible through the length of the paddle. Although you will have to adapt your expectations to what you can find, generally I have found a period of searching and planning is well worth the effort rather than jumping to the first thing you find which isn’t quite right. The strongest paddles are carved from one complete piece of wood rather than a blade being joined by lashings to a separate shaft. I would advise finding some dead standing wood for this (a small dead tree that’s still upright) or dead wood that has been caught in the branches of trees or on a river bank and has been held above ground. This wood is more likely to be dry (lighter, easier to carve and ess likely to form drying-splits) but not rotten, and in following this rule you also are not cutting living plants and therefore the method has far less impact on the local environment. Ideally, the wood should be of a variety that is strong and reasonably light, as a heavy paddle is hard on your shoulders and back when in use. In New Zealand, as a rule I also always look for species that are not protected (i.e. by law) and grow reasonably quickly (rather than using a slow growing variety that takes a long time to establish). Many of our native trees grow slowly by international standards, even those that grow fast by kiwi standards, so getting to know your trees and what they are like in this regard is key to good wood selection.
To start you will need to cut the log to the length of the paddle through its straightest section. Then you will need to split the log to form a single flat plank from which to carve the paddle.
I find the least effort and least time consuming method for splitting a log is to make the tools to make the job easier first. So I make 3-4 wedges to help carry the split when the time comes, preferably out of a harder wood than that being split. I then tidy up the end to start the split from, with a saw, so that it’s flat. Lay the log flat and strike the axe into the flat end (you could stand it upright but I think this is less safe, and with axes safety is paramount, so wouldn’t advise it). For a paddle the axe strike needs to be about a thumbs width shy of the centre so that the paddle shaft is formed out of the strong heartwood of the log and takes advantage of the wood’s natural grain strength, but this is only a guide and you will need to read the grain of the wood to figure out where best to do this. Try to avoid your paddle having knots and bows as these will prove problematic later. Once the axe is in, widen the notch and then remove it. Bury the first wedge into the notch to start the split, I use the rear side of the axe to hammer it in but some people don’t like to do this (for safety’s sake and to avoid damaging their axe) and so use another lump of wood or a sometimes rock. Once the split starts the trick is to carry it on so that you can eventually remove a complete equal-width slice from the log. This takes practice and you will probably not get it right first time because it’s dependent on the type of wood, knots, reading the grain and so on. All I can say is to use the other wedges to carry on the split, and use the axe from time to time to keep the line and relieve any “bridges” that occur between the two sides of the split. Once you’ve done one side, turn over and do the same again on the other so that you end up with a flat plank. A good tip is to remove as much wood as you can (but not too much as you’ll not have a paddle at all) by splitting, as this is far more time and effort effective, and less stressful on your limbs and your tools, than the equivalent axe work that would be needed to do the same job. One of the secrets to bushcraft is to “work smart” rather than “work hard” to avoid expending unnecessary effort as this only saps your energy and increases your risk of injury.
First I draw the outline the paddle on to the split log plank (you could trace an existing paddle if you have one available). Next turn the plank on to its side, and using a saw, make cuts down from the edges to the drawn outline along the length of the shaft. I make the cuts perpendicular to the drawn outline (not the edge of the log as it’s generally not straight) and roughly a palm’s breadth apart. Next, hue the shape of the paddle out with your axe, starting at the handle end and working towards the paddle blade. The cuts that you have made with the saw allow you to effectively chop off blocks with the axe, making the job significantly easier (this is a technique Ray Mears used which is a real time saver). Continue to shape the paddle with the axe, pairing down the blade and shaft to what you think are the correct widths. I would advise to test the shaft every now and again for strength and resistence to being bent, so that you don’t take too much off. Paddles get quite a bit of rough treatment on the water and you don’t want something that’s too flexible or will snap easily.
The axe work can get you to a usable paddle if it’s an emergency scenario, but for it to be comfortable and to avoid getting blisters or splinters, you could smooth it down. I start this job by using my bush knife to plane the wood, even better if you have something more suitable like a crook knife. This can be a long job, but once you’ve got to a point of satisfaction you can get a lovely finish by sanding the shaft and blade using a make-shift sandpaper comprised of sand held in a leather or material cloth. Simply place the sand in the cloth and rub the paddle with it. This is very effective. My advice is to keep the quantity of sand you use at any one point reasonably low, or you’ll end up loosing most of it on the floor. Finally, if you have the chance, seal the wood using some linseed oil or an equivalent to help prolong the paddle’s life.
A Word on Waste
A central philosophy of bushcraft regards paying respect to the plants and animals that we use, to look after those things that we enjoy and that lend us so much. Some cultures in the world, including facets of New Zealand’s Maori cultures, hold certain plants and animals with a very high degree of reverence. There are for example a number of Maori traditions which include respecting the parts of plants that become waste to the job in hand, in particular around off-cuts in flax craft which are not burned but placed back under the flax plant from whence they came to rot, and in the treatment of wood chips from canoe building. My feeling is that in general and unless tradition dictates (which normally has good reason) it is respectful to use all of what you do take from nature in the best way you can and to not actually waste anything. So with regards the off-cuts and shavings from your canoe paddle think about how this can be used purposefully out of respect for the plant that gave you the paddle. Better still, have a think before you start the job so that you can form what you need from the off-cuts whilst you are making the paddle. I myself often help out my garden plants by using spare chips as mulch, but sometimes I use these to provide warmth and cooking through burning if necessary!
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