Making a Greenland Paddle

Maybe it’s just part of traditional kayaking, but there comes a time when you simply want to try making your own paddle. That time arrived for me not too long  after spending a weekend with Kayak Ways, where I was surrounded by Greenland paddles (GPs) of various shapes and sizes, some of which I liked more than others. It became apparent that Greeenland paddles can be a very personal thing.

One thing for sure was that a large sized paddle blade seemed not so desirable. Indeed, one remark heard when analysing a GP from a UK supplier was, “The best thing about this paddle is that they have left enough wood on it for you to carve off”! I realised  my king-sized GP was too big and I had to get a smaller paddle blade! Preferably one with an oval loom shape. This was my first encounter with an oval loom and I really liked it’s feel compared to the rounded off square looms. Square looms are easy to index (orient)  but can be rather uncomfortable to paddle with for any length of time.

Using a draw knife to do bulk removal of wood on a paddle

Using a draw knife to do bulk removal of wood on a paddle

I had taken a few rough measurements of a paddle that I had especially liked (one of Turner’s, and with his permission), and my first thoughts were along the lines of getting a paddle-maker to make one, which is exactly what I did. The paddle came back and had just about the correct blade size, but without an oval loom. Indeed the loom was a rounded off square shape, as was normal for the paddle-maker’s own standard paddles, but not the oval shape that I’d desired.

After a bit of head-scratching I decided that the best option was to learn how to do some adjustments myself and perhaps eventually work towards making my own paddle to my own requirements. I fired off a quick question to a friendly paddle maker (Gerhardt at Ravenwoods Paddles) on the wonderful kayaking resource  that is Facebook, before embarking up on a crash course of  YouTube videos and examining some helpful documentation. I started to equip myself with some spokeshaves, draw knives and bench planes (many courtesy of a very active secondhand Ebay market). I hadn’t even heard of some of this equipment before, let alone used it (well OK, I’d heard of a bench plane!)

A bench plane used to plane a Greenland style paddle

A bench plane for planing the faces

Metal bench planes can be found quite easily on Ebay. They are pieces of equipment that you can buy quite cheaply new (perhaps not great quality) or for the same price second hand (better quality). I was able to pick up a few 2nd hand bench planes in very good condition, some even dating from the 1943-47 era! They just needed a tune up, sharpen, hone and were ready to go.

I managed to source some 3m x 100mm x 50mm planks of top grade western red cedar from a local wood merchant who bought them in for me. They worked out to be about £30 (GBP) per plank. One 3m plank is good for  making 1 x paddle and 4 x norsaqs.

It should be noted that, before I started this project, my wood-working skills were fairly rudimentary. The last woodwork training I had had was 30 years ago at school where I had successfully carved a large gouge in my finger (I still have the scar today!). My point is that you can do Greenland paddle-making yourself without a lot of technical expertise.

A spokeshave used for planing edges and sculping blades

A spokeshave used for planing edges and sculping blades

I started off by practising my skills with a spokeshave and a few different bench and block planes. I did this by continually sharpening and adjusting them and soon learned good techniques for shaving and planing the wood surface. It’s good to do this with just a cheap old bit of spare pine before going anywhere near a paddle! As my technique improved I decided to start by making a norsaq (hand held rolling stick) or two. These are small enough to not be too challenging, whilst they allow you to actually make something and improve your skills.

Norsaqs

Norsaqs

Several norsaqs later and it was time to make a paddle!

I determined my ideal paddle length (it’s really only the loom length that changes according to your shoulder separation) at 2.2m. As a rule of thumb you should be able to get your finger tips around the end of a vertical paddle with your arm vertically above your head. I chopped the 3m plank of cedar down to this value, bench planed the rough faces off and was ready to sketch out my paddle carving plans on the wood. Good, accurate sketched plans on the wood are a very important part of making a good paddle.

Sculpting the Greenland style paddle with a low angle spokeshave

Sculpting the paddle tips with a low angle spokeshave

There are a few good resources out there to explain making a Greenland paddle, but a seminal reference has to be Chuck Holst’s guide, available here. Another good guide is Brian Nystrom’s excellent  ‘Making the Greenland Paddle’.

Basically the procedure can be broken down into several stages –

  1. Plane the plank to true the edges and smooth  it for marking
  2. Mark on the loom and slopes
  3. Bulk removal of the slope wood (bench plane #6, #5, #4, or power plane)
  4. Mark outline of paddle (rounded blade faces and loom)
  5. Bulk removal to outline of paddle (draw knife, bench planes #5, #4, spokeshave, or band-saw)
  6. Sketch on centre lines and guides
  7. Sculpt paddle blades and loom shape using spokeshave(s)
  8. Sand paddle (perhaps the most fun part, as your paddle appears from a rough cut/spoke shaved piece of wood)
  9. Oil paddle (tung oil)
  10. Test paddle on water (important!)
  11. Modify paddle if required by going to back to step 7
The finished Greenland paddle

The finished paddle

These steps take much longer when you are working on your first paddle. They will, however, speed up when you understand the basic principles involved. My first paddle took me 3 days to complete.

Wanting to make my own identification mark, I used pyrgograhy (wood burning) to imprint a logo that I had designed. Pyrography is a delicate skill indeed and is a one shot process as you are actually burning the wood with a small hot tip.

I also decided while making my second paddle that I’d introduce gelcoat blade tips to mimic the bone tips used on some of the traditional Greenland paddles. Only time will tell how robust a solution the gelcoat is, but I used 3 coats.

Testing the Greenland paddle

Pam rolling with my Greenland paddle

Of course, the final important stage is to test your paddle out on the water! And perhaps make minor adjustments to it if you are not happy about something.

We’ve used it during a few rolling sessions, and I used it on my weekend trip around Luing and have been very happy with it.

The first paddle I have made is a thin bladed paddle with an oval loom and some flexibility. My second one (with the white tips) also has an oval loom but is a more rigid paddle with much less flex. Whether I like this more rigid paddle is still to be determined, but the beauty of making wooden paddles means that you have the option to make adjustments to them as an when necessary!

I strongly recommend that you consider making your own paddle. It can be a rewarding experience and creates a personal connection between yourself and your equipment.

A weekend with Kayak Ways

Cheri and Turner of Kayak WaysIt’s not every day that 2 of the world’s leading Greenland kayaking instructors land on your doorstep, but that’s exactly what happened this past weekend – perhaps not our actual doorstep, but very close! We had been booked on to their Greenland Intensive course for some time but, I confess, there was a part of me that was only half believing that it would actually fall into place and that we really would have Cheri Perry and Turner Wilson teaching us personally. It seemed too good to be true. Some things are, however, meant to be, and we arrived at Loch Lomond-side on Saturday and then Largs on Sunday to enjoy the pleasure of their company.

Some weeks ago, Alan and I purchased the excellent DVD, “This is the Roll“, which features instruction from Kayak Ways. I’ve never used an instructional DVD quite as extensively or known one that produces such tangible results. As if by some sort of advanced holographic technology, it was slightly surreal to find the DVD’s stars beamed live to us on the water and offering personal tuition.

On Loch Lomond

On Loch Lomond with Mackayak

First, I must point out, the weather for the weekend was ridiculously abnormal. With typical pessimism/realism in all matters related to Scottish weather, we’d been anticipating that an intense low pressure system would move in to exactly coincide with our activities. Abandoning all precedents, however, the opposite happened and the weather gods smiled upon us. In fact, they weren’t just smiling – they were laughing! The temperature rose to 27°C and the sun beat down hot enough to fry eggs – or at least boil the contents of a drysuit. Cheri and Turner seemed a little bemused that our normal rolling attire was a neoprene tuilik over a drysuit in such an evidently tropical clime. Perhaps the giddy crowds at both locations and the unveiling of vast swathes of blue-white flesh provided a hint that our shores are not usually quite so sun-kissed.

Practising off Largs

Practising off Largs

A good part of our instruction focused on Greenland paddling technique and this was of great benefit. Herein I discovered that my skinny stick paddle-stroke has been, er, less than perfect (Turner’s cries of, “It’s not square!” are still ringing in my ears). On the Sunday morning, we were out on the high seas off Largs practising forward paddling, winged strokes, turning with bow rudders and more, in a north-westerly breeze. It was most interesting to swap around Greenland sticks and I certainly got a feel for which ones were “talking” to me and which ones weren’t. This was a very enjoyable excursion and I related entirely to Turner’s almost spiritual observation of how fortunate we were to be out there on the water in that moment.

Cheri teaching Alan forward finishing norsaq roll

Cheri teaching Alan forward finishing norsaq roll

Then there was the rolling, of course. Cheri needs no introduction and her demonstrations of perfect technique, right down to the straitjacket roll, provoked admiration and inspiration. Soon, it was our turn and Cheri and Turner worked with each of us at length, providing valuable correction and feedback. Everyone came away with something. For me, it was a brand new reverse sweep roll, and a ton of learnings on the storm roll which are all coming together nicely. For Alan it was the foundations of a forward finishing norsaq roll (which he hadn’t even realised he desired!).

Throughout the weekend, one thing that struck me was how much it felt like we were making an authentic connection with kayaking, and not just the Euro-fied version of the skills. As I came off the water on Sunday, another paddler who had been observing our little class asked in a mystified tone what the point of the Greenland paddle was. I confess to being a bit taken aback, but managed to explain that this was kayaking in its true, original form, as designed and perfected over hundreds of years and passed on from the Inuit people. He went on to question how we could get any support from our skinny sticks. My mind filled with thoughts on how my paddle had allowed me to overcome a fear of capsize and was helping me find a myriad different ways to recover, of  how it had increased my confidence and made the water my playmate, and of all the fun I was having in the process of learning. The best I could do was to respond that the stick was, well … magic.

A big thank you goes out to Bruce Jolliffe for co-ordinating the weekend. We’re also indebted to Mackayak from Orkney, whom we finally met, and who had got the ball rolling. And it was great to meet others who had taken up the way of the stick. I hope that we shall roll into one another again.

As the Kayak Ways slogan says, the living tradition continues …

We fought the tide

Heading for MullAs every sea kayaker knows, there are certain points on the tide tables that may require some attention, ie springs and neaps. I don’t know about you, but I tend to tense up a little at the mention of “springs” and relax at the word, “neaps” (whilst, being Scottish, trying not to think of turnip). We were due to go paddling in a quite tidal area, in the vicinity of the Firth of Lorne and Sound of Mull at springs, which is one thing. On this particular occasion, however, there was to be a much-reported “Supermoon”, the proximity and extraordinary gravitational pull of which, to my mind, would surely result in super tides … super-springy-spring tides! This did not escape the attention of my fellow paddlers, some of whom were declaring a desire to visit the springiest of tidal places, the Grey Dogs (and much evil laughter ensued). I decided to play it cool and see what transpired.

As it turned out, level heads prevailed and we decided to proceed from Ganavan Bay to Duart Castle – a route that Alan and I had travelled before and enjoyed. We took note of the coincidence of timing of the 3 knot incoming tide with our return, but the consensus was that we would play it by ear.

Duart Castle

Duart Castle

Setting out, conditions were flat calm, making for lots of special “Kodak moments” against the beautiful backdrop of Lismore, the Firth of Lorne and the Sound of Mull. A prevalence of Tiderace kayaks was observed within our group, including a brand new Xcite out on its maiden voyage. It must be said that Tiderace are making big inroads in the sea kayak market and establishing themselves as a manufacturer of quality craft  (I’ve not yet heard of anyone being disappointed in their purchase). With a nice little tidal push, we were soon over at Duart Castle. The castle is, of course, highly photogenic and nothing sets it off better than a kayaker paddling in front of it (the same could be said for most things). We landed for a picnic lunch and, suitably fortified, were soon back on the water to face up to the aforementioned 3 knot tide on our return to the mainland.

And so, we paddled vigorously, taking a transit of a small house on the opposite shore. After a while, it was certainly evident that, despite all the effort, progress was a little slow. One of our group offered up encouragement by declaring that we would soon be seeing the windows of the small house, and so we paddled on. More time passed and, not only could I not see the windows, I was having trouble seeing the house! To my intense disappointment, the house appeared to be getting smaller. I had been deliberately avoiding turning my head to look at our departure point and, in then doing so, disappointment turned to disgust as I realised that the Mull shore was, in fact, getting closer.  We were literally going nowhere quite speedily.

A good workout on the way back

A good workout on the way back

You will note that I am employing the “royal we” in the above narrative. I cannot make a broad statement concerning the capabilities of our group. I’m pretty sure that certain members may well have had sufficient power reserves to have turned on the turbo boosters and left the tide trailing in their wake (so to speak). Alan and I, however, were not averse to admitting that we hadn’t consumed enough Wheaties/spinach/banned substances and that a return to Mull for a wee rest and some contemplation would be the most prudent course of action. Upon our rapid approach to the shore, I found myself experiencing one of those surreal tidal head-games, when points on the shore are moving at high speed, while the paddlers in front of you are stationary.

Passing Oban

Passing Oban

Once in the eddy, we paddled west until we found a landing spot where we stopped for some further refuelling. Fortunately, tidal rates descend by sizeable chunks with time and, after about 40 minutes, we knew that the flow would be at a reduced speed sufficient to afford us some decent progress. The sea state had long since forgotten its mirror-like calm and was now quite lively, the wind having risen from the north. Fortunately, this gave us a push in the right direction. Even so, it required an energetic effort to cross the Firth and, after some time, Alan confessed to having hit a wall, metaphorically speaking.  Somehow, digging deep (and in the knowledge that he hadn’t packed a tent), he bravely soldiered on.

This was, however, a valuable lesson in the need to pack some extra rehydrating fluids and energy bars for those unexpected moments of depletion. It’s something we would never fail to do when cycling, hillwalking or running, due to the very evident intensity and dehydrational impact of those activities. You don’t necessarily have the immediate feedback of gushing sweat and bursting lungs with kayaking, unless you’re racing or survival paddling. The average paddling excursion tends to be a slower burn, requiring more stamina and strength (especially upper body) than supreme cardio fitness. Regardless, and especially over time, resources still need to be replaced efficiently.

Return to Ganavan Bay

Return to Ganavan Bay

Our trip had been an interesting test of our Northern Light Greenland and Aleutian paddles and I was very pleased with the outcome. I didn’t encounter any elbow or wrist aches that I’m pretty sure would have accompanied a Euro paddle on such a trip, and correspondingly, I didn’t have to worry about feather angle in the wind.

Ganavan Bay was a welcome sight as we eventually returned to its shores.  It could be said that we fought the tide, and the tide won, but I prefer to think of it as conceding a small battle, only to win the war.