Spring Fixits for Paddles and Gunwales

Sometimes, more than just map-watching is necessary to speed spring’s arrival. On a warm day in April, before I’m distracted by the prospect of open water and flowing rivers, I take an hour to prepare my canoe paddles and wooden gunwales for the season ahead. It goes without saying that wood requires more maintenance than composites, but then again, it provides an effective distraction when you get antsy for spring.

You’ll need the following items to spruce up your wooden paddles and gunwales:

– Sheets of 220- and 320-grit sandpaper

– A tack cloth or rag

– Latex or vinyl gloves

– A mask (especially if you’re working indoors)

– A high-quality, natural bristle brush (if using marine varnish)

– A clean rag (if using oil finish)

– High-quality marine spar varnish (I like Epifanes or Pettit) or oil finish (such as Badger Wood Oil)

– Beeswax-based sealant (such as SnoSeal)—optional

– Painter’s masking tape (for canoe gunwales)

Most wooden canoe paddles are finished with marine spar varnish, which forms a hard barrier over the wooden grip, shaft and blade. With use, a varnish finish degrades—either from impact or abrasion or through the effects of UV radiation. Some manufacturers offer the option of an oil finish, which is less impact resistant but more comfortable in the hand and easier to maintain.

Start with a light sanding on a varnished paddle. Use 220-grit paper in high-wear areas; otherwise, just “rough up” the entire paddle, shaft and grip with finer grit 320. Add a bit of water and use wet/dry sandpaper to achieve a smoother finish. Once the surface dries, use a tack cloth (or damp rag) to eliminate dust. Ontario-based manufacturer Badger Paddles recommends a thin coat of marine varnish. Dip your natural bristle brush and allow the varnish to drip onto one side of the blade. Gently spread it around the surface, then work from the edges to the center of the blade, and finally use long, light strokes to eliminate brush marks. Repeat on the opposite side. Next, work your way up the shaft, using a small amount of varnish—ideally what’s remaining on your brush after completing the blade. Finally, apply finish to the grip. Do this sequentially. Finally, hang your paddle by the grip to dry in a dust-free area. After 20 minutes you may want to examine the blade for any drips or brush marks, which at this point can be smoothed out.

Once your paddle is dry (give it 24 hours), you may need to lightly sand the grip where it was hung with 320-grit wet/dry sandpaper. The goal is to achieve light, even gloss. If you can still detect worn areas, sand lightly and give your paddle another coat. A new finish can be applied to wooden canoe gunwales in much the same manner, just be sure to apply a thick band of masking tape to protect the canoe hull.

Oil-finishes are used by some canoe manufacturers for gunwales; oil is becoming an increasingly popular finish for paddles because it reduces the likelihood of blisters. However, it requires more steady maintenance—but fortunately maintenance is quick and easy. For both paddles and gunwales, simply apply the oil finish (tung or Danish oil works or try a paddle-specific finish like Badger’s hemp-based Wood Oil) with a rag. Let it sit on the surface of the paddle or gunwales for about 10 minutes, then wipe off the excess. The finish will dry overnight. New wood or especially dry wood requires more frequent applications; over time, a well-maintained oil finish will need to be replenished once or twice per year, depending on use. I’ll often add a light coat of a beeswax-based leather conditioner like SnoSeal to add an extra layer of protection to the paddle blade, grip and shaft.

More at CanoeKayak.com:

Gear: Double bladed canoe paddles, four do-it-all wood paddles, five whitewater canoe paddles

DIY: Maintain your drysuit

Destinations: Six places to paddle this spring

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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