flipping through any outdoor catalog carrying wooden paddles recently
will understand the necessity of caring for them. A standard kayak
paddle without edging starts around $200 and the upper end paddles
now sell for over $300. Canoe paddles are about $150 to $200
respectively. That makes paddles the next most expensive investment
after the canoe or kayak they propel.

caring for these finely crafted instruments is fairly simple and
neither requires much investment in materials or time. The number
one rule where wood paddles is concerned is to KEEP THE WATER OUT.
This means sealing the entire outside surface. Most paddles come
from the factory with at least 2 coats of polyurethane or varnish.
(Lets just call it polyurethane for the sake of this article.) This
does a good job of keeping out the moisture until it becomes nicked
and scratched.

damage I see to paddles comes from water damage when people continue
to use their paddles after much of the finish has been scratched or
peeled off. This damage can range from slight wood discoloration to
full scale rot and lifting of the synthetic layers on the blades. It
is a lot easier, and less costly to occasionally renew the outside
sealing layers than to completely rebuild a paddle. So let’s talk on
how to renew that outside finish to like new or better condition on
those paddles that haven’t yet suffered too much.

the condition: For argument sake, let’s assume that your paddle is
in fairly good condition. By that I mean that there is no
significant damage to the wood and that the fiberglass on the blade
section along with the tip is in good shape. With this assessment
made we can proceed on to the actual refinishing.

the old polyurethane is peeling significantly, it is usually best to
sand back down to the wood surface. On the blade area or on any
synthetic collars like those added to canoe paddles, you need only
sand down to the resin layer. It is often hard to tell when you have
sanded through the polyurethane to the resin and you definitely don’t
want to sand through the synthetic, as this would significantly
reduce the strength that it adds. It is usually best to sand enough
to rough the surface evenly, giving the polyurethane something to
grip onto.

I have to take a paddle down to the wood, I prefer to coat the wood
with two layers of epoxy before the polyurethane. This involves a
lot more work, but in the end produces a much more durable surface
that resists water penetration much better than polyurethane alone.
I use West System epoxy, but any good marine epoxy should work well.

like polyurethane, relies on a mechanical bond, which means that it
adheres best to a slightly rough surface. 80 grit paper will do
fine. If you are doing this by hand, make sure you sand with the
grain of the wood to eliminate sand marks from showing up in the
final finish.

the epoxy carefully according to the directions and follow all
necessary health precautions. Allow it to sit after mixing for about
a minute then mix again. I usually use a small piece of leftover
minicell to squeegee the epoxy over the surface as evenly as
possible. It has good leveling qualities, but it will run, so be
prepared for it.

the epoxy has cured, usually overnight, it has to be sanded again.
Epoxy can take weeks to fully cure, and the dust from it until it
does can be quite dangerous. For that reason I highly recommend wet
sanding to keep the dust down.

usually use 220 grit wet/dry paper, occasionally dipping it into a
bucket of water. Continually check the surface by wiping the area
dry with a rag. I look for a dull, smooth surface. Wet sanding goes
quickly, especially on uncured epoxy or polyurethane, so proceed
slowly until you have a feel for it or you will sand off the whole
coat you just put on.

the paddle to fully dry before putting on the next coat. It will
usually dry overnight, depending on the temperature and humidity. I
follow the first coat of epoxy with another one just like the first.
Again, wet sand it to a dull, smooth surface. Any shiny areas are
wet or missed areas.

the paddle is once again dry, wipe it clean with a tack rag (cheese
cloth or lint free cloth) and apply the polyurethane. Some may
wonder why use any polyurethane at all over the epoxy. At least in
the case of West System, the answer is simple. Unless the paddle
will never see sunlight, it is necessary. Epoxy has no UV protection
and will break down rather quickly without the polyurethane to
protect it. Make sure to use a spar polyurethane or varnish, one
designed for outdoor use.

have used air equipment to apply polyurethane and it produces great
results, but it wastes a lot of material, and since it usually
requires thinner, it often requires more coats. It also is a lot
less healthy. I now use a good quality brush to apply even the final
coat with good results.

helps to have a good strong light facing you when applying the
polyurethane so you can see the reflecting surface to make sure it is
even. Figuring out how to hold the paddle while applying the
polyurethane can he tricky.

For kayak paddles I start by applying polyurethane to the edges on one
blade, then the two sides of the blade and just slightly up onto the
shaft on that end. Then I flip the paddle around and, still holding
the shaft in the middle, repeat the process on the other end. Next
go back to the first blade and brush towards the center along the
shaft to just short of your hand. Flip it around and come up the
shaft to the middle again. (Canoe paddles follow the same procedure
minus all the flipping.)

this point lean the paddle against a wall and finish the middle
section where your hand was, being careful not to push so hard the
paddle slides down the wall. Leave the paddle there overnight to dry
and try not to stir up much dust in the meantime.

the first coat of polyurethane is fairly dry, wet sand or use Scotch
Brite lightly just enough to dull the surface. Check for dull by
wiping the water off with a dry rag. If there were any runs after
the first coat, sand them out with wet-dry paper.

the paddle is dry again, clean it and apply the second or final coat.
If you have used epoxy, then two coats of polyurethane are usually
enough. If not, you might have to do another coat of polyurethane.
Let the polyurethane dry for a few days before heading out onto the
water with your beautiful new paddle. It will probably be so shiny
and smooth you will want to apply a little Sex Wax to the grip areas
to keep a good hold on it. Enjoy it!

Steve Ensign, The Paddle Doctor

From “Coastal CaNews” via “Bow Lines”, newsletter
of the Bluegrass Wildwater Association.

From The Eddy Line,
October 1997