måndag 23 november 2015

Why not paddle with a plank?

I've been thinking about how to explain the basics of the classic paddle shape for a while now. A really simple way to understand all of it's curves and form. And today by accident I thought of a good way.
I had loaded the canoe on our car getting ready to paddle to work. It's a 10 min drive and then a short portage and a short trip on the sea out to the island where I'm working at the moment. So I portaged to the shore. Put the canoe in the water and was just about to paddle away, when I realized... I forgot the paddle at home. So I had the option to either walk to the car, drive home and get it and come back.... or find something else to paddle with.

Well, what are the requirements for something I could paddle with?  Just a stick would have been enough. If it's long enough it can propel the canoe forward and even simple steering is possible. But it's not easy to hold, since it has no flat grip neither horizontally or vertically. And because the part in the water is also round it won't get a good grip in the water. So I went the more sophisticated way and took a plank I found lying around. This gave me a flat surface with both a horizontal and vertical area to hold. And a flat blade for better grip in the water. But unfortunately the only plank I found was too short, just a little under a meter (3 feet) long.
Either way I decided to head out with this. Paddling with such a short "paddle" was very exhausting for the wrist because I didn't get the leverage of a longer paddle, so had to press harder.
When I arrived at the island I found a longer plank for the trip back. Now this I think is the minimum for comfortable and efficient paddling, a thin plank in good length. From here on it's mostly luxury adjustments to make paddling more comfortable.

My next concern was that I couldn't do underwater recoveries. The plank was too thick so the underwater recovery would turn the canoe toward the paddling side and slow it down. So I had to lift the rather heavy plank above water every stroke. This could easily be adjusted by sharpening the edges with an axe. And to lower the weight the whole under water area could be made thinner. I didn't do this as I was just paddling a short distance. But if I was on a trip and lost my paddle I definitely would. Assuming I had an axe or knife with me.
Next problem was the middle part of  the plank. It's too wide to get a good grip around and the lower hand comes too far from the center for good J-strokes using the gunwale as leverage. This is the reason for the shaft. This too, would be quite easy to do with an axe in an emergency.

Now at this point all other modifications are pure luxury. Except one. I mentioned the curves of the paddle in the beginning. They are not just there to look beautiful. A good even curve in the transition from shaft to blade adds a lot of strength. Same from shaft to grip. The reason is that each fiber in the wood gets an underlying fiber that stretches further. Imagine a blade which just has a 90 degree transition from the shaft. When you paddle pressure is put on the sides of the blade. A lof of pressure is put on the "corner" closest to the shaft. It will be forced to bend backwards and the point that bends most easy is in the 90 degree corner. Eventually it will bent too much and crack. By having an even curve the "bending point" will be split up over the whole area and allow the paddle to do a smooth bend.
To try and explain this I made a simple (but ugly) drawing in illustrator. Click to see it bigger.

Well, to summarize it. I think this thought process is how the paddles have evolved. The very first watercrafts, maybe just logs, were propelled by sticks. Someone noticed something wider has better grip in the water, and from there on it just kept evolving into what we have today.

For more in-depth read about paddle design see some of my first posts:
Open canoe paddles 1: The paddle and materials
Open canoe paddles 2: The shaft
Open canoe paddles 3: The grip
Open canoe paddles 4: The blade

tisdag 30 juni 2015

Nine days solo canoeing trip

At the end of May I finished my woodworking course at Insjön in Sweden. The school was quite far into the country and I usually live by the sea. So I saw this as an excellent opportunity for a long canoeing trip.


Dalälven is the river I paddled, it is one of Swedens biggest rivers. It starts off as two rivers, west Dalälven and east Dalälven which both have their sources in Norway, and then meet up and flow a little bit south of the middle of Sweden to finally reach the Baltic sea close to Gävle, about 100 miles north of Stockholm. East Dalälven passes close to the school so I decided to follow it down to the sea, a total of 256 kilometers (159 miles).
The name Dalälven consists of two words, "dal" which means valley and "älv" which means a river starting in the mountains. It flows through the county Dalarna (valleys) in Sweden which I believe has given it it's name.


The stream pass by some cities which allowed me to resupply along the way. This gave a lot of freedom in the planning process. I did not calculate how long it would take, I decided to not be in a hurry and just paddle as far as I felt like each day.
The time between deciding to do the trip and actually starting was very short, a little under one week. And I did not have all of my outdoor gear at school so some things were just improvised or simply left out. I dried a lot of food before heading out; potatoes, carrots, zucchini, paprika, onion, mushrooms and other vegetables. I only ate vegeterian food, and except the butter most things were vegan. Oat milk for example lasts much longer in warm temperature than milk product and works just as well in food.
I printed the maps from http://kso2.lantmateriet.se It's a free service where you can print your own maps of pretty much anywhere in Sweden. Unfortunately I only had access to a black and white printer so sometimes during the trip I had trouble navigating.

The trip

The rainy beginning

I started in east Dalälven and reached the meeting point already the first day. It was a day of constant rain, not an excellent start of a trip but I didn't get let down by the rain. And later I would have a lot of benefit (and some trouble) from the high water level the rain made. I also had to portage past the first dam this first day. There was about one dam per day to pass, but sometimes more. During the whole trip I portaged 14 dams.
I spent the first night in an abandoned storage shed. It was nice to have a dry place to sleep at after a day of constant rain.

Misery campfire after a rainy day.

The abandoned storage shed I slept in first night.

The city of portaging

The next day was also raining but in the evening it had stopped. I reached the first city now, Borlänge. I spoke to a man which explained that the name is old Swedish and means "carrying far". And that proved to be very true. The city had 4 dams. I did the first dam, which was just a short portage and then set up camp in a small forest on an old dirt road.

The next day was probably the heaviest during the whole trip. The first two dams were not too bad, quite short portages. But the last one was a lot worse. It was a total of over 3 km because the riverbank was blocked by a sewage plant. I first carried my packing and managed to hitch hike to the bridge where I was planning to end the portage. Then on the way back to get the canoe I put up my thumb again... and surprisingly got picked up by the same guy again. So then I portaged the canoe all the way. It was windy so the canoe caught wind all the time while carrying, When I got the chance I used the areas with high grass in the ditch to pull it instead of carrying on my back. I found it to be nice to alternate between the two a bit. At least it was fun to see the look on the psaserby's faces when I walked around in the city with a canoe on my head.
When the canoe was in place I decided to go into town and get some new boots, this far I had only used my working shoes which were in very bad condition, since I didn't have my tripping shoes at school. My shoes had gotten totally soaked by the rain and were also falling apart. So I bought a cheap pair of rubber boots which I used for the rest of the trip. It wasn't ideal but it was much better than the wet ones. I didn't want anything with lining as those never dry.

Lost in the forest and thunderstorm

The next few days were quite straight forward. The weather was better. It was a bit windy some days but I soon got into the rythm of waking up between 4 and 6 before the wind got strong and then setting camp between 2 and 5 when it was too windy to be comfortable to paddle.
Up until this point the stream had been narrow all the way, never widening into lakes or such. But on the 5th day I reached the first lake, close to Hedemora. By now the water level was very high and the land in this area was very low. This in combination with my bad maps and that I didn't have a compass made it hard to navigate. I decided to take a shortcut in a narrow canal between the mainland and an island. But it was hard to find where it started because the forest was flooded. I thought I had found it and started following it through the forest. But soon lost it and realized I was just paddling between the trees and because of the cloudy weather couldn't really tell directions.

High water level...
Eventually I got out again and decided to paddle around the island. But when I did so I found the canal and it was quite big because of the high water level. It was however blocked by some roads which I could easily pass because they were flooded too.
But now the wind got a lot stronger really quickly and I see some big dark clouds in the sky. It has kind of been building up for this the whole day but at one point it's no longer possible to paddle. I set camp at a big green field already around 2 o'clock. The thunderstorm and rain comes in th evening and is really close. But when it passed by it left one of the most amazing rainbows I've seen!

Halfway point, party and a change in nature

Next day I reach the city Avesta where I resupply for the rest of the trip and also buy a compass which I realized I will need. It's the last city I pass during the trip. It also has 2 dams which I do in one portage, quite far but not as heavy as the one in borlänge. In the afternoon I reach Sjöviks folkhögskola which is the school I did my 2 years bushcraft program at. I've been looking forward to reaching this point as it's the halfway mark of my trip. And after this the nature gets much more wild and untouched. The bushcraft students are still there and have just got back from a two and a half week paddle trip. It's their penultimate day and they celebrate it by visiting one of the teachers and having a barbecue party which I join. It was very nice to get some real food and meeting friends and my old teachers again.
The start of the second part of the trip was amazing. There was no wind and just a very thin layer of clouds, just enough so the sun wouldn't burn or blind me. And I was familiar with the area I paddled this day since we did trips here from Sjövik. From here on the river widened a lot and it was more like paddling in lakes than a river. The first rapids also started showing up now. I could paddle all of them except one. It's called Balen and is famous for it's huge monster wave which now with this much water was 1-2m high and followed by 2 more nearly as big waves. I decided to do it the safe way and portaged past it.

This day I did close to 60km (37 miles), it shows how much knowing the waters and good weather do for the speed. In the evening I set camp at a windbreak and baked bread in the pot.

The last challenging dams and the sea

The last days I did about 2 dams a day and they were quite challenging. The portages were not very far. But the riverbanks were artificial, high and steep and the water flowed fast. To get ashore I had to hold the canoe in a rope while I carefully unloaded the packing. Putting it in a bad spot would make it roll down into the river. Then I had to somehow pull the canoe up. This was also challenging to do without damaging it.
Then I had to do everything again to get it back in water below the dam. I first put the canoe in, and if I had something to tie it to I did so while loading it. At one place I was a bit careless. I had stored the map inside my rolled up sleeping mattress and while loading the canoe I tried to throw the sleeping mattress into the canoe, but missed and it was caught by the stream. So I had to hurry and pack the last things then untied the canoe and jumped in. I managed to catch it but the maps had gotten wet, but was still readable.
An old dam
One day I got into another thunderstorm. I was paddling on open water with just a few islands around. So I went on shore on the closest one which had a small cabin. At first I just waited behind the cabin taking cover from the rain but when it started raining more and seemed it wouldn't stop I went up to it and checked the door. The door to the veranda was unlocked so I could go inside and wait out the storm. It was all white and clean in there so I felt very uncomfortable. When the storm ended I wrote a message thanking the owners and left.
The last dam, in Älvkarleby was easy to get ashore at and from the water it looked like a quite short walk. But when I went to take a look there was a huge waterfall behind it with a long steep rapid following it. I realized it would be a long portage so I asked a pair I met (Magnus and Ulrika which would be the quickest way past it. They explained and in the end they even said they could help me carry. So me and Magnus took the canoe and Ulrika took the gear. Not having to go back up to get the canoe saved me a lot of energy and time. They were very helpful and told me this was the last dam and that the rest of the way would be a breeze.
And they were right, the river got narrow again, much like the beginning of my trip and the water was flowing fast. I just had to sit back and go with the flow, literally.
Reaching the sea was a great experience. It was a feeling of relief and freedom but also a scary feeling. The sea is big and wild compared to the predictable river.

This trip was a great experience! I didn't put much time into planning and preparing the trip. I just did the necessary stuff and went out. It was amazing to be alone for this long time. Lots of time to think and reflect and I got much closer to nature than I usually do on trips. I really learned to predict the weather and could sometimes go ashore even before the wind arrived.

And finally some more photos from the trip.

Amazing construction!

måndag 4 maj 2015

Ten paddles project part three (last)

So, time for the last update on the project.The paddles are hanging from the roof and waiting for the oil to dry. And I'm even too tired to enjoy being done with them. But I think it's nice to get some distance now, then I'll enjoy them much more later.

Since my last post I've formed the grips, smoothed the surface and oiled them. And I've learned a lot from this. Especially how to make, prepare and use cabinet scrapers. But let's take the grips first.
I did most of the forming using spokeshave, knife and gouge. I used the spokeshave where I could then used the knife in the notches and the gouge for wide concave surfaces, like the fat part you grab on the grip.

Roughly forming the grip went really fast, much quicker than I had thought it would. But in return the fine tuning of everything took longer. I saved the shaft for last since a square shaft makes it much easier to clamp the paddle to the workbench.
As I mentioned I used a cabinet scraper to smooth the blade. I made this myself from an old felling saw. I used an angle grinder to cut it out roughly then fine tuned it on the bench grinder. Then just followed the standard sharpening procedure for cabinet scrapers. It worked very well, I gave it a slightly convex edge on one side and a concave on the other. And after using it and playing around a bit I found that I could attach it to an old felling saw handle for much more comfortable and effective use.

For rounding the shaft I made and used a tool described in Graham Warrens's book Canoe paddles - a complete guide to making your own. It's a small plank with two pegs sticking down and between them pencils marking the lines. The proportions should be 7:10:7 to get the lines in the right place. Then I just held it angled and drew the lines on the shaft. I also added one pencil in the middle to mark the middle line at the same time. But in the end it didn't work very well to draw all three lines at the same time so I just knocked down the pencil I wanted to draw with and repeated for each line.

Another very useful tool I made for the rounding of the shaft was a cabinet scraper shaped after the shaft. After 8-siding and 16-siding the shaft I just used this scraper to get it round. Unfortunately I didn't make this until after I finished half of the paddles. So the first ones didn't get the same perfect roundness.

I used sandpaper on the modern design ones. I started with 120 grit, then 240 and finally 600. I wet them to raise the fibers then repeated with 240 and 600 grit a few times.
Finally I oiled them with cold pressed raw oxidized linseed oil, just rubbing it in with my hand, then did a few strokes with 600 to remove any raised grains and wiped them off as much as I could with paper towels.

Cozy workplace. The blanket helps to protect the paddle when it's clamped.

söndag 19 april 2015

Ten paddles project part two

The third week has just finished and to be honest I'm really worn out.
This week I've laminated and cut out the modern design blades as well as started the tedious task of thinning down the blades. I realized I had to find a fast and effective way to take off material. But I'm set on not using machines for the rest of the project now. After experimenting with spokeshave, axe, jack plane (with a round blade edge) and travisher I settled down with first axing off as much as I could and then using a smoothing plane. But on some blades the grain direction was just completely wrong, and turning the paddle upside down and axing didn't work so I used the jack plane for those.

The little "backrest" on the chopping block really helped with the cutting.

I soon realized I needed a better way to strap the wood. Using clamps took too much time. After speaking with my teacher we got the idea to use a trough cutting plank. It's a thick plank with holes for plugs that keep the object in place. The trough plank is meant to be used standing astride and cutting with an adze. But I put it on a bench instead, so I could sit on the paddle while planing and use the plugs to keep it in place. This works wonders and I think I'll make one specifically for paddles in the future.

Now I'm taking one days rest then I'll thin down the blade on the last two then start working on the grips and smoothing the surface. There's still quite a bit left but I feel I can start seeing the goal on the horizon.

tisdag 14 april 2015

Bushcraft & canoeing course at Sjöviks folkhögskola

I've mentioned earlier that I spent 2 years doing a bushcraft course in Sweden with lots of canoeing and handicraft. Now it's the time of the year when people starts looking for a school and I thought I should let you know what this one is all about.

Building igloos in north Sweden (Jokkmokk)

It's official name is "Friluftsliv, hantverk och ledarskap" (Bushcraft, handicraft and leadership). It's a one to two years course mostly focused on bushcraft but where you make much of your gear yourself. The first year focuses mostly on the bushcraft and handicraft parts while on the second year the main focus is on the leadership.

If you take the course you'll very soon realize it's a very philosophical course, very far from the plastic outdoor life (or rather outdoor sports) most people do nowadays. You do it simple but not primitive. It's not a survival course, it teaches you how to live well in nature without hurting it. You don't use gas stoves and all food is made on open fire. And speaking of food, you buy raw ingredients and learn to dry them yourself before every trip. Since the fire is a central part of the trips synthetic materials won't work (and they hurt nature too). So it's all about natural materials in clothes, tarps/tents, and kitchenware. You'll notice this has many other benefits, you get closer to nature, your clothes are quiet and the rain don't sound like the sky is falling apart at night. Summarizing it you could say nothing new is taught at this course, what you learn is to live close to nature like your ancestors.

The course starts at the end of august, usually with a trip of up to ten days starting already the first day. During my two years this was a hiking trip in the mountains. This trip is prepared by the second years so you just have to tag along. After that it's about one trip a month (usually 5 day trips), 2 canoe trips in fall, then a few skiing trips in winter, one amazing skiing/hiking trip in the transition from winter to spring and then a wonderful canoe trip of close to 3 weeks in may.

You also get the option to live in a tipi during your year. I did this both years and it was an amazing experience. I fell asleep to the sound of the sparkling fire and woke up every morning to small birds flying into the tipi. And when I went outside the tipi the first thing I saw was the mist over the nearby lake. After my years in tipi I still can't sleep quite well inside and it happens that I just take my reindeer hide and sleeping bag and go sleep outside.

One amazing experience I had was an aurora at night outside my tipi. The only people who saw it was us living in tipi.

The handicrafts, as I mentioned are focused on natural materials. We built canvas canoes, paddles and skis, we felted gloves and socks, sewed sleeping bags, backpacks, anoraks, tarps and tents, knitted and much more, too much for me to remember it all. They give you very free hands to decide for yourself what to make.

There are two teachers, one is Bosse, who is the main teacher for the course. He's a very experienced paddler and canoe builder and a great teacher with lots of bushcraft knowledge.
The other teacher is Katha, a German woman full of energy who really knows how to lift the mood in the class. She teaches us the textile handicrafts and joins some trips here and there.

The second year is optional and gives a lot more freedom. During this year you focus on your own projects and work more independently. You also act as a leader for the first years during the trips. You make the important decisions and keep the group together. You might have to solve conflicts between group members, decide the path to take or when to make lunch. In my second year my big project was to build my own canvas canoe. But I also got time over to sew a backpack, make a hiking trip in Morocco and make many paddles.

The school has a very nice friendly atmosphere and also offers courses in music (folk, jazz, pop & rock and vocal), textile and traditional log house building among others.

At least during my years there, knowing Swedish was not a prerequisite. But an intention to learn is important and it makes your life a lot easier if you know some Swedish when you arrive.

If you are interested you can find some more information (in Swedish) and contact information here:

Some more pictures:

Me poling up a river

Foldable Swedish saw, I have no idea why it's called a SWEDISH saw.

onsdag 8 april 2015

Ten paddles project part one

I'm now nearing the end of my woodworking education and to sum it all up each student gets to make a final project. Some make spoons, others make bowls, a cabinet or wood burning. For me it came quite natural to make canoe paddles. And thinking practically I saw the chance to both make my paddle making more effective and hopefully make some money at the same time. So I decided to make this a serial production project. All in all I have a little less than 5 weeks. I calculated that I can carve a paddle from an ash plank in one day. So 10 paddles would be 2 weeks of carving. That gives 3 weeks for drawing the designs, writing the documentation and oiling and varnishing.
But the school I'm attending is not just a woodworking school. It's all about traditional woodworking (but they do let us use some machines). So I wanted some kind of twist and decided to make half of the paddles in a more native design aimed at deep water paddling and half in a more modern design aimed at whitewater. Though both are compromises of what I personally think is good.

I'm now at the second week, I have decided on 2 designs. The native one is an ottertail with a grip which is something like a merge between a pear grip and a northwoods grip. The modern one is a wide and short Sugar island with a T-grip. I differ the construction in them a bit. The native one is a one piece paddle which I will not sand and for finish I'll only use raw oxidated linseed oil. The modern one has a 3-piece grip and 5-piece blade to save material and lessen the chance for warping. I'll sand them till my hands bleed and give them an oil finish with a varnished blade. I'm gluing with polyurethane, I considered using epoxy but it blunts the tools really fast.

My paddle-forms with adjustable shaft length.
I made the designs in Adobe Illustrator as described in a previous post. I printed them and taped the papers together then glued them onto plywood. I was very careful here to get the forms completely symmetrical. I saw a track for the shaft in the blade to make them easily adjustable on the wood. I still needed a straightedge to keep them completely in line but it works very well and made the marking out much easier.

My initial idea was to make the modern blades in 3 pieces. But my planks were too narrow to get out 2 such wide pieces in one length so I decided to make it 5 pieces. But just gluing 5 pieces of ash together felt like it would look boring and amateurish so I wanted to make 2 small dark stripes along the center. But I didn't have any dark wood. But then I remembered something I learned a few weeks ago. Thermally modified wood. What I did was take the pieces and put them in the oven at 200 degrees for 1-2 hours. This makes them dark, a lot darker actually, and not just on the surface... all the way through. I'm not sure exactly how it affects the strength of the wood. But as they will be laminated in the middle of the blade I don't think it's a problem.

Barely fitting in the oven....
Before and after being in the oven. The dark one in the middle was on top and got a little too much heat. Also the side closer to the door is a bit brighter due to lower temperature.
So a summary of where I am right now: I've planed and marked out the 5 native designs. One of them is a stand up paddle I intend to use for myself. It feels insanely long... I give that one a thicker shaft to lessen the flex a bit.
I have cut out and planed all the pieces for the modern ones and glued one of them.
By the end of this week I intend to have glued up all paddles and cut them out.

My feelings so far for this project is that it's fun and I'm learning a lot. But I've used machines a lot this first week which is a bit depressing. I kind of regret not making the paddles by hand instead. Cutting my own tree, splitting it and carving it with an axe and crooked knife would feel much more satisfying and result in much stronger paddles. At least after I cut out the forms it's hand tools all the way till the end!

torsdag 26 mars 2015

2 old paddles saved from getting burned

My classmate found these 2 beauties in an old barn and saved them from getting burned in a big clean out.

One of them seem to be a child model as the blade-area is very small and the shaft is shorter than on the other. What confuses me though is that the grip and shaft is way too big for a child.
The other seems to be an ordinary beaver tail.
From what I can tell they are both made with a pine core and laminated spruce on the grip and blade with a worn out varnish finish. I guess the material choice was just because pine and spruce are easy to come by here and it's easier to find long knot-free pieces of pine than spruce.

Since I can't find any sign on either of them they're hard to identify. But there hasn't been a lot of commercial paddles made in Sweden so I made some research. I assumed they are made commercially as the lamination on one of the grips is quite advanced for an amateur without proper tools.
In Swedens digital museum I found photos of very similar paddles made by ABC-fabrikerna which made sports and outdoor gear between 1909 and 1982. The grip lamination seems to be the same as on one of the paddles I got. The spine has the same sharp edge as mine and the grip shape and overall "feel" matches well too.
Close up of the grips. I used the lamination on the small one to identify the paddles.
The spine is very sharp on the big paddle. Some of the paddles from ABC-fabrikerna seem to have been made this way.
Though the ones in the museum is made from pine. But it could be a miss-identification on my part. Or maybe they used both spruce and pine.
Hopefully I get a chance to visit that museum in summer when I work with kayak rental nearby.

One of the paddles had an interesting detail on top of the grip. I'm speculating in if it could either be a rest from a lathe if the shaft was turned, or a hole where a metal piece have been stuck in for balancing the paddle. It looks like a drilled hole with a wooden plug. The other paddle has something similar but smaller.

If you know anything about these paddles please let me know!

While researching these paddles I got some insight into Swedish canoe history. I find it really interesting to see how the skills of canoe building have spread and it gives me a sort of stronger feeling of connection to the Swedish canoe history. As we are not many who build and paddle wooden canoes here anymore.
The man who introduced and started building open canoes in Sweden was Harry Macfie. Who spent over 20 years in Canada as a gold washer, trapper and mining engineer. While there he learned the art of building wood canvas canoes.
He came back to Sweden and 1927 he started building wooden canvas canoes in his workshop at home. His canoes soon became famous as real works of art.
1938 the production was taken over by Mårten Gedda after Macfie sold the rights to ABC-fabrikerna.
ABC-fabrikerna produced hundreds of canvas canoes a year for many years. So when you do find an old Swedish canvas canoe it is almost always a Gedda or in rare cases a Macfie.
Today I only know of 2 people who make and sell canvas canoes. One is my old teacher Bo Weslien who mainly makes his own model called Lom, which is an amazing solo model with maneuverability unlike anything else I paddled. And the other is Magnus Carlson who also works as an outdoor teacher but builds canoes in his free time, mainly Prospectors.
Ove Larsson, another teacher (what's with teachers building canoes?) builds canoes with his 9th grade students and holds weekly canoe and kayak building courses.