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The Paddle You Build Yourself by Eric Barcley
Photo left: Bamboo shaft paddle with a Pyranha Surf Jet 305

I remember my first kayak that I ever bought, as well as the paddle that it came with. A metal shafted, plastic bladed, two piece paddle that would propel my new boat and I down sections of the Intercoastal waterway in Florida.

I didn’t know much at the time about kayaks and the gear needed. Over the next decade I would become more familiar with the different disciplines of kayaking, as well as the different sub categories of those disciplines. I would go on to paddle sit-on-top surf boats along the Atlantic coast, river running whitewater boats on class III rivers, and hybrid SUP/SOT’s that could be used as platforms for fishing small ponds and lakes. With my growing fleet of boats always came more gear.

If there is one thing I can say I’ve learned from my experiences, it is that the best paddle you’ll ever use, is the one you build yourself.

Carbon fiber canoe and SUP paddles. Custom airbrushed artwork done by a local artist in Cape Canaveral Florida.

Using the bamboo shaft, carbon blade paddle with an Islander Big Stick on the North Carolina Crystal Coast.

Fiberglass hand paddles.

The bamboo shaft paddle again, at Falls of the Neuse in Raleigh NC.

Paddle in work

I probably should have prefaced this by saying this message is not for Olympic slalom paddlers or class V whitewater runners. This isn’t an article for those who absolutely need the highest performing paddle when they get on the water, or for those situations where every ounce matters.  

I’m speaking to the recreational boaters who flip through magazines full of ads for high dollar paddles and think they need one to enjoy their time on the water. Yes it’s true that you get what you pay for, and a high end paddle will make a world of difference compared the big box store paddle that you can buy for the price of a large pizza; however, I have found in my experience that there is nothing more satisfying then kayaking with a paddle that you have built all by yourself. It makes you feel more connected with the paddle to the point where it is essentially an extension of yourself. Building your own paddle can be an excellent way to challenge yourself, as we all have different levels of how industrious we can be.

Maybe you’ve never actually worked with your hands in your life and don’t even know where to start. Luckily, the modern age of technology makes it easier than ever to learn. Just typing “how to build a kayak paddle” into YouTube brings up over 150,000 results. There are videos that will show you how to build your own paddle from a 10 dollar cedar board, as well as videos that will show you how to build true works of art. Instructional books and articles can be great, but the ability to choose from thousands of videos to show you every minor detail and step is one of the major advantages of the modern internet era.

Chances are, if you take the plunge and build your first homemade kayak paddle, you’ll end up building more. The first paddle is a confidence builder, but it is on the second one where you may start to tap into your own creativity. Maybe on your first paddle you followed the instructions to the T, afraid that any minor tweak could result in an insufficient product. On your next project, you’ll want to make those changes that bring individuality to your paddle. If you’re not careful, it might even become an addiction.

For most people, building a kayak paddle is a wood working project. My path, however, was different. Right around the time I got into kayaking, I started my career in manufacturing composite airplanes. Day after day of laying carbon fiber into fuselage molds had me wondering what I could build on my own. There were times when I would stare at the aforementioned metal shafted, plastic bladed, two piece paddle and wonder how I could create it out of carbon fiber. Once I finally pulled the trigger, I never looked back.

Over the next decade I would build carbon fiber canoe and SUP paddles with custom engravings and airbrushed artwork, fiberglass hand paddles, and my pride and joy, my carbon bladed, bamboo shafted kayak paddle. This one took two iterations, as the on the first one I used a smaller diameter bamboo that had a bit too much flex on the water.

Through trial and error, I created a paddle that would become my weapon of choice on whitewater river and ocean waves alike.

All of these paddles have brought me great joy while on the water, and inspired me to write this article in hopes that someone else will find that same joy. One day, maybe I’ll own a paddle manufacturing business, and I’ll be putting ads in magazines and online to try to convince people to buy my paddles. But as for today, I encourage you, go into your garage, shed, or whatever space you can find and build your own kayak paddle. It will be the best paddle you’ll ever use.


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