“Although I prefer bristle brushes, foam brushes work fine if you don’t mash them against the wood, creating bubbles,” author Darren Bush says.
“Although I prefer bristle brushes, foam brushes work fine if you don’t mash them against the wood, creating bubbles,” author Darren Bush says.
A thing of beauty is a joy forever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness ...

I think John Keats was a paddler.

I have about 20 paddles in my garage, I think, of all sizes, types and materials. Some are over 25 years old and all of them are still in great condition. That’s because I use them as they are meant to be used. A good paddle can be, with proper care, a joy forever. 

The paddle is as important as the boat. Paddles are meant to interact with water. Not gravel, not rocks, not concrete. Sure, you hit things with your paddle accidentally. That’s the nature of the game. But it pains me to see how some folks abuse their paddles. Paddles are not pry bars.

That said, most paddles break while not in use. They are stepped on at portages, slammed in the trunk of the car or run over at a put-in or take-out. 

We’ve seen it all. When someone returns a “defective” paddle to my store saying, “I was just paddling along when ...” we look for tire tracks on the shaft. 

So the first step in paddle maintenance is to prevent maintenance. Don’t put it in the back of the truck next to a toolbox that might shift and abrade the finish as you bounce down the road. Look before you slam.

Now that you’re committed to being more careful, let’s turn to the actual use of your paddles.

I paddle a lot with traditional canoe paddles, many of them without the urethane or other plastic tips that protects most modern canoe paddles. They do hit rocks occasionally, especially the sneaky underwater kind. But wood is strong if the grain is oriented properly.  

When I paddle in shallow, rocky streams, I use a beefier paddle with more reinforcement, often a fiberglass-laminated blade. I still try to miss the big rocks and use the tip sparingly to push off rocks.

If the water is very shallow, I carry a wooden closet pole, about four feet long, that I can use in place of a paddle where I have to pick through and push off. If I have to struggle to push a boat, it’s time to get out and walk. 

Sanding & brushing
No matter how careful, you will definitely need to do maintenance on your paddles. For wood paddles, this is the easiest. You’ll need medium and fine grit sandpaper (I use 180 and 260), spar varnish and some bristle brushes. If you have oiled paddles or grips, you’ll need your favorite oil finish. I use a Danish oil composed of linseed oil and beeswax for my paddles.

Anywhere there is wood showing through or where the varnish is flaking, use the medium grit to clean up the mess and get the surface nice and rough. Since you’re varnishing over old finish, the bond will be a physical one, not a chemical one, so you want a nice rough surface that will grab the new varnish. If there is no peeling varnish, the finer grit is fine just to prep the surface.

Wipe your paddle off with a soft cloth that doesn’t shed lint and you’re ready to varnish. (Before proceeding, I hang my paddles by little nooses from little hooks screwed into the top of my garage door so they can hang in the breeze, but not so close that they will bump into each other.)

Start at the top and work your way down toward the blade. If my grips are varnished, I do them later, but they’re usually oiled for comfort. Drips are inevitable but they soon sag on the bottom edge of the paddle and you can pick them off with the brush before they dry.

Don’t buy cheap varnish. Higher urethane content does not come cheap, and it’s false economy to use cheap stuff. Go to a marine store and buy the good stuff, like Pettit or Varithane or a similar quality. Good spar varnish is flexible, which ultimately means it lasts longer.

Plastic & laminated blades
For plastic molded blades, they generally need little or no maintenance. Still, you might want to take a file and smooth the edges if there are chips and rough spots. They may not cause any trouble, but an edge that can catch on something is more likely to break. Besides, it’s just a little more tidy.

This is a good time to flex your blades to look for stress cracks. Better to find them now than on the river. In general, I don’t like repairing stress cracks in molded blades. You’ll be upsetting the balance and surface of the blades. Chances are the paddle doesn’t owe you much and deserves retirement at that point.

If you use laminated blades of any sort, repair can be a little more tricky, since delaminations can lead to a host of problems. If the blade is foam core, even closed-cell foam can hold some water and lead to further delamination. The good news is that despite their lighter weight, those composite paddles are tough. Again, most paddles break while not being paddled.

For kayak paddles, one of the most vulnerable points is the ferrule. The thing to remember? Cleanliness is next to godliness. Sand is your ferrule’s enemy, as is dirt, silt, clay, loam and any other earthly made powdery substance. Keep them clean. Don’t lubricate anything. That will just attract dirt.

If a ferrule seems to be fused, take it apart with the help of a couple friends, putting one blade under each person’s armpit and applying torque to the shaft. I’ve seen a few that won’t respond, but most do. Clean the ferrule well, using soap and water, and maybe a little scotch pad action. Remember: Don’t lubricate. If you’re going to be paddling in saltwater, definitely rinse thoroughly.

...And, as the year
Grows lush in juicy stalks, I’ll smoothly steer
My little boat, for many quiet hours,
With streams that deepen freshly into bowers.

Thanks, John. I think I’ll join you. With a freshly varnished paddle.

Darren Bush is owner and chief paddling evangelist of Rutabaga Paddlesports in Madison, Wisconsin. When not eating, sleeping or working, he’s likely paddling or making something with his hands.