Teaching Others

One of the first requirements in a shop should be to cut some fragrant wood species – just for the smell to permeate the space and warm up the olfactory senses. A couple of days ago, a few of my students occupied my shop for a few hours, working on their paddles – traditional styled Algonquin and Voyager paddles – carved from western red cedar. So you see, my shop was filled with not only the sweet cedar but also with the energy of youth.

All three students had spent time previously cutting out their paddle blanks on the band saw, so this day they were consumed with hand work – wood planes spokeshaves and sandpaper – slowly shaping the blade, shaft, and grip. Although students have little experience with the tools and woodworking generally, they embrace this new experience. Most show initial trepidation using unfamiliar techniques and tools; but with a little reassurance and guidance soon they immerse themselves into their paddle build.

Lizzie spokeshaving her blade

Lizzie spokeshaving her blade

One of the tools of choice is the spokeshave. The narrow sole allows one to change angles quickly and work all portions of the paddle. The most appealing reason though, is that using the spokeshave is a highly tactile endeavor. The sole must lie at just the proper angle to engage the blade and must be held there throughout the cut. The body of the spokeshave is also angled in reference to the path of the cut to more effectively remove the wood.

This process of wood removal is augmented by an understanding of wood grain. Wood is added to the trunk in concentric rings – much like a layer of wax added to a candle as one dips the wick into a vat of molten wax.

AJ shaping the upper blade of his voyager paddle

AJ shaping the upper blade of his voyager paddle

The layer of wood, however, is not uniform. The cells made early in the growth season are larger and more porous than those made later. This difference in early wood and late wood produces the grain, but also creates potential issues when carving the paddle. The early wood, softer and less dense, is removed more quickly than the adjacent denser late wood. Additionally, wood is milled from a trunk in the most efficient way, which produces rectangular pieces taken from a cone-shaped object. The result is that the wood grain is not always parallel to the edge of the cut surface and the grain “runs out”. The upshot is that wood grain has a direction. To illustrate this, take a soft cover book and bend it into a circle. Each page of the book represents one year’s wood growth. Slide your finger down the exposed page edges. In one direction, your finger moves without resistance, but in the other direction, each page is lifted as your finger moves in opposition to the lay of the pages. Wood chips out if worked against the grain. Finally, wood growth is altered as it is laid down around branches or in response to the leaning of the tree. My intent in all of this is to illustrate for you the dynamic, non-uniform medium of wood that must first must be understood before successfully worked.

Alex using the shaving horse to shape the edges

Alex using the shaving horse to shape the edges

I take time to ponder this living process as I begin a project. Something as simple as counting the number of growth rings reinforces the concept that the piece of lumber was once living and had been living for a long time before it was harvested. The most recent paddle was taken from a tree which represented 42 years of growth just for the paddle. Undoubtedly the tree was much older. Many decades of life – removing CO2 from the atmosphere and converting that carbon into cellulose and lignin for cell walls that function to move water from the soil into the atmosphere and to give support to the tree. One has to respect that process and find amazement and beauty in its simplicity and complexity. A connection to life, to nature and the natural world requires diligence and purposeful consideration. But why do we need to go to such lengths or why have we made such an effort to disconnect ourselves from nature and an understanding of resource acquisition? Is this a result of determined control of our fate or ignorance? Tough to know and harder to understand.

I doubt my students reflect upon this as they continue to shape their paddles. Nor should they at this time. They are consumed in the process of creating: their minds focused on the present, engaged with their hands, connected to the wood. They too are freed from the mental stimulation of society, of cell phones, deadlines, exams, research papers and class presentations. They create now and though this process they do connect to the living natural world. They are just not aware.

My Shop


I am feeling nostalgic this morning after contemplating boat building. Last year at this time I was immersed in one of my most rewarding building events as I constructed a wood-strip kayak for my wife. Built from a plan, the kayak’s prescribed shape was personalized with our choice of woods and inlays. Redwood, western red cedar, basswood, walnut, mahogany, and maple, worked together to uniquely define the character of her kayak “Corazon” – one connected to the southwest with native American motifs of Kokopeli, Zia sun, pine trees and diamonds.

Wood is an incredible medium. Each year a new layer of carbon (and life) stored as cellulose and lignin, is deposited into the trunk. This resulting growth ring becomes a sample of atmospheric carbon, processed through photosynthesis and transported to the growing meristem, ending up in the walls of wood cells. But this process also records the conditions conducive or in opposition to growth. Limited moisture or poor temperatures stifles growth and the resulting ring of wood is narrow or even absent. Year after year this process continues; the meristem continually increasing in circumference as the trunk expands. Wood serves two important purposes for the tree. Connecting the moisture laden soil to the transpiring leaves above, the dead hollow cells form a conduit of water refurbishing the leaf, thirsty from continual water loss through it pores in a quest to gain carbon for photosynthetic endeavors. The leaf struggles in this paradox of function meeting reality. It is a Catch 22 of the botanic world. Secondly, with no skeleton for support, the strong cell walls of the wood cells provide support for the tree – enough to span 400’ in the tallest of species, yet resilient enough to sway in winds or bend under the weight of heavy snows. But this is only part of the magnificence of wood. For each species is uniquely defined by color, fragrance and the physical properties of density, hardness, resilience, and durability. But I digress into the scientific and thus leave the human connection I so cherish. So let me take you, for a minute, into the boat building process.

Wood strip boat construction entails abutting then gluing long, thin cedar strips next to one another. Simple enough it seems, but the laws of physics challenge the builder. Wood strips, with right-angled edges, only fit together on flat surfaces. The curving form of the boat hull precludes such surfaces. Thus each strip edge must be beveled to fit the adjacent strip. I prefer to do this by with a small bronze apron plane, cradled neatly in my hand. I angle its flat sole on the edge of the cedar strip and shave off a thin curl of wood and move down the length of the strip continuously adjusting the bevel, repeating until the fit is satisfactory. In the process I cut through time, 10 years ago, perhaps 50, 100 or even more. The wood can’t speak of the time past, of the day in June when the cell deposited carbon into its cell wall, but yet it releases a fragrance that connects me to the wood in an elemental way. It is this connection through smell that awakens my mind and causes me to search for times past in which that fragrance permeated a memory.

Why woods possess a unique fragrance is mystery for me. I know the answer occurs from a sound physical basis, yet I care not to discover and I am not inclined to research the causality. A simple pleasure is manifest when released and this is enough for me. I wish only to participate in the experience not to analyze any further.

A magic – a mystic – exists in my woodshop due to this smell, uniquely western red cedar, oak, walnut or pine – and from that I connect to the medium in an intensely personal way. Today I sit in my shop, watching the sun’s rays enter through an ornate window on my front door. Weeks past I worked white oak forming precise tenons fitting snuggly into their respective mortises. But today the smell is absent. So I am called to remedy this oversight. I’m currently working on the rectilinear – Arts and Crafts style furniture – end tables to be precise. The simplicity of form and rigidity of function appeals to my simple side. Yet I long for curves of a boat hull. The three-dimensional form, in particular the bow and stern sweeping upward to the gunwales, inspires in me a creative endeavor; this twist and turn of wood that in the end functions to cut elegantly through water, embodies the marriage of form, function and beauty.

I find boat hulls magnificently attractive, their curves simply pleasurable to view. To think that I could create this form, then to realize it in practice was a life-changing event. I find great pleasure in building, then of course using a boat – not just the first time, but in all subsequent times. This experience transcends belief as I marvel in actually constructing the very object I paddle. I wonder why this thought so novel. Isn’t this the way it should be? Humans have for many centuries crafted boats. Now I am one of those builders of boats, connected to a distant past and I wonder if past builders also found similar pleasure and wonder when building boats. I hope so.

New bent-shaft UPDATE

This paddle is an experiment in progress. I trimmed the blade and then decided to put a fiberglass sleeve on the shaft. I purchased the sleeve material from Soller Composites and placed a 30″ segment above the blade. Of course I did this after that portion of the shaft was rounded and before the grip was built. Western Red Cedar is a very soft wood and it dents easily; thus my reason for putting on the sleeve (I also have a desire to make a wood whitewater canoe paddle which needs reinforcing on the shaft, especially in the area where shaft meets gunwales).

I glued on 4 walnut pieces to the square shaft to make the grip, then shaped them similar to the grip found on a ZRE paddle I own. I sanded everything and coated with two coats of West epoxy 105/207 to fill the grain on the western red cedar. Instead of taking photos, I decided to make a couple of short videos of the grip and blade while I rotated the paddle so you can see the 3D shape.

The paddle currently weighs 20oz. After the epoxy cures for a while, I’ll sand it down and put a couple coats of varnish, so the weight may go up just a bit. I like the grip and shaft. However, the blade is not stiff enough at the edges (outside of the center support). I’ll write more after I give it a test in the water.

A New bent shaft paddle

I really like the looks of the Mitchell Leader Bent Shaft paddle. It has a wood grip and shaft and a carbon fiber blade. So I wondered if I could make something like this TWO YEARS AGO and made the shaft. I built the shaft and wood body of the blade and it sat until April 4 when I decided to work on it.

I constructed the shaft of two pieces of western red cedar around a 3/16″ thick ash strip. At the throat, I cut a the shaft at a 10 degree angle and attached two addition pieces of western red cedar to make the “wings” at the throat – ie the transition of shaft to blade.

shaft and throat

I rounded the shaft and throat area both in front and back (I should have kept the back flat!). I constructed a 3″ wide X 1/4″ thick center board and rounded the edges. I thought this would give needed support to the blade, though I’m not sure it is required. You can see this piece to the left on the photo above.

To make the blade, I drew out the blade shape on a piece of paper and taped it down to a flat surface, then covered this area with con-tact paper. I wetted out 2 sheets of carbon cloth on top of the contact paper, positioned my shaft, center board, filled that joint with epoxy putty, then put down two additional layers of carbon cloth on top and wetted them out.

blade construction with 4 layers of carbon cloth

I put a second coat of epoxy on top and let it dry overnight. The next morning, I lifted the paddle from the table, marked the blade outline, and cut to shape on a bandsaw. Here is where I found that I really needed to keep the back throat flat, so I ended up filling a the two cracks with epoxy/graphite mix. First impressions…it seems heavy – perhaps only one layer of carbon on each side? and no center reinforcement?

blade trimmed to size