Shaw and Tenney - Maine Crafted Since 1858

Wooden Canoe Paddles & Oars - Species Matter (Ash, Spruce, Cherry, Maple, Walnut and more)

Wooden Canoe Paddles & Oars - Species Matter (Ash, Spruce, Cherry, Maple, Walnut and more)

One of the most common questions we get from customers is what kind of wood should I have my paddle or oar made from? The fact is we offer a variety of hardwoods (8 species) as well as spruce for our paddles and oars. There are unique benefits, characteristics and limitations to each wood species for both paddle and oar making.

Premium Hardwood Selection for Paddles and Oars

Before we explore the wood species we offer we need to mention that every paddle or oar starts with one of our craftsmen selecting a single piece of wood from our stock in the wood shed. Our paddles and oars have been traditionally handcrafted using solid wood since the 1800’s. All of our wood must be clear and free from any defects to become a Shaw & Tenney paddle or oar. Whatever wood species you decide on you will feel the distinctive flexibility, shock absorbing characteristics and warmth in your hands of wood that cannot be duplicated by any other material, providing a truly unique rowing or paddling experience.


Ash Paddles and Oars

Ash Paddle - Shaw & Tenney 1897 Ash Canoe Paddle

As far as the hardwoods go our standard hardwood paddles are made from ash. For paddling ash is a perfect choice and we recommend this wood to most of the paddlers who call. Ash is indigenous to Maine and is very strong, in fact, the strongest of the hardwoods we offer. Ash provides long straight grains and is very tough. This makes a paddle with a perfect flex for paddling while also providing elasticity beyond what the paddle should ever encounter in normal use. Bottom line, an ash paddle is going to perform and get you through the trip. You may crack the blade on a rock, these things happen, but the paddle will get you out of the back country every time.

Ash is also used for oars when overall durability is concern or, in the case of our sculling oars, when the materials elasticity and flexibility provide a performance benefit. All of Shaw & Tenney’s sculling oars are made from native Maine ash where the added flexibility of the wood helps to drive the craft. Whitewater rafting oars are also often made from ash as the material can withstand the abuse rocky river bottoms dish out.


Soft Maple Paddles and Oars

Maple Paddles - Shaw & Tenney Maple Canoe Paddle

We also offer soft maple as a standard, non-premium, hardwood species for our paddle making. Our soft maple paddles feature a moderate flex and are about the same weight as ash, often slightly lighter. Soft maple is a durable, closed grain hardwood and the strength to weight ratio of the wood make it great in a variety of conditions. All of our paddles can be purchased in soft maple and the paddles look great with both a varnished or oiled finish.

As a general rule we do not make many oars in soft maple, however our Adirondack Guide Boat Oars are available with soft maple as a standard option.


Specialty or Premium Hardwood Paddles and Oars

For our specialty or premium woods we currently offer Cherry, Curly Maple, Bird’s Eye Maple, Walnut and Sassafras.


Cherry Paddles and Oars

Cherry Paddles - Shaw & Tenney Cherry Canoe Paddles

Cherry has always been a favorite for its beauty, but beyond the known aesthetics cherry produces a strong and durable paddle great for most any paddling conditions. Cherry is a closed grain hardwood with a distinctive deep red color which darkens with age. Cherry canoe paddles are reasonably light, lighter than their ash or maple counterparts, and feature a very nice flex. Like every paddle we produce, our cherry paddles are clear and free of knots and imperfections making them a great choice for a Sunday afternoon paddle on the lake or a beautiful engraved wall hanger for your home.

Cherry also features prominently in our specialty oars and paddles with our Adirondack Guide Boat Oars, Touring Kayak Paddle and SUP Paddles all available in cherry as a standard option.


Curly and Birds Eye Maple Paddles

Birds Eye Maple Paddle - Shaw and Tenney Birds Eye Maple Canoe Paddle

Our curly maple stock in the wood shed is grown right here in Maine and is a hard maple. Curly maple, also commonly known as tiger or ribbon maple, is one of the more elegant paddle materials we offer featuring a translucence that can only be described as radiant. Seasoned paddlers love the flex and weight (more flexible and lighter than ash) of the curly maple paddles. Sometimes the particular board can yield a paddle with less flex similar to ash. We make many paddle models each year in this wood species.

Bird’s Eye Maple features nearly the same flex and strength attributes of curly maple with a very distinctive grain pattern that resembles tiny, swirling eyes. Like every single paddle we make our bird’s eye maple paddles are meant to be on the water but because of their beauty are often seen hanging on the wall as much as they are paddling down the river.

We only offer birdseye and curly maple in a varnished finish. The wood is so dense oil will not penetrate and protect it adequately. Plus the varnish truly highlights the figure of the wood.


Walnut Canoe Paddles and SUP Paddles

Walnut Paddle - Shaw and Tenney Walnut Canoe Paddle

Walnut is another wood we really like for traditional canoe paddles and as it turns out we recently discovered that walnut SUP paddles are pretty spectacular as well. Our clear walnut boards have a deep chocolate color and the finished paddles are much like cherry in their weight and flex characteristics. Like the bird’s eye maple, walnut paddles are often made for display due to their beautiful grain and color.


Sassafras Paddles

Sassafras Paddles - Shaw and Tenney Sassafras Canoe Paddles

If you’ve read this far we’ll let you in on a little secret. If you wanted to know what most of the paddle makers here at Shaw & Tenney would create their own paddle out of it would be sassafras. Sassafras is a hardwood so inherently it is a durable paddle material, but the key features are its weight and flex. A sassafras paddle will be nearly as light as a spruce paddle in the same length. Add to that the incredible flex characteristics and you have, in our opinion, the perfect wood for a traditional or performance paddle.

Sassafras also has the unique characteristic that it continually darkens over time. A sassafras paddle that is 20 years old will be as dark as a piece of walnut. If you are looking for a paddle that performs well, is durable and looks like a piece of art, Sassafras is the choice.


Spruce Oars and Paddles

Spruce Paddles - Shaw and Tenney Spruce Canoe Paddle

And then we have our work horse and our primary oar material, spruce. At Shaw & Tenney we understand that a great paddle or oar starts with the best material and that even when you find the species of wood that will work for your application you need to dig further to get the best of the best. In this case we have chosen Clear Eastern Red Spruce.

This is the same spruce that you could buy locally at Home Depot or Lowes except that it’s clear. Free of knots and other blemishes, it’s significantly stronger and much lighter than any other North American softwood—a 7' oar tips in at less than 2-1/2 pounds. Only one out of every 2,000 boards that come off the line at the mill are considered clear and currently only two mills in North America grade for clear spruce. We essentially buy 100% of the clear eastern red spruce boards from these mills for use in our oar and paddle making.

Clear Eastern Red Spruce makes the majority of our oars.

If you are going to be rowing for pleasure we recommend spruce as a wood species choice for your oars. If you envision the oars sitting at the bottom of the boat getting stepped on and stuck with fish hooks, then ash is a more durable choice but heavier and less pleasurable to row with. Because spruce is a soft wood we do not recommend it for use in whitewater conditions or situations where the oar or paddle may come into contact with rocks and other obstacles. Again, look to ash for use in whitewater conditions. But if your goal is to have the lightest pair of oars that are enjoyable to row select spruce.


Engraving on our Wood Species

Almost 35% of our products are engraved here at our shop in Orono. The best wood species for engraving are cherry, curly or birdseye maple, and soft maple.

Custom Engraving is available on your Wooden Paddles and Oars

The choice is yours and we are happy to help you select the perfect wood for your needs. Feel free to give us a call anytime, we love talking about wood!

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How to Size Your Oars

To determine the correct length oar for your boat measure the distance between the port and starboard oar sockets. Then apply the Shaw and Tenney oar length formula to determine the oar length that will provide the correct 7:18 leverage ratio. This length will provide an oar where 7/25 the length is inboard of the oarlocks and 18/25 of the oar is outboard of the oarlocks. It is the ideal ratio to row almost all boats. Sized correctly, when rowing your hands will be 1 to 3 inches apart and you will be pulling directly towards your abdomen. If you are popping out of your oarlocks when rowing your oars are far too short. If you prefer an overlapping grip, add 6” to the calculated oar length. If you have more than one rowing station in your boat, measure both. Typically they will require two different length oars which is fine if you’re going to be rowing tandem and need two sets. Otherwise you’ll need to compromise the correct length to work properly in both stations. If you are rowing more than 75% in one station size the oar to that length. As always feel free to call us and were happy to help you select the correct oar length and blade style for your boat.

The Original Shaw & Tenney Oar Length Formula

To help our customers size their oars correctly, we’ve been using the same formula since 1858: Measure the distance between the center of the port and starboard oar sockets, which hold the oar locks on each gunnel. This is called the “span” between the oarlocks. Divide the span by 2, and then add 2 to this number. The result is called the “inboard loom length” of the oar. Multiply the loom length by 25, and then divide that number by 7. The result is the proper oar length in inches. Round up or down to the closest 6” increment.

How to Size Your Paddle

For traditional wooden paddles the ideal length for the Stern paddler is the bridge of your nose or 6 inches less than your height. For the bow paddler the paddle reaching the cleft of your chin or 9 inches less than your height is correct.

For our Racine paddle if you are over 5’6” tall select the 63-1/2” length and the shorter paddle if you are under5’-6”tall.

When paddling solo we typically recommend a bow length paddle. For Canadian style solo most paddlers prefer an even shorter paddle.

For paddling canoes when standing (yes our mother let us do this) a 69 inch or 72 inch paddle is usually about right.

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