Up the creek

Paul Epp
Paul Epp

Only wood does the job

I found myself, a bit surprisingly, walking down the street in the morning with a canoe paddle in my hand. Fortunately, it was a well-made paddle, with a good balance so that I could easily and lightly carry it, blade to the back and grip pointing forward. It teetered there nicely, not unlike the feeling of having it in use, ready to be plunged or lifted, twisted, pried, swept or whatever was called for.

It felt and probably looked a bit like I was on a portage, but this one with no canoe either overhead or at either end of my walk. My pleasure in holding something this nice far outweighed my self-consciousness.

A canoe paddle is, or can be and maybe should be, a thing of beauty and a joy to hold. There are now many versions and styles, in many materials, but here I’m only talking about wood. No other material can answer the requirements of beauty and grace as well as wood does. Carbon fibre is lighter, I know, but if I’m going to have something in my hand all day, and before my eyes, I’d still prefer it to be a natural material.

My paddle is made of cherry, which glows as only cherry does, flickering its subtle figure in the morning light. The form is graceful as the forms will be that are designed to move through a fluid. Think of propellers and boat hulls (wooden ones), and if we consider air to be fluid, too, then think of wings, both on birds or on airplanes.

The blade is a long oval, pointed for a forgiving entry, then widening for a better purchase against the water. It is thin enough to be a bit flexible, as will cushion the work, but also stiffened by the shaft, now a spine, running partway down the blade. The thinness also allows for a lighter weight at this end and a good balance, which a thicker, geometrically simpler form wouldn’t provide. The point of connection between the shaft and blade is smooth and full in a way that fills the hand nicely and snugly. It’s a point that will receive a lot of attention on a day on the water.

The shaft is probably a bit oval shaped, too, in section, with the long axis perpendicular to the blade. This will squeeze out all possible strength from the limitations of this simple structure. The grip fills the hand, fully and snugly as well. Where it meets the shaft, the point of transition is as thin and narrow as possible without creating too much weakness. The intention is to be able to fill the palm completely, with the oval form that mimics the inside of our closed hand and which can be held in many ways, controlling the blade as it is adjusted to suit its range of motions.

The grip is oiled but not varnished. That type of finish would get sticky in the hot sun, over time, and blisters would be the result. As well, how much time will the grip spend in the water?  Oil will do, but the rest of the paddle has a coating and even then, the tip will quickly get worn through. This evidence of use, along with the dings from the gunwale, have given the paddle the worn appearance of a tool that has been doing what a tool is meant to do. It looks right.

Looking right, working right. Things that work right often also look right. That’s a design lesson for us. In this case, we have a hands-on demonstration of ergonomics and leverage. We have a form which has been refined to provide the maximum flexibility within the simplest conformation, with the lightest weight possible to yield the greatest strength.

A lot of paddles are lesser in their capacity, both for providing use or pleasure. The blades are often too heavy and stiff, the shafts too thick, the grips too awkward. The form is not smooth enough to avoid galling the hands. The finish is scant and cracks, letting in water and fungal discolouration. Price is usually on their side, but time and accommodation are not.

Those of us who use tools have, I believe, a unique appreciation for those that are designed with a full understanding of the task to be undertaken. If we have not put in the time, learning the skill, we are not likely to discern the differences that make all the difference. Good tools, that make our labours easier, become our friends: we know them in an intimate way. And it doesn’t hurt if they are good looking too.

Paul Epp is professor at OCAD University and chair of its Industrial Design Department.


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