Paddle Finishes


Good Day,

I have just completed the woodworking side of my first paddle making journey. I have enjoyed the process immensely.

Now I am in need of some assistance with my paddle finish. I chose to use Tung Oil to bring out the natural beauty of the wood in the paddle. It turned out great as far as I`m concerned. However I want to provide the paddle with a great protective finish with a semi-gloss.

I had purchased the Varathane Diamond Waterbased product however I just found a thread on a wood working site that said without exception to not mix the waterbased varathane with an oil finished wood.

Please help.

The paddle has two coats of oil and has been dried for 24 hrs. I want to add the protective coat so that I can use the new paddle on the water this upcoming weekend in Algonquin Park.



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The Varathane won't bond very well to oil and will eventually peel. We have a lot of Varathane Diamond water-based varnish on our oak floors, baseboards, door frames, window frames and stairs. It's pretty tough stuff, but not very good over oil-based finishes, even if they've dried completely. I've also used their water-based spar varnish for boat stuff and was thoroughly unimpressed compared to regular oil-based varnish (including the oil-based Varathane). Use an oil-based varnish on your paddle and it will usually stick just fine over dried tung oil and most other oil finishes.

Here is the deal on oiled finishes for boat parts, paddles, etc. You can, with frequent and repeated applications, eventually build up a lovely, sealed, smooth, gunstock-like finish. However, it can take quite a while, depending on the oil used and the type of wood used. Rather than two coats, it may take 20 coats with several days to a week of drying time between them and a light sanding or scotchbrite rubdown between coats before you have the surface sealed well enough that it won't absorb water. There really is no way to rush this process. Until you have a sufficient number of coats built up, using the item and getting the wood wet will probably raise the grain as you paddle. You can start your afternoon outing with a smooth shaft and within an hour or so, it's rough and abrading your hands. This seems to happen to me every time I decide to just oil a paddle and after two or three outings, I finally get fed up with it and varnish the paddle. If you do varnish, you can always rub the surface down to a satin finish once it dries if you would rather have the oiled look.

Thank you very much. That was great advice and exactly what I was looking for. I know that the type of Varnish and company determines the amount of applications but what would you suggest for number of coats and preperations in between coats.

Thanks again.
Wriggs - If you like the way your new paddle looks with the oil finish why not use it for a weekend as it is, you can always sand out the raised grain and add the varnish top coat when you get home. I don't think the hard top coat really adds that much durability, just a different look. Yes, a day in the water will continue to raise the wood grain for a few trips, but any paddle will get it's share of dings and scratches and the oil finish is much easier to renew. I've got quite a few paddles, some varnished and some oiled, and to my eye there's nothing as beautiful as a well used, well loved oiled paddle. You said you used tung oil - straight, mix, or commercial product? I'm a furniture maker, and even though I like the idea of pure oil/turps finishes mixed in the shop, and do it myself, you can never really predict dry time - true cure-up can sometimes take many days, even weeks depending on the weather etc. On a new paddle, after wetting to raise the grain, then drying and gently re-sanding with 320 grit, I use Watco Exterior or Teak-oil, applied every 15 or 20 minutes until the wood won't take anymore, rub-out well, then dry overnight - the oil is usually cured after 24 hours. Before I sell a paddle I take it out and use it myself for a few hours (yes the grain does fuzz a bit) then repeat the above process to make sure it's as pretty as I can make it. I haven't found that further wettings are all that objectionable but do tell potential customers what to expect and that some maintenance will be required. Hope this has been of some help and would be interested in hearing what you end up doing.
I suppose the sky is the limit, but I generally apply 3-4 coats of a good, UV-filtered marine varnish. I'll usually use Captain's Varnish, mainly because I've been using it for a long time and it's always worked fine, but other brands are also excellent. These high-quality varnishes are expensive and wasting unused varnish by letting it slowly harden in the can will make them even more expensive, so transfer unused varnish to a smaller container when you're done to eliminate air space and keep it from skinning over.
Between coats, I usually use one of those green scotchbrite pads to knock the gloss down, though some prefer fine sandpaper. If you want a satin finish, let the last coat harden for a few days and then rub it down with rottenstone (paint stores) or rubbing compound and a rag.

Thank you so much for all the advice. When I decided to start making handcrafted paddles as a hobby and a way to pass time in between instructing survival courses I truly believed that applying a finish would be the easiest part of the process.

However, as you guys already know, I have realized that the journey of paddle making is very personal. Whether the style, solid or laminated, grip and finish are all based on personal desire and future use of that work of art.

I really do enjoy the oiled look however I was steadfast that I wanted a varnish type protection.

There are so many choices and even more opinions about oil, varnish/varathane and any combination of the two. I will have to experiment as my journey continues with paddle making.

Thanks again for all your help.

For future reference, if you want to keep experimenting with oil finishes, you should probably pick up a can of Deks Olje #1. It is the fastest way to build a substantial (and sealed against water) oil finish that I have ever seen by a factor of about ten, compared to products like Watco Oil. It also doesn't seem to turn dark like some oils do. It's much thinner than most and application is wet on wet, as many coats as it will absorb, right on top of each other. Once it won't absorb any more, you wipe off the excess and most items are dry and usable the next day. They also make Deks Olje #2, which is an optional gloss top coat (looks like gloss varnish) but I prefer the natural satin, oiled finish of Deks #1. It is very good stuff. It wasn't available here for a while, but seems to be available again. I used to use a lot of Watco back when I was a Mad River Canoe dealer and they were using it on their gunwales, but for boat stuff, if I can get Deks #1 I have no use for Watco because it takes way too long to build up.!6456&keyword=deks_olje_d1
Todd- Your post left me thinking about the lack of precision typical of so many woodworking forum discussions concerning finishing, and how my own post above fed right into some of the confusion about "oil" finishes. In cautioning about the curing issue in the use of pure oil and solvent mixtures and recommending Watco, I failed to point out that most (all?) Danish-oil finishes are actually blends of oil, solvent, driers, and varnish with oil probably not even being a primary ingredient, no matter how they're advertised by the manufacturer. My experience would tend to indicate that they would be more accurately categorized as wiping- varnish than oil finish. I am far from being an expert on finishing products and in fact have used Watco for years in my furniture making just for that reason - it gives me exactly the results I want with no fuss - pop the grain, consolidate the surface fibers enough for a nice tactile "feel", and leave the wood looking like wood. It suits the furniture I make perfectly (early 19th century country Federal/Shaker) with no chance of screwing up a piece right at the end of the project. When I recently decided to start making paddles seriously rather than just a sideline of my furniture business I spent some time thinking about the finish, searching this forum and others on the web, but so far have decided to stick with the Watco Teak-oil.
I've been using my own paddles for a couple of years with good results and have a couple of "oiled" Shaw & Tenneys more than 20 years old (they use Watco these days, I do't know back then). Whatever the actual chemistry of the finish, the results say traditional, which is what I'm looking for. Your criticism of Watco for it's lack of build is well taken, but that's just why I like it - it's as close to no finish as I can get while still providing enough water resistance to make for a beautiful, functional paddle. Anyone else out there with long term experience or other insights? Thanks Todd - I will get some Deks and give it a try. Mike
Thanks again guys. After reading the posts I have a much clearer picture on some of the great products out there. I will invest in a few of them and see how they work over the next 2-3 paddles I make.

Great info.
I don't have anything against Watco as a product and still use it from time to time, but for boating woods, the main criteria for evaluating performance have to be "Does this finish protect the wood from water intrusion and its effects (which are seldom good), and does the finish protect the paddler? Paddling all afternoon with a shaft or grip covered with freshly-raised grain is a miserable experience and a water-soaked paddle shaft or blade can warp, split, etc.

If you have the time to truly finish the finish, as it were, on a Watco-oiled paddle before handing it off to the customer, that's great - as long as it also includes an explanation that it needs periodic re-oiling, and that waiting until it looks like it needs it is waiting too long.

This was the problem we always had selling the original Mad Rivers. The factory only had time to slap a couple coats of oil on the ash trim and when the boats got to the dealers, they all looked (and felt) very rough. It was gorgeous white ash and actually split to minimize grain runout, but it pretty much looked completely unfinished in the showroom and each customer who bought one needed to frequently sand and re-oil the gunwales as he built up a decent finish. Failure to do so ended up with gunwales covered with those black fungus spots that ash gets if not well protected. It's hard to sell the benefits of an oiled finish if the customer can't see them (literally) in the showroom, so in this case, I believe that the Watco finish actually hampered sales. When you stuck one in a rack with a couple of varnished Old Towns, the MRC boats looked pretty raw.

Deks #1 is about the only oil finish that I've seen that (1) actually looks like oil - the same as Watco, and (2) seems to seal and build in a hurry and dry by tomorrow. If you are shooting for a finish that eventually builds to a satin sheen (like a gunstock) the Watco is probably better because it's thicker and has more body than Deks, but for a fast build that looks like natural oil, Deks #1 is worth trying.

I like the sound of that Deks product. However it seems like a speciatly item. I am in Ontario Canada and was wondering if either of you know whether they are available at a large retailer like Home Depot or a major paint retailer.


Hey Guys,

I was hoping with all this talk on finishes and the difference between oil and varnish type finishes that you guys might be interested in rating your top 3 finishes for a new paddle with all things considered - look, longevity, durability, reasonable dry time, cost, simplicity,etc.

Thanks guys.

I made 3 paddle blanks today and plan on taking the advice you provided and hopefully the top 3 finishes and experimenting to see what works best on the wood types I use and water I paddle.

Wriggs - I'm looking forward to your test of finishes since I'm sort of unadventurous when it comes to finishing products. My personal experience is limited to spar varnish (McCloskeys), homemade oil and oil/varnish mixtures, and Watco Teak-oil which, based on my web searches of the last couple of days, appears to be a blend of less than 10% linseed/tung oil, lots of solvents, and "proprietary" resins (varnish according to Bob Flexner). Even though I don't dislike varnished paddles and spar varnish is certainly called for on livery and camp paddles that spend a lot of their life simmering in bilge water in the hot sun, my own preference is for the "vintage" look obtained by repeated applications of an oil/varnish blend, and Watco has produced that for me at least as well as any of my own mixtures with a lot less hassle. I going to stick my neck out here and say that I don't think water absorption in a personal (solid-unlaminated) paddle that's well taken care is much of a problem in terms of either day to day weight gain or long term durability and I question the need for a "waterproof" finish. In fact the only paddles I own that are structurally "compromised" are varnished, where water has infiltrated at the resin tip protector causing delamination at glue lines or checks in the wood itself. Yes, touching up the varnish would probably have prevented these problems but renewing an "oil" finish is a lot easier and I've never gotten that attached to any of those utility/whitewater paddles anyway - I do have a few for use in shallow rocky water. I don't make laminated paddles so I really don't have anything to offer as per glue etc. Just so I don't sound like I'm coming across as some kind of authority let me make clear that my own production of paddles is in the dozens, not in the hundreds. I have been a serious paddler for over 40 years but my long term experience is with other peoples paddles, only a few years with my own. I have a wide range of Grey Owl's and Shaw & Tenny's as well a a couple of paddles by "boutique" makers, and my all time favorites, until I started carving my own, are two S&T's that when new had probably a couple of coats of Watco oil. These paddles have been well cared for - dried in the shade at the end of each day and re-oiled as needed, but they've spent a lot of days on the water (both purchased sometime in the 80's) and they're still as good as the day I got them. I sell some of the paddles I make, and I think mine are more beautiful and more finely made, but I'd never part with the S&T's, still use them often, and expect them to last for many more years. All this being said, I really enjoy hearing about other peoples experience - there really is something new to learn everyday and I hope the experiments with your new paddles will add to the discussion! Mike
Mike, I greatly appreciate your advice and your vast experience. As a new paddle maker and one that is only interested in crafting custom made for the user type paddles I want to make sure that my finishes are easy to maintain and that provide the best water resistance and durability.

My first paddle as well as the 3 blanks that I just made are all laminated. I chose the laminated because of esthetics and user request. They are definately nice to look at but I want to make sure the paddle is functional and durable.

I personally love the oiled look. I too have an old Grey Owl paddle that was given to me by my father. It is oilled and has been treated well for many years. However I want to provide good protection from water infiltration for the end user.

It wasn't until joining this forum and having the great opportunity to learn from you fine folks that I realized the care and love necessary to maintain a great hand made paddle. The store bought paddles have a high gloss finish and feel that make them seem waterproof and indestructable. So I was surprised that there was no magic varnish that seals and protects.

Thanks again guys and I really look forward to learning more from you experienced paddle makers and enthusiast.

Wriggs - Putting aside for the moment my own preference for oil/varnish type finishes I must admit that a laminated paddle probably does call for the best protection you can provide for your glue-up while still giving you a surface look that appeals to your sense of aesthetics. While not really my taste, how about a high quality satin spar varnish? I'm sure Todd or some other folks out there must have tried a range of the products on the market. I must admit that in the last few days since this discussion started I've lurked around on some other boat building sites and was sort of surprised at how much doubt there still is about the long term viability of a lot of the "waterproof" glues that are available. Even though my old Grey Owls show some glue failure I assumed that by this time someone would have developed something more durable - at least you would think so from the marketing hype. The limited range of glues that I use in my furniture making (Titebond & liquid hide glue) and the fact that I only make solid one-piece paddles leaves me uncharacteristically with little more to say on the subject. Once again, I'm really looking forward to the results of your testing - maybe you'll come up with something to make me reconsider my limited little world of finishing! Hope you try the Deks that Todd recommended - he makes a good argument and certainly has a wider range of experience with these products than I do. Later today I'm loading the boat and heading north for a week or so in woods - I'll check back in when I get back. Mike
I would love to try the Deks however a little research on suppliers where I am, Ontario, Canada, revealed that only two suppliers are listed in all of the Province. The smallest can of Deks # 1 is listed at $47.00 and the Deks # 2 at another $47.00 plus the shipping. Estimated at $20. So the search is on to find somewhere that carries it not yet listed on their distributors site. Until then I will have to experiment with finishing solutions found locally.

I completed my paddle yesterday and should have a few pictures to post by the days end. I will list all of the products used and the process. The paddle is going on the water tomorrow ready or not ! I will provide a review describing the feel at the start of the day and then another review describing the feel at the end of the day to see if the finish I put on the paddle was sufficient to reduce grain raise and keep a comfortable grip.

Keep the info coming guys. I am learning a ton and really enjoying the discussion given the experience and knowledge you guys have. Thanks again for sharing.

I live 5 minutes from the Sand Lake Gate of Algonquin Park. The Barron River has been singing me a song and calling my name for a week now. Tomorrow I will answer the call and paddle the morning mist of that beautiful place.


For what little it's worth, my favorite method of finishing a paddle is to varnish it with Interlux Schooner, except for the grip and throat, which I saturate with boiled linseed oil. (Why Schooner varnish? Because it's a high-quality tung-oil based marine varnish. It provides excellent UV protection and the tung oil doesn't turn yellow-brown like a linseed-based varnish.)

I've also used Armada (an oil alkyd resin-based based marine stain), which is lighter (in weight) than varnish and requires fewer coats. It gives an attractive, satiny finish. For a paddle that gets a lot of use, it doesn't retain its waterproof qualities quite as well as varnish. I never use laminates, so my paddles are not especially susceptible to moisture.

Lately I met a fellow Maine guide and canoe nut who swears by motor oil as a wood finish. I haven't tried this finish yet, but I will as soon as I need to finish another new paddle.
Not that it matters but I 2ed the Schooner, except I just lightly sand/scotchbright the grip/throat.
I've oiled a few and they are nice but I like to minimize the maintenance and maximize the protection.

One of these days, when I get back into it, I'm going to try the Deks.

Well guys, I loaded the kids up into the Jeep this morning and drove them and the canoe into Algonquin Park for a day of paddling. After 6 hrs, 13 km and some swimming in Stratton Lake I left the day of paddling with a deep respect and sense of pride for my handcrafted paddle.

Although some improvements can be made and each and every paddle will get better with greater attention to detail and design I was so happy with the way it performed and felt in my hands.

The paddle was made with Western Red Cedar, Eastern White Cedar and Maple. The lamination was glued with Pro Maxx Waterproof Glue. The entire paddle was oiled with Circa 1850 Tung Oil 4 times. It was lightly sanded and then 3 coats of Varathane brand Spar Varnish semi-gloss. The paddle was sanded in between each coat.

I did not varnish the handle. It was oiled 2 more times after the varnishing of the main paddle and shaft was complete. I intend on oiling the handle every week for the rest of the summer to ensure it resists some water.

A self critique is that the shaft of the paddle is too thick. The paddle blade is too thick. Therefor the paddle weight is a little too heavy. However, it was great to get it out on the water and listen as it entered and exited the glass like water. What a great day. Just thought I'd share.



I've been out of town (at Assembly) but here are my two cents' worth, which is worth what you paid for it:

If paddle parts are too thick or heavy, you can always shave them down, even after the finishing and test paddling. Then you re-finish them. Yes, it's called "Trial and Error," and it will be easier after a few more paddles get built, but fine-tuning a paddle will go a long ways toward making it well-loved.

There was mention earlier in this thread about varnish peeling off store-bought laminated paddles. A lot of store-bought models use basswood, which (according to Warren Graham & David Gidmark's paddle-making book) is lightweight, but when any water gets under the varnish, the varnish peels away. My best solution for these paddles so far has been to strip the varnish off, coat with laminating epoxy (like for fiberglassing), then sand & varnish. It adds weight, but so far these paddles have not peeled again... though for only two of them (mine) can I vouch for them being used much.

Much better to just make your own from scratch, and burn the store-bought laminates... cedar is much prettier than basswood anyway...