Voyageur paddles


Unrepentant Canoeist
A couple of friends of mine will be participating in the Thompson Re-enactment Expedition this summer, and have asked me to make them some Voyageur paddles for the trip. We're all aware of the paddles shown in the Hopkins paintings, but they would like the blade shape described in the Warren/Gidmark book. Hey, they're threatening to pay me for these, so who am I to argue?

Questions have arisen RE: paint on the blades. They're thinking red, and wondering what kind of paint would be best, and whether a top coat or two of spar varnish would be appropriate (albeit not authentic).

Anybody have any thoughts on this?
Red ochre?

Thanks for asking the question. I am making a traditional woman's paddle the Western Cree model as shown in Addney and am thinking the red should be red ochre.

If you lookup red ochre on I thinking about
her again :rolleyes:
Guess i should have been more specific... I was wondering if it should be exterior grade latex, or marine paint, or whatever else... What are advantages/disadvantages of each?

Color's entirely up to them, though they did say they'd be red. Red ochre would probably be most authentic, so that's a good point... thanks!
If I remember correctly, Doug Ingram made a number of voyageur paddles for a Montreal-Athabasca historical reenactment trip a few years ago. You should check details out with him (Red River Canoe & Paddle).
Probably not terribly authentic, but I just used polurethane porch and floor enamel on mine, It's tough, seals wood about as well as varnish and they can mix just about any shade you wish, satin or gloss. I figured that the Voyageurs probably would have used it on their porches if they'd had them.....


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Since this is commemoritive;epoxy the tip so it wont split.Paint the blade red so it's easy to find.I'd make it a common bright red that can be touched up,but really anything will do_Oil the shaft and grip so you don't get blisters.
Being part voyageur in my heritage I can say that the paddles were just paddles.Paint was for important boats.But then this is an important boat.
As to Porch Paint;fine so long as you don't leave the paddle on the porch making it hard to find.
Good point. I had to paint my porch grey - just so that I'd be able to see any paddles that might be there and not trip over them.

I did make a big batch about 2 years ago, and it looks like I'll be doing another batch shortly. I can give tons of details, but it would help if specific questions could be provided.

I'd recommend using Birch. It has a nice balance of strength, weight, and fairly fine grain. Its also very stable and doesn't warp and twist as easily as some other woods. Its also not terribly expensive.

Nice size for the blades is about 5" wide and 25" long. This is a little smaller than a typical modern touring blade, but is good for the big canoes. Shaft sizes that equal their torso height or just slightly longer, will fit right for the task.

I really like using the Chestnut orange/red, one, maybe two coats, on the blade. It has that old time red kind of look, and because its thinly pigmented, allows some of the grain to be seen through. Then varnish the entire paddle one coat. Then lightly sand the shaft and grip and give it a couple coats of oil. I like Tung oil. A nice traditional look includes painting the grip, the tip, and a band at the throat, a contrasting colour. Different brigades would use different colours, like team colours.

Use a marine enamel, one that you like the colour of and that you can get again. The paddles in the photos used CIL Ensign Red. Its very red.


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Lots of good info from Doug, as always. Many thanks! I should have called before I started.

I used locally-harvested ash; didn't think about birch, but don't see it real often at my hardwoods mill. They do stock poplar & aspen, but I don't know how well those would work.

These paddles have had some adventures, before even leaving the shop. We decided they were too long, after one had been roughed out. Cutting the grip off the uncarved blank was easy enough, but the one that was roughed out was going to get the grip cut off, & the sides of the shaft flattened for gluing on new grip "ears"... I marked the cut line, then marked how far down the shaft I planned to flatten, went to the chop saw... and cut the wrong line. Oh poop!

I was ready to burn it & start over, but my friend likes the grain on the blade (it may not get painted), so one scarf joint later, it's back in one piece. After cleaning it up, the glue line is nicely uniform all the way around, so I'm hoping it'll hold up. A couple years ago, I did similar repairs on two Gouvernail paddles for my local forest preserve district's Voyageur programs, and they're holding up so far. Those paddles don't get the daily use that these new ones will get, but the new ones will be in the milieu, so won't be executing pry strokes... we'll see what happens. Worst case is it gets burned in a campfire, which ain't so bad, really.

But an auspicious start, for sure!
Anybody ever use dye in oil or varnish? We're now thinking mix a red ochre color into the finish, and maybe top coat with spar varnish. Or can we just add the dye to the varnish?

Thanks again!

Any pigment that you add must be compatible with the finish into which it is being mixed. You can add stains into the varnish.

What effect are you trying to achieve? There may be other, simpler ways to achieve it. One thing that I like, is taking a paint and either thinning it out, or applying it and wiping off. The paint acts like a heavy stain. You can either leave it if its an enamel, or varnish over.
You can tint varnish, though you ned a light-fast pigment that won't fade and you need to be much more careful about getting even thickness when applying the stuff than you do with plain clear varnish because thick and thin spots will be different colors. As the varnish ages the difference can gets even more obvious.

This is also true when you varnish with clear varnish over a solid color like a painted surface. In reality, most of us don't brush the varnish on anywhere near as evenly as we might think we do. As the varnish ages and yellows a bit it can really start to look splotchy. Considering that paint alone is usually a more durable, more UV resistant coating than varnish (and easier to touch-up) I kind of wonder why you would want to varnish over the colored parts at all?
"...why you would want to varnish over the colored parts at all?"

Lack of knowledge, of course. I've never worked with paint on wood, so I'll plead ignorance. Now I know better, and I thank you!

I think the effect they're trying to achieve is to let the grain show through, while still retaining some red coloration. A red ochre color has been mentioned, the theory being that a real Voyageur wouldn't have had porch & deck enamel. But then, a real Voyageur wouldn't have had a laminated paddle, either...

I have enough cutoffs from the boards to try a lot of options, so we can work that way. It's nicce to get some clues, though!

If you thin the paint with some linseed oil or Penetrol, then the pigment is less intense. I use my Chestnut red custom mix straight from the can, as its already a thin pigment because its mixed in a deep tint base.

One, or even two coats, will provide the look that you are after. Its also a more authentic, period, colour.

I'll be picking up wood for a new batch of 20, probably next week. I'll be starting them right after that. I can document and post the process if anybody is interested.
I have coloured a few paddles with analine dye (available from Lee Valley).
I dyed the wood before applying varnish over top (once the varnish was dry).
These paddles are now named; Rosy, and Big Blue, actually, a peacock -turquoise looking colour.
Rob, Post a picture!

I just got back from picking up the wood stock for the Voyageur paddles. I'll document the process for all interested. I'll write it up in a new thread.

Who knows, perhaps there will be some useful ideas for potential paddle makers.