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There are three main types of canoe paddle materials,

  • Wooden paddles.
  • Plastic paddles with aluminum handles.
  • Newer composite materials (fiberglass, carbon)

What would be the pros and cons of each type of paddle material for canoeing?

  • Why was this downvoted? It sure feels like someone is going round downvoting my questions because I wrote them... – Charlie Brumbaugh Aug 2 '18 at 17:57
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Wooden paddles are heavier but have a very nice feel to them, they can be expensive.

The flex in plastic blades can mean you lose power and the blades can flutter under heavy load. Aluminium paddle shafts aren't that nice to hold in the long run, especially in the cold. These tend to be the cheapest option.

Carbon blades are usually light, stiff, and usually really nice to handle if you get good ones but you'll be paying for what you get. Easily 10 times the price of a plastic/aluminium paddle.

On a personal note, Carbon/Carbon-Aramid are my preference for kayaking, but wood for open boating, there's just something comforting about wooden paddles.

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    Perhaps add something about the damage-proneness, and what that entails: plastic likes to whole-sale break, wood splinters but remains usable at low power, aluminium tubes can be righted at most once, but usually are unsalvageable once dented. Aluminium paddles often are very light, which is great, but also tend to drift faster. – bukwyrm Jun 25 '18 at 14:58
  • @bukwyrm, damage is use and quality dependent, I've seen wood or metal survive things that destroyed carbon. If you bought Schlegel allrounds 30 years ago you probably still have them, even though they come under the plastic and aluminium heading. You can say that wood doesn't have the same joint weaknesses but I have carbon kayak paddles with the blades built as a single piece onto the shaft and only a single join for the two halves (Lettmann). The vulnerabilities are entirely a matter of the design of the paddle you're holding. – Separatrix Jun 25 '18 at 15:42
  • There's a big difference between high and low quality wood paddles. High quality wood paddles are very lightweight, and are just a notch under carbon for weight. – whatsisname Jun 25 '18 at 16:55
  • @whatsisname, most of those ultralight wooden paddles have more construction in common with the carbon than with a "traditional" wooden paddle :) – Separatrix Jun 25 '18 at 17:36
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I've used wood, fiberglass and Mohawk paddles.

My preference is for wood. A good blade can be made of ash or spruce. The latter will have a thicker shaft that may be uncomfortable for small hands.

Wooden paddles will break. In 30 years of canoeing I've snapped about 6. Once in a rapid. That got exciting, while I fumbled for our spare.

Wooden paddles will split from abuse. Sand wedged into the tip can open up the grain, which then creates a small crack that grows. A square ended paddle can be easily protected with a bit of aluminum sheet metal and 4 rivets.

Wood paddles need the occasional light sanding and a coat of marine spar varnish. If you don't put tip protectors on them, linseed oil the tip a week before the first trip of the season. This will slow down the splitting.

I used a bent shaft fiberglass paddle for a day. My overall impression was that it had no soul, and I found it heavy.

Mohawk paddles have an aluminum shaft and ABS blade and grip. Talk about no soul. However they are light, and close to indestructible. Lots of rental fleets use them for this reason.

One downside of aluminum shaft paddles: The aluminum rubs off as a very fine powder staining your hand black. Spray painting the shaft with a metal enamel eliminates this problem, and makes your paddle stand out from the crowd.


Other choice factors:

A longer narrower blade is somewhat more efficient, but requires a different motion.

A beavertail (round tip) is quieter, and easier to not splash yourself.

A wider blade makes it easier to move a pile of water in a hurry. A shorter paddle is less likely to catch the top of a wave.

I preferred to have two paddles: A shorter paddle (about 4' 8") with a large wide blade for rapids and stormy lakes, and a longer paddle (about 5' 2") with a longer, narrower blade for cruising.

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I went back to plastic and aluminum, because I kept breaking carbon and fiberglass (with carbon shaft) paddles, but by far most whitewater paddlers prefer either of those options. They're super light and super stiff, giving maximum power for minimum effort. Carbon is a little lighter than fiberglass even, but often a bit more expensive. The amount of abuse they can('t) take is about the same. For water where you don't get smashed into rocks the lighter carbon or fiberglass paddles seem like even more of a favorite. Wooden paddles are a curiosity on white water. They're heavy, for the same money you've got a much easier to handle aluminum and plastic paddle. They look great and authentic and feel great in your hand, they're just not the best for paddling, generally.

Overall, my advice would be to start learning with aluminum and plastic, and see if you want an upgrade by the time you developed a feel for it. You'll also know how long you want your paddle to be and how large the blade should be for you. By that time you'll probably want an upgrade. If not to carbon then maybe to a more advanced plastic and aluminum paddle.

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