Port Townsend School of Woodworking
Preserving the Tradition

NW Canoe Paddles


NW Canoe Paddles


Class Description

Canoe paddles are some of the most deceptively simple sculptures of the Northwest Coast maritime tradition. Subtle shapes, changes in thickness, and differing tribal/regional characteristics are all melded together in their forms. Plus they are supremely effective in their given task; propelling a canoe with a minimum of effort. For this the balance of the weight between grip and blade are key. The taper of the blade makes the paddle feel light in weight and springy in action. 

There are many subtle differences in the range of tribal paddle styles, but we will focus on two types in this class; Tlingit style and the Makah/Nuuchahnulth style. The Tlingit paddle, like other northern examples, is a one-piece design, meaning that the horizontal top grip is carved integrally with the rest of the paddle. The Makah-Nuuchahnulth paddle is a two-piece design, where the top grip is a separate element that is morticed to fasten the grip to the end of the paddle.

In profile, the two paddle styles are nearly the same. In both, the center grip is the thickest part of the paddle, which tapers from that grip in each direction, toward the tip and toward the upper grip. The result is a bow-like form that flexes just enough to give each stroke a little spring. The upper grip of each of these types is a basically a cylinder, slightly smaller in diameter than the thickest part of the paddle at the center grip. 

Head-on, though, these two paddle types differ in particular, apparent ways, as can be seen in the accompanying images. Each type has its widest part of the blade at about ¾ of the paddle length, but beyond that they differ in some interesting subtle ways.

Traditional paddles from these regions were made out of spruce, yew, and yellow cedar. We will be using yellow cedar planks cut to seven inches wide and about 1 ½ inches thick, to accommodate the need for strength in the center area. Length will be about five foot six, though smaller ones for display purposes will be possible, too. The full size ones will be paddles made for use, not merely display, where the center thickness would not be an issue, but they will also display well on a wall at home.

We will make use of a bandsaw to cut out the silhouette of the paddle and make the basic tapers in the profile. From there, adzes, crooked knives, box scrapers, block planes, and sandpaper, if desired, will be used to complete the shaping of the paddles. For those who get their paddle to the final stage of carving and finish, we can consider painting patterns to decorate the surface. This will be a secondary goal, with the primary objective being to create a paddle of faithful traditional form for each of these two historical types.


Students should bring an elbow adze and a crooked knife. We also recommend bringing a spoke shave, block plane, drawknife, and sand paper if you have them. 

If you go the route of buying tools, we recommend North Bay Forge or Kestrel Tools.  For questions regarding tool purchasing, Nathan can give you some guidance. You can contact him at: gill3s@msn.com

Class Information and Registration

Class starts at 9:00am on the first day and goes until 5pm.
Please read our What to Expect page for general information about the School.
Please also read our Registration Policy.

Class size: 12
Cost: $ 775
Materials Charge: $ 70

When you click on the Register link you will be able to register for the class or, if the class is full, sign up for the wait list.