Greenland Paddles

paddle illustration from Nansen's Eskimo Life

Paddle Sizing and Fit

Greenland-paddle fit is usually determined by anthropometric (body) measurements. Please understand that these are "ball-park" measurements only. Experimentation and experience will help you to hone these measurements to find the perfect fit for you. bone tipped paddle made in 1959 by Emanuel Kornielsen of Illorsuit for John Heath

  • Overall Length

    For a full-size paddle, a very common measurement is one-armspan plus a cubit (the distance from your elbow to your fingertips). Another common method is to ensure that you can just curl your fingers over the top of your paddle, with it standing vertically next to you. In windy areas and for ease in maneuvering the paddle underwater, some people prefer a slightly shorter paddle of an armspan plus the distance from the wrist to the fingertips. "Storm" paddles (short paddles used with a full sliding stroke) are much shorter -- being one armspan long and with the loom only one, two or three fists wide.

  • Blade width

    Blades can be as narrow as just over two inches to as wide as you can grip. For your first paddle pick something between these two extremes and pick a width that is comfortable for you to grip.

  • Loom length

    The loom dimension must match your body AND the kayak you are using. A method to find a good starting point is to stand, shake out your arms (relax), and allow your arms to hang at your sides. Lift your forearms so that they are parallel to each other and horizontal to the ground. Your arms should NOT be held against your sides -- let them "float" ( e.g. you should have enough room that a cloth rag stuffed under each armpit should fall to the ground rather than be held fast by arm pressure). Now make a "circle" with the thumb and forefinger of each hand. These circles indicate where the paddle-shoulders should be (where the roots of the blades begin).

    Generally the loom must at least be as wide as your kayak -- so if your kayak is much wider than a standard Greenland kayak you may have to improvise. Another method to determine loom length that involves your kayak is to sit in your kayak holding a broom-handle and discover where you hands naturally fall.

    If you are uncertain about the loom size when making your first paddle, a conservative approach is to make the loom a little shorter than you think is right and the overall length of the paddle a little too long. You can then widen the loom (if necessary) and shorten the blades (if necessary) as you gain experience with the paddle. In this way you can slowly tweak it and discover a good fit. It's easy to take wood off but not so easy to put it back on! Once you know your ideal paddle size you can skip this exercise.

Common Mistakes

Although you will certainly make some mistakes on your first paddle, here's a few very common pitfalls to avoid:

  • Don't make the blade tips or blade edges too thick

    Many "first-time" paddles have very thick and "blocky" tips that make a silent, powerful stroke almost impossible. Make the radius of the edges and the blade tips sharp enough for good bite, but not so
    sharp that they are uncomfortable in the hand. The radius of the tip should match the radius of the edges. The tip should come to a gentle point, it should not look like someone just cut off the end of the blade.

  • Don't make the blades too flat

    The cross-sections of a GP are actually quite sophisticated. Planing is fun, but If you remove too much material, not only will the shape be less than optimal but the paddle will probably be too flexible as well. This is especially important in the paddle shoulder area. This area should be full and thick so that it fills the hollow of your palms and provides the necessary stiffness.

  • Don't add any hardware that makes it difficult to slide your hands over the blades and loom

  • Don't make the loom (paddle shaft) too long (or too short)

    Realize that a GP is gripped with only the thumb and forefinger of each hand on the loom, the remaining fingers are draped over the roots of the blades. The causes the blades to tilt forward
    (top edge toward the bow) and the forward stroke is done in this position (canted blade stroke). If you make the loom too short then you risk wrist injury due to the side-to-side wrist action that results. Some Greenland paddles are intentionally made with a short loom (one body width to just a hand width) but these paddles are intended to be used with a full or partial sliding-stroke.

  • Do look for a good piece of wood

    Ideally you will use vertical grain lumber (quartersawn or riftsawn). This wood, when viewed at the very end, with the board sitting flat on its wide face, has the grain running straight up and down. The grain should look like tight pin-stripes running the length of the board face, from one end to the other. Should the grain run-out in the loom area (diagonal grain), or have knots or other defects in the loom, the board should probably be rejected. Flatsawn lumber is often used too, but it is much more flexible than quartersawn and is prone to warp. Hardwood is too heavy for a GP, except for use as armor for the edges and tips. Choose a light, yet strong softwood. Western Red Cedar, Spruce and pine are often used. Redwood has been used as well, but some people find it too brittle for their tastes.

The following information is all that you need (and more) to create your own Greenland paddle.

Carving the Greenland Paddle by Matt Johnson

In this You Tube video, based on Chuck Holst's instructions (below), Matt guides you step-by-step to make your own Greenland paddle.

Making a Greenland Paddle by Chuck Holst.

Excellent information and well illustrated. Chuck's directions are highly recommended and have been used to create hundreds of Greenland paddles. The sizing information and woodworking tips are very good. This article is based on John Heath's paddle plans.

Paddle Poll From Qajaq USA Forum.

Gabriel Romeu compiled this extensive list of paddle dimensions from responses gleaned on the Qajaq USA forum. This information should be useful to anyone who needs additional information on paddle sizing. Also see Roy Martin's Paddle Survey from the MASIK newsletter.

Carbon Fiber Greenland Paddle

Duane Strosaker's original article is no longer available, but Björn Thomasson has provided additional information on Duane's original method.

Cuts of Lumber

Solid wood paddles for a Greenland paddle are usually made from vertical-grain (quartersawn) or riftsawn softwoods. This gives stability (not prone to warp), stiffness, strength. Hardwoods are often used for tips and edging, but otherwise are not used by most builders due to weight. Confused about how to identify vertical-grain (quartersawn), flatsawn (plainsawn), riftsawn lumber? This link will help.

Greenland Paddles Recorded by Gail Ferris

Gail has created line drawings for four Greenland paddles encountered in her travels. You can follow the links to view her pictures, travel narratives and  kayaking videos.


Greenland Paddles Step-by-Step by Brian Nystrom

Based on the Chuck Holst plans, this book features easy-to-understand directions and over 80 photographs and drawings to guide the reader through all phases of the paddle making process. Includes; selecting tools and materials, designing your paddle, layout, shaping, finishing. Contains helpful tips and tricks for novices as well as the experienced paddle maker. Available from Brian Nystrom.


Canoe Paddles: A Complete Guide to Making Your Own by Graham Warren, David Gidmark

Although this book documents making canoe paddles, Greenland-style paddle makers can greatly benefit from the contents (Greenland paddles are briefly mentioned). Includes information on wood selection, carving techniques, solid and laminated paddles, wood finishes, using a crooked knife. Details from Amazon.

Greenland Kayaking Audio Glossary

A cooperative effort between Qajaq USA members and Maligiaq Padilla, the audio glossary contains a number of audio WAV files of terms related to Greenland kayaks and kayaking. Recorded in Sisimiut Greenland, July 2002.

Paddle Making Links from the Masik Newsletter

Tools for Paddle Building by Dave Niles
Paddle Survey by Roy Martin
Traveling with Greenland Paddles by Marcel Rodriguez
Book Review: Greenland Paddles by Len Thunberg
Trees to Paddles by Shawn Baker

View Commercial Suppliers of Greenland-style paddles »

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