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How to Decorate a Canoe Paddle

hansel_bryan_091109-83Since I built a Northwoods canoe paddle in a North House Folk School class, it has decorated the corner of my living room. Serving as decoration, I always thought that it needed a design painted onto it–if I’m only using it for decoration, why not. For awhile now, I’ve been following Murat’s Paddle Making (and other canoe stuff) blog, and I’ve been inspired by both his paddle building skill and his decorating skills. When he posted a picture of Steve Pyne’s Māori decorated paddle, I knew that I’d found a design I wanted to use on my Northwoods paddle.

Steve Pyne’s Māori paddle is a carved masterpiece far beyond my woodworking abilities, so I decided to try to wood-burn the pattern onto my paddle. I had never wood-burned before, and, although not as skillfully burned as Murat’s paddles, I found the process of wood-burning a simple pattern easy and fun–well within the skill level of most paddlers.

For this design, I went through a little trial and error as I worked through the following process (pictures below).

Required Tools


  1. I outlined the design I wanted on my paddle based on Steve Pyne’s design. Although I didn’t follow his design exactly, I followed it closely. For outlining I used a flexible curve drafting tool, which I formed into the shape of the curves and then outlined with a pencil. I tried to mirror the design on each side of the paddle.
  2. I burned the outline using a wood-burning tool. I found keeping a constant slow but steady speed prevented deep burn marks that look like ink blots. Also, pulling the burning tool towards me worked easier than moving it other directions.
  3. Filled the space between the outlines with a set of curved burnt lines. I wanted to capture the look of Pyne’s carving, but I thought the wood burnt curves didn’t look very good.
  4. I burnt the area between the outlines into a solid black. This made the pattern stand out.
  5. Finished the paddle with heated tung oil. I heated the oil to just below the boiling point and then wiped it onto the paddle. I watched over the paddle as it dried and reapplied oil to areas that were drying out quickly. After about two hours, I wiped off the excess oil. I applied a second unheated coat in the morning and wiped it off after a few minutes.

After finishing the paddle, I took it into the Boundary Waters on my Hunt for the Viking Dolmen. The paddle still performs great and now it looks great. The orderly design contrasts with the chaos of nature and really stands out. Using it seems to impart a greater meaning into what was a simple paddle; the paddle becomes both a way to propel the canoe and a means to injecting meaning into each stroke. I don’t know why many Native American tribes decorated their paddles, but after decorating one myself, I see the attraction.  I will decorate future paddles I build. I’ve been eyeing the Malecite design recorded in Adney and Chapelle’s The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America.

Additional Resources


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  • Great stuff Bryan. The dark contrasting pyrography of Maori designs are really eye-catching and your tutorial outlines the steps well.

    One tip with high heat burning to avoid the blotchy burn spots is to visualize the tool like an airplane landing and taking off. You draw the tool in towards you without contact to the wood, come in for a “landing” and then quickly get airborne again – all in a steady speed stroke. This way there is no excessive heat contact with the wood.

  • Great tip. On my next one I’ll give it a try.

  • Very nice work Bryan.

  • Very helpful Im getting ready to burn a design in a sassafras paddle. the heated tung oil is something I will try.
    Thank you

  • I’m glad it was helpful. I’d love to see the finished design.

Comments are closed.