Touring Sanborn Canoe Company’s Wood Shop

painted canoe paddles

When I think of Sanborn Canoe Company, I think of handcrafted paddles steeped in the heritage of Minnesota’s canoe country. Their paddles take the names of some of the most scenic lakes in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, America’s most used and loved wilderness area. And the owners are the same guys breaking their backs making the paddles. They’re the real deal that love paddling so much that they were willing to sacrifice steady 9-5 jobs to build paddles that can be trusted on long canoe trips.

As far as the paddles that they make, they do both bent shaft paddles with modern shapes and traditional paddles. They also offer unique painted paddles that not only have the perfect balance right at the paddle’s throat, but also perform great on the water. They look so great though that you’ll want to hang them on the wall as art. I can see painted paddles becoming the centerpiece of many northwoods cabins.

Sanborn Canoe logoSanborn Canoe Company has been a long-term supporter of PaddlingLight, and I’ve been following their progress from a small garage-based operation to one that built a wood shop for making the paddles. I’ve always wondered what a wood shop for a paddle-making company would look like, so I ask Sanborn to take a bunch of pictures for me. Not only is their shop functional, but it’s filled with small details that tell you that this is the real deal. This is the shop of people who love their work, love the heritage that they’re building on and most importantly love canoeing.

It will be fun to watch Sanborn grow. Check out their website here: Sanborn Canoe Company

I asked Zak at Sanborn Canoe Company to give me a short verbal tour of what they do. This is what he wrote back:

Minutes south of Winona, Minnesota, along highway 61, you will find yourself at the entrance to one of the many valleys fingering out from the Mississippi river. Winding back into stark green countryside is Little Tout Valley Road. And this road, that is flanked by luscious apple orchards, brimming trout streams and picturesque farm fields, leads to our corner of this green earth. Our wood shop is set in the middle of a grassy field and flanked by forest and rolling bluffs.

At Sanborn Canoe Co., we are proud to handle all aspects of paddle crafting, in house. The only thing we don’t do is the cutting down of trees and milling of the lumber. All gluing, shaping, finishing and painting is done in our little shop. Each paddle is crafted by one of our craftsman from start to finish, and is branded with the craftsman’s mark. It’s a craftsman’s pride that every Sanborn paddle is a unique work of art; we get to know each paddle that passes through our hands. And each has slight differences to the one crafted before it.

The Sanborn shop is a place, not only to make paddles, but to indulge our many passions. It’s where we dream up new paddle designs, plan our numerous canoe adventures and find inspiration for new projects. It’s where we first began crafting our wooden bucksaws and honed our painting skills, employed on our Artisan paddles. On every shelf and in every corner you’ll find old tools and new tools of the paddlemaking craft, little camp kit items, maps of our past and future adventures, bows and arrows, gardening supplies, fishing tackle, large chunks of hickory awaiting some new project, rows of walnut cut into blades shapes, lots and lots of cedar cut to various lengths and thicknesses, racks of finished paddles and many other items that kindle our creative fire.

Over the winter, I asked Sanborn Canoe Company to paint a custom design on a paddle for me. I always like the colors of the U.S. Revolutionary War blue coats, so I worked with Zak to come up with a design that featured the red, white and blue of the revolutionary war uniforms in a design that sort of looked like the front of the coat. Here are a few pictures of the painting of my paddle. I have the paddle and it’s awesome. Pictures of the paddle will be in a future post.

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  • curious – if you of they don’t mind saying, I’d like to know about their ( or anyone’s for that matter) method for painting the paddles.
    i am planning to put a bit of paint on my own canoe paddles and rowing oars ( wood ) and wondering what type of paint Sanborn uses, ie acrylic or oil based? Do they brush or airbrush? Is the paint a final coat or do they epoxy over?

    thanks, answers or not-


    • I dropped Zak a line to see if he’s interested in sharing any of his secrets. I just painted a canoe and used Perfection. I brushed with a foam brush. Thinning the paint with the recommended thinner made it flow much easier.

  • We use spray paint, in a can, on our paddles. You know, the kind that you see plastered across large buildings in the downtown of most urban settings! And we use a water-based varnish as a top-coat.

    Whatever paint you decide to use – use the same brand for all of the colors/coats. They’re formulated to adhere together. I’ve found that using different brands creates issues sometimes.

  • Zak –

    a thousand thanks! i’ve been searching for some tips on painting my oars & paddles for awhile (and discovered the Sanborn site and your beautiful paddles this way…).

    Bryan –

    a thousand thanks as well – very kind of you to ask Zak to help me out. I am a big fan of your blog, one of the two or three I subscribe to. I actually found you a while back while googling ul tarp setups… i’ve yet to own a kayak, but would love to build one SOF if I can find a design big enough.


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