Making a Retirement Boat Paddle – Part 1

In a lot of military units there are traditions of preparing a piece of gear commonly used in their specialty as a gift for a departing member.  In the Marine Corps Force Reconnaissance community, the traditional gift is a boat paddle that is then decorated with the rank and ribbons of the departing Marine and there is usually some sort of plaque affixed to the blade of the paddle.
I spent about 9 years in the Marine Corps Reserves, so I feel like I understand the sentiment that goes into one of these.  I have an uncle currently serving in the Marines (we’re very close in age) as a jump instructor and he spent many years in the Force Reconnaissance community and most of the Marines he works with came from Force Recon. One of the Marines he works with is getting ready to retire in a few months.
Normally, when one of these paddles is prepared, the maker just gets a nice maple or ash paddle from a boating store and goes to work.  In this case, since I was a Marine and I fancy myself a something of a woodworker, my uncle asked me to make the paddle (this is our third collaboration for a project like this).

I find the making of paddles to be a very enjoyable process. Since it’s mostly for decorative purposes, there isn’t really a right or wrong species to use. With these Marine paddles I like to make a lamination of bloodwood and yellowheart because the Marine Corps colors are red and gold. Usually I just go with one strip about 1/2″ wide of one species and surround it on either side with a thinner strip of the other species (maybe 1/4″ or so). This time I wanted to dress it up a little more so I made several strips of both species and various thicknesses. This lamination is then surrounded with some other species. Last time I used birds eye maple. This time I’m going with walnut that is about half heartwood and half sapwood which I think will make for an interesting look.

At this point, the whole thing has been glued and clamped and needs to be cleaned up. While I let that finish drying, I next need to get the template ready. The plan for that is to use some 1/2 MDF, mark out the required dimensions, finesse the outline with some French curves and then cut it out with the tracksaw and bandsaw and then clean it up on the spindle sander.

Once the template is complete I’m going to attach it to the blank with double stick tape, cut the majority of the waste with the band saw and then use the router table with a bearing-guided straight bit to get it really close to the shape of the template. Once that is done, I’ll go after it with my Festool RAS sander and my spokeshaves. Stay tuned for more…

As a teaser, here’s a couple shots of our first paddle. This is the one made with birds eye maple, bloodwood and yellowheart.

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