XXII. Making Oars

Building the Core Sound 20

No boat should go to sea without a reliable means of manual propulsion. Sooner or later, the wind and the motor will quit on you—possibly in the midst of a potentially dangerous or boat-damaging situation. At such times, having a pair of oars at hand can make the difference between an annoying inconvenience and a real catastrophe.

Case in point: two days after completing our oars, my wife and I took our sailboat to Beaufort, SC for its first ocean sail. Immediately after launching, we discovered that our outboard would not start (stale gas gummed up the carburetor). This was the first time we had ever had a problem with this new motor, and of course, it happened just as we were about to set sail on unfamiliar tidal waters for the first time. Without oars, we would've had to skip sailing altogether or risk getting stranded if the wind died. But thanks to the oars, we were able to continue with our vacation plans safely. And, as chance would have it, we did need the oars. On our return trip, the final run to the boat ramp had drained out with the tide, leaving only an extremely narrow channel (too narrow for tacking) which, combined with a strong headwind, made it impossible to sail the last 200 yards to the ramp. So, we mounted the oars and began a brutal rowing session head-on into a 12-knot wind. Without oars, we would've been forced to wait at anchor until the wind shifted or the tide came in again hours later, probably after dark.

We opted to build our own oars partly because it is significantly cheaper ($9.00 for two spruce boards, plus some leftover epoxy and varnish) and partly because we think it's silly to carry store-bought oars on a home-built boat. There is a real sense of pride to knowing that every piece of the boat was shaped lovingly by our own hands—even the oars.

Making Sawdust

Building oars is relatively straightforward, but labor intensive. We made the mistake of starting ours in the heat of July in Georgia. To others, I would recommend building in the cooler weather of Spring or Fall, when planing and sanding are more pleasant.

We started with the "Full-Size Oar Plans" from Duck Trap Woodworking. We actually didn't intend to buy the full-size plans, but due to a mix-up, we received them anyway. If you have doubts about your lofting and measuring skills, you may want to get the full-size plans, as the blade shapes can be cut out and used as a full-size template for tracing onto the wood prior to cutting and shaping. We found this to be a very convenient way to establish the shape of the blades, but otherwise, the full-sized plans are probably unnecessary.

After looking over the plans, we made some mental adjustments for our boat. We knew we wanted the oars to be between 9'6" and 10' long, as this length allows for a comfortable rowing angle in our Coresound 20. The Duck Trap plans recommend that the oar shafts be 2" in diameter for 10' oars, but this seemed like overkill and required the extra hassle of cutting and gluing tapered wedges into the handles to increase shaft diameter. Instead, we settled on a shaft diameter of 1-3/4" (the size the plans recommend for 9' oars), which should be plenty adequate. This smaller diameter also reduces the overall weight and fits better in the oarlocks.

The shape of the oar is first roughed out by epoxying pieces of wood together in the approximate size and shape of the desired oar. The pieces should be as straight-grained and knot-free as possible. We bought two 10' long 2x8 spruce boards. We used the nicer board to make the long handles, and the other board to make the blade blanks. We glued them together using epoxy thickened with the spruce sawdust.

When the glue-up cured, we shaped them with the block-plane. It took approximately four hours total to shape both handles to a nice acceptable round profile of consistent diameter. We did this by eye. Some folks recommend turning a sanding belt inside out and using a drill fitted with a dowel to turn the belt quickly to help sand the handles down to a perfect round shape. We decided just to sand by hand and shape the handles by eye alone, without obsessing over perfection, mainly because we wanted them to have a classic, hand-crafted appearance, instead of looking store-bought or factory-made.

Next, we shaped the blades. First, we traced the blade profile on the ends of the blade blanks and cut the curved profile out carefully on a bandsaw. Since the bandsaw blade is prone to wander when cutting through a 5" thick blade, we cut a little outside of the lines, then planed down to the line by hand later. The bandsaw cuts took only about 10 minutes, followed by a few quick cuts with a jig saw to shape the tapered shoulders of each blade where they blend into the handle. The finish shaping with the block plane took another 4 hours.

Then, we sanded. We started with 80-grit to aggressively knock down small ridges and scars left behind by the block plane. Then we switched to 120-grit to smooth the wood down to a finer, more finished look. After carefully wiping away the sawdust with a tack cloth, we wrapped each oar blade in a layer of 6 oz. fiberglass to provide additional strength and scuff resistance. Next, we applied three coats of epoxy to seal the wood, allowing each coat to dry for 4 to 6 hours before re-coating. Finally, when the fill-coats cured, we used a thick mixture of epoxy and fumed silica to add a 1/4" protective coating at the tip of each blade to prevent chipping or tear-out if the oars strike a rock.

A day later, we sanded the epoxy lightly with 120-grit. Then we wiped away the sanding dust with a tack cloth and an acetone-wetted rag. Finally, we applied six coats of Captain's Flagship varnish for a nice gloss and excellent UV-protection. The results were superb.

With varnishing completed, it was time to shape the handle grips. We roughed out the handles with a chisel, working by eye. Then we sanded them with 80-grit sandpaper and soaked the exposed wood in oil. The oil will prevent water intrustion, but will also be much easier on the hands than an epoxy-and-varnished surface like the rest of the oars. Varnished handles will blister the hands too much when rowing.

After the grips were shaped and oiled, our oars were essentially finished. We added chafe protection to the shaft of each oar by wrapping it with 1/8" solid braid nylon rope where it passes through the oarlocks. The ends of the rope are tucked under the wrap and also sealed with varnish to prevent the wrap from unraveling. Some heavy duty oar stops from NRS keep the oars from slipping through the round oarlocks.

Initially, we used bronze oarlocks, but the bronze deformed and eventually broke under the strain of the 10' oars. Since we switched to stainless oarlocks, we've had no subsequent problems.

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© 2008, Wesley Kisting

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