Refinishing Wooden Paddles

Wooden paddles require maintenance. Mostly it’s as simple as a little sanding and oiling with tung oil once a year. If your paddle is very worn, here is the information you need for complete refinishing.
OILY RAGS ARE A FIRE HAZARD! Rags soaked in tung oil can generate enough heat to ignite. Dispose of oily rags in a sealed bag or container or soak the rag in water.
Refinishing Paddles


To completely refinsh your paddle you need to strip off the outside layer of varnish, oil, oxidized and pitted wood. If you have a cabinet scraper it can remove the outside layer faster than sandpaper can.


Use 100 grit sandpaper and a soft sanding block that will follow the contours of the paddle. If you have a power random orbital sander, that will speed up the work. I always like to finish up with hand sanding to fine tune the edges and help me inspect the wood more carefully. If you want a smoother, shinier paddle try sanding with 200 grit sandpaper after using the 100 grit. I like the look of the patina on a refinished paddle. The patina says “This paddle did some great trips!”


Tung oil is an ancient wood treatment from China. It cures by reacting with oxygen and polymerizing. It may require a few days to fully cure at room temperature.

Tung oil soaks into the wood, makes it harder and protects it from water, abrasion and denting. It greatly enhances the look of the wood. A tung oil finish leaves considerable texture in the surface of the wood which feels good on the hands.
My preferred brand of tung oil is polymerized tung oil from Lee Valley but a good brand such as Circa1850 from a paint store is entirely acceptable. I recommend wearing thin nitrile rubber gloves when handling any oil, chemical or finishing material. I recommend Mineral Spirits for thinning oil and varnish. Turpentine tends to discolor yellow cedar. You can find Mineral Spirits for about $5 a litre at a paint store.
Apply thin coats of oil. Wipe it on and then wipe if off. Any oil pooling on the surface will dry to a lumpy layer that needs to be sanded off.  I like to apply one thin coat per pay for up to 5 days.
OILY RAGS ARE A FIRE HAZARD! Oily rags can generate enough heat to ignite. Dispose of oily rags in a sealed bag or container or soak the rag in water.
tung oil


NEVER use polyurethane varnish on paddles. It will flake off and look terrible. It will trap moisture in the paddle making it heavy and encouraging rot. Spar varnish will breath….polyurethane varnish will not breath.
I use several coats of polymerized tung oil on paddles and usually 3 coats of Epifanes spar varnish. Good spar varnish costs about $50 / litre. This makes it impractical for finishing a single paddle.
Many people prefer tung oil by itself with no varnish. This works particularly well on yellow cedar.
Spar varnish does provide more water & UV protection, and makes the wood look prettier. Epifanes spar varnish is compatible with tung oil. You can oil over top of spar varnish. Many coats of spar varnish will build up a thick layer which removes the textured feeling of the wood. Varnish eventually breaks down and needs to be scraped and sanded off.


If you want more shine on your paddle but you don’t have spar varnish, furniture or marine wax works well.


I tried sealing epoxy on paddles. It cracked and peeled after about 2 years of use. The paddle on the right in the photo below is one I used extensively for surfing and rock gardening. It was jammed into barnacle covered rocks over many days of rock hopping and touring. The last time I refinished it I spread West System G-Flex epoxy over the tip which worked well. This paddle shows that a well made wooden paddle is very tough and lasts a long time. My experience shows that well made wooden paddles are more durable than carbon fibre paddles, however they do require some maintenance.
Refinishing Paddles 2
 Please feel free to post a question or comment.

Leave a Reply