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  • Writer's picturePeter VanderPoel

I Can Paddle, Canoe?

Years ago I visited the Adirondacks and met Caleb Davis. He conducted a class on making a wooden canoe paddle. I hadn't signed up for the class, but at breakfast the next day I had a chance to sit across from him and he explained why he did what he did in creating his paddles.

His description struck me as a template for good design: A single piece of wood is shaped as a response to needs, both physical and environmental. The result is a tool that lets someone move a canoe through the water in an efficient way. In addition to that kinetic goal, there is concern for the object itself; the paddle as unified design.

I've been thinking about design in a comparative fashion: an architectural design vs. an engineering design. The first is a holistic, parallel collection of decisions; the latter a set of serial decisions . Both approaches have benefits and liabilities which I'll explore in this and later posts.

The two paddles pictured above are examples of the two methods.

The first paddle is an all-purpose, engineering design. It works in most any kind of water, moderately rough to flat. The material is all plastic and is constructed of three separate pieces: handle, shaft and blade. This makes for a durable design and good for pushing off. I have seen similar designs that use aluminum for the shaft with plastic head and blade with a plastic wrap on the shaft at the position for the lower hand. A boathook is shaped to fit the hand and grab a line or a dock cleat. The blade is wide and relatively short. It's good for moving a fair amount of water to redirect the canoe in fast water and it weighs about 2 lbs. The all-purpose paddle has to succeed in a worst-case scenario, in both rough conditions and still water. It's heavier to accommodate more circumstances.

The second one, the one Caleb made, is a single piece of cherry wood, with the exception of an added spline at the base of the blade to prevent splitting. The design for this is specific to flat water travel. It's similar to the types that fur-trappers used. Caleb described the fur-trapper's commute as having to paddle for hours at a time, with 55 minutes of paddling coupled with a 5 minute smoke break. The deep, narrow blade provides a similar amount of area in the water as a production paddle. The narrow face, however, makes for less rotation about the vertical axis and therefore takes less effort to keep the face perpendicular to the motion through the water. The deeper blade makes up for the lost width and is close to the same wetted area as a production paddle. The extra length in the face is balanced with a shorter distance from the "hip" of the blade to the handle. This, too, was a comfort decision. The shorter length means that the top hand is only about the height of the paddler's nose at the beginning of the stroke. This eliminates the big overhead motion required to get a longer-handled paddle in and out of the water and so conserves energy.

Added to that is the simple, efficient, beautiful object that translates a unified idea into a unified object and at 1 lb 8 oz., is weighs 25% less than the production paddle.

When out for a test drive I started with the store-bought paddle and then switched to the cherry version. I was worried that the wooden paddle wouldn't last a stroke; its light weight and slender design seemed insubstantial compared to the all-purpose paddle. But not only did it do the job, it took less effort to do it. I didn't have to lift as high and the strokes were amost effortless since I spent less of my energy keeping the paddle properly rotated. The production paddle can generate much more acceleration than the hand-made version, but might come up short in a long distance race; the lighter, narrower, shorter version is much less fatiguing to operate.

In MatthewFrederick's book, 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School, sums it up like this, "Engineers tend to be concerned with physical things in and of themselves. Architects are more directly concerned with the human interface with physical things." The first paddle is designed to hold up to whatever the river can deliver. The second is designed so that the user can hold up as well.

The old saw about an elephant being a mouse designed to government specifications is valid here. The production paddle is ready for almost any circumstance. But if that circumstance doesn't include white water, you might be carrying extra weight and be doing extra work for no good reason. The specific paddle has to ask more questions and exclude more possibilities, but the result is a finely crafted object that holistically responds to a set of more specific circumstances.

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