Wood paddles have taken a backseat to plastic and carbon fiber models in recent years, yet for many applications like canoeing, a wood paddle can be an affordable and stylish option. Whether building or buying your wood paddle, it's important it is constructed from high-quality stock suited to the particular type of paddling you intend to do most often.
Priority No. 1: Strength
The most important attribute for your wood paddle is strength. No matter how light or stylish it is, it won't be any help if you have to try to make it back ashore with a broken paddle. Besides choosing the right type of wood, the grain is of utmost importance. The wood grain must be parallel with the paddle handle; any ebbs in this flow create splitting potential. Tighter grain will be stronger yet heavier and is not necessary for lighter paddling uses.
Ash and Maple
Not surprisingly, some of the best wood for paddles, ash and maple, are also the wood of choice for baseball bats and hockey sticks. They are exceedingly strong, and ash especially has elevated shock-resistance attributes. They are also very dense woods and therefore heavy. Incorporating a strong, dense hardwood into your paddle is a must if you're a planning on using it in heavy whitewater. If you are going to be paddling long distances on, say, a sea kayak, a good way to shave the excess weight is choosing a sleeker, more streamlined outline in your paddle.
There is no perfect wood choice for paddles. While ash and maple are strong and dense, other woods such as cherry are sought by some paddle builders for their more middle-of-the-road attributes. Cherry is not as strong or as shock resistant but a lighter and more attractive option. Remember to consider the density of the wood if you are going to be building your own paddle--medium density woods like cherry are going to be easier to work with. With all the trade-offs involved in selecting the wood type for your paddle, it's no wonder the most popular method is to laminate stronger heavier wood stock to lighter varieties to combine the best of both worlds.