Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Bringing the Best out of the Wood

Peter Mitchell with a kayak paddle.
(All photos by author.)
We knew that moving to New Hampshire and building a timber frame home on a mountainside that we would be getting into wood in different ways. It would surround us, warm our house by the cord, and inspire us as we walked through the woodland on a trail system personally blazed. Then our path crossed with that of Peter Mitchell of Mitchell Paddles. He’s a guy who is really into wood (as is our timber framer Tom Page). Just the other day we had the pleasure getting a personal tour of his workshop.
Paddle grips await more sanding.

Peter says, tongue in cheek, wood dust and shavings are the principal products to come out of his family-owned business just down the street from us in Canaan, New Hampshire. Belying his modesty, Mitchell Paddles are world-class, a synthesis of form and function. Whether your sport is canoeing or kayaking, amateur or professional, Mitchell Paddles are used to propel watercraft throughout the world. Customers include the U.S. government and sporting goods distributors in Europe. What distinguishes a Mitchell paddle is the incredible amount of skilled hand finishing that goes into every item. Peter’s pride in craftsmanship shows in the details.

Peter buys his wood from suppliers in the United States and builds a paddle from multiple wood planks. It starts with rough cuts that can then be pieced together to make the distinctive face of a Mitchell. Peter shows us some remnants of a blade block for a custom kayak paddle with its layers of western red cedar, basswood, walnut, ash, repeated in a symmetrical pattern. The way he cuts the blades guarantees that there will be bands of wood with identical grains on mirroring sides of the blade shaft.
Two halves of a paddle blade.
Why so many woods? Wood, basically a carbon molecule called lignin in various configurations, scientist husband Doug explains, offers the woodworker extremes: hard or soft, strong or flexible, heavy or light. Depending on the application, one wood is more desirable than another. Ash is strong and flexible. Maple, which is durable is good for adding a protective layer to the edges of paddles. Wenge (which he sourced from Africa and is dark enough to act as a replacement for ebony) is extremely hard (and hard to work with, dulling tools with its stubborn grain) and adds a dark contrast line.

The power tools in the Mitchell workshop are beefy versions some of the usual types: A 60-year-old De Walt cross-cut radial arm saw, a Tannewitz table saw, band saw, spindle shaper. And then there are some proprietary tools made precisely for the job at hand: a glue press his father David made that employs an air hydraulic system to inflate fire hose segments that secure blade blocks during the 24-hour gluing process—as many as 24 blocks can be pressed in the numerous setups. Another press for attaching handles to blades uses irrigation hoses and hydraulics to hold the paddle in place. Peter also has processes for applying fiberglass to the blades, as well as carbon fiber. Custom jigs assure uniform contour cuts.

A seriously heavy and sharp saw blade.

Peter hadn’t always envisioned he would one day be running Mitchell Paddles. He had played in the shop as a kid as young as 8 and of course worked in it when he was 18 and over summers and between college breaks.

As Peter says, “Dad didn’t teach me how to made a paddle; it’s more like I absorbed what was going on. I spent time hanging out, with the luxury of not having to produce anything.”  
After he earned his degree in computer science from St Lawrence University, he worked for 8 years as a programmer. When his father 10 years ago expressed a desire to retire, Peter seized the once-in-a lifetime opportunity and took over the helm. Soon he plans to meld his technical background and passion for wood working, bringing in a computer numeric-controlled router, or CNC, to do some of the more repetitious aspects of creating rough paddle forms.

Paddle forms of various designs and sizes
ready for customization
The fine tuning, however, will continue to be done by hand and by Peter. At the end of our visit, he takes a paddle off the varnish drying rack and runs his hands over the shaft and blade. He uses no exotic tool to measure the graduated thickness of the paddle or detect any imperfection. It’s all in his hands. Going high-tech with a CNC router will not alter the quality of the product, but it will give Peter a little more time to attend to the fine details that have always distinguished a Mitchell Paddle.
The beautiful final product with the iconic logo.

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