Varnish or Wood Oil: What’s The Answer?

Varnish or Wood Oil: What’s The Answer?

Which is best? Varnish or oil? We get that question a lot. When it comes to wood paddle finishes, you are bound to hear lots of differing opinions. Some say varnish* is the best, while others argue that oil is the better finish. Then there are some who say it is a combination of both; either a varnished blade and shaft with an oiled grip or an oiled shaft and grip with a varnished blade.

So who is right? Well, we did up a fancy equation to help you find the answer! It’s called “Badger’s Paddle Finish Equation” and you get to fill in your own values for each symbol. Pretty easy, right? Take a look at the chalkboard (image) below to see how it all works:

Okay, so now that you have taken a quick look at the equation (image) above, you can probably see that the only answer, really, is that YOU are the one with the right answer for YOU! That is because a paddle’s finish is a personal preference and it comes down to all of the factors covered in our highly researched mathematical formula. The “Badger Finish Equation” for deciding “varnish, oil or both” is pretty simple as it is completely up to you to fill in the values for yourself: TIME, EASE, FEEL, AESTHETICS, PROTECTION, MATERIAL, COMMITMENT, plus your past experience and BELIEF.

Thus, the short version of factors to consider when choosing a paddle finish are:

  • What kind of TIME do you have to put into paddle maintenance and what do you consider would the expected TIME between needed sessions of maintenance?
  • Have you considered the logistical EASE of maintaining your finish choice?
  • What about how the paddle finish will actually FEEL in your hands?
  • Do you like the glossiness of a varnish finish, or do you prefer the AESTHETICS of a more satin finish?
  • What kind of PROTECTION are you looking for your paddle? Is the environmental impact of a paddle finish an issue for you?
  • What MATERIAL is your paddle made from? Is your paddle able to be oiled (solid wood) or is varnish the best for your type of paddle (laminated or WaterColours™)?
  • How COMMITTED are you to regular maintenance? Would you prefer to not think about very often or do you like to be more up-close and personal with your gear?
  • And finally, what did you grow up paddling with? As your past experience will definitely play a role in your BELIEF of the best finish for your canoe paddle.

(TIME + EASE)² : TIME refers to both the time period between needing to perform the maintenance as well as how much time it takes to perform said maintenance. For instance, a varnished paddle could go a few years or so before really needing a good coat of varnish for maintenance, however the process of varnishing a paddle is much more involved than oiling a paddle is.
That is where EASE of the maintenance procedure comes into the equation. For varnishing, especially with an oil based spar varnish, a dust-free environment is important, as is the need for a well ventilated area (due to the harsh chemicals and fumes) that is also the right temperature (so the varnish will cure properly). Ideally, you should have a vapour barrier mask, latex gloves, and eye protection when you varnish your paddle. You will also need a way to hang the paddle without disturbing the finish while it dries (hours). It will have to be sanded well, in some cases down to the bare wood before varnishing. Then there is the clean up (Varsol™ to clean your brush if you are not using a single-use foam brush) and the dreaded drip problems that usually come while the varnish is drying. See our video (above) on how to varnish a canoe paddle at home to get an idea of what goes into varnishing a canoe paddle.
Oiling is quick and easy when compared to the varnishing process.
With an oiled paddle, you may need to oil the paddle more frequently than you would have to attend to varnish (especially in the first years of a paddle’s life) but the process of oiling a paddle is very easy in comparison to varnishing, particularly when you use our Badger Wood Oil. Our oil is all natural 100% hemp seed oil that has been oxidized so as to allow it to harden when dry. It penetrates deep into the wood grain, giving it a nicely darkened finish. All you need is a couple of clean rags and some soap and water for clean up. No special environment is needed either; you can use Badger Wood Oil right inside your home without any special ventilation concerns. In fact, you could use our Badger Wood Oil on your chopping/cutting boards and wooden spoons too (because it is food safe)! Temperature and air circulation are still important, as they are with a vanish finish, but not as much of a factor as it is when varnishing. In fact, you could use our Badger Wood Oil right at your campsite. Our Badger Wood Oil can also be mixed with citrus solvents, orange oil, or japan dryers, to help quicken drying time if you prefer. See our Canoe Paddle Maintenance Page for directions on how to oil a wood canoe paddle or check out our quick tip below.
Buy Badger Wood Oil online via the Badger Gift Shop.

To give your oiled paddle a silky smooth finish, follow Mike’s oiling technique: Using a clean rag, coat the paddle with a liberal amount of oil. Leave to allow penetration for 5 to 10 minutes. Return to “wet sand” the entire paddle – giving special attention to where your hands will be touching (i.e. the shaft and grip) – with a piece of fine wet proof sand paper (320 grit or finer) using the oil as lubrication. Wipe away excess oil with a dry, clean rag and leave to dry.

While many use a boiled linseed oil or Tung Oil Finish, we wholeheartedly recommend using our Badger Wood Oil and have gone into great depth about why in this article: Badger Wood Oil: Why Hemp? But the gist of it is as follows:

Hemp Seed Oil is completely non-toxic, can be grown in almost any part of the world (without the need for large amounts of pesticides or any herbicides), is one of the fastest growing plants known to man, is food-safe, cleans up with soap and water, provides a smooth hard finish, no harsh fumes, darkens the wood while enhancing the grain patterns nicely, and there is no issue with getting it on your hands or skin, nor are there any respiratory effects associated with this product. Hemp can be grown for food, clothing or for oil, including fuel. It’s antimicrobial and anti fungal properties even help to prevent mould and mildew. 

Tung and Teak oils are wonderful too, but we don’t grow Tung Trees (to harvest the nut for processing the oil) here in Canada, nor do we grow the hardwood known as Teak, therefore these oils (while excellent products) must be imported (from Asia/China) which greatly impacts the carbon footprint of these oils. We needed something closer to home. Also, these oils, when all natural, are considered non-toxic but you have to check your product packaging wisely as solvents and other chemicals are usually mixed with the Tung or Teak Oils to help then cure and dry faster. But this is usually referred to a “Tung Oil Finish” or “Teak Oil Finish” on the label.

Raw Linseed Oil (from Flax), left as just natural, has the same qualities that raw Hemp Seed Oil has: it takes forever to dry properly. But unlike “Boiled” Linseed Oil (which is not really boiled to speed up the drying process but has added toxic chemical solvents to help the it dry and cure properly when applied to wood), our Hemp Seed Oil only has to be put through an oxidization process to be able to harden when cured. 

Regardless of what oil product you use, there is an old oiling ritual that many abide by, as it has been passed down for generations in many families (including ours). It is said you should oil a new wood paddle every day for a week, then every week for a month, and then every month for a year, and once a year after that. Good to remember as a general rule, however we tend to oil our personal paddles as we feel it’s needed. Which means that some of our paddles are oiled more than others, depending on amount of use they get and type of wood they are made from.
(FEEL + AESTHETICS): One of the greater parts of the debate of paddle finishes always comes down to FEEL. Many say that an oiled paddle just “feels better” in the hand; warmer, smoother, “less slippery” than varnish when wet. But then others don’t seem to notice those things too much. There are reports of varnish causing blisters, which is why you will see some paddles with oiled grips and/or shafts for comfort, leaving the blade varnished for protection.
Varnish and oil looks different on a paddle as well, especially after a few years go by. A varnish finish will most likely yellow over time, where as an oiled finish will only darken the wood. Both finishes have definite effects on the AESTHETICS of the wood in both the long and short term.
An older varnished paddle, after maintenance.
A paddle that is oiled is sometimes easier to keep looking newer than a vanish finished paddle. Unlike varnish, scratches in the finish seems to blend in with a coat of oil. In fact, in some varnished paddle situations, scratches in the old varnish finish may become more prominent visually if you do not sand the paddle right down to the wood when re-varishing the paddle; which can add a really nice patina to your paddle, if that is what you like.  (See image above) 
So really, the best look and feel for your paddle comes down to your own personal idea of what you want your paddle to look and feel like.
To give your varnished paddle a softer feel like an oiled paddle has, try rubbing the grip and shaft with some fine steel wool, even wetting it with water while rubbing, to help remove some of that slippery feeling and to help improve the tactile experience of paddling with a varnished paddle.
(PROTECTION + MATERIAL)So which finish is better PROTECTION for your wooden paddle? Well, there is no doubt that an oil-based marine varnish has resins that help to make it a more durable finish than oil. On the whole, varnish is more resistant to water, heat, solvents or other chemicals than oil. It seals the surface. It is also a more glossy finish than oil.
Varnish is gives a more glossy finish than oil.
Where as oil is a penetrating finish, which means oil penetrates the fibres of a solid wood paddle before it hardens and cures. It gives a thinner coat than varnish, is not super shiny (except when still wet) and is more of matte finish than varnish is, once dry. 
But in the end, the PROTECTION will only be as good as your COMMITMENT to your paddle is; a frequently oiled paddle is going to be much better protected than a vanished paddle that has only been varnished once in it’s life by the paddle builder, before it was put to use for a few good years.
When it comes to PROTECTION, it is also important to note what material your paddle is made from and if it is made from solid wood. If the paddle is made from a hardwood like cherry or walnut or ash, then oiling is a good way to go. But a softwood, like poplar, would be better varnished. Varnish is also recommended for laminated paddles due to the glue joints needing sealed protection, as well for most painted or stained paddles… like our vibrantly tinted WaterColours™(see image below)
(COMMITMENT + BELIEF): So back to our BEST CANOE PADDLE FINISH equation then… How committed are you to your paddle and what value would you give this COMMITMENT. Will you actually go to the trouble of sanding and re-varishing your paddle every few years if needed, or would you be more likely to throw on a few quick coats of oil every season and go? That is a question only you can answer and is probably why some people opt for the best of both worlds by protecting the blade (the part that sees the most action in the water) with varnish, and oiling the shaft and grip where the paddler’s hands are touching, for comfort.
You can *just* see the line where the varnish stops and the
oiled shaft begins in this picture of a combination finish.
The last value in the formula is BELIEF. Beliefs are tricky. Do you believe that your finish should be an environmental decision, if you can help it? If so, then there is only one choice for you; Badger Wood Oil. Yes, it is a shameless plug for our product but it is also true. Our hemp seed oil is pretty much as environmentally friendly as it gets.

But BELIEF is also the ideology that you have been raised on. If you grew up with varnished paddles, you will likely go with what you know. And if you have been raised with oiled paddles, than you will probably believe that an oiled finish is for you.

Painted or stained paddles should ideally be varnished, not oiled.
Ash WaterColours™ by BADGER®

But the good news is that, unlike some ingrained beliefs, your preference for paddle finishes can be changed pretty easily just by trying out a vanished paddle and then using an oiled one. Because really, you never know until you get that paddle in your hands, what you are going to feel or think (other than how happy you are to be in a canoe, that is)!

So that’s it. THE BEST CANOE PADDLE FINISH equals the square root of: the total sum of TIME and EASE, squared; multiplied by the total sum of FEEL plus AESTHETICS; then divide that determined amount by the total multiplication value for the sum of PROTECTION plus MATERIAL; plus the total the sum of your COMMITMENT and BELIEF. (Don’t forget to take the square root of it all, though.) 😉

Or… in more basic terms… and just to re-cap…..
It all depends on how much TIME you have to put into the maintenance of your paddle; the EASE of how you see the finish maintenance to be for yourself; while taking into account the FEEL and AESTHETICS of the paddle finish; what sort of PROTECTION you are looking for for your paddle and the environment; knowing the MATERIAL your paddle is made from; deciding what your COMMITMENT to your maintenance schedule will be; and what you recognize as your own BELIEF or past experience as to how a paddle should be finished. Simple, right?! Yeah, we don’t really think so either. But all things considered, you should probably have a few oiled and a few varnished paddles in your gear kit anyway, because you can never have too many canoe paddles and you can never have too many canoes.

Did we miss anything in our “equation”? Tell us what you think in the comment section below, as well as why. 

*Varnish refers to marine quality spar varnish for the purposes of this article.

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