Note : what follows is now historical, this is not current Ullapool practice and we would not recommend following this method – the latest thinking on oars may be found on the SCRA website Oars section
Making a St Ayles Skiff Oar – by Topher Dawson
This is how we have made oars for our skiff, and it is for the Achiltiebuie syndicate who shared our timber order and anyone else who is interested. I offer it like a recipe from which the reader may get ideas.
Ian Oughtred the designer of the boat has made a drawing of the oars and this is somewhat based on them but there are variations which I will explain.
First of all what is the ideal oar length? The maximum beam of the boat is 5’6 and 2.5 times the beam is supposed to be the rule of thumb for Scandinavian rowing boats, making a maximum of 13’3. McKee (Working Boats of Britain) mentions 3 times beam which would be 16’6 but this would be long and heavy, besides being hard to keep out of waves on a rough day.
Oughtred says 12′ so I reckon 13′ is worth trying because it’s easier to make an oar shorter than longer. Also our timber allows us 13′.
What makes an ideal oar? It has to be strong enough not to break in hard use, but flexible enough to spring a little during the stroke. This is obviously subjective. In my experience an oar which flexes satisfyingly is also vulnerable to being broken by unfair use, i.e. sitting or standing on it between thwarts.
The balance has to be right, which does not mean that it exactly balances at the gunwale, but that when the rower rests his or her arms and hands on the handle, the oar balances. This allows the muscles to relax on the return stroke. McKee says this amounts to 2 or 3 pounds light at the handle. Because of balance the oar must be as light as possible at the outboard end and needs extra wood (or lead) inboard.
The blade has to be long and narrow because the oar does not feather in this rowing tradition and wide blades have a lot of windage out of the water. Also rowing in rough water makes it hard to precisely place a blade in the water and the long narrow blade works at various degrees of immersion.
The rules of the skiff specify no hollows, i.e. no spoon blades, for ease of construction. There is no need, however, for the fore and aft faces to be the same, because the wear strips on the oar at the gunwale are asymmetrical, making it difficult to use port oars on the starboard side and vice versa. For this reason I have made the aft face flat and the forward face thick at the centreline and tapered to the edges.
Ian specifies a blade 4/100mm wide and this looks right. I made ours with wings (the glued-on extra bits making the blade wider than the shaft) 41 long because that was the length I had, but they could be longer. The wings taper off slowly and melt into the shaft gradually to avoid a stress point.
The tip is not cut off square but veed slightly to protect the corners of the blade, and a thin slip of hardwood is inset across the tip to bind the end of the blade. I have thinned the edges of the blade to 1/4/6mm which is as thin as I dare.
The shaft section as sawn and rough planed tapers from the full 56mm square down to about 40mm square at the neck just above the blade. The neck is vulnerable and must be pared down with care. This is a compromise between strength and weight, and the density and straightness of the timber will be factors. Our Douglas is selected clear and better from Canada, has close growth rings and no knots. It is very strong and straight. Other timber used for oars is ash (hard, tough and heavy) and spruce (light, expensive, easy to bruise but probably the racer’s choice).
It is possible to pare oars down after trying them in the boat, and I may do this.
Finally it appears from looking at photographs of Faeroese boats that their wear strips on the oars extend wider and higher than the oar shaft, and have scalloped edges. These form notches which allow the humlibaund (lanyard keeping the oar against the kabe) to keep the oar from slipping in or out and thus altering the gear ratio. Different notches define different gear ratios, as the resistance of the boat changes up and down wind, for instance, or the rowers tire on a long row.
Steps in making the oar are:
1 Using a chalk line, and then going over it with pencil and a straight edge, mark a sawing line down the timber. Our timber is 126x63mm, cut to 13′ or whatever length you want. The sawing line is slanted, so that it starts 25mm from one corner and ends 25mm from the diagonally opposite corner. Allowing for losing 4mm to the saw blade, this makes two oar shaft blanks 63mm thick and tapering from 99mm to 23mm wide over the length.
The excess width at the handle end allows extra weight to balance the oar, and the taper is needed at the narrow end anyway. The dimensions are not precise, there is plenty of wood to be taken off later so don’t worry about errors up to say 6mm.
As the oar evolves it will become apparent that the blank is not perfectly straight, and at every stage the removal of wood has to be done in such a way as to restore as much as possible the straightness of the final oar. This can be checked by sighting along it.
2 Mark the cut face of the blank as the aft face of the oar, and turn the blank so this is uppermost. Sighting along the blank from the tip end, mark a centre mark at the tip of the blank such that the final tapered shaft will be as straight as possible. In other words, if the tip is wandering off to your left, move the centre mark to the right so that when you taper the shaft down to 1/2/12mm either side of the mark, it will be straight.
Having marked the centre mark, make a mark 1/2/12mm each side of it and snap a chalk line from those marks to the edges of the blank 62 from the handle end. Saw off the waste.
3 Plane the sawn faces of the tip smooth and straight with a sharp hand plane, where the wings will be glued on. Plane the gluing faces of the wings and glue them on, with the aft faces flush with the aft face of the shaft. This will make the aft faces a bit uneven but that planes off later. We used Balcotan because it tolerates cold temperatures and we had enough clamps to ensure good clamping pressure.
As usual – click on the thumbnail for the bigger picture