In Minnesota, Sanborn Canoe Paddles

Armed with a degree in painting and no small sense of style, Zak Fellman set out in 2009 to build himself a canoe.

And a paddle.

But while his canoe is a mostly a recreational outlet these days, his paddle-making has evolved into a full-time business called Sanborn Canoe Paddles.

“We’ve made hundreds – maybe a thousand – over the past four or five years,” he says. “We’ve got three people working fulltime, and two or three working part-time.”

They turn out between 20 to 60 hand-finished paddles a week, each designed precisely and finished crisply.

Some are painted. For those, he found inspiration in an antique painting by a British artist in a Minnesota gallery – one that depicted Native Americans clutching their hand-painted paddles.

“The easiest way to seal a paddle from elements was to paint it,” he says.

He buys his cedar, walnut, aspen, and cherry from a lumberyard, rips it down to different thicknesses, then laminates the woods together. “It comes out with squared-off blades, and the shaft in between,” he says. “Then we cut it out on a band saw for the profile, and it’s still kind of chunky.”

Next, a single artisan works the paddle down with tools and sandpaper – all by hand, with no machine work.

“They’re made of wood, fiberglass and epoxy to reinforce the blade,” he says. “But they’re mostly cedar, because it’s really beautiful and really light, and durable and water-resistant.”

The designs are all by Fellman. He draws on traditional Native American colors for his palette, but he’s not averse to punching them up with the random burst of turquoise.

“With all my designs, I like to keep it simple. I don’t want complicated things,” he says.

He’s found that there are two kinds of enthusiasts for his paddles: There’s the canoeist who spends hours on the water. And then there are those who own cabins in the woods, and want paddles for their walls.

Either way, his paddles are works of art at a reasonable price. Most range from $120 to $150, with the fiberglass and painted versions running a little more, at $180.

And they’re available from one of A+A’s favorite Manhattan resources, Bespoke Global.

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