An Inside View of Gearlab Paddles
By Ocean Paddler Magazine, words by Chung-Shih Sun, Co-founder of Gearlab
It all started when a friend from the US brought a Feathercraft folding kayak and paddle to Taiwan for a paddling trip. It was a two-piece Greenland style paddle consisting of two laminated wooden blades with carbon fiber shaft. That was my very first time seeing a non Euro style paddle.
We met up at a swimming pool trying out his kayak and paddle on a weekend afternoon. It was the time when very few paddling related brands could be found in Taiwan. The unique kayak and paddle immediately attracted many local paddlers. After trying it out, I was drawn to the paddling stroke and extension of the Greenland paddle.
My rolling skill was quite primitive at the time, very often finding myself not producing enough lift to complete the roll. The extended stroke of the Greenland paddle wowed me, lift power increased dramatically and rolling became a lot easier - just like that.
I was hooked.
We immediately began researching Greenland paddles, gradually understanding more of the history and evolution of kayaking - learning that the Inuit have been using this type of paddle for centuries. Greenland paddles are considerably narrower than Euro style paddles, meaning less stress on the body.
We decided to dig deeper.
After intensive research we were even more intrigued and decided to make our own paddles and go from there. We followed the guidelines of a paddle making book and made the very first drawing of a paddle that would eventually become the Kuroshio. The book was on making Greenland paddles the traditional way, from wood. Instead of using wood, we wanted to modernize the paddle with a lighter and stronger material. Carbon fiber was a good option for our purpose, and is a material that we were very familiar with. We constructed the 3D data on a computer, sent the data to the mold maker and the molds were then sent to the carbon fiber former to make the paddles by blow molding.
On the first 'shouldered' paddles the blade edges were thick and blunt - the guidelines were intended for wooden paddles and wood needs a certain thickness for strength. We were also afraid that sharper edges might chip easily. We did not fully understand the design and construction back then, but needed a foundation, a starting point.
The paddle was light, which would reduce stress on shoulders, and we could perform basic Greenland paddling strokes with it.
It was a good and exciting start.
Six months later we wanted to develop a shoulder-less paddle. With the knowledge and experience gathered from the Kuroshio, we realized that flexibility to adjust the design between drawing board and molding was essential. This time we started with a wooden prototype and went through a lot of back and forth between testing and tweaking (carving, shaving, sanding) to achieve the ideal grip.
The Kuroshio had a narrow loom, so we extended the width on the shoulder-less design to increase comfort and to accommodate a wider range of paddlers. After testing and tweaking we eventually used CAD software and made the blade design smoother and this design became the Oyashio.
Kuroshio and Oyashio are two Pacific Ocean currents close to us, they bring invaluable marine resources to Taiwan - we named our first two paddles after them.
Our production process is quite standard in terms of carbon fiber blow molding. Carbon fiber is a pre-impregnated composite material in which a thermoset matrix material is already present. First, we cut the carbon fiber fabric into sheets. Then we patch the sheets and form a cylindrical shape. We insert the preformed cylinder into the mold, add pressure and heat to form and harden the carbon fiber into the final shape.
We are constantly improving our paddles, always striving for perfection. After two years of usage and market feedback, there were some questions - the first concerned the fitting of the two-piece design. We want the paddle to feel like a one-piece, eliminating all play and gaps. At the same time we wanted the two- piece design to t together and take apart easily. These two needs would make the paddle easy to use but are contradictory. After looking into the problem we found the rotational force of paddling / assembling / taking apart the paddle create plays between the connecting tubing. We had the idea of adding a male and female tip to each end of the joining tubes to see if the rotational force issue could be solved. It eventually became the T-Joint - a solution that completely eliminates play.
The second problem related to damage of paddle tips - paddle tips take a beating when hitting rocks and sand close to shore. This causes the tips to chip, crack or even leak. Carbon fiber is not the best material to pound - we intentionally made the blade edges blunt to reduce the impact, but still not enough to completely overcome the problem.
The Inuit have a clever solution, they use harder wood and animal bones to make their paddle tips. This inspired us to use a more resilient material to improve the longevity of the tips. We 3D printed a set of nylon plastic tips, glued them to the paddles and were amazed by the result. We later modi ed the design of the paddles to integrate tip interchangeability. Now paddlers can easily replace the tips when they are worn out or damaged without the need to replace their paddles.
The exchangeable tips led to another issue, how to seamlessly join plastic with carbon fiber. It took us six months of trying out different types of adhesives and resins until we finally found one that could bond the two materials firmly and could stop sea water from penetrating.
With the plastic paddle tips we are able to make the tip edges very sharp - much sharper than those on wooden paddles. As the tips are made from resilient plastic we do not need to worry about the chipping or cracking. The tips added a little weight which affected the balance and feel of so we completely redesigned the paddle from tip to tip, adjusting the weight distribution. This new design is our second-generation paddle, the Akiak. Akiak is an Inuit term for valour, symbolising our courage to dare to try and to realise our idea. After the Akiak, the Nukilik, a shouldered version, was introduced. Nukilik means strong in Inuit - we wish that this paddle becomes a strong and helpful paddling companion. The shouldered design results in a slightly larger surface for more power.
The very first time we held a Greenland paddle in hand, perfecting it became our mission. The reason we setup Gearlab was to combine our expertise in industrial design and paddling and to continue developing better paddling solutions. As islanders, we truly wish paddling could bring people closer to the water, and to appreciate the ocean like we do.
- The original article is released on Ocean Paddler issue 64.