by Christopher Cunningham
Oars do their work in water, and if that were all they came in contact with, they’d get by with a few coats of varnish. But they get beat up when pushing off docks, clipping pilings, and scraping across rocky shallows. The tips of the blades get the worst of it, and you can reinforce them with hardwood, epoxy, fiberglass, or a combination of the three, but those materials will eventually show the wear and tear they’re subjected to.
The traditional approach has been to cover the blade tips with sheet copper. The copper guards look good, take wear well, and make a good do-it-yourself project. I always put copper guards on my spoon-bladed oars. The tips are thin and have cross grain that makes them more fragile than straight-bladed oars; fortunately, the tips are straight across and easy to wrap with copper.
There are two styles of copper guards that I know of. The simplest covers the blade faces, and the edges, trimmed short, come close to butting together at the sides. That’s how the coppers were applied to the racing oars handed down to me from my great grand-uncle, Charles L. Crehore, who rowed with the class of 1890 crew at Harvard. Those oars were used only on racing shells and treated well, so the guards offered enough protection.
For the rigors of cruising, I prefer guards with tabs that wrap around the blade edges to better protect them. It’s the style that was used on the oars made by the racing shell company founded by George Pocock in 1911.
I’ve used sheet copper of varying thicknesses for guards. I measured the Pocock guards at about 0.016″ thick (0.477mm). That’s 27-gauge or 12-ounce copper, a good thickness for durability and ease of applying. I make templates from the stiff paper hanging file folders are made of. Copper nails hold the guards in place. Depending on the length of nail that I need, I use either copper tacks or clench nails. If those aren’t readily available, you can use copper wire, the kind that’s used to wire your house. Home improvement stores sell it by the foot, and a foot is more than enough for many pairs of oars.
I put the guards on after I varnish the oars. Then, after I’ve shaped the guards around the blade tips, I apply Dolphinite bedding compound to both the oar and the inside of the copper, enough to make sure that I’ll get some squeezing out as the guard goes on. It’s easiest to drill the holes for the nails after the guard is pushed on over the Dolphinite. If I predrill the holes and then remove the guard for the Dolpinite, it’s hard to get the holes realigned for the nails.
The nails are inserted into the holes on the concave side of the blade; after trimming the excess length on the back side, I use a small hammer and tap lightly, to flare the cut ends. Whether I can peen the ends nicely or not depends on the copper in the nail. Some nails will mushroom; others will fold over no matter how carefully I tap. Both results will do the job.
After the guard has been fastened, I’ll tap it home with small rubber mallet until the bedding compound stops coming out from under the copper. The corners of the guard may have a sharp edge which is easily rounded with a few tap with a small hammer.
Oars and paddles with rounded blade tips call for other treatments. I put a copper tip on a paddle that I use for maneuvering my boats in tight quarters.
A simple flat band around a straight-bladed oar is a tradition method for preventing a blade from splitting. It doesn’t protect the tip from wear.
The copper guards I put on my sneakbox oars 43 years ago have held up well. They survived a 2,400-mile cruise, mostly rowing, from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to Cedar Key, Florida, and many years of use after that. The oars could use a little sanding and some varnish, but they’ve never needed repair.
Christopher Cunningham is the editor of Small Boats Monthly.
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