A few years ago I wanted to add collars to a pair of oars but didn’t want to remove the existing leathers to sew on strips of latigo. The leathers had been soaking up tallow for several years; I didn’t think I’d have much luck gluing anything to them. I also wanted collars that I could easily reposition or remove. High-density polyethylene (HDPE) seemed like a good material for the job. It’s easily worked and durable, and I happened to have a big piece of it in the kitchen: a 1/2″-thick cutting board.
The oars had a diameter of 2″ at the leathers; a 2″ holesaw cut through the 1/2″ HDPE. I didn’t have a 3″ holesaw to create a 1/2″ wide ring, so I used a bandsaw to cut around the hole. Before I split the ring, I drilled a pilot hole and countersink for a 1-1/4″ stainless-steel square-drive flathead wood screw. To get the countersink deep enough to bury the screw head, I aimed the pilot drill to follow a tangent that came about 1/8″ from the inside hole. I then cut through the ring at a point where the unthreaded screw shank would be on the countersink side, the threads on the other. I had to saw about 1/4″ from the threaded side for the screw to squeeze the collar tight on the leathers. My quick and cheap collars wound up working beautifully and have lasted for years.
I recently decided to add collars to another set of oars, and while the HDPE collars are easy to make, there wasn’t much left of the cutting board, so I thought about doing something in wood. A ring wouldn’t work because of wood’s tendency to split along short grain. Reasoning that the oar doesn’t require a full collar to keep it from sliding out through the lock, I thought I’d try adding something smaller to the leathers.
I cut pieces of hardwood—locust—1-3/4″ long and 1-1/4″ wide, and gave them an inside curve to fit the oar leather and an outside curve to create a crescent-shaped cross section. A quick test showed that the end that makes contact with the rowlock needs to be rounded. Lashings recessed in a wide groove hold them to the oars.
The thumb buttons, as I call them, worked just as well as collars. Because they can be rotated to the top of the oar and then passed between the horns of the lock, I added second button, to create a different gearing. With a little practice I was able to change gearing in between strokes without a break in the rhythm. Changing gears on the fly worked so well I added a third button, resulting in a range of gearing similar to what I have with the long collarless leathers I use for rowing on tholepins.
I lined the thumb buttons up with the bottom/trailing edge of the oar blade so spoon-bladed oars can lie directly next to one another, loom to loom, when the blades are cupped one inside the other. Without the splay created by a full collar, a pair of oars makes a more compact bundle for carrying and stowing.
Christopher Cunningham is the editor of Small Boats Monthly.
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