Sprouting Oars

We’ve looked at the amount of preparation time involved in repairing oars, but this batch are almost done. The primer and undercoat has been applied and with any luck most of these will be ready right away for the top coat in club colours. Sometimes the undercoat shows up a few extra things to fill or sand that may not have been visible on the odd coloured surfaces below.


This is a bit of a motley bunch. A few blade only, a couple of coastal rowing blades, an interesting one with a fluted girder shaft (and copper tip, just out of view) and a fairly conventional blade.

I really should get a bigger workshop…


Almost all modern oars are set to zero pitch at the oarlock so that you can rig using the pitch insert bushings. This was not always the case.

The shape of the macon blade was such that a much higher pitch was desired and the clever adjustable plastic oarlocks had not yet been invented.

To ensure adequate pitch, the oars were made with ample pitch built in. You could tell what side of the boat a blade should be on even if there were no numbers, markings or helpful red/green buttons.

This particular blade (late ’70s from Hungary, I think) shows this quite clearly. It measures on screen at about 4 degrees.


Three’s a crowd

Late January and early February were busy with three jobs overlapping; two of which had event deadlines. Those two are now delivered and presented as gifts, and the final one is awaiting the globe-trotting owner to travel past these shores to collect it.


Each job had at least one new challenge to be met.

Mixing a pot of Cambridge blue isn’t the easiest task (especially since it is green), because even if you can decide which one of the many hues used by the crews to pick (we chose the official university stationary guide colour), it is still very difficult for paint shops to match exactly to a PMS colour code.


Painting a quartered oar isn’t as easy as you might think. You can’t mask off and paint one colour, then the other. To get nice clean lines on each corner you actually need to do four separate painting sessions.


The final blade wasn’t as challenging from a technical viewpoint, but it managed to cause a few headaches along the way by requiring a full repaint and a more complex section join (both mentioned in previous posts). I did find the more pronounced spline on the blade face a bit more difficult to paint around, but I was still very pleased with the final job.


Wedding Madness

December was a busy time, with a couple of extra jobs needing to be done for a specific date.

Normally a little bit of time pressure is fine, but there was an additional complication to this cluster of jobs. They were all interrelated to such an extent that I had to be VERY careful to remember which client I was talking to!

It started simply enough, with a request from the members of a club squad (we’ll call him X!) for a special wedding gift for the groom, one of their squad mates. Then shortly afterwards things started to get busy when the Groom himself called and asked for a couple of blades to be painted, one each as gifts for his wife-to-be and for his best man.


Cue a bit of panic from Squad Mate X: “The groom is talking about a blade you are painting for him!” No need to worry, as I explained that the Groom was organising extra ones and that the surprise of the initial gift was not ruined. Squad Mate X was now working out how best present the first blade without clashing at the Reception with the presentation of the Groom’s gifts. All good.

Things progressed well (with various subterfuge in the background) until the day before the wedding when I got a confused note from another member of the rowing squad…

“I’ve been asked by the Best Man to help him with some blades, but this is not what I thought the squad had organised. Do you know what is going on?”

It seems the Best Man was organising a set of blades for a guard of honour after the ceremony (half from the groom’s club, half from the bride’s), but the squad rower had thought it was something to do with the painted blade.

I dealt with this completely calmly (not really) and managed to convey the basics along the lines of “don’t tell the Best Man, the Groom, or anyone else anything about any blades until you talk to ‘X’…”

Luckily, Squad Mate X was on the ball and managed to not only transport all the blades, but get them into the right hands, and keep the element of surprise for everyone.

And so the fairy tale wedding came off without a hitch, everyone got their blades, and they all lived happily ever after.

And I needed a strong drink!

Congratulations Basil and Jennie

Sutton – a visit to the traditional oar makers

I had cause to visit the workshop of the oar maker J Sutton, one of the best known names in timber oars. There would be few rowers over 20 years old in the UK who hadn’t used a Sutton blade at least once. The company evolved the timber oar with new technologies (including use of carbon fibre in the ‘CFR’ range) right into the 1990s when one might have thought the timber oar long dead. Indeed, in my previous job in Hong Kong I was surprised to learn that the club had ordered a quad scull set of blades as late as the mid-1990s! One of the old Captains was a bit of a purist!

The company did move into full composite construction for oars, but whilst the timber oars are still being made, the Sutton branded carbon oars are now discontinued. Jerry Sutton has also now retired, but the company lives on in the hands of Mark Stanley and the oars are now built alongside assorted vintage timber boats being restored and repaired in the workshops at Romney Lock, Windsor.

Although most of the current production is for coastal gigs and larger rowing barges, you can still order traditional racing oars for sweep and scull. It is even possible to order ‘trophy’ oars (solid) and blade-only for presentation. If you had wondered where the large oars for Her Majesty’s barge ‘Gloriana’ were made; wonder no more!

I was lucky to meet master craftsman Peter Martin during my visit. He went to work at age 14, beginning his career with oars in 1963 at Aylings. Many younger readers will remember Aylings as a builder of racing boats, but the company had started as an oar maker.

Whilst looking around it was interesting to see a few oars in various stages of production. Peter talked me through a few of the stages that could be seen.

Frames standing against wall

Here are some of the base frames for the oars. The shafts are hollow for most of the outboard length, becoming solid for the blade and also for the sleeve and handle.

With the addition of a back strap and top cap, the shaft takes on the box-girder shape that you might see if you have ever sawn an oar in half. The frame and most of the oar is Spruce, but the stiffer back strap is Ash (old Australian oars used Ironbark, a type of Eucalypt).


Blades: ‘blanks’ awaiting attention, the tip clearly seen with the grain at right angles to the grain on the blade.

The blade area is built up to the correct width with extra timber and an Ash tip is fixed across the end to provide strength. These are the ‘blanks’ ready for shaping. After a rough cut from a template, the work quickly becomes very hands-on and skilled.

(L) A roughed out blade, face down. (R) A partially complete blade beside a finished example.

Over the years, each craftsman buys and builds the assorted tools needed for the job. Peter’s collection of planes is a perfect example. The most dramatically shaped convex plane has been custom made to suit the job.

Tools of the trade – hand made planes.

After extensive shaping, then sanding, each oar is varnished and fitted out. Once completed, they await only the call of the coxswain for rowing to commence.

You can visit Sutton Oars at www.suttonblades.co.uk

Hadaway Harry’s oars

An interesting little story about some old oars has popped up on the “Hear the Boat Sing” blog.

With the success of a stage play about  J H Clasper (“Hadaway Harry”), an interesting discovery of some old oars has been made.

More at https://heartheboatsing.com/2017/02/17/hadaway-harrys-oars-found/

Holes (or shafted?)

Quite often a client will ask for a full length oar to be sectioned. This can help with shipping and storage, or it could simply offer more options for display if space is limited at the current time.

The common way to achieve this is to install a plug of some type in to the oar shaft. Most timber oars are actually hollow (unless you have a very old one!) and you can fashion some timber to match this space. Modern carbon fibre oars are simple tubes and a tapered round plug is easily shaped.

Most of the time the cavity is a regular shape. The Sutton oars (very common in the UK) have a nice neat square hole that makes creating a section join quite easy. Some of the common Australian oars (Croker and Sykes) had a curved arch shaped cavity due to their method of construction (two matched halves with a back strap instead of the Sutton 4-sided box).


Sutton internal view

Here is an example of one join:

However, what do you do when you saw an old oar in half and you are presented with this?


1960s Aylings

There is a central rib, presumably designed to provide stiffness, that divides the cavity. This was going to make work a bit more difficult. By chance I met an old oar maker after this who had started work at Aylings in 1963 (as a 14 year old) and remembered this old design well (right down to the leather sleeve and cast aluminium button).

Using two thin strips, I fashioned up some ‘D’ shapes and repeatedly trial fit them until all was well. Once I was happy I bonded the pieces into the handle end. The finished result isn’t as neat as the much simpler Sutton example above, but has come together rather well.

I hope the customer is pleased when he gets it!

Tips and tricks

Many older oars have had hard lives. It’s not just the years, but things like rough docks, accidents, and the weather take their toll.

Following on from the paint stripping archeological dig, this set of oars all had worn and damaged end tips and one also had a significant chip off the top edge.

I’ve seen the ‘old school’ boatmen do these repairs very quickly, but here is how I’m bumbling along…

Damaged and worn down.


Old tip removed with chisel.


New tip bonded in place.


Trimmed with saw, then planed to shape.


Two replaced tips beside unrepaired oars.


Then I had to repair the damaged top edge…

With small chips it is usually easiest to do a repair with some epoxy filler, but when bigger chunks are gone you need to use pieces of timber. This is how the oars were repaired to rowable condition back in the day.

First I planed the area smooth. Then some new spruce was bonded into place. For economy a thin piece was used, but it had to be put on in two sections so that it could deal with the curve of the blade face. It does stick out a bit!


Then the rough outline for the repaired shape is pencilled on (see above) with the aid of another oar as template, and the excess material was cut off with a jig saw.


Still a bit lumpy, so a small plane was used on the convex back of the blade and a spokeshave used on the concave front of the blade.


Then a bit of coarse sanding to get the shape and edge looking good.


There is still some more work to be done with sanding and light filling, but very soon these two oars will be ready to be painted.

It’s a lot of work, but the final result is worth it.

Around Hong Kong remembered

Early last year I was asked to paint a blade to commemorate the first women’s crew to take part in the Around the Island Race. The RHKYC had just purchased its first coastal rowing boats in 2006 and there were only a handful of rowers crazy enough to think that racing 45km around Hong Kong Island would be a good way to spend your weekend.

The rower who commissioned the trophy said that she was going to present it to her crew mate. I thought that was very nice of her and proceeded to complete the oar.


When done, the customer said it was lovely and asked how the second blade was going.

Second blade? Ummm…

Somewhere along the email chain this small detail was missed or presumed. I did think she was being very generous, but she actually wanted a copy for herself too!

There was no problem with creating a second blade, but there was going to be a slight delay. I was just about to move from Hong Kong to London and all my materials were to be packed and shipped.


Six months later I had a matching copy and the customer was able to collect them.

Almost to the day, Carrie gave this gift to Sara to celebrate the 10th anniversary of this epic first row. What a wonderful way for two great friends to recall their great adventure!



Sara and Carrie racing past a Star Ferry in Victoria Harbour. Sara with her gift.



Oar Archeology

As a small update to my previous comments about paint stripping, here are some photos to illustrate.

This set of oars has certainly had a few lives. As best as I can see, they have had at least three different paint jobs.

  • White with a blue band (white undercoat)
  • Yellow (white undercoat)
  • Yellow front with black back (grey undercoat), and
  • a second coat of the same with slightly different paint