Interview: the Makers of Bending Branches Paddles

Meet Branches, LLC talks with Branches’ President, Ed Vater

Location: Osceola, WI

Year Started: 1982

First, let me make an important distinction that trips folks up from time to time. The name of our company is Branches, LLC. We manufacture several brands of paddles, and the Bending Branches canoe paddles are where we started in 1982.

Branches handcrafts a broad line of high-quality canoe paddles – from rec to performance touring – under the Bending Branches brand. We also supply kayak paddles for beginners to whitewater racers to touring enthusiasts under the bb and Aqua-Bound brands.

In a Nutshell:
We really believe that canoeing isn’t so much about getting to your destination as it is about the journey. Trite, but true. And we believe that what you hold in your hands on that journey helps determine what you hold in your memories.

About Bending Branches Paddles

Shaft inventory: Branches sources all of its hardwoods locally. They use woods ranging from basswood to maple to black willow to alder to butternut.

About Bending Branches Paddles

These paddle blanks will eventually become Sunburst paddles. What makes Bending Branches canoe paddles unique among competitors?
Branches: I honestly think it comes down to the know-how of everyone here who touches a Bending Branches paddle. These are folks who come to work every day to handcraft a beautiful product that’s an integral part of a paddler’s gear. Many of our staff have been with us for years. They know how to build in quality, durability, and comfort. And they consistently turn out an American-made product that we’re proud to sell to paddlers around the world. Lots of paddlers here at Branches, from recreational to hard core; so we understand what paddlers want. What philosophies guide paddle design at Bending Branches?
Branches: We believe canoeists love spending time on the water. It follows that the paddle they use has to be light, comfortable, durable. So we make sure our paddles fill that bill. And it doesn’t hurt that we make most of our Bending Branches paddles from beautiful species of wood, so we’re able to offer paddles that also appeal to our customers’ love of and respect for nature. What principles have guided Branches’ growth as a company?
Branches: We’re honestly passionate about our customers’ paddling experience. We ask lots of questions, we listen hard….and we’ll go to any lengths to provide our customers with innovative, practical and clever paddle designs along with impeccable service.

We value craftsmanship. Anyone who’s used one of our wood canoe paddles can see that we put a premium on using beautiful woods in beautiful ways. Fit and finish on each of our paddles are hand-crafted.

We’ve paid a lot of attention to our size. We’ve deliberately kept it small enough to be agile, personable and responsive, but big enough to be reliable and efficient. That makes us more nimble in our decision-making…and it also feels more like a family here. We work hard, but we have fun together. We have cookouts and paddling days, we cheer on our Wisconsin teams….heck, we even make it through the winter together! We’re proud to be American-made…and to have live customer service, not something you see every day now. With 20 different styles of canoe paddles, which paddle is your top seller?
Branches: For practical paddlers, The BB Special bent-shaft paddle is our best seller, year after year. For the discriminating enthusiast, the Espresso leads. The paddle is an age old and elegantly simple tool; is it still possible to create new, innovative paddles or does Bending Branches focus on finessing current designs?
Branches: Oh, yes. We often joke about one of our canoe paddle designers who has a locker full of new and wildly different wood paddles he’s make over the years. It’s just a matter of connecting what our customers want with the mind and hands of one of our skilled craftsmen….and we can count on innovation to spark.

Of course, we also tweak some of our current designs. We go back and look at ways to build them even better. Lighter, stiffer, smarter, more durable, and more beautiful. Many times, we’re combining tradition and new technology. We hear Bending Branches used to make hockey sticks. Is this true, and how has it influenced the way you make paddles?
Branches: As you can imagine, the paddling business is quite seasonal. We wanted to even out the load in our factory and were looking for a business that was also seasonal….but in the opposite direction. Hockey seemed like the perfect complementary business, and it worked well for us until we purchased another paddle company and were able to level the factory’s load with just paddles. And, along the way….we found out that we just didn’t have the close connection with hockey players as we do with paddlers. Do you have tips for keeping Bending Branches paddles in good shape?
Branches: A Bending Branches canoe paddle won’t need any special care except to protect it from the elements between trips. If the finish of the paddle does become scratched or worn through, you can repair it:

  • Sand the area with a fine grit abrasive until it is smooth and dull.
  • Apply two or three thin coats of solvent-based (not water-based) outdoor or marine-grade polyurethane.
  • Rub lightly with a fine abrasive between coats for a better finish.
  • When the last coat is dry, you are ready for the water!
  • If the wood is damaged, sand the area aggressively with 100 or 120 grit sandpaper to smooth the wood and remove any discoloration.
  • Treat the sanded area with 3 or 4 coats of polyurethane as described above.

If the job is more than you feel you can handle, we will repair your paddle for a small charge.

About Bending Branches Paddles

In the final stage of sanding, the paddle is made perfectly smooth. Only the most senior and longest-tenure staff handle this important step. What’s your personal Bending Branches canoe paddle of choice for a week in the Boundary Waters?
Branches: My new personal favorite is Bending Branches’ all-carbon Black Pearl paddle. I also like the Viper…maybe I’d just take both! What should a customer consider when they pick out a canoe paddle?
Branches: A paddle that fits you and your paddling style can make the difference between a fun, rewarding experience on the water or sore hands and shoulders.

Consider your boat:

  • General-purpose, family tandem canoe: use the sizing chart below to select your paddle.
  • Narrow tripping canoes (with tumblehome—inward leaning—gunwales or low seats): select a paddle with a shorter shaft (typically by one size).
  • Extra-wide, flared canoes and those with high seats: a slightly longer paddle that lets you easily reach the water with the blade and avoid hitting the shaft on the gunwale.

Consider the type of paddling and length of outing:

  • Lakes and Rivers: Look for a straight paddle, then look at weight, comfort, and durability. If you normally paddle in shallow water, use a shorter, flat-bottomed paddle. If most of your paddling is in deep water, choose a more traditional paddle in a standard shaft length.
  • Extended trips on flat water or racing: bent-shaft paddles are more efficient and are best for long distances over flat water. Bent-shaft paddles are generally four inches shorter than straight paddles for the same size paddler

Consider your size:

The general rule: the shortest paddle that allows you to properly reach the water is best. Measuring the length of your torso is a good way to approximate that. Here’s a simple and accurate way to measure your torso. Sit up straight on a flat chair. Measure the distance from the surface of the chair between your legs to your nose. Then follow this chart.

Torso LengthStraight ShaftBent Shaft
26”50” or 52”48”
30”56” or 57”52”
32”57” or 58”54”

Features to look for:

  • Laminated wood shafts are generally both stronger and stiffer than solid wood.
  • Blades with fiberglass resist splitting if they get caught between sharp rocks.
  • Particularly with wood, smoothness of the finish is critical for your comfort.
  • Some manufacturers offer high-grade resins along the entire edge of the paddle blade as well as on just the tip. If your paddle sees rough treatment or will be continuously exposed to water on a long trip, you’ll want this type of protection.
  • A canoe paddle with an ovalized shaft (vs. a perfectly round shaft) will be far more comfortable, easier to hold, and less fatiguing. Any last tidbit you want readers to know about Branches?
Branches: We really believe that canoeing isn’t so much about getting to your destination as it is about the journey. Trite, but true. And we believe that what you hold in your hands on that journey helps determine what you hold in your memories.

About Bending Branches Paddles

The final product: a Sunburst paddle.

We will be happy to hear your thoughts

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