Cheap Canoe Pole

The most important thing about canoe poling is being out on the water goofing rather than being in a shop or garage somewhere worrying or over-thinking the equipment. In this spirit, I've outlined how to make a durable low-tech but fairly competent pole from a quick stop at Home Depot and a few minutes with hand tools. People with custom-made two-piece aluminum poles will (rightfully) snicker and point out the obvious problems, but this is a good playing pole. It's not as stiff or as strong in bending, but, in my limited experience, when I needed the bending strength or stiffness, I had done something grievously wrong in the first place. This pole can be used to learn how not to need bending strength.
Besides, it's quiet, pretty, and warm.

Parts list

Quant  Description  Notes  Pictures
1-1/4"dia x 12 foot long closet pole You'll be amazed how crappy most of the closet rods are at Home Depot, but persistence pays off. Sort through the rack. Make sure you get a full 12 feet. Look for dense, straight, knot-free, parallel grain. There must be one in there. This means, especially, try to avoid grain that cuts diagonally across the pole. Take your candidate poles down and roll them on the floor to check for straightness. Don't tell the sales person what you're doing. A slight bow, well distributed over the length of the pole isn't serious. (see 'Marking' below.) 
Note: You can stop here, go to Marking, and simply go poling. Continue if you want to build a pole that will last more than a few trips. 
1" copper sweat end cap Go to the plumbing department for these. They get pressed and clamped as a ferrule over the end of the pole to eliminate fraying or splitting of the pole end.
 5/16" x 2-1/2” or 3" long hanger bolt  This is like a stud with a lag screw thread for wood on one end and a standard coarse machine screw thread on the other. This is a more or less sacrificial point for working against rocks and gravel. 
5/16 washer, plated 
5/16" hex nut, plated coarse thread to match the hanger bolt. 
Boiled linseed oil If you have boat oil around, you can use that instead. Oil doesn't seem to be functionally necessary, but the linseed does leave an agreeably grippy surface. You can look smug and superior while aluminum polers are discussing surfboard wax.  Make certain you get boiled oil.  The raw stuff won’t dry and you’ll be left with a mess.
In April of 2001, the parts here cost $13.77, linseed and turpentine not included..


Figure 1. Exploded view of pole ends.

Figure 1 shows an exploded view of the typical pole end. Fabricate and assemble according to the following steps.
Description Note Picture
Whittle both pole ends for a force fit with the copper end caps. Note the chamfer on the end of the pole to clear the inside fillet radius of the cap. Functionally, it's important that the top edge of the end cap doesn't protrude out beyond the outside diameter of the pole. Such an exposed edge will catch rocks and cause problems out on the river. I file a chamfer around the top edge of the end cap, but that's kinda fussy and I don't say that everyone has to do it. Wait until you've gotten it caught a couple of times.
Drill the center holes in the copper caps.
Hammer on the end caps with a rubber or plastic mallet or by driving the pole and end cap down on a block of wood - any way that seats the cap firmly without deforming it..
Drill holes in the pole ends to receive lag-bolt thread of the hanger bolt. Center the holes on the through-holes in the end caps,  Pick a drill size somewhere around the minor diameter of the hanger bolt. It pays to align this hole with the pole axis as well as you can.
Install the hanger bolts Double-nut a hanger bolt (wind two nuts onto the machine thread portion, and tighten them together so you can wrench the hanger bolt in like a regular lag screw) and twist it into the pole end until the lag-bolt thread disappears into the wood, and only the machine thread portion is exposed. 
Remove the nuts, double-nut the other bolt and install it. 
Remove the double nuts, install one washer and one nut on each end and tighten.

For an alternate pole end detail, see a Hudson’s Bay Company style here


Before you oil your pole, mark the balance point. Sometimes it's handy to have a sure visual indication of where to grab. Just about anything indelible works. I use a black Sharpie laundry marker and make a thin circumferential line around the pole at the balance point.

Earlier, I said that a slight bow well distributed over the length of the pole is acceptable, and for some purposes, it's a distinct advantage. Held with the concave side toward you, a bowed pole can be planted closer to the canoe centerline (projected onto the streambed) without interfering with the gunnels and without your reaching out too far. 

So if your pole does have a bow, you should know where it is and position it accordingly. It's easy to mark this when you balance the pole on a knife edge. If your pole has a permanent set, it'll hang from its midpoint with its concave side down so you can first mark the longitudinal balance point with a circumferential band and then make a small hash mark along the top (the convex side) of the pole. When you're using the pole on the river, you'll want to keep this mark pointing outboard away from you. You may choose to make a different mark on the concave side so you can actually see it during use. It's just easier to mark the 'top.' It's up to you. Figure 3 shows what the markings on my current pole look like.
Figure 3. Balance ring and 'convex' marks.
Remember that you can change this 'permanent' set of the pole by the way you store it, so don't make the 'convex' mark so large or obtrusive that you can't change it. later. You can increase the natural bow of the pole by hanging it from the ends or the center. You can decrease the amount of bow by hanging or supporting it by the ends from clamps that maintain it in a convex-up position. If you want to keep what you have, store the pole on end or supported over its length. This means that you should check your 'convex' mark often.


Mix boiled linseed oil (Boiled linseed oil will dry. Raw linseed will not) and turpentine in some ratio between 1:3 and 3:1 and wipe pole liberally with it. I tend toward the 1:3, because it soaks in better and dries faster. Let it dry between each of a couple of coats.

Fill a small can (small frozen oj or small V-8 juice can works well) half full of the mixture and stand pole up on end to submerge the end fitting in the can. You should be sure that you've submerged the wood above the end cap. Your purpose here is to soak oil into the wood to tighten the joint and to prevent decay. After a few hours, swap the ends. Wait a few hours, remove, wipe off excess, and let air dry.

Within a foot or two of the ends, the pole tends to get hammered by streambed rocks, so you should re-oil frequently if you intend to keep the pole.

Go poling.

Pole Feet

This pole end detail works pretty well on rocky or coarse gravel streambeds. The steel hanger bolt is sufficiently grippy and wear-resistant for many miles of travel, and the copper works well enough to prevent fraying of the pole end. If you plan to pole in fine gravel, sand, or muck, though, you're going to have to experiment with feet to get traction and avoid getting the pole stuck. (Poling short distances across muck holes can be done with the bare pole if you adjust your technique - at the end of a stroke, give the pole a sharp twist before you try to extract it. Otherwise, you'll just pull yourself back to where you started.)

It's not too hard to find canoe books that document the pole foot technology developed over the centuries for a wide range of conditions, and many of those designs can be adapted for attachment to the hanger bolt of the pole end I've detailed here. If you do plan to use the hanger bolt this way, plan ahead by double nutting it on both ends, so that removal of the top nut dresses up the bolt threads (which get pretty hammered by the streambed.) so you can screw on whatever attachment you come up with.


I wouldn’t be telling the whole story if I didn’t pass on some of the nasty things Harry Rock has to say about wood – all of them true.                                                                 Harry Rock, The Basic Essentials of Canoe Poling

To some extent the water absorption can be controlled by keeping the wooden pole well oiled.  So the bottom line is that while you’re out poling with a closet rod, be thinking about outfitting yourself with an aluminum one.  Especially if you have ambitions to take on Harry.

Copyright, Fred Klingener, 2001-5
May be reproduced with copyright notice for personal use.
Last revision: 2005-01-26