Making New Portage Pram Oars Soothes The Soul

Trying out the new Portage Pram oars.
Nicole testing out the new oars

I recently purchased a Portage Pram from a friend. I had planned on building a similar pram as a shore boat for our Lavro Dory, so this saved a bunch of work, and building Portage Pram oars was a very enjoyable project.

The Portage Pram was originally designed by William (Bill) Peterson back in the 1970s, and proved to be a great little tender. This more recent version is available as plans or a pre-cut CNC kit from It’s 6′ 8″, with a 42″ beam, and it weighs a remarkably lightweight 35 pounds.

And that is exactly what we wanted for our dory, a very lightweight shore boat that was super easy to bring aboard when we are traveling at higher speeds. The initial plan is to invert the dinghy, and store it over the motor in the Lavro Dory.

Nicole and I had a very similar pram 25 years ago that we used with the little trimaran I built that we cruised up inside B.C., and we loved it. The Portage Pram is a good rower, and has plenty of freeboard with two of us, and is fairly stable. Although, it is so lightweight that with two people you have to carefully shift your weight toward the center as the second person enters or exits. This boat should hold us, a bit of groceries, and our small dog just fine.

Searching For Decent Oars

The boat did not come with oars. After asking around locally to see if anyone had a decent pair I could buy, and finding nothing suitable, I decided to build my own Portage Pram oars. This was the first time I had made a set of oars, although I have built a couple of kayak paddles in the past.

The truth is I am spoiled for good oars, and can’t stand to use the typical store-bought, overweight, unbalanced clubs, even on a little pram such as this. My friend Bruce calls those OSOs – oar shaped objects. If you have never used a good pair of lightweight, balanced oars, I recommend you do not. Because afterward, you will not be content with anything else, and they are not easy or cheap to come by. Seriously though, it makes a huge difference.

Oar Design Theft

Portage Pram oar plan

I started by testing a variety of oar lengths, loaned by friends, and talked with other Portage Pram owners about their preferences. I sketched a few on paper, then drew up the plan on the computer. What I came up with is 90% inspired/stolen from other designers and traditions, but my oars have a hint of originality because they are such a mish-mash of types.

I have had a long interest and appreciation for Adirondack Guideboats, like these made by my friends Rob & Allison. These very narrow beam, lightweight rowboats developed a rather unique oar. Traditionally made of cherry wood, they have a large boxy inboard shape for counter balance, but the loom tapers down into a very slender connection to the blade, which provides a surprising amount of flex and snap. They are slightly unusual in the USA for using pinned oarlocks, so you cannot feather them. They tend to use a big overlap at the handles, allowing up to an 8 foot oar on a boat as slender as 38 inch beam.

So I drew heavily from this tradition, with slender looms, a counter balancing boxy top end, and pinned locks, although I did not use an overlap at the handles. I love the idea of pinned locks for some boats. No more prying at the rusty lid of the tallow can, only to find it dried out, using it anyway, and having unsightly white paste on the leathers. And no more buttons that wear out, nor heavy bronze oarlocks sliding down the loom and beating up the blade top.

There are downsides to this style of pinned oar, but guideboaters swear by them, and have done very well with them in some pretty yucky ocean conditions in the Blackburn Challenge, a 20 mile open water circumnavigation of Cape Ann.

6' 9" oars fit perfect
6′ 9″ oars fit perfectly

If my oars are 60% guideboat, where they diverge would give traditional guideboat builders fits. Another 20% of the design can be credited to Pete Culler, with the boxy top ends for counter balance, and rounded the length of the loom. And instead of very expensive bronze guideboat hardware, I used cheap stainless steel oarlocks. It is just a pram.

The next 10% of inspiration comes from having used Shaw & Tenney spoon blade oars, the spruce Qualicum Harbor (that unfortunately appear to be out of business) oars on my Skerry and the beautiful oars Tom at Grapeview Boats. Guideboats never seem to use spoons. There are claims of 20% more efficiency with a spoon, which I highly doubt, unless the competition is using a fork. Mostly I like the looks of them, and did not find them that difficult to build.

The last 10% of the design is all me. I drew all the lines, and made a few modern additions.

There is a very lightweight layer of 1.5 ounce fiberglass on the inside of the blades, because the outer edges are very thin cedar, and I did not want them cracking. There is also a thickened epoxy tip, to help protect the end grain. And the hole for the oarlock pin has been oversized, filled with a high density epoxy, and redrilled, to prevent water ingress and reduce wear and potential splitting.

Oh, and then I painted them with some leftover exterior latex paint from my shop doors. I have a theory that bland looking painted oars have less chance of being stolen at a dock, compared to beautiful brightworked wood. Plus these had a variety of blemishes that would have bothered me to see brightworked. I quite enjoy their practical no-nonsense looks.

They work great, with nice flex in the blades, and decent balance. And they fit in the boat on a diagonal.

Wood From A Sixty Year Old Family Sail Boat From The UK

Family boat that wood from the mast came from
The 1963 Alan Buchanan Sloop Sea Saunterer
Mast split open
The old mast, split open

Maybe the most interesting thing about these oars is the wood they are mostly made from. Living in Port Townsend I figured I could run down to Edensaw and pick up some nice cherry or spruce, air dried or kiln. Nope, nada, nothing even on order. For awhile though I have had in my garage the mast that came off my father-in-law’s old sailboat, and I decided to use some of it. It was thought the mast was spruce, but it is too heavy for that, and is likely fir.

The 33′ Alan Buchanan designed sloop was built in the UK in 1963, made its way across the Atlantic, through the ditch to the Pacific. My wife’s folks cruised it a bunch locally, up to Alaska, and around Vancouver Island. Currently she is a sad sight in their back yard, planks rotting off, only the ribs left for a poor hungry boat school student to chew on.

The mast had been constructed in two parts, hollowed out to cut weight and to run wiring within. The glue joint had failed when I received it, so it was already split up the middle. Unfortunately none of it was 2″ thick, which I needed. So I had to cut away some of the inner edges and then laminate two pieces together. And from that I was able to cut two sticks out.

The wood is really nice, with tight grain and no knots. Unfortunately, when I laminated the pieces together, I must have flipped one, because the grain on each side ran the opposite direction, which made carving them down challenging.

I decided to use some cedar I had for the full width of the blades, to keep the weight down.

Build Steps

Two boards made from the wood mast
Finding some boards in the mast
Laminated boards
Laminating to get enough thickness
2" x 2" sticks of wood for oars
Lots of work for a couple of sticks
Cedar laminated to sticks
Cedar added to achieve the full blade width

Spoon blade shape cut out with bandsaw
Spoon blade shape cut out on the bandsaw

After roughing out the shape on the bandsaw the rest was done by hand with a drawknife, spokeshave, and sander, over a few days.

Finishing the oar shape with hand tools
Buckets of shavings
Cutting away wood on oars

Nearly finished oars
Shapely, with a thickened epoxy tip

Oar Realization

My subconscious spit out a little nugget of insight when I was making these oars. As the wood shavings flew, hour after hour, I wondered why I seem to enjoy these projects more and more, that take so much work, like the rebuild of my Skerry. It is certainly not from some great work ethic, nor do I really identify as a boat builder. Sure, I love boats, and enjoying getting out into nature on them. But those thoughts did not satisfy the persistent question; why do I enjoy this so much?

Well, an answer popped out. And it makes sense. In life, there are a hell of a lot of things that you just have to swallow, that you realistically have no control over, but that drive you nuts or make you feel powerless. A central point of pain for me is humanity’s destruction of this beautiful world. Huge gas guzzling vehicles and massive homes, endless piles of plastic trash, and electronics that only last a few years. And there are many other things that are endured. It is of course insane to believe you can make everything in the world as you would have it. But still, just under the surface, there is this quiet pool of rage for all that is so clearly not right.

But you know what? I can make a pair of oars that is perfectly fit for their job, are exactly the right length for their boat, balanced for the weight of my arm, fit for my hand, are fairly respectful of the environment, and even honor a bit of family boating tradition.

It is something I can do, that addresses a problem, with a good answer. A little pocket of sanity and power returned. They are not perfect, nor was I shooting for that. But dipping them into the water, over and over, a heartbeat so fitting in place and body that it nearly disappears from notice; that soothes a little bit of my ragged soul. And that is why I enjoy these projects so much.

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