I've found you can get away having a few knots in the boards, especially if you are laminating so no single knot weakens the piece throughout. I just screwed up when I was laying out the piece, the result being a knot at exactly the wrong place.
But I do agree--get a nice piece to start with and you eliminate the risk of my screw up.
I previously made a paddle out of n. white cedar and it was exceptionally light. It became my favorite paddle, but I lost it over the winter. I had a second piece of the same material (from Andy Lee, used to post here as canoe dancing), but it had a few more knots, but I thought I could get a paddle out of it. At this point, the paddle is weighing 2 lbs, not nearly as light as its predecessor, and not significantly lighter than w. red cedar. So, not that great a loss if it doesn't turn out. But it makes me wonder if you can get better pieces of this material, and if, in general, northern white is lighter than western red cedar. Anybody know?
1 Canoe/Kayak Trailer
Recreational Kayak Paddle
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