Understanding oars on a drift boat is not easy.

In fly fishing, if the rod and reel balance at the front of the grip, rod use is balanced and less effort is needed.

In talking with Randy Dersham at the Fest, Randy talked about how the experienced guides had thoughts about the compromises with each boat design, but there was no doubt about a favorite pair of oars.

Brad Dimock recently hosted an oar tuning seminar to achieve oar shaping to reach a good user objective.

My perspective is limited to hours of rowing or maybe tens of hours, a newbie at best when others have decades of experience.

Does anyone have suggestions where the static balance point of the oar should be located? The oar lock variation could easily change a foot or so, but what about some suggestions. My Barkley Sound oars have a static balance point near the blade end of the rope wrap.

Also, William of Outdoor Adventures suggests a flat strap wrap instead of a rope wrap, as well as an oar lock yoke point as far above gunwale as possible.

I know there have been numerous discussions about boat beam and oar length, but let's assume the best length is already decided. What can be done to make the oars feel better?

Thanks for the comments.


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I too am interested in a reply to your question, there must be someone out there have an opinion?  I have rowed my DB a few times recently and here's what I have observed.

  • My solid Ash oars are too heavy outside the oarlocks to hold them out of the water for any length of time.
  • As I drift down with the current I have drawn them inboard about 6-8 inches each and overlap the handles and lean on them with my upper arms to hold them out of the water. It's a pain in the butt to keep doing this but I works, for now.  
  • Another result is, I am constantly adjusting/rotating the blades  to get them back in the orientation to properly row.
  • I have considered adding lead weight inside the handle end to try and balance them better.  This, I am afraid, will add to the overall effort of rowing.  Not something I'd look forward too.
  • I have considerd reducing some of the mass of the oars toward the blade end.  This may have promise as I do not detect any real deflection in these oars as I pull hard on them, which I have done numerous times.
  • So I have glued up a new set oars with basswood.  This will significantly reduce the mass of the oars and might make an improvement....

Has anyone out there have any experience they'd like to share to add to this discussion?  Please do!

Dorf (with tired /sore arms)

For decades Brad Dimmock has a lot of time on the oars. Here's a link to his blog spot: http://fretwaterlines.blogspot.com/

If you read down to his post of February 15, 2015 Brad discusses Pete Culler's and others impact on oar tuning. Brad has already held the workshop in his wondorous shop in Flagstaff. However you can still read about tuning oars. His a link to a synopsis of his thoughts. http://www.riverswest.org/uploads/1/6/4/3/16435358/pete_culler_oars...

Further research will lead to Pete's info on Amazon.com

Good Luck Ants and Phil. Ants, how was your drive home?

Rick N

Ants/Dorf : No expert here but I have made several sets of oars using ash, DF, lumber yard spruce some with PW blades.  Some have 3/16" nylon wraps and some have traditional "leathers" that are sewn on rather than tacked on to the shaft.  For oar stops I prefer to tie turk's head knots but some have leather collars.  If you look  on page 97 of the  photo's, Rick Newman was kind enough to post some for me( I have a hard time with a cell phone).

My drift boat rowing is very limited- as my son now has  the boat  out in Lyle, WA and I do not pretend to be a "whitewater" rower. However, I have lots of time rowing a Peapod in  open water sometimes in heavy water with 2-3 ft rollers in Cape Cod Bay.

The ash oars are heavy and carving away at the blades and lower part of the loom helped but not much. These oars are stiff and as R.D.Culler put it they have no "life". They were a PITA to row for any distance. The balance point was way outboard of the oarlock.  I  hung the oar on a string and started adding fishing weights at the handle such that the balance point was just below the 12" wraps. Too much lead to fit into the handle so I cast a "collar"  to fit just below the handle about 1/2" larger in dia than the handle. Looks a little goofy but much easier  to row- and the oar will float if dropped overboard.

One set of oars are made with lumberyard spruce has wood glued to form a square counterweight between the handle and the leathers with plywood blades has a better balance and some spring when rowing.

The best pair have DF shafts 2" in dia  with no grain runout and the neck shaved down to 1"-1 1/4" at the blade which is 6mm Merranti PW and 14" leathers.  With sewn leathers  you just look at the "seam" to get the proper orientation for the blade as I keep the seam off the bottom of the oarlock.

Cullers book is out of print(he is also)  and gives excellent oar building advice- more for openwater rowing rather than river running.

Good Luck

Lawrence, there is at least 25 copies on Amazon.com as of 8:25 AM today. From $20.25 and up.

Rick N

Thanks for comments so far. The comments have motivated me.

The above reference (hopefully) links to an article from Wooden Boat magazine the discusses Pete Culler oar design. The dimension that caught my eye was the 12-inch balance point outboard of the oar lock.

In addition, I just bought a copy of Culler's book on Oars and Rowing (not exact title).

There are also suggestions for an ideal oar weight, but that will only come from correct wood.

I have a set of spruce (hand made) spruce oars that I use on my rowing canoe. The oars haven't been used on the drift boat since they are 1/2 foot short for the suggested length. It seems like it is time to experiment and play.

It will take me a couple of days to compile dimension (length, weight, balance point) and try to make some sense of them.

I also have a couple of books on Adirondack Guide Boats and suggested oar dimensions. For what it is worth, I will add that information to the tally. The guide boat oars stressed light weight since the boats, oars, seats, etc would be portage so between lakes. A slightly different set of circumstances than drift boats.

Stay tuned for additional comments.

Oops! I duplicated Rick's reference. (Two sources - must be good!)

Hi everyone. If you look at most drift boat guides oars, there is quite an extensive rope wrap. On my 9 ft oars, the wrap is 32 inches long so almost 1/3 or the oar. This lets you use different leverage spots on the oar depending on what type of stroke you are taking. A lot of time people will row with their hands far apart. This makes the oars blade heavy. Try bringing your hands in closer to each other so the oar handles are almost touching. The oar becomes more balanced in the  oar lock. When rowing the hands should never be wider apart than your shoulders. Also your hands should be chest high, sometimes even higher, especially if your are pushing the boat. Again this brings the oars into a more balanced position in the locks. If you need to make some big power strokes, then move your hands alittle farther apart so you don't clink the handles together in a tight situation, but again, your hands should never be farther apart than your shoulders.

Dorf, when you are just drifting, try tucking the oar handles under your knees, much more comfortable.

Another technique you can try is feathering the oar as the blade comes out of the water. As you finish your back stroke, rotate your wrist back towards you, this will rotate the blade as it comes out of the water for a clean exit. With a push stroke, rotate your hands/wrists forward. Takes a little practice but the result is a nice clean stroke. The feather also helps if you are in fast current and stick a blade in a strong eddy, it will want to pull the oar out of our hands, just rotate your wrist forward and the blade will pop right out of the water......the beauty of open oar locks!

And that, my Friends is about all you really need to know about oars and rowing on rivers with oars. Their is some science about it, but mostly technique, practice and learning the right way initially to avoid aches, pains and lost boats. The only thing I would add to Kurt's very accurate statement is that maybe you should also learn to row "off" of the oar stop or doughnut. This will provide you with more ability to shift the oar up and down the oarlock to accommodate more situations.

There are certainly as many rowing techniques as there are boaters. In my experience, for my own needs, it seems that most written down formulas for determining oar length tell you to use an oar that is too long. My opinion might spur from running mostly tight, technical water where a long oar would be too long for the environment, even though the long oar provides more leverage / power than a short oar. After awhile, with experience, you will use less power anyway and start using more boat hull "angles" to guide the boat down the river.

This really is an important topic for folks to figure out. If you do not "fit" your oars to your specific boat and body, you will certainly have on-going aches and pains and possibly not be able to react or row your boat properly in a "death defying" situation. Do not think of your oar system as an "after thought" to your newly built boat / investment.

Cheers, Robb



Thanks for the advice, I'll give it a try.  I am 6'-3" and not very flexible (two knee replacements).  I think it'll take a little effort to get the oars under my knees. 

Kurt & Robb, 

Thanks for the information on rowing, Good stuff for us rookies.  I've rowed 4-5 times now for 8-9 hrs and not too tired and sore.  Learned real fast how to use the current to do the work as opposed to rowing a whole bunch.  I've tried the feathering technique, I think it'll take a few more trips to get that one down.


Thanks for the post.  I am sure there are a lot of us who need this kind of information to better use these drift boats we all love.  I have decided also to rework my spare oar to take some weight from it by reducing the shaft below the oar locks and thin the blade.  I had no idea when i started these oars that they would become an Issue.  I thought the only issue was their length and position of hands while in the rowing seat.  it's been a real learning experience.

I am surprised the weight of you DB oars are 10.4 lbs.  I guess I'll have to take some measurements and see what I have.


Here's the dimensions and weights from my handmade guide boat (GB) and Barkley Sound drift boat (DB) oars. For background information a guide boat weighs about 80 pounds and my rowed canoe weighs about 60 pounds. Both are about 16-feet long. The guide boat has fixed oar locks with an overlap so both oars can be held with one hand.

The drift boat is 12 feet long and weighs about 170 pounds. I have no experience with larger drift boats or ones that are loaded for multi-day trips.

Oar length GB 87 inches DB 96 inches
Shaft diameter GB 1 1/2 inches. DB 2 inches
Weight one oar. GB 2.9 pounds. DB 10.4 pounds
Distance to upper wrap GB 22 inches. DB 21 inches
Wrap length. GB 4 inches. DB 15 inches
Balance point GB 44 inches. DB 48 inches
Blade width. GB 5 inches. DB. 5 inches
Blade length GB 23 inches. DB 32 inches
Noticeable Flex GB Yes. DB. No

In designing sailboat masts, rigging, and the such, the optimum design keep getting smaller until it breaks and then go back to the next larger increment. For a fully loaded drift boat oars, the shaft / weight sizing may benefit from same philosophy if you are willing to experiment and break something.

Otherwise Kurt's comments about oar lock position and feathering seem right on.

The guide boat builders used a 7-inch diameter saw blade to leave a ridge in the middle of the blade for strength but remove excess weight. It seems the current composite oars have the same effect but don't meet criteria for all wood aesthetics.

In my boating books from the 1900's, oars were a important part to work well with the boat design. Oars were constructed to work with the design. In addition, rowing technique as mentioned by Kurt and Robb are an integral part of making everything work well.

However, it seems the oars that are being used (with the exception of Brad Dimock), are production oars. The oar maker produces a standard set of oar sizes with the intention that one pair fits the drift boat owners needs. From the looks of my Barkley Sound oars, it seems the shots were turned on a lathe to give a uniform diameter and the blades required a different technique to construct. In the books, the oar design shows features such as square section above oar lock and diamond section between oar lock and blade to achieve lightness and stiffness in a given direction.

Has anyone altered the shape or design of production oars to meet their needs? If so, what did you do?

When considering my fly rods, I could use a 7-wt to catch many of the fish, but the pleasure of delicate casting is lost when catchin fishing in the 12-inch range. It seems the oars have been adapted to special needs in the past and could be presently.

Rick, the trip back was fun. We zig zagged east and west so that we crossed our paths numerous times. We drove much of the length of the Klamath River from the mouth to Yreka. It wasn't a fast trip but showed an abundance of watershed.



Great to meet you and your wife at the festival and put faces to names. Check out one of Brad's latest posts:



Hi David,
It was fun to meet a number of folks from the forum and enjoy the conversations. Of course, there was not time to meet them all, so that is a good reason to return next year.

There was a very strong temptation to attend Brad's workshop, but the time and travel budget was already tight for that month. It was nice to see some of the steps Brad and his friends used to make the oars easier to use.

The friend who built the 2.9 pound guide boats oars would have some suggestions to shape my stock Barkley Sound oars. I will be in his neighborhood next week. Maybe he is available to give some suggestions.

Digital chat until we get together in person, David.



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