Before I left Arizona I had done a bit of internet searching for boat and oar related things around Lunenburg. I stumbled across Van Fancy Oars and Paddles and wrote to see if I might be able to stop in and see their operation. They said sure.
I found a small home at the address on their website, but no factory. In the back yard a gentleman was chopping up trees that had been felled by Hurricane Arthur a few days earlier. Their power had just come back on after 53 hours. “Worst blow in my forty years on the hill,” the fellow told me. I said I had written about seeing an oar factory and he invited me to follow him over the hill. There we found a long, low building. Inside were some pretty big machines and a whole lot of wood. He put on his work apron, turned around to me with a big smile, held out his hand and said, “I’m Van Fancy. Let me show you how this works.”
Turns out Van is the operation. One man show most of the time. His dad, Milton Fancy, started it the oar business after working for a local oar manufacturer for years. He bought some of the old equipment and invented the rest. Van has been running the shop since 2006.
Mostly he uses spruce. The local lumbermen all know him and deliver their best clear spruce to him whenever it looks like stock is getting low. He’s also got quite a bit of ash. He starts out by cutting rough blanks.
Then he traces a closer but still somewhat oversized pattern and trims to down with the band saw.
Then the fun begins, free-handing the majority of the cuts on a 24″ high-powered table saw. Yikes.
First he cuts the square-sided, then trims down the blade and cuts the shaft to octagonal. All by eye.
Then it goes into the lathe to round the shaft and handle.
A spinning multi-bladed cutter moves up the oar on a track, cutting the perfect taper.
Van does a final shaping of the handle with a chisel.
And cleans up the shaft with a plane.
Next he checks for straightness and trims off the fat side. Then he free-hands the shape of the blade.
He cleans the blade up with a few passes on the jointer.
And (this is wild to watch) sands the shaft on a gigantic belt sander. The oar spins like crazy during this process.
A quick clean-up of the blades follows. Lastly, he changes to a finer grit sandpaper and does it again. Voila. A few swipes with hand sandpaper and it is ready for the varnish shed.
Here Van is showing off a few specialty paddles. The one in his hand is a combination paddle/boat hook–the perfect thing to have in a small motorboat. Behind him is a combination paddle/snowshovel he made for an old native fellow way up in the northern provinces. The wanted a green one for summer and a white one for winter, so he could stash them at the portage without anyone finding them.
If you’re looking for a good straight oar or paddle, you might want to get in touch with Van. His prices, even with shipping to the states, are more than reasonable.
Of all the cool tools Van runs, I think the hardest one to duplicate would be the most valuable one he’s got: his eye.