For Fritz Orr, summer camp brought about more than just bothersome poison ivy rashes and a newfound knowledge of caveman-like survival techniques. It ushered in what would become not just a passion, but a profession, in the unlikely field of canoes.
The wood craftsman’s long-winded relationship with canoes began with those two summer camps his family owned, which in turn also lead to an eight-year run on the US Canoe Kayak Wildwater C-1 team.
An extensive background in canoeing adds to Orr’s ability to design carefully crafted canoes paddles, featuring his signature curved blades and hollow shafts, which benefit canoers of many varieties. Orr and his father built composite canoes and kayaks onsite at the family’s Camp Merrywood during the mid-1900s. Orr explains, “the only way to get a deck boat was to build your own.”
Eventually, he transitioned to work for Dagger Canoe Company, and then Perception, shaping masters for new boats.
Since 1980, Orr has been making 100-150 handmade canoe paddles a year. Orr’s thriving business, Fritz Orr Canoe, is known for producing paddles that, though breathtaking, are made to truly be used.
“Even the ones that I know are going to go on a wall are built the same as the ones that will get used,” Orr says. “A lot of people don’t like curved blades, but I think they’re super efficient,” Orr shares. “But when you think about it, the blade is stationary. A really good, efficient stroke is when the blade goes in and you’re traveling forward, then the blade comes out.”
Orr takes pride in using the finest woods, which results in a product that can only be fairly called a work of art.
“I mainly use Appalachian wood,” Orr says. “Then I’ll mix a tad bit of tropicals in occasionally. I used to do some big-time focus when I first got crazy about it, putting a lot of African woods. But I like to use Appalachian wood, so I’ll use walnut, maple, cherry, and aspen.”
The easier-to-make paddles require about 15 hours of labor, while the more intricate designs can take up to 35 hours to craft. The result is a ready-to-use paddle that blends the fine woods to a finish as smooth as silk.
Orr notes that fully teaching an apprentice the “Orr way” would take about a year and a half, but after six months one could begin getting their hands dirty as Orr claims, “it’s more about them not cutting their finger off.” In the slightly dangerous business of making canoe paddles, battle scars are part of the job.
In Orr’s eyes, what deems a paddle as easy or hard-to-make depends on three key elements: the intricacy of the wood, the time it takes to make it, and the paddle’s finish—the finish being a task most paddle-craftsmen don’t take on.
Falling into the “hard-to-make” category are the rich white walnut paddles, which require a lengthy process of harvesting the luxurious material.
“The reason that it’s hard to get [white walnut] is because the tree stump is probably the diameter of about the size of that wall right there,” Orr explains, pointing to the large wall ahead. “It takes a year for the water to drain out after they cut it before they can run it through one of the bandsaws.”
Due to the immense amount of water in the stump, the blade can dull before it reaches two or three feet. As a result, Orr waits another year for it to dry for a second time.
Fritz Orr Canoe offers three general paddle classifications for customers to choose from—quiet water, artistic, and river. For the more particular canoe-connoisseurs out there, Orr works with the customer to develop a more specialized design. “I’ll hear, ‘I want to hang it on this wall,’ and some people will actually send me a picture,” Orr shares. “Sometimes they get an interior designer involved. They’re telling me what they want. At that point I just remain real flexible and it gives me an empty palette to go with.”
About 50% of Orr’s sales go toward a customer looking to display the work of art in his or her home. The company’s logo, “F.O.C” is embellished on each and every paddle, characterizing the product as a Fritz Orr original. The more artistic designs, like that of the “Artistic Silhouette” paddle, allow customers to submit a picture to be turned into a silhouette. The result is a customized paddle with the buyer’s silhouette of choice gracefully weaved into the design.
It’s clear that Fritz Orr Canoe has something for everyone. Whether you are a canoeist looking for that perfect paddle for your next exhibition, or an appreciator of the wooden arts, Orr’s handmade canoe paddles are nothing short of high-quality gems.