Wave of creativity

Design students develop innovative paddles for water sports

December 8, 2016

A paddle with a curved lower grip designed by Drake Schlosser is tested by another student, Jeffrey “Clay” Simonson.

When most people head to the river, lake or stream, they generally don’t dwell on the design of the paddles for their canoe, kayak or stand-up paddleboard. They just want the paddles to work.

A group of 19 industrial design students at University of Wisconsin-Stout took the opposite approach this fall. They spent four weeks thinking long and hard about all aspects of paddles, from their history to the grip to the shape to the tip.

Then they designed their own paddles as part of an assignment for visiting professor David Richter-O’Connell. In one month, each of them had to create a new type of paddle to match the water sport of their choice and make a prototype.

The project came with added pressure too. Advising them and reviewing their work was Dale Kicker, who helped start the company Bending Branches, one of the world’s largest paddle-makers.

“Knowing Dale was going to be there, there was more intent on their part to show their work professionally,” Richter-O’Connell said.

Dale Kicker, of Bending Branches, examines a student prototype.When they finished, students likely knew more about paddles than they’d ever dreamed of knowing, things such as user profiles, ergonomics, pain points, upper body dynamics and hydrodynamics.

Research is one of the reasons student Drake Schlosser, a junior from Rubicon, created a canoe paddle with a bent lower grip. “I changed it to reduce the wrist angle through the paddle stroke in a way that aids a more powerful stroke as well,” Schlosser said.

Schlosser said he created an actual paddle from his design and tested it in the water. “It worked like a champ,” he said.

One student created a paddle for a user with one arm. Another student created a paddle with interchangeable blades for different types of uses, such as speed vs. long distance.

Christina Hammerstrom, a senior from Oakdale, Minn., designed a kayak paddle grip with grooves that go down the shaft, making it look like one piece, and blades designed to look and work like fish fins.

Christina Hammerstrom, a senior, explains her paddle design during a class presentation.

Her design was for a fishing kayak. “I figured that since a kayak fisher would be moving around a lot versus strictly sitting and paddling, having grips along the entire shaft would add more tactility as well as make it harder for the paddle to roll off the kayak or the fisher's lap when it was set down,” Hammerstrom said.

She also created paddle grips that are horizontal on top as opposed to vertical to help reduce blistering.

Working with Kicker and Bending Branches helped Hammerstrom better understand “the demographic of people who like to kayak fish and therefore be able to design something that would potentially be appealing to them,” she said.

The innovative paddles students designed impressed Kicker.

“I was amazed at the creativity the students had. The level of interest they took and research they did was very impressive. Students’ ability to build real world prototypes and explain their working function was remarkable,” Kicker said.

Kicker helped found Bending Branches in St. Paul in 1982. Now based in northwest Wisconsin, in Osceola, Bending Branches produces hundreds of paddles daily and sells them around the world.

Bending Branches, which also has worked on projects through UW-Stout’s Discovery Center, won’t be using the students’ designs but will benefit nonetheless from the collaboration, Kicker said.

“Just being exposed to new, creative ideas from different perspectives elevates one’s own view. It was truly my pleasure to be invited and have students share their work with me,” Kicker said.

Along with prototypes and written aspects of the projects, students had to provide 2D sketches of their designs.

“This is a strong building group. They did some excellent work,” Richter-O’Connell said.

The canoe paddle project was the second of three “additive progression” projects during the semester, Richter-O’Connell said. The first was studying the hand grip. The third is designing a restricted work space with hand tools, specifically a food prep center.



Top: A paddle with a curved lower grip designed by Drake Schlosser is tested by another student, Jeffrey “Clay” Simonson.

Middle: Dale Kicker, of Bending Branches, examines a student prototype.

Bottom: Christina Hammerstrom, a senior, explains her paddle design during a class presentation.