Paddles. Well, I guess you could say that they are fairly critical to paddle sports.
Unfortunately, a lot of information about paddle design and materials seems to be made up of rumors and hearsay, so we sat down with Danny Mongno from Werner Paddles to discuss how materials, designs, and blade shapes translate to performance on the water.
We also talked with Danny quite a bit about Werner the company—their design philosophy, business approach, and how they deal with market realities.
BLISTER: What is your role in the design process at Werner?
Danny: Although I do have some say in the final product, my number one job is to bring initial product ideas to the design team. So, what does the market want? It’s easy to sit in your own office and say, “Well hey I think this is a great idea.” In kayak fishing, for example, everyone wants to reinvent the paddle, but really we should just be talking to a kayak angler.
The same goes for whitewater paddles. Designing a new paddle for the sake of designing a new paddle is a trap that I think companies fall into. My job is to be in the field. It helps that I’m a paddler and can work with our pro team to see what athletes and customers really want. I bring ideas to the engineers and say “This is what we need to work on,” and help them bring that product to life.
As far as actually touching carbon or shaping things on the CAD, we obviously have engineers that do that, but it’s my job to tell them what they should be shaping, who will use it, and who will buy it.
BLISTER: You mentioned that the other guys on the design team are engineers. Are they also paddlers?
Danny: Yeah we really strive to hire engineers who are also paddlers. It can be both a curse and a blessing. Much like a team paddler or a Blister reviewer, those guys are going to bring up really awesome design ideas that might not actually work from a business standpoint. Although some ideas might make for really cool paddles, it might not work for us if it can’t make any money, especially when you think of what a mold costs for a new part…
But at the same time, having boaters on the team adds a lot of passion to the design process. If you can’t understand your customers or your team of athletes, then you can’t bring them what they want. So being paddlers helps to bring a paddle to the market for the right reasons in terms of both business and product function.
BLISTER: Werner is doing a lot with SUP and touring paddles. What role does a small industry segment like whitewater play in your overall business? How does that sport remain relevant in the future as those other sports continue to grow?
Danny: If we are doing our job, then we are building for reliability and performance. So why do we think you should you buy a Werner Paddle? Because you can trust a Werner paddle and it’s going to perform. If customers can’t trust our paddles to hold up, then we aren’t doing our job. The trust aspect is even more important than the performance aspect. So whitewater paddles have a huge affect on us as a company, even if those other categories move more dollars and more volume. Whitewater is a high impact sport, so its the whitewater segment that gives us our reputation for reliability. A person buying a $130 recreational paddle won’t have to worry as much about performance or reliability as someone buying a $450 whitewater paddle.
Still, because we are so performance-oriented at the top end of whitewater and coastal sea kayaking, that reputation for performance and reliability filters down to the less expensive paddles in our line.
BLISTER: Let’s talk about paddle feather, which has been hotly debated by a lot of boaters over the years. Starting with 90 degree feather in the slalom days, we’ve slowly been moving more and more towards zero. Where does Werner stand on feather, and how does that really affect our strokes?
Danny: Something that we need to address before we actually talk about what is right for paddlers, is that the #1 person dictating feather angle right now is the dealer.
Dealers just can’t stock the full array of feathers, lengths, and shapes that we offer. Whether it’s right or wrong, the dealer can stock right-hand-control 30 degree because that’s what they can pump out the door. Anything else is custom order, and that’s just how the industry dictates what is being done with feather angle.
Certainly the initial idea of feather angle was for slalom racers. It was easier to get that top blade past the gates without touching and getting a penalty. The challenge there, though, is that if we don’t have great torso rotation then we end up having to feather our paddle with our wrists instead of with our torso rotation. That back and forth motion in the wrist is really what does a lot of damage to a lot of paddlers’ wrists and elbows. By limiting the degree of feather, we limit the exposure to injury in our wrists.
So we started to move down from 90 degrees. For a long time Werner and strong European companies like Lendall and Schlegel moved down to 60, and from there it was Werner that took the lead from our touring customers and saying that 45 really works for a lot of people. Most people are not rotating their upper body perfectly, and the lower feather angles reduce the stress that having a stiff upper body puts on your wrists.
Primarily when you talk about feather, I think the debate is just as much in touring as it is in whitewater. People get this perception that the wind is going to affect their top blade if they don’t have a lot of feather. In reality, they’re just doing a bunch of damage to their wrists.
Going to zero feather also has some advantages. For playboaters, it helps them balance and lets them do tricks on both sides without straining their wrists. Big instruction organizations like the Nantahalla outdoor center found that they got better results teaching the roll with 0 degree feather. As a company, right hand 30 works well for a wide variety of paddlers and is still our number one feather angle.
BLISTER: We haven’t seen many radically different whitewater blade shapes from Werner in quite a while. What can we look forward to from Werner in the future? Is it new shapes? New materials and construction? Does the future hold big changes, or fine tuning?
Danny: In pretty much every manufacturing job, the goal is to make things lighter, stronger, and less expensive. It’s hard to get all three of those things at once, but that is our ultimate goal.
You know, a lot of companies with great market share can kind of sit back on their laurels, then someone else comes up and passes them by. Our products work really well, but we still want to look at new materials and processes. Our number one goal is to make sure we are constantly reviewing how we are building things, what we are building them with, and who we are building them with. When we talk about “hand crafted in Sultan, WA,” it’s not just a pride factor. Really, it allows us to put a lot of attention to detail into every paddle.
So what’s next for us? In a nutshell, it’s looking to improve on the designs and processes that we have in place.
So I do not see a lot of major changes coming. This is a business, so making small changes just for the sake of changing makes it very hard for our loyal dealers. Our goal is to refine processes to continue to maintain our reputation for performance and reliability, and keep prices reasonable while handcrafting in the USA.
Changes could be in tooling, machining, materials—that’s all on the table. And if there is a need for a new paddle in the market then we are there to listen.
BLISTER: How do you guys work with your athletes to improve paddle design, and how do those improvements trickle down to people who aren’t necessarily doing class V whitewater or multi-mile open ocean crossings?
Danny: Well everybody wrecks. Whether you wreck in class III or V, a wreck is a wreck. Our athletes are constantly testing our product in extreme conditions. If we are making a mistake, they give us that feedback very quickly. If we start cutting corners to increase profitability, the athletes are the first ones to let us know that “Hey dude, this really isn’t working. I’m getting water in my shaft, my blade broke, etc.” So those guys are giving us a ton of feedback. Change this, change that.
With a pretty big engineering team, we try to do a lot of that, but it has to be a big enough change to make it worth retooling. We build our stuff here in the US, so its expensive to make a change. A change has to make sense for all of our users and not just a small percentage of people.
BLISTER: What do you think are some of the most important changes to paddle design in recent years?
Danny: In fishing and touring, ferrule designs have been huge. It’s the solid feel of a 1-piece shaft, while still being able to break the paddle down. That’s convenience and confidence. It’s also nice just to be able to replace half a paddle if something does break.
One of the things that we’ve considered is a two piece, adjustable feather whitewater paddle. It would be pretty cool to have a paddle with adjustable feather for different situations. But the question is still whether a design like that would detract from ultimate reliability.
Other big advances are the use of Dinel, which is a roping material that goes around the edge of our carbon core products and gives those $450 paddles a lot longer lifespan.
BLISTER: Bent shaft vs straight. Can you break down the pros and cons?
Danny: There are benefits to ergonomics simply through proper technique. If you have a good, loose grip on a straight shaft then you can achieve the same ergonomics as you can with a bent shaft. The problem in whitewater is that you’re rarely going to be in the middle of a big drop with a good, loose grip. So we grip on tight and that develops a bend in our wrist that leads to aches and pains. So bent shaft helps to alleviate that. The tradeoffs are really more about expense than anything else. We can manipulate the shaft to be the same strength and stiffness with either shaft shape, so durability is really similar. The disadvantage is that a bent shaft is an extra $100.
The best answer is to learn the right way from the get-go. Try to avoid over gripping so that if you don’t need the bent shaft, don’t buy it. Save yourself $100. But for me, I grew up self-taught with awful technique. My wrists do hurt today, and I couldn’t paddle anymore without bent shaft.
There are also some different types of bent shaft. There is crankshaft vs neutral bent shaft. Crankshaft really started with European racers. Lendal was the first one to do it to give a paddler a longer reach. The blade is actually in front of your knuckles, which changes the feel a lot.
The challenge is that the average boater is putting 20 days a year on the water. The idea behind the neutral bent shaft is that it maintains a familiar straight shaft feel that makes the roll and the brace feel more natural, and the same goes for those finesse strokes that they don’t get to practice very often. For Werner, the neutral bent shaft gives customers a familiar feel that they are used to from their straight shaft paddle.
We do use crankshaft technology in our bent shaft paddle for SUP, and that does have viability. It makes sense to provide a longer stroke in SUP racing, but we don’t think it makes as much sense in a whitewater environment because it does complicate finesse strokes.
NEXT: Carbon vs Fiberglass, Foam Core Designs, and the meaning of “Reliability”…