CUSTOM WOOD ~ Vince Zappia & the art of making paddles. By ChicagoToughill

(Shawn Alexander running Zoom Flume on Tallulah Gorge, photo credit: Chris Gorman) 
Vince Zappia, the master woodworker behind ZapPaddles, lives in Suwanee Georgia where he started building paddles six years ago. DBP caught up with him after a run on the Chattahoochee River (“I’m definitely not a WFO boater”) to learn more about him and his awesomely flexible paddles, which are prized by boaters all over the Southeast. 
Having been a woodworker for many years, hand crafting paddles is a continuation of his decades long artistic progression. “Being the son of a high school shop teacher,” Vince tells us, “woodworking has been a part of my life for decades, so paddle making is a natural extension of that, sort of a way to combine two of my passions. When I first paddled a canoe in the mid-60s I knew this would be something to do for years to come. After attending an art college in Atlanta I paddled several hundred miles on the Mississippi River and have paddled the Appalachicola River start to finish.” 
“After having put a few thousand miles on flat(ish) water,” Vince continues, “I ran into a childhood friend from central Georgia who now lives in and paddles North Georgia rivers, and I was hooked. I now go whitewater paddling with a decent comfort level in Class 3 and an occasional Class 4 on a good paddling day,  with Sections 3 and 4 of the Chattooga (minus 5 Falls) being the apex of my paddling experience. While unfortunate foot injuries have kept me out of a ww boat I look forward to getting back in-the-saddle again.”
Vince has quietly built up an impressive set of clients who all maintain a very personal relationship with both their paddles and their paddle maker. One would expect nothing less in the tight-knit SE boater community. Ed Powers, a well known fixture of the whitewater canoe scene for many years, says, “Vince makes a great whitewater canoe paddle.  It has a nice strong catch which propels the boat nicely.  At the same time the shaft of the paddle is strong and stiff while having just enough forgiveness so the paddler doesn’t destroy their shoulders.  I have had mine for one year so far and expect to paddle with it for many years to come.” 
Matt Todhunter of Ridge Spirit Outfitting had this to say. “I really like paddles. Before owning a ZapPaddle, I had been using various carbon and wood shafted paddles. I hurt my shoulder while learning to roll, and had to take a few months off of boating. As I eased back in, I noticed I would have shoulder pain for a few days after a day of paddling. Then one day I met Vince on the river and we started talking paddles. I told him about my shoulder pain and he said he could make me a paddle that had flex in the shaft to reduce the impact on my shoulders, but still be strong enough to stand up to the abuse of steep creeping in the southeast. I ordered the paddle with a blade shape of my choice and instantly fell in love with it. The flex in the shaft drastically reduced the impact my shoulders felt, and the aluminum tip and full dynel edges took all the abuse I could throw at it. After 100+ hard runs, the paddle showed almost no signs of corner rounding, thanks to the dynel and aluminum. I now am the proud owner of three ZapPaddles.”
Shawn Alexander, the master bag maker and boat magician of Fall Line Canoes, says, “In the last 15 years of canoeing I have tried, broken, and destroyed nearly ever paddle out there. I have used my Zap paddle on every run for the last year and I have to say it is the best custom built blade out there period!” 
We asked Vince some questions about himself and his passion. 
DBP: To better understand the paddle maker, it helps to understand the paddler. What’s your favorite boat Vince, and on a perfect day where would we find you paddling? 
VZ: My very favorite boat is my incredibly awesome Blue Hole Sunburst 1 laid-up in Kevlar; she is a thing of beauty in the water and an effortless pleasure to paddle. What I enjoy paddling in anything above class 2 baby-water is my Mohawk Viper 11; One day I’d love to have a Millbrook Schaco  Section 3 or 3.5 Chattooga is a beautiful run for me.  
DBP: When talking with other paddle makers I’ve found that they first made a paddle for themselves. Is this the case with you? How did you find yourself making these beautiful paddles for others?
VZ: That’s my story also, but what an atrocity it was. Once I started making presentable paddles folks would comment on them and one thing led to another. When I ran into Matt Todhunter is when it clicked that I could make paddles to help people as well as make a few bucks in the process. Like so many other paddlers I have shoulder problems (both have been worked on) so I made a small bladed paddle with just the right amount of flex for me and, like Matt, my shoulder problems decreased 20 fold.
DBP: You obviously build awesome customized whitewater openboating paddles. What is the process one goes through to get a ZapPaddle ordered? Do you also make kayak and raft guide paddles? 
VZ: Thanks for that DBP. Since ZapPaddles as a business is pretty much just beginning there is no particular method used to order one. Most folks have heard about me through the good people at ALF where in one form or the other I’ve had paddles for 3 years. Not until this past ALF did I take paddles that I knew to be as Righteous as a wood paddle can be made to be. Anyway, I digress, the best way to order a ZapPaddle is to get in touch on FB to start the process of information gathering. I don’t make kayak paddles (yet) as they are more than double the intricacy to make. I haven’t made a raft guide paddle as such but the process should be just as any other ww paddle…only much longer with more blade.
DBP: The ZapPaddle is so incredibly flexible! I don’t think I’ve ever seen a shaft with so much flex. Tell us about your wood selection. How many hours of craftsmanship do you pour into each paddle?
VZ: Each piece of wood is hand selected for verticle grain, straight grain with as little grain run-out as possible. Because of the process involved in making these paddles it’s difficult to put an exact number of hours in their creation, but with that being said I’d estimate it takes somewhere on the order of 25-30 hours each. Maybe 20-25 hours…it’s difficult to estimate due to the stop and start nature of the process. For instance today I spent roughly 7 hours in the shop resurrecting one ww paddle from the grave while building another paddle. Using only epoxy resin adds immeasurably to the time of build, the cost of the build and the reward is the incredible strength of the finish product.
DBP: Some pretty top rank boaters favor your paddles over all others. That must be very gratifying as an artist. What’s the biggest venue that a ZapPaddle has appeared at?
VZ: Having open-boaters of the caliber who prefer a ZapPaddle over some of the other fine products out there is incredibly gratifying. It’s also very humbling. After all…these guys paddle some amazingly tough-on-equipment water and rely solely on the thing I created to help keep them stylin’-and-profilin’ down the rivers and creeks. The biggest event I’ve been to with my paddles is ALF and with the labor intensity and diligence required to successfully make a ZapPaddle I don’t envision making it to any of the festivals with the sole intent of taking orders. Heck…being the closet Bohemian I am that’d be too much like work.
DBP: It’s always fun to talk boating with a fellow dirtbag. Tell us about your biggest WALLACE in life. Where did you swim, and what was the outcome? After all, we are all in between swims! 
VZ: Ha Ha! I don’t quiet rise to the level of Dirtbag Paddler but thanks for the compliment just the same. Maybe I’m a wanna-be DBP.  I’ve never had an epic swim (Like I said…I’m no DBP) but one particular swim on section 3.5 Chattooga comes to mind where I crawled onto a rock exhausted. Swam Lesser Wesser etc. nothing spectacular. Like my friend and ZapPaddle user Carl Kirkpatrick once said “I’m here ot have fun…and if I’m scared I’m not having fun.”
DBP: Do you go to any festivals or events throughout the year, where a dirtbag could lay hands on a ZapPaddle, or even better get to shake hands with it’s creator? 
VZ: I’ve been known to appear at GAF and volunteer at Tallulah and enjoy the good folks at ALF so maybe I can catch up with some of my Open-boat heroes and meet some new ones at some events I’ve yet to attend. Helping paddlers and hearing about their outrageous adventures is a great way to spend some quality time.
DBP: Thanks for your time Vince! It’s always a pleasure to learn about and share info on one of us dirtbags in the community! I always say that no matter where in the world us boaters paddle, what color our skin or language we speak, it’s all One River in the end, and we are more like each other the world over than the 99% who DON’T paddle! Grow Together, Flow Together! My last question is – what’s in store for Vince Zappia the paddle maker in 2015? And Vince Zappia the paddler? 
VZ: During my most recent build I had an idea as to how I could make a ZapPaddle just a wee bit strong w/o adding any appreciable weight. That’ll be on the next B.A. Whoop-Ass ZapPaddle whitewater paddle. Vince Zappia the paddler would love to get in another run of Chattooga section 3 or possibly the Tuck and some more Nantahala fun.  See…I told you I’m not a WFO boater; I’m a WFO paddle maker. Thanks for this interview DBP.
Matt Todhunter paddling with Zap paddles – PHOTO CREDITS:
Baby Falls 1 – Charli Kerns
Oceana – Kelsey Hatcher
Autoboof – Maheengun Shawanda
Elbow – Herman King
Elbow 2 – Herman King
The Sinks – Herman King
Tremont – Herman King
Vince also put up a quick clip on Vimeo. “Just shot a new video of that completed shaft,” he says. “The blade end is covered for proprietary security reasons. I weigh 180 pounds and do some light up-and-down movement to demonstrate the flex.”
POST SCRIPT: These two photos were submitted by Trey Cambern, to the Dirt Bag Paddlers Facebook page. Trey is a committed Zap Paddle man!! 
“Photo credit for the first one goes to Neil Stanton, the second is Alex Vargas and the first one is the Mini Gorge the second is Flight Simulator.  Both on the West Fork of the Tuckaseegee in North Carolina”

4 replies on “CUSTOM WOOD ~ Vince Zappia & the art of making paddles. By ChicagoToughill”

Once you go ZAP you will never go back !!!! I am not a small guy and Vince brought me a paddle that suits me well. First day with that paddle I wore myself out, I have never had a paddle with as much bite as the ZAP. My paddle is a 59 " with a flat blade. I have paddled and broken many paddles much like Shawn, my Zap is not treated like a princess, rock braces and bottom scraping are regular use. She is scratched up and not nearly as pretty as the evening I first laid eyes on her a little over a year ago, a nice low brace slide down Flight Simulator, 28ish' slide on West Fork of the Tuckaseegee, would test any paddle. She taking a beating and other than some scratches she is solid. The shaft although not huge in diameter is strong with just the right flex to keep my shoulders happy. I was told once that with a bad paddle you feel it on every stroke, with a Zap you just sit there in wonder and thank Vince for his amazing work. Great Job Vince, Great article Chicago, thanks for getting the word out.

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