Buying Locally: Frank’s Custom Oars

Update: I made my first run with these oars this past weekend and was pleased with the balance and performance . . . and yes, I am able to lift them with one finger.

I finally had enough. The pain in my shoulder, neck and spine from my functional but poorly balanced oars became unbearable and I had to upgrade as soon as possible. I looked around and priced out drift boat oars from a few well known manufacturers and also placed a call to Frank of Frank’s Custom Oars located on Cloverdale Road just off Highway 58. I’ve heard owners of Frank’s Oars rave about them so I couldn’t believe my ears when he quoted me a price. “Two eighty for the set.” he said.

Frank was working on the greenhouse when I arrived. A throwback to the pioneers of drift boating and really to the earlier days of our region, Frank has done it all and on his own terms. If he needs something, he builds it, fells it, whatever it takes to get the job done. In his seventy seven years he has fished with the legends of the Mckenzie, trapped, guided, built and repaired boats, felled trees for his handcrafted oars and just about everything else you could think of. It seemed right to buy my oars from him . . . .

Custom Oar Inventory

As for the oars, each shaft is generally lathed from a single air dried Douglas fir log. “Kiln drying makes the wood brittle”, he explained to me, “and I want ‘em to last.” That makes two of us. The shafts are a little beefier than production oars but don’t feel heavy, they are nicely balanced. After lathing, for lack of a better term, Frank laminates the blades and then hand shapes them.  The blades have a wooden wedge to prevent splitting and the outer edge of the blade is made from Madrone or from Ashe that Frank fells from the grove behind his homestead. The blade and the shaft are single piece construction, “keeps em from rotting.”

I was sold and sold my backbreakers yesterday and headed back  to select my oars and custom place my oar stop.  We measured the distance between my oar locks and subtracted six inches, three on each oar to keep the oars at the proper distance from each other. Here Frank marks the oar for placement of the stopper:

Marking the Oars for Wrapping

Like I mentioned, Frank’s drift boat oars are a little chunkier than production models, some talcum powder and elbow grease and the stop was in place:

Sliding on the Oar Stop

The next step was to wrap the oar. Frank definitely has the hands of a lifelong woodworker:

Wrapping the Oars

After wrapping, he coated the wraps with Urethane and we headed out into the sunshine as we waited to turn the oars a couple times, making sure they dried evenly.

It isn’t everyday I sit down with someone like Frank and we had a far ranging conversation. He “grew up on the Mohawk” he explained to me and the “only time [he] left the state was to fight the communists in Korea.” There used to be pretty good fishing on the Mohawk for cutthroat and some rainbows. As a boy, he says he saw steelhead up there too, though just a few. He fished the smaller creeks, Mcgowan and Parsons and in the fifties and early sixties guiding before Dexter and Lookout Point, Cougar and Blue River dams, the spring salmon were thick and the catching was easy . . or so it was remembered.

On Woody Hindman: “He was a nice guy, real nice guy. Not the world’s greatest carpenter but a hell of an engineer. Engineered one of the best boats in the United States.”

Frank’s an opinionated guy and much of our conversation was off the record. But, if you are in the market for good oars at a great price, you might consider asking him yourself. It beat the hell out of a department store or marina experience that’s for sure!–KM

Oar Blade

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23 Responses to Buying Locally: Frank’s Custom Oars

  1. Joe says:

    Right on! Stories like this keep me comin’ back for more.

  2. Rick Allen says:

    Great Blog Karl.
    Sounds like a memerable experiance.
    Hope you enjoy your new oars. I cant wait to try em.
    R

  3. Brent says:

    Nice story Karl! Cool experience. Gotta love Oregon.

  4. Rob R says:

    Awesome story! But you may or may not be out of the woods yet. Let me relate my own story: In 2000 I was told by a doctor that I would probably have to quit guiding–after only one year of full time rowing. The problem: tendonitis in both elbows, so bad the pain was becoming unbearable. I was devastated. The oars I was using were made by Carlisle–the standard for whitewater rafts, and the oars chosen by Clackacraft for their drift boats.

    It turned out that the Carlisle oars were 100% responsible for my problems. I switched to 9′ gull oars, made from light ash. They balanced so perfectly that I could hold both oars out of the water while drifting with just a finger on each oar.

    Upon switching, all of my pain disappeared. I contacted Clackacraft about the problem. It turns out they used to offer Gull oars with their boats, but changed to Carlisle because Carlisle allowed them to label them “Clackacraft.” In spite of my pleas, the management of Clackacraft denied any problems, and basically told me I was an idiot.

    Ironically, I now use a set of Carlisle oars on my Northwest boat. Sounds crazy, but this set is perfectly balanced for this particular boat. Carlisles are SO heavy, in most cases rowers need to shorten their oars to help them balance. But boat makers like Clack continually recommend longer oars, fuelling problems.

    No matter the make or model, balance is the key. Congrats on making the change to a local, hand-made product. But here’s the key: if it takes more pressure to hold the oar out of the water than you can exert with just one finger, your pain will most likely persist. On the other hand, if the balance is right, your life will improve dramatically.

    I wish you the best!

  5. Karl Mueller says:

    Rob:

    For a boat my size, Frank recommends the 8 foot oars though I went 8.5 because that is more like what I’m used to . . . .plus, i figure I’ll be able to use them on the larger boat I plan on building next winter.

    Mercifully, my pain is not chronic, yet . . . and thankfully what I can lift with one finger is far more than you can w/ two! ;)

    Seriously though, the kids were hefting them yesterday and marveling at how light they are … I think I’ll be ok.

    Btw, my previous oars, were Carlisles.

  6. Rick says:

    Great story and interesting info about an “old timer”. However, and not to be negative, my recollection is that Frank’s fir-constructed oars have little flex in the shaft. When I’m really reefing on an oar, I prefer a little flex which seems to cushion things a bit.

  7. Karl Mueller says:

    Fair enough.

    It wouldn’t surprise me if they flex a less than some oars. . . Like I said they are a little chunkier than the production models.

    As an informational item, I set them lengthwise and pushed on them and they certainly did flex some. They definitely flex more than my Carlisle’s. Of course, anything would.

    IMO like anything in life and fishing there are trade-offs. No rod, reel, boat, oars etc are going to do everything perfectly. There are always trade-offs.

    This is not to be negative either, I’m curious. I’ve never really understood the physics/ benefits behind the cushioning idea. It seems you apply equal force and it either bends the oars or it doesn’t. Either way the same amount of force is applied, right? Either you divide the force between that initially applied to moving the boat and that which “loads” the oar and then the “loaded” oar kicks at the end of your stroke as it releases the already applied energy stored in the bent oar or it “loads” less and more force is initially applied to the movement of the boat and it kicks less at the end.

    It seems similar to me to rod action or vehicle suspension. More flex, softer easier ride but less responsive? and less quick? Like the difference between the suspension in a town car vs. a sports car (no value judgment implied).

    I guess I like my oars and rods like I like my women . . . fast. And I can’t resist the obvious pun, different strokes for different folks.:)

  8. Rick says:

    I took a course in physics once….a long time ago. Anthing I may have learned is long gone.

    But maybe the oar flex concept could be compared to jumping off a bridge with a tether. If the tether is a bugee cord, the force of the fall is tempered by the lengthening rubber cord. If the tether is manilla rope, there is a jarring, sudden stop.

    If one is really reefing on the oars through waves and chop, the force on the body is tempered somewhat by the flex in an oar. No flex just feels bad, at least to me. Like you say, different strokes…..I’ll take a good ash oar, personally.

  9. Karl Mueller says:

    No flex is an overstatement, I don’t want to be argumentative but I do want to be fair to the oars here. They definitely flex when I push on them.

    I suspect the difference between oars is less extreme and more like the examples I cited than the bungee cord/ manila rope analogy. Either way, I won’t be jumping off any bridges anytime soon!

  10. Rob R says:

    Far be it from Karl to be argumentative!

  11. tarponchaser says:

    Why does no one mention Cataract oars?

  12. Brian says:

    I’m finishing a major rebuild on a 1948 double-ender and have been looking for the right oars. I believe I just found them, I can’t think of a more appropriate oar for my boat.

  13. Rancid says:

    Hey Karl,

    After 3 months how do you like your oars that you got from Frank? I’m thinking of replacing the odds and ends I am rowing with now, and met Frank over on the Willamette the other day, talked to him and made the connection to the article that you posted here on the Blog. You can contact me offline if you like at: ranlynd@comcast.net.

    ~R

  14. I love the buy local and buy American push!!

  15. Gene Beck says:

    Does Frank have a web site for prices and info?

  16. Karl Mueller says:

    No. You can call him by searching Franks Custom Oars . . .

  17. Mark Lennox says:

    I took the advice from this article and invested my $$ into a pair of 8 1/2 ft. I row a 17 ft slide rite and these oars are WONDERFUL! I had a missmatched set of oars, a HEAVY laminated sawyer and an ash smoker. My shoulders really ached bad after just a few hours rowing. These new FRANKS are SOOOOOOO light on the handles and flex wonderfully! I fish very shallow water at times and these are so purty I worry about tearing the tips up on the gravel. I am going to thin the edges some so they enter the water quieter and have them coated for about an inch on the tips with rino liner, the local dealer said about $40 to prep and spray them. All in all I would say they are the most wonderful set of oars I have ever rowed! So guys, if you want a light, easy on the shoulders set, get a set of these and go “PULL THE WOOD”!!!!!

  18. Andrew Anderson says:

    where can i order a set of these oars?

  19. Are Frank’s oars still available to purchase? I wish to buy a pair of 10′ 6″ long traditional oars for a home built British beach launched North Sea fishing boat which is 17′ long and 6′ 6″ beam. If available what would they cost and can they be shipped?

    Thanks,

    Derek

  20. roy humphrey says:

    i need one oar lock. fiberglass oars for a drift boat! 541 451 4161!

  21. Shawn Baker says:

    Frank L. Harrington, 86, of Creswell, OR, passed away Dec. 8, 2017.
    Rest in peace, Frank.

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