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March 2023

Behind the Scenes at Werner Paddle

Guest Authors: Nathan Slater & Sanesh Iyer from @alittlepaddle

On the morning of November 11th, 2022, Sanesh and Nathan had the pleasure of touring the Werner Paddles factory and storefront in Monroe, Washington. This stop was part of a multi-day, multi-purpose, and multi-country adventure which is chronicled, in detail, in a post on our blog. The purpose of our visit to the factory was to drop off Nathan’s broken Werner Kaliste paddle without paying astronomical shipping fees (around $180 each way!). The paddle had snapped after five years of intense guiding use, kayak surfing, travel, and storage. It broke off in half at the ferrule in the summer while Nathan was guiding a 22-day sea kayak expedition in Gwaii Haanas. It broke on day-7 and he had been hauling around its pieces ever since. Werner offers a repair service for their paddles, but it requires the paddle to be sent to them for repair.

We planned our trip to be in Washington on Friday November 11th (a Canadian holiday which we both had had off, but a day when Werner would be open). In the early evening of November 10th, Sanesh and Nathan piled into a converted Sprinter van and headed for the US border.

We arrived at the Werner Shop around 9:00am after a night spent in the van parked in downtown Everett and were immediately greeted by Taylor - the marketing and sales director. We had been chatting with him by email for a few weeks leading up to our trip and he was excited to show us around and let us in on the secrets of Werner’s incredible performance blades. We started in the storefront where we ogled the current lineup of paddles and saw a display showing their design innovations over the years. It was amazing to see how aspects of the modern blades we use are the result of dozens of small, but incredibly meaningful, design tweaks and process improvements.

During the tour, we were asked not to take photos and not disclose the proprietary processes. However, they do have this video online which we’ve grabbed some screenshots from as it shows many of the technical highlights of their work.

Walking back into the shop, the first thing we noticed was the smell - or rather, lack thereof. Werner has a sweet ventilation system that extracts all the off gasses released by uncured epoxy. Sanesh remarked that this was the first time he’d walked into a composites facility that did not smell like one. For employee health, this is huge! The facility was also very well organized and clean. There were no messes or piles anywhere. Everything had a home - super impressive.

Sanesh is a mechanical engineer who designs, tests, and builds components made from composite materials while Nathan is a sea kayak guide who routinely uses composite paddles and kayaks, but has essentially no knowledge of how the materials work. As you can imagine, our backgrounds offered us distinct interpretations of Werner's processes. Sanesh nodded conscientiously and asked detailed questions while Nathan looked overwhelmed and out of his depth… We’ve decided to divide the rest of the article into our separate perspectives for clarity and for comparative comedic value.

Nathan's Take:

I was overwhelmed! Everything was so cool - the processes were so slick and the workers so smooth in their operations that it was almost like walking into a choreographed performance. I tried my best to understand what Taylor was telling us as we toured, but there was a lot of nuance that went straight over my head.

Here's what I managed to retain about composite paddle manufacturing:

  • Tooling is very specialized and expensive - there isn't really an off-the-shelf system for putting together a kayak paddle
  • Prepreg means a carbon fiber (or fiberglass or Kevlar) fabric that has been pre-impregnated with a resin so it can be easily laid into a mold and baked to cure. The process ensures an even distribution of resin throughout the fabric.
  • Some manufacturing processes are tightly controlled industry secrets - while Taylor gave us extensive details about how straight shaft paddles were made, bent shafts, foam-filled blades, and ferrule fittings remain a mystery.
  • Very little of the manufacturing process is done by machine. Dies cut patterns and ovens cure resin, but the highly trained workers at Werner operate the machinery, move the components around and are each able to operate a number of stations within the factory.

Overall, what I was most impressed by in the shop was the calm atmosphere. Every process is meticulously executed and very little material is wasted. I’ve spent a lot of time in woodworking shops and kayak repair facilities, and this level of composure and cleanliness often seems more like a far-off dream than a lived reality. Given the intense precision and tolerances of the manufacturing, I am honestly blown away that I’m able to be abusive to my equipment for years before they show signs of damage.

Sanesh’s Take:

It was super exciting for me to be able to visit a manufacturer as well known as Werner who does high volume carbon fiber production in the Pacific Northwest. I’ve spent the better part of a decade with an interest in and learning about carbon fiber composites. I studied Mechanical Engineering at BCIT and McGill. At BCIT, my capstone project was the design of a carbon fiber composite kayak paddle blade with a hollow core and production tooling for its manufacture using resin transfer molding (Check it out here!). My paddle was absurdly heavy, so I won’t be bringing it on this trip! I went on to research shape memory alloy hybrid composites during my Master’s at McGill University. I previously worked professionally in aerospace composite manufacturing process simulation. I have lots to learn from Werner, and a vested interest in doing so! Perhaps it was dangerous of them to let me in.

Their factory is well laid out, with raw materials coming in on the shipping dock, looping around the factory in a continuous process, and processed paddles ending up back on the shipping dock ready to go. A lot of companies say “aerospace grade” and provide no proof. I’m sure I cannot say which brand of composites Werner uses, but I recognized the boxes and product labels and they’re ones I’m familiar with from high performance aerospace systems. The quality starts with the raw materials, and Werner uses the good stuff.

Any materials and process engineer will tell you that the high quality raw materials are only part of the challenge, a robust process which bakes consistency and performance into the product is equally important. Werner’s production processes are clearly setup with this in mind, as they’ve invested in fancy pieces of kit like a CNC ply cutter, semi-automated rolling machines for shafts, closed-mold tooling for blades, as well as ovens and heaters to batch cure their parts using processes similar to those used in automotive and aerospace.

Their level of automation allows for consistency and high performance. However, a person is involved every step of the way to supervise the machines and enabling quality to be controlled at every step. If a ply is miscut or a layup is done incorrectly, the human operator is there to intervene to prevent a low quality part from going downstream. Each paddle is also hand finished, so there’s a final inspection that’s done to ensure that each one meets their high standards.

Watching the staff work was cool to see as well. Everyone was wearing personal protective equipment (gloves, glasses, and labcoats/coveralls were common as they should be when doing this type of work), so they were clearly taking safety seriously. There was soft music playing. Many of them were chatting and sometimes dancing a little when they had a moment. The staff really did seem happy. It’s challenging to find and train composites manufacturing technicians, especially being at the doorstep of big-aerospace. Werner clearly has something special going.

Final Thoughts

Werner paddles are expensive, there’s no doubt about it. We both saw the value before, but having had the opportunity to tour their shop just reinforces it. Werner’s paid attention to the details, everything from their factory layout to using high quality materials to designing processes to build quality into the products they sell. Layer on top of that the clear focus on worker safety and minimization of process waste, and the value is clear. Sanesh certainly learned a lot from this factory tour which is going to make him a better engineer. Nathan is now even more of a Werner evangelist than before now that he has an understanding of the tight manufacturing processes required to make his favorite blades.

Werner truly is a company that lives and breathes perfection, and it shows in their product.