It seems a bit too simple to say there are four main strokes in canoeing but if you don't count all the variations as strokes it's right on the mark. I've found it's quite easy teaching my students to manoeuvre their canoe if they first limit themselves to the four main corner stones of canoeing, which are a forward and back stroke, and the pry and draw. The combination and placement of these four components will create different actions and effects that will enable you to control your canoe in various situations.
Forward and Back strokes move the canoe forward or backwards in a slight arc
turning away from the paddling side. Prys and Draws near the pivot point (centre of canoe) will move the canoe sideways. I find what is fun is to combine those four strokes above, that's when it gets really interesting.
A Front sweep and Back sweep will pivot or turn the canoe. Sweeps are just forward and back strokes done with the paddle pretty much parallel to the water surface. Pry and Draws done in front or behind the canoe's pivot point have a similar
effect as the sweeps but are much more efficient in turning the canoe quickly.
The J-Stroke makes you go in a straight line. It is a forward stroke that
describes the letter J by using a smooth little pry at the end. Remember that
the powerface is used throughout the stroke.
A C-Stroke is a Draw ahead of the pivot point blended with a forward stroke
and finished with a J. It's a fancy way to turn, but it keeps your canoe under
power which is a good thing if you're battling the wind. A Reverse-J is the J-Stroke done in the reverse. It is a fantastic stroke to use for paddling backwards or stopping your boat.
There are far
too many combinations and stroke names to mention here but as you see above
there is a logical progression to more precise strokes. The more advanced
the manoeuvre the more exacting the timing and the attention to the
placement of the blade has to be. Moreover, the more the canoeist practices,
the more the paddling turns into a lyrical art form.
I do not make paddles but I do paddle (flat water, white water and wilderness tripping) and use a few different shapes and sizes. I always ask this question to myself before I order a paddle. What is the purpose I would like the paddle to serve. Most of the time I use a maple one-piece Ottertail paddle with a long, narrow blade when I canoe quiet water alone. The narrow blade moves less water that a wide blade, but it allows a faster stroke rate, and I find it is less tiring to use. With solo paddling the canoe naturally leans to your paddling side so the shaft length is a little shorter than a tandem paddle. One of the methods I use to size the paddle is I sit on a chair, invert the paddle, rest the grip on the seat. For me I like the throat of the paddle to be close to my eyebrows for solo and about the hairline for my tandem paddle. This makes sense to me because it is the length of your torso that is important not the length the legs. When placed in the water for most strokes, the grip comes to the chin and the throat of the paddle rests at the waterline. This is just for measuring for an Ottertail style of paddle, there are many ways to measure yourself to a paddle. I suggest you consider and factor in how long you want the shaft length in relationship to the blade length. And, most importantly, try as many diffent paddles as you can get your hands on. You will discover very quickly what you like and what works for you, for as you can tell, paddle preference is a very personal thing!
Finally I do like a stiff paddle with just a little bit of flex in the blade. My favorite paddle wood is Maple. I like everything about it. It has a beautiful buoyancy point, it is nice and stiff and the weight and wood just feels good in my hands. But I've been told Maple is not an easy wood to work with, cherry is a much more common wood for paddles. Many laminated paddles are both practical and beautiful too.