Carbon Fiber Paddle Vs Fiberglass Paddle – Which is best and why?

After deaths, divorce, and moving home choosing the right material for your Kayak Paddle is the most stressful life event a Kayaker has to experience.  Of course, I am kidding but it is a very important decision that can greatly impact your enjoyment out on the water

When looking to buy a new kayak paddle, you will quickly come to realize that the biggest factor affecting paddle performance is your choice of material.  A budget kayak paddle is typically made from an aluminum shaft with a thermoplastic molded blade.  Don’t get me wrong, they make a good starting paddle but the leap to a composite material brings with it so many positive benefits that you will soon be looking at a replacement.

If you are looking for the best kayak paddle you are faced with a choice, Fiberglass or Carbon Fiber?

Which is better?  Why is it better? And, which one should you buy?

If you don’t know the answers to these questions, and even if you do, don’t worry as we plan to settle the debate; Carbon Fiber Vs Fiberglass paddle

Roll up, roll up….read all about it!!

What is Fiberglass?

Glass fiber has been around since the 1700s, where glass fibers were used to decorate high-class ornaments.  Later in the 1840s glass was woven into a fabric for clothing.

I am not sure about you but I sure don’t fancy wearing glass fiber clothing.  The thought brings back memories of itching head to toe after rumbling around in the attic looking for the Christmas decorations.   

Although it wasn’t until the 20th century that the product we call fiberglass was created.

Fiberglass is a type of fiber-reinforced plastic that is created by infusing glass fibers, molten sand that is extruded via brushing to form a fiber that is woven into glass sheets, with a plastic resin, often epoxy.

It’s a wonderfully versatile material with many uses and positive material characteristics.  A keys feature is its ability to be formed into complex shapes which would be difficult to be cast using other materials.  This is why it’s often used in the creation of storage tanks, boat hulls, and kayak paddles.

The raw product, glass fiber, is cheap to produce, making it an attractive option from a commercial standpoint.  Fiberglass is also strong, waterproof, lightweight, non-rotting, and incombustible. It’s no surprise why it’s a populate material choice.

The only downfall is that it is prone to expanding with changes in temperature or prolonged exposure to sunlight, this can cause the resin or topcoat, if painted, to crack. But fiberglass is easily repaired, so it is not a major issue unless left untreated.

What is Carbon Fiber?

carbon fiber material

Believe or not but Carbon fiber has been around since the 1800s.  In 1879, Thomas Edison created a form of carbon fibers than he used in the first filament light.

However, this early form of carbon fiber didn’t have the same rigidity quality we know today. It wasn’t until the 1960s that’s the manufacturing process was perfected, creating the modern variant of Carbon fiber we currently use.

Carbon fiber is created by the bonding of carbon atoms into a crystal-like structure that creates the material’s positive features.  The process of creating this fiber is both complex and expensive.

Carbon fibers can be woven to create a fabric and combined with a plastic polymer.  Heat, pressure or vacuum is then applied to bind the materials together forming a composite material, whose properties are greater than it’s separate parts

Carbon fiber material has several positive characteristics that make it a popular material choice, such as; high strength, lightweight, and good thermodynamic properties.

Typically, carbon kayaks paddles are created by layering woven carbon fabric around a mold or into a die.  A resin polymer is applied and the compete paddle baked, sometimes under pressure, to form a carbon-fiber-reinforced paddle.

Weight – The Scales Don’t Lie

Set of scales

In the red corner with have the challenger Fiberglass, weighing in at 800gram.

In the blue corner weighing in around 600 grams, we have Carbon Fiber, the undefeated featherweight champion. 

(The crowd goes wild)

Ok, so these are not exact figures. Several factors, such as construction methods affect the overall weight.  But what it does highlight is, that on average, fiberglass is 30% heavier than carbon fiber.

Does such a small variance in weight make that much difference?…  Without question, it can.

Trying this little experiment at home. 

Using either two stovepipes, pint, or half-liter size cans of beer.  Hold one in either hand, then move your arms in a paddling motion for a few minutes.  Now repeat with two standard soda cans…. Notice the difference?  Point proved! 

Now imagine this over a half or full-day or Kayaking. Although this is a rudimentary experiment it does highlight the effect that weight has on paddle swing and tiredness. A lighter swing is an easier swing; the result is a more efficient stroke and less fatigue.

So when it come to weight and Fiberglass vs Carbon Fiber, there is a clear winner.

Winner; Carbon fiber

Cost – How Much? I Am Not Paying That!

When it comes to cost, there is a noticeable price increase when moving up from a budget Aluminium/nylon style paddle to either a fiberglass or carbon fiber paddle. The jump in price between fiberglass and carbon fiber can also be pretty steep, 2 or 3 times more expensive.

But to put that into context, a carbon fiber paddle is roughly 10 times more expensive than a budget Aluminium shafted and Nylon bladed paddle.  This limiting factor is the main reason why more people upgrade to a fiberglass paddle over a carbon fiber paddle.

Why are these two materials so much more expensive?  And most importantly, why is carbon so much higher-priced?  I would love to say it comes solely down to the material cost, but it’s doesn’t.

Yes, carbon fiber is a more expensive material than fiberglass or plastic as the cost to manufacture is considerably more.  Yet, material cost only makes a proportion of the overall price difference.  The major factor in the price difference is that creating a paddle using carbon fiber is a far more labor-intensive process.  The extra labor cost is directly reflected in the price. While elements of both materials manufacturing process can be undertaken by specialist machines, it more likely than Carbon fiber paddles are fashioned or finished by hand.

The rest of the gap in price, between fiberglass and carbon, is a product premium. If, and when, new material comes to market that has more desirable features and qualities than Carbon fiber then this premium would reduce. The laws of supply and demand

So it will be no surprise who the winner in this round of Fiberglass vs Carbon Fiber.

Winner; Fiberglass

Material Characteristics – Are You a Good Judge of Character?

Up and above weight and cost, fiberglass and carbon fiber share very similar characteristics.  If this was a simple tick box exercise then they would be marked equally.  But dig a little deeper and the difference becomes clear.

Strength

Arguably both materials are strong.  Each is stronger than the budget rival, Aluminium and plastic.  But when it comes down to rigidity, Carbon is the front runner by quick a mile.  In terms of a choice of material for a paddle, being more rigid means a better transfer of stroke energy into water movement.  Carbon is superior with a tensile strength of 240 Gpa.

Durability

Often referred to as toughness, is where fiberglass shines.  Being more flexible than super-rigid carbon, it can withstand stress and shock caused by a load being repletely applied.  Fiberglass’s lower tensile modulus means it can bend more before breaking. In this regard, carbon is brittle compared to fiberglass. 

Thermo Expansion

Carbon fiber composite has a neural rate of thermal expansion.  Great you say, but what does that mean?  Well, it means that unlike fiberglass its doesn’t expand or shrink with changes of temperature.  This means your carbon fiber paddle is not likely to develop cracks, but your fiberglass paddle might.  

Winner; Carbon fiber

Summary – So What’s the Verdict?

Carbon Fiber Kayak Paddle

Carbon fiber outshines fiberglass in most situations, and on paper is the clear winner in the Fiberglass vs Carbon fiber paddle battle.

Yet, there is no getting away for that the cost premium.  For most this will be the deciding influence in their buying making decision process. 

Unless your kayak as a sport then it can be quite tough to justify buying a full carbon paddle.

Does that mean you have to pick one over the other?… No!

A lot of paddle manufacturers are fully aware that cost is Carbon’s primary limiting factor.  As a result, many offer hybrids kayak paddles that consist of blades with a carbon top layer on nylon bases. This creates a paddle with a proportion of the positive features of Carbon but at Fiberglass prices.   

Are these hybrid kayak paddles better than a fiberglass one?  Some are, others are not.  It all depends on the hybrid material ratio, design, paddle blade shape (high or low angle) and construction.

And, remember no paddle in the world cant make up for not having a good paddling technique, so learn how to paddle a kayak property.

For more information on which is the best kayak paddle to buy, check our kayak paddle buyers guide and product review.