SHELBURNE, N.S. – Not much has changed since John C. Williams opened his dory shop on Shelburne’s waterfront in 1880. Now part of the Nova Scotia Museum, dories are still built there much the same as they were 140 years ago.
“We don’t produce two a day like they did with seven men working a 10-hour day,” says master boatbuilder Milford Buchanan. “It’s just me and Mick Fearn and another volunteer, Mike Hartigan, who helps once in a while.
Ninety-five per cent of the work is still done the old fashion way, other than a few cordless drills to make the work a little easier and faster.
“We still have to use the hand planes and the hand saws,” Buchanan says. “We’re still using old square nails we have that were left over. We do use a handful of screw fasteners. That makes it a little bit stronger and we try to do a polish-up job and sand all the planks and seats whereas back then they didn’t. It was a work boat. It didn’t matter if these boats lasted a trip or lasted two years. Now we try to get them to last 15 to 20 years. Each dory, we strive to build a better dory than the last one.”
The original master patterns for the knees, the stem and the stern still hang in their respective places along the walls of the dory shop. Overhead are more patterns and jigs for scribing out the bottoms of the dories and for the risers. The original building platform for building the dories is still used.
“It’s been here since 1880,” says Buchanan. “The first boat was built there, and I guess the last boat will be built there whenever that it is.”
The only major change to the way the Shelburne dories are built was made in 1983.
“What we do now is biscuit joint and laminate the bottoms together whereas back then they would have rolled cotton caulking in between the cracks,” Buchanan explains. “The reason we do this is there’s not too many wooden boats being built now, and hardware stores don’t have the cotton. In the spring of the year you’d have to re-caulk the bottom of the boat so this makes it more user-friendly.”
The dories are made from pine and oak, sourced from Scott’s Mill in Barrington: pine for the planks, oak for the structural components. To bend the oak gunnels that run along the top of the vessel, the 20-foot pieces of wood are soaked in Shelburne harbour to make them pliable. The gunnels are fitted to the stem and stern first and then are slowly brought around, says Buchanan.
“It’s a two-man job and about the only thing I can’t do by myself,” he says. “And clinching the nails, I can’t do by myself.”
Whereas thousands of dories were built here over the past century and longer, on average now the dory shop builds one to two dories a year.
“Last year we did sell four boats but that doesn’t happen very often,” says Buchanan, adding when he first started working at the dory shop in the early 1980s they were building six to seven a year.
While dories were once a mainstay in the North Atlantic fishery, these days they are used for recreational purposes. And although there are different dory styles along the eastern seaboard, the one common factor is the colour because it was easy to see in the fog.
“It was a safety thing. Even back then it was practical to have a common thing,” says Mick Fearn. “If you’re from Gloucester or Shelburne or Lunenburg and you go astray from your ship you’re willing to get on any schooner,” he says, retelling what surely must be a fable of fishing captains able to go visit another schooner captain by “walking from dory to dory and never getting their feet wet.”
Fearn has been volunteering at the dory shop for nine years and says he really enjoys it.
“I love upholding the tradition and I love meeting the people,” he says. “There’s something real fascinating about taking the raw plank and making something beautiful plus functional.”
Buchanan also enjoys his work. “I love it. I can’t wait to get to work. I’ve got the best view in town. What makes it so good are the visitors. They make your day. We allow them to help work on the boats if they want. We let them climb in the dory and get pictures taken. It makes their day.”
Buchanan also gets the visitors, especially the children, to sign the boat. Even though the signatures get painted over, they stay with the boat, he says.
The dory shop was a working dory shop until 1971. Bill and the late George Cox were the last owners. Bill, who will be 101 this month, still visits the dory shop once or twice a month, says Buchanan, as does Curtis Mahaney, son of the legendary dory builder the late Sydney Mahaney, who started working at the dory shop when he was 17 and remained there for 79 years until his death.
Curtis, 87, who also worked at the dory shop, comes in once a week.
“I tell him he’s the boss,” says Buchanan.
The dory shop museum closes for the season on Oct. 15.
What’s the difference between the Shelburne and Lunenburg-style dories?
The south shore of Nova Scotia is noted for two dory styles, so what’s the difference between the Shelburne dory and the Lunenburg dory?
The biggest difference between Shelburne and Lunenburg-style dories are the knees, says Shelburne master dory builder Milford Buchanan.
“We use two pieces of oak with a metal clip whereas Lunenburg uses all one piece. The Shelburne dory has a three-and-a-half-inch rocker on the bottom and Lunenburg has a five-and-a-half-inch. Our planks are five-eighths an inch. Theirs are three-quarters. They actually build the boat first and then put in the ribs or knees, where we install ribs or knees first and then build the boat around it.”
Did you know?
If you have been to the Dory Shop in Shelburne, you’ve probably noticed how narrow the stairwell is to get upstairs.
This is because back in time it was considered bad luck to pass another person on a stairwell when dory construction was happening.
The stairwell was built very narrow to prevent this from happening.
SEE INSIDE THE DORY SHOP GROUND FLOOR: GOOGLE MAPS
THE UPSTAIRS OF THE DORY SHOP: GOOGLE MAPS
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