March / April 2020

Milford Buchanan and the Shelburne Dory

Carrying on a Nova Scotia tradition
The crew at the J.C. Williams Dory Shop

The seven-man crew at the J.C. Williams Dory Shop in Shelburne, Nova Scotia, shown here in about 1900, could send one to two dories per day out of the shop’s second-story doors during the height of the company’s production.

Milford Buchanan and I had already bent the pre-made bottom of the dory into the building jig—or horse, as he called the ancient cradle on the boatshop floor at the Dory Shop Museum in Shelburne, Nova Scotia. We had wedged the flat bottom tightly in place using posts and jacks that had been used to spring more than 50,000 bottoms to the standard 31⁄2" rocker. All five frames and even the stem and the transom were attached to the bottom before we bent it into place.

Now, I grabbed a spirit level and held it vertically alongside the stem to check it for plumbness. Buchanan looked at me and said, “I guess you could do it that way.” He took the level and set it on the workbench, then walked to the end of the shop and shut one of the bay doors. He returned to the boat. “See that stick on the edge of the door? Sidney Mahaney put that there. That’s plumb.” Mahaney had started building dories in this same building as a teenager, in 1914. Straddling the dory and squinting with one eye, Buchanan directed me to nudge the stem so that it would be plumb before securing braces to hold it there. That’s how it’s always been done here, where Buchanan, a fourth-generation boatbuilder, has carried on the tradition as the museum’s lead builder since 2003.

Shelburne exploded into existence in 1783 with the arrival of about 10,000 British Loyalists fleeing from the newly independent United States of America. They’d sided with the losing team and, no longer feeling welcome in the new republic, sought a friendlier territory that was still under British rule. A well-protected, deep-water harbor seemed to make Shelburne ideal for resettlement, and within a year its population reached 17,000, making it the fourth-largest city in North America. But it subsided just as fast after it became clear that farming the area’s spare, rocky soil couldn’t support the city’s population. Most of the loyalists moved on, and the population fell to less than 1,000. One among those who stayed was a German former militiaman named Conrad Bohannan, who anglicized his family name to Buchanan.

Shelburne
LEFT—Buchanan and the author (at the forward thwart) “test-drive” a dory outside the shop. Right—At the old Williams shop, now known as the Dory Shop Museum, chief boatbuilder Milford Buchanan uses a jack to press a dory bottom into the last building jig that the Williams shop used; over the decades, more than 20,000 dories of the type perfected at Shelburne were built on that same jig.

Today, Milford Buchanan carries on what his ancestors by the mid-1800s found to be one line of work that always proved dependable: boatbuilding. Numerous boatbuilders in Nova Scotia supplied dories for a hugely expanding new generation of deep-draft fishing schooners. They were built all over the eastern seaboard to withstand the notorious North Atlantic storms and take fleets of dories out to the highly profitable Grand Banks and Georges Bank fishing grounds to longline for cod.

Enter the Banks dory, an iconic type that was built by the thousands and captured the imagination of the public and of a generation of seascape painters, among them Winslow Homer. The boats were first built in Massachusetts ports around Gloucester, Essex, and Amesbury. They were cheap, simple, seaworthy, quick-to-build boats. Their thwarts were removable so that they could be tightly nested in stacks on the decks of schooners. They were quick to set up and easily launched and retrieved. Form followed function. They had flat, slightly rockered bottoms with straight, flared sides and narrow, V-shaped, and heavily raked “tombstone” transoms. Like Darwin’s finches, dories evolved to their own distinctive styles in each community where they proliferated. By 1900, the Shelburne dory was one of seven Banks dory varieties, according to historian Otto Klelland.

Shelburne
LEFT—Buchanan uses an ages-old bevel board to set his bevel gauge. Many such gauges and patterns once employed by the Williams shop are still in use today at the museum. Right—In the Shelburne dory construction method, the stem, five frames, and transom are fastened to the bottom, and only then is it pressed into the rockered building jig, or “horse.” Once the bottom is fully bent to shape, the boat is ready for topside planking.

It all started when Isaac Crowell made a pilgrimage from Shelburne to Massachusetts to examine dories and their construction, then returned to create his own variation. Shelburne served Canadian schooners but was also a logical stop for a voyage from Massachusetts to the Grand Banks. By the mid-1800s, the city had ten shipyards and seven dory shops. Schooners heading for the Banks could stop and purchase or replenish dories for the season. At $18, a dory was considered a throwaway boat, each expected to last a season or two. If a boat was badly damaged by being smashed against the schooner’s side while being launched or hoisted aboard, it was often simply set adrift.

In 1880, John C. Williams opened Shelburne’s largest dory shop, which employed seven men in the building that today houses the Dory Shop Museum. Williams’s shop produced a dory a day, the paint still wet as it slid out the door.

In 1887, Crowell patented his metal clip frame fastening system, which eliminated the need to find natural crooks. In traditional dory construction, frames were made in two halves, each L-shaped and made from a grown crook cut near the roots of hackmatack trees. For each piece, one arm of the L ran almost all the way across the bottom and the other up the side to the gunwale. The two pieces thus overlapped almost the full width of the bottom. Finding compass timbers and shaping frames were time-consuming tasks; with Crowell’s clip system, each half-frame could now be made from two sawn pieces of planking stock and quickly clipped together at the chine to form the L-shape. After Williams adopted the timesaving method, production doubled.

Williams watched for other improvements, too: A hundred years ago, the shop got electrical service and modernized again with a Crescent Universal Wood Worker—a goliath, belt-driven, cast-iron machine that combined a 32″ bandsaw, a tablesaw, a jointer, a shaper, and a wood borer. Production jumped again. The machine is still in use by the museum; when it broke down a few years ago, former Dory Shop owner Bill Cox came by to supervise repairs. He is older than the saw. He still stops by at age 102.

Shelburne’s most notable dory builder was Sidney Mahaney. He was paid 45 cents a day when he started in 1914 and soon rose to master dory builder at $1 a day. He worked there for 76 years, at the end of which he said that he believed he had built 10,000 dories. The Williams Dory Shop produced more than 50,000. But the era of the schooners and their dories was doomed after the arrival of diesel power and the advent of draggers that could haul huge nets along the Banks, catching tremendous numbers of fish albeit at the cost of simultaneously destroying habitat. The fishery eventually collapsed in the modern era.

The demand for dories, as lifeboats, continued for a few more years, but in 1971 Cox closed down the shop. “Our old dory builders simply wore out,” he said. The new generation was not interested. He just closed the doors.

In 1983, however, the shop was reopened as part of Shelburne’s Museums by the Sea, with British royals Prince Charles and Lady Diana officiating and with Sidney Mahaney back in the building as the museum’s prime exhibit. He built dories until his death in 1993, after which his son, Curtis, stepped in. Buchanan started working there in 1998 after volunteering for five years. When Curtis retired in 2003, Buchanan, a shirt-tail relative of Mahaney, became the Dory Shop’s master dory builder.

Buchanan’s ancestors had been boatbuilders and Banks fishermen. The family’s boatbuilding started with his great-grandfather, Tom Buchanan. One relative got separated from the mothership schooner—which was not an uncommon occurrence among dory fishermen—and took three days to make his way to shore. The tombstone of one of his grandfathers, Arthur Buchanan, has a dory carved into it, with a schooner in the background. His father was a boatbuilder, mostly of dories and skiffs, many of them for relatives, who were all fishermen.

“After my father passed away in 1985, I retained his fishing license,” Buchanan said. He was nearly 30; he had been a carpenter and cabinetmaker but not a boatbuilder. “Now, my cousin Sherman out on Enslows Point, I went out to him and I wanted to buy a boat and he laughed at me and said, ‘You guys have been building boats for generations. Don’t you think it’s about time you learned how to build one for yourself? You’ve got that big cabinet shop in there; I’ll come in, in the next week, and I’ll get you started.’ I haven’t stopped. So I guess it’s always been in my blood.”

A Shelburne dory may look a lot like others built in Lunenburg, Gloucester, or Amesbury. But each locale made them a bit differently. Their various traditions are maintained today in museums. I asked Buchanan how his dories differed from those built in Lunenburg. One difference is in the rocker, which is routinely 3½″ in Shelburne. “Up in Lunenburg,” he said, shaking his head, “they give it 5½″.” Also, “Ours has a bullnose cut on the bow and a ribbon,” he said, using local terms. The bullnose refers to a shaped stemhead that angles down to the forward edge. The ribbon refers to the rubrail. “Ours are a fair amount lighter, due to somewhat thinner stock.” Then he added with a grin, “Theirs leak. Ours don’t.”

The Dory Shop Museum in Shelburne is in the same building where John Williams founded his business on the second floor of an old fish warehouse on Dock Street, even though large doors at the end of the building have to be opened to allow finished boats to be lowered to ground level. The second story made sense because central structural posts on the first-floor got in the way of dory construction; in addition, the second floor couldn’t support the weight of the huge supply of lumber drying on site. Instead, the timber was stored on the first floor and boats were built upstairs, as they still are today. A narrow, worn staircase provides the only access upstairs. “It has to be that narrow,” Buchanan said. “If two people pass each other on the stairs, it’s bad luck. Then you gotta get rid of the boat you’re building or someone may die in it.”

Production today is usually a boat or two per year instead of per day. “We get an order for a boat most years,” Buchanan says. Prices, in Canadian dollars, range from $1,400 for a 5′-long decorative coffee-table model to $16,000 for a 22′ LOA Whaler model. The standard 15′ Banks dory is $6,750.

Nowadays, Buchanan works slowly and carefully on each boat, pausing often to give tours of the shop, to describe the history of the boats and the building, or to work on other projects. Today, the first floor is devoted to museum exhibits and sales. Buchanan also builds boat and ship models and whirligig weathervanes, sales of which help fund the shop.

Not everything is done exactly as it was in 1880. The dories are now expected to last more than a season or two, so the bottom planks are edge-joined with epoxied biscuit joints that don’t need to be recaulked each year. The bottoms are now fastened to the frames with screws and a dab of 3M 5200 adhesive sealant instead of square, galvanized boat nails, so they won’t loosen and leak over time. A few power tools have crept into use—cordless screwdrivers, a belt sander now and then—in addition to the “modern” Crescent Universal Wood Worker. But much work is still done by eye using hand planes, and old patterns are still used to determine the shapes of the bottoms and each piece of framing.

The pine for planking and oak for frames, floor timbers, transoms, and stems still comes from the Scott family north of Shelburne, as it has for generations. They have been timber men since the days of the log drives on Nova Scotia’s rivers, and they are still renowned for log-rolling. Galvanized boat nails, which are still used for topside planking, are no longer made, but the shop had a vast supply on hand when it closed in 1971. Paint, as for all traditional Banks dories, is a mustard yellow called “dory buff,” with green for the gunwales.

Ten years ago, Mick Fearn, a retired New Englander visiting the area, heard that Buchanan’s helper was retiring and mentioned he’d love to lend a hand. Three weeks later, Buchanan called to ask if Fearn was serious. He was, and he and his wife came back for much of that season, eventually buying a summer home nearby. Fearn has been Buchanan’s right-hand man each summer ever since, along with Mike Hardigan.

Buchanan told me, however, that young people, including his own son, seemed uninterested in woodworking or boatbuilding. Who will carry on the legacy of the Shelburne dory? “Nobody right at the moment,” Buchanan said. “We keep talking about it, and I’m assuming it’ll have to happen soon. ’Cause I’m getting up there.” I asked him where the bulk of his knowledge of the Shelburne tradition came from. “Well, it was mostly Bill Cox and Curtis Mahaney. Now, my father used to build them and stuff, but he didn’t pass too much down onto me, ’cause he didn’t think I’d ever make a boatbuilder, you know? So I’m hoping he’s smiling down on me right now.”

I first met Buchanan at the Dory Shop Museum in 2014, and in June 2019 I went back to spend a week working alongside him. I wanted to learn more about the Shelburne dories. I arrived during Buchanan’s lunch break to find a miniature dory half built in one part of the shop, plans for a plywood skiff laid out on a wide platform atop two sawhorses, and the shop in a mild state of chaos. I felt right at home with the chaos, but I was a bit disappointed that I didn’t see a full-sized dory in the works. But minutes after Buchanan returned, we cleared off the platform to expose a glued-up dory bottom for a 15-footer (dories being measured by the length of their bottoms, not by their lengths overall). “I’ve been saving this for you,” he said.

We snapped a centerline on it, established its midpoint, squared out from there to mark a 3′ width, and measured out a 15′ length on the centerline. From the rafters, Buchanan pulled down an unmarked ancient curved pattern—a pine board, brown with age and about 8′ long, 3″ wide, and curved just so. A subtle pencil mark near one end was the key to placement. We used the outside of the curve to mark the forward half of the bottom; the inside of the curve, being a slightly smaller radius, marked the after half. “This pattern is good for any dory from 8′ to 20′,” he said, “if you know how to use it.” He tucked it back up into the rafters. He set a circular saw for 28 degrees and told me to cut out the bottom.

We walked down to the milling room of the old boatyard, currently an unused part of the museum complex, to cut out a transom. We traced it with another old V-shaped pattern, marked with a series of heights for dories of various sizes. We marked off the stock for a 15-footer, cut it, and planed it smooth. We cut a 2¼″-thick oak transom knee, also from an old pattern. From a scrap of pine, we cut the “circle board”—the rounded crosspiece below the sculling notch—and screwed it to the transom. With the transom complete, we screwed it to the bottom. We also screwed in place the curved stem, which Buchanan had prepared earlier.

Hundreds of old pieces of wood filled the rafters and hung on the walls. Knowing which one is which, and when and where to use it, is all stored in Buchanan’s memory, passed down from earlier master dory builders.

"I know probably about half of the patterns, ’cause they built more than just dories here. They built round-siders, they built dory skiffs, they built Swampscott dories. It’s a hard job to read the writings on them. But, you know, for the dories and the skiffs, we still have the original molds and patterns hanging on the wall. So I know how to use those. And this is all passed down to me from word of mouth. And doing. So if you go over to the museum, to the office, and ask for a set of blueprints, they don’t have them. ‘It’s all up in Milford’s head.’”

In the past, secrets were a way to stay a step ahead of competitors. Now, that knowledge teeters on the brink of extinction. Buchanan grabbed two small patterns and laid them on an oak plank. These were the side and bottom halves of the frames. Having marked these off, we took them to the early 20th-century Crescent Universal Wood Worker, which roared to life. Buchanan pulled a lever and the bandsaw lurched hesitantly. He handed me a stick, pointing to a pulley for me to push to increase the belt tension. The saw spun up to full speed.

With frames cut, we planed and spokeshaved them smooth and went to the assembly jig, which is unchanged since 1880s. Clamping a floor timber and a frame in place, Buchanan used a handsaw to cut the joint clean a few times until the butt joint was tight. He drilled six holes in a pair of galvanized steel plates—the patented Shelburne dory-frame clip. He then demonstrated how to drill through the top clip and through the frame, remaining in line with the holes in the bottom part of the clip. We drove nails through, then went to the anvil to peen the nails tight and bend the ends of the clips around the joint. Voilà.

That’s how Shelburne builders eliminated the need to find frame stock from the curved roots of hackmatack trees. “I used to dig those roots when I was a kid,” Buchanan said. “That was a lot of hard work. Boy, was I delighted to use this system when I came here.” Once we had all five frames assembled, we screwed them in place on the bottom, before bending the entire bottom assembly into place on the building jig. The patterns for their shapes anticipate the slight change in rake that occurs when the bottom is bent into the jig. This technique of building directly over the final frames is unique to Shelburne dories; the Lunenburg and American dory builders built the bottoms, then planked the topsides over a set of three molds, fitting the frames only after the planking was done.

It may sound as though we were moving fast. But this is a time-lapse narrative. Every few minutes, we would hear footsteps on the stairs, meaning it was time for Buchanan to lead another tour. I continued working as long as possible, then watched the show while awaiting further guidance.

Before we crammed the bottom assembly into the old building horse, a few more steps were necessary to assure a watertight boat. First we used a very straight, very old pine stick—“this is the original one,” Buchanan told me—to project the line of the upright frames onto the edges of the bottom, to check the bevels and adjust them with a plane wherever they weren’t perfect. Next, we tacked on cotton wicking, the same type used for making candles. We started from the top of one transom edge, worked down that edge, along the bottom bevel to the stem, up the stem, around to the other side, and repeated the process in the opposite direction on the other side. This provides continuous caulking in the joints between planking and the floor, stem, and transom.

Fearn, who arrived in Shelburne that day for the season, hauled in his toolbox and joined in the work. The ribbing between Fearn and Buchanan picked up where they’d left off the previous autumn. But it was always good-natured—they truly enjoy working together.

Now it was back to the process I’d learned a few years earlier as we forced the bottom down into the horse and plumbed the stem and transom. Next, Buchanan picked out two long, wide, pine planks for the garboards, which we bent onto the boat, marked, then cut on the old Wood Worker. Using planes and spokeshaves, we smoothed the edges, then beveled the tops to receive the overlaps of the second strakes. Finally, we drilled pilot holes and spiked the garboards to the boat.

My work came to an end as we were fitting the next strake. It was time for me to return to Brooklin, Maine, since I had taken a week between teaching commitments at WoodenBoat School to make the trip to Shelburne. With the frenetic American gone, Buchanan and Fearn could resume their relaxed museum pace, finishing the strakes, adding gunwales, caps, ribbons, dropping in seats, and a few other details. Then start again.

Brad Dimock is a longtime boatbuilder and Grand Canyon river-running guide who lives in Flagstaff, Arizona. His scholarship in dory-style construction started with flat-bottomed western river-running boats and drift boats, which are predominantly plywood descendants of dories. He teaches the subject at WoodenBoat School, including a July 19–25, 2020, class in building a McKenzie River drift boat.

The Dory Shop Museum is open June 1 to October 15 each year. Dory Shop Museum, 11 Dock St., Shelburne, NS, B0T 1W0, Canada; 902–875–3219; www.doryshop.com.

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