Warning– long post. But a good story.
In late May Cricket and I headed out to do one of our favorite things–go to Maine and the Maritimes. But it always starts out with our least favorite thing–flying on an airplane.
Fortunately fate had pity and awarded us an upgrade on the last leg.
In Brooklin, Maine we picked up some of our tools from WoodenBoat School and met up with Diane, a friend from high school some fifty plus years ago. We took the ferries across to New Brunswick.
We spent a couple days with our friends Harry and Martha and got to enjoy their annual clam bake. By nightfall high tide put all this under water. The tides here range twenty-seven vertical feet. Amazing.
Cricket and Diane resting before dessert.
Then another ferry across to Nova Scotia. We caravanned with Graham McKay, who would be joining us on this quest. Graham is the executive director of Lowell’s Boat Shop in Amesbury, Massachusetts, said to be the birthplace of the dory. Graham knows more about the Lowell’s style dory and dories in general that anyone.
We had a bit of extra time and took a circuitous route along the coast to Shelburne. It’s a good thing we did, or we’d have not gotten there–turns out Nova Scotia was on fire and the main highways were closed. Here’s a shot of the Dory Shop, our destination, and the fires off to the north and west. Yikes. They would get a lot worse before they got better.
We were here to spend two weeks documenting Milford Buchanan, the last builder of the Shelburne Dory. The tradition migrated here in the mid-1800s and began evolving into its own unique style. Like Darwin’s finches, each locality that produced these iconic boats evolved their own unique species. The Shelburne style, although long in years, is astonishingly short in practitioners, comprising less than a half dozen men between Isaac Crowell, who imported the design from coastal Massachusetts, and Milford Buchanan, who has no heir apparent.
Here is an old shot of Milford, right, with his mentors.
Curtis Mahaney, center, was the son of Sydney Mahaney, who built dories here for nearly eighty years. Bill Cox, left, was the last owner of the building as a working dory shop, closing it in the 1970s due to declining demand and a shortage of workers. The shop reopened in 1983 as a museum, and Milford trained in under Cox and Mahaney. Bill Cox made regular visits to the shop until he was well over 100 years old, checking up to make sure Milford was doing things right. To this day Milford has made precious few changes in how the boats are built, preferring to do it the way the old fella done it.
Fourteen years ago Mick Fearn stopped in while visiting Nova Scotia. He learned Milford could use a hand and offered to volunteer. “At first it was a lark,” he says, but then he saw a need. He’s been here every summer since.
We had planned for the last few years to come up for a full documentation. We finally got it together this year. When we met up with Milford first thing Monday morning he told us something that hit like a ton of bricks. He is retiring this year, as is Mick. This would be the second to last Shelburne Dory to be built. There is still no apprentice. We almost missed it.
Milford and Mick had spent the previous week or so planing boards, patching knots, and gluing up a floor. Since we only had two weeks to document this, they figured they’d better get the drudge work done ahead of time.
Here’s Cricket laying out the floor with the pattern stick–the same stick that has defined the Shelburne dory floor curves for generations. The outside radius of the stick gives you the fore, the inside radius gives you the aft. “You can build any size dory floor with this pattern,” says Milford. “You just have to know how.”
Milford is capturing the angles at which the frames will meet the side planking.
Here is Milford preparing to join floor frame to side frame with the patented dory clip–a piece of metal that joins the two pieces into one bent frame, eliminating the time and expense of procuring bent roots to cut one-piece frames.
Mick and Milford are positioning frames as Cricket screws them in from below.
On with the transom.
Spiking the overlapping floor frames together.
Douglas Brooks, left, is another member of our documentation team. He has spent much of the last thirty years apprenticing and documenting Japanese boatbuilders–each of them the last of their line.
Milford is explaining the process to Douglas and Graham.
Measuring out the cleats that go between each set of frames.
One evening we went across the bay to get a view of the town, and were appalled to see another fire exploding just over the ridge. The entire town and surrounding area was on edge as one region and the next were evacuated. Businesses struggled to remain open and, to everyone’s dismay, the liquor store was closed.
The next day Bombardier Super Scoopers were gulping up 1600 gallons out of the bay with each pass and dropping it on the surrounding blazes. Makes it hard to concentrate on building a dory.
This looks like a late evening shot, but it’s mid day.
Mick got evacuated from his farm and moved into town. But we pressed on.
With the frames, transom, and stem fastened to the bottom, it becomes a “skillet.” We now stand the skillet on its side to true up the angles.
Test fitting planking to make sure the curves and angles on the floor and frames are perfect. This takes a bit of time and judicious planing.
Once the skillet is faired we nail on the cotton wicking that helps prevent leakage once the planking is nailed on.
Then the skillet is pressed into the horse–an ancient curved beam on the floor that has birthed many thousands of dories.
Now we begin getting out the planks–the first pair, called garboards, are the widest and get our biggest plank stock.
Graham nailing on a garboard.
Getting out the broad strakes.
Next we hang the broad strakes. Cricket is clench-nailing them on.
All that took about a week. The rains finally came in hard toward the end of the week, bringing the fires under control. The sigh of Shelburne’s relief was palpable.
The shop is closed on weekends so we drove a couple hours up the coast to Lunenburg. Just north of town Van Fancy runs an oarmaking business. He gave us the full demonstration of how he does what he does. Amazing. I had seen his routine back in 2014 when I first met him, but it was no less amazing now. Here’s my description of that first visit: Fancy Oars
In Lunenburg we visited the Dory Shop–another relic of the old times. They’re still building them, but a different style than Shelburne. Milford says with a smile: “Our boats have 3-1/2 inches of rocker, theirs have five. Theirs leak, ours don’t.” Perhaps this shop will be our next case study.
Or perhaps this one: based in the old Smith and Rhuland boat shop–where the famous Bluenose II was built sixty years ago–David and Andrew continue building all manner of wooden boats, including many dories.
Back to work. Strake by strake the boat rises: garboard, broad strake, binder strake, sheer strake.
And as we work, we document. Douglas has patterned nearly every piece.
Cricket is filling a notebook with details of the process.
So is Graham.
Cricket’s diagram of the bow joinery:
Diane is shooting many things that others of us are missing.
Cricket, Graham, and I rented a half a house nearby; Diane is a few houses one way, Douglas, wife Katherine, and dog Simon a few blocks the other direction.
After hours revelry: Cribbage, cocktails, and Graham’s amazing culinary masterpieces.
Mike Hardigan comes by the shop often. He is working on the old lumber mill at the end of the block, cleaning things up and hoping to get the wheels turning once again. He gave us a tour. It is an amazing building, all run off belts from huge ancient electric motors.
I like this corner support. Like a not quite finished game of Jenga.
Milford stores his lumber upstairs at the mill. It comes from the Scott family, old champion log rollers and timberers. Here we are milling out the oak gunwales.
In lieu of steaming, we simply soak the gunwales in the bay for several hours.
Gunwale caps going on.
A strong comradery has developed between these two dory builders.
Finally, with the upper part of the boat nearly complete, we roll her over, plane the garboards flat, and nail in the bottom.
Graham and Cricket caulking the garboard joint.
Taking a break, view from beneath the inverted boat.
And right side up again to finish out the interior.
It’s a wrap. These boats are traditionally painted a mustard color called Dory Buff, with green trim. The buyer of this boat wants it painted baby blue. “He’ll have to paint it himself,” says Milford. That’s not how the old fella would have done it.
We raised enough funds to finance this documentation through crowdfunding, and have since raised enough to produce an illustrated book about it. We’ll be working on that this summer.
Milford and Graham, master dory builders of neighboring nations, take the boat out for a maiden voyage. She didn’t leak a drop. It is troubling to think just one more will be built.