My father’s father was born on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. Though he emigrated to New York before my father was born, he took his family on summer trips back to visit his family in Louisbourg. My father has fond memories of these trips, but most of them revolve around adventures in dories. Slab-sided with tombstone transoms, these stalwart workhorses of the Canadian Maritimes have a well-deserved international reputation for being easy to build, easy to row, exceptionally stable, and capable of carrying heavy loads.
My father has owned a couple of small, traditionally built dories, and when I was in my early twenties he bought a 15′ Gloucester Gull based on the famous Philip Bolger design. A few years later, Roger Crawford of Marshfield, Massachusetts, built a 16′ Swampscott dory for him. My father has had this boat for 20 years, and still enjoys it.
Naturally, when I decided to get a boat, I started looking for a dory. It didn’t take much searching on the web to realize that there weren’t many available, and with my limited boat funds I couldn’t afford to hire someone to build one for me, so I started looking at plans. Jeff Spira and his business, Spira International, were among the top hits on Google for “dory boat plans.” Jeff’s site is mesmerizing. There are pictures of boats, videos of builds, a blog with builder contributions, and over 100 plans to choose from. I knew I wanted a Grand Banks–style dory about 16’ long, and Jeff’s Nova Scotian fit the bill perfectly.
Jeff goes to great lengths to promote the ease with which his boats can be built, even for those with no boatbuilding experience. He goes so far as to say you can complete the project with no prior woodworking experience, although he suggests building a couple of sawhorses first to get acquainted with some of the tools required for boatbuilding.
The beauty of Jeff’s designs is their simplicity and accessibility. The wood is all readily available at the big-box stores and is relatively inexpensive—about $250 for lumber and plywood. The epoxy and fiberglass cloth totaled about $400, and I found all the stainless fastenings on eBay for another $150.
The construction begins with the assembly of the five frames and the transom. In his plywood-on-frame construction manual, Jeff recommends using a framing square on a large surface (a sheet of plywood, for example) to draw up the five frames according to the measurements provided, then to assemble each frame piece over its drawing. The framing members are joined with simple lap joints, screwed and glued. The transom frame pieces are assembled with butt joints. Here I used pocket-hole joinery, which I favor for a tight attachment.
The hull build takes place on a strongback. The assembled frame members are spaced along it according to the measurements in the plans, with the bottom crosspieces of frames one and five placed directly on the jig and frames two, three, and four raised up on blocks cut to give the bottom its rocker. The ends of the strongback are cut at angles to fit the stem and the transom, which get temporarily secured in place. Once the frames are in position, the 2×4 keelson is set in notches previously cut in the five frames. After I applied epoxy at the intersections, I used ratchet straps to bend the keelson over the frames and hold it while I screwed them all together.
The chines and sheer clamps follow. I wasn’t able to find 1x2s in the proper length, but Spira provides instructions for scarfing pieces together by cutting the ends at a 1:8 ratio. I built a jig to make consistent angles in the ends of my 1x2s, then simply glued pieces together. The full-length longitudinals are then glued and screwed in notches in the frames. Then I did a bit of fairing to bevel the bottoms of the chines and to present a smooth surface for the plywood sides.
The plywood sides and bottom are then screwed to the framework and cut to fit while in place. This is the part of the process that makes Spira boats particularly easy to build: there is no precise precutting and fitting prior to attaching the sides. I clamped the oversize plywood panels to the sheer clamp and the chine log and screwed them in place. I needed three pieces of plywood to get from the transom to the stem. The two seams created are butt-blocked with a 6”-wide piece of the same plywood spanning 3″ to each side of the joint on the inside of the hull. Once the sides and transom are skinned with plywood and the excess material is removed, the bottom is put on in the same manner. I was able to get from stem to stern on the bottom, creating only one seam.
The screw holes and seams get filled with epoxy mixed with wood flour. I had never worked with fiberglass before, but there are tips in the Spira book and in the blogs on his site. The plans recommend two layers of glass on a smaller boat like this one. In the guide included with the plans, Spira notes that some people opt to use fiberglass tape on all the seams before applying the sheets of cloth. Just the suggestion of it was good enough for me. I’d be using the boat at times on rocky shores, so I added extra ’glass tape and strips of cloth along chines, and particularly, over the stem.
To finish the exterior of the hull I found paint of excellent quality in a nice selection of colors from George Kirby Jr. Paint Company in New Bedford, Massachusetts. One gallon of yellow for the hull exterior and a quart of green for the trim (a common color scheme for Nova Scotia dories) were more than enough.
When the dory comes off the strongback and sits upright for the first time, you’ll have an empty hull. Jeff Spira does not give any direction for the interior of the boats, leaving that up to the builder. That was fine for my boat, because I was never planning on any decks, consoles, or cabins. I did fancy a place to sit, though. I used frames one and five to create compartments in the bow and stern, and filled them with foam for flotation. I used 1x3s as risers to support 2×10 thwarts at the second, third, and fourth frames. Banks fishing dories had removable thwarts so they could be compactly nested on the decks of fishing schooners. My dory’s thwarts are not permanently attached but slotted to slip around the frames. I installed three pairs of bronze oarlocks so there would be a place to row from each thwart.
There are few things in life more satisfying than launching a boat you built. I was so pleased with the way the boat rowed and tracked, that I had to remind myself to be critical of the build. At first I could not tell if I was just riding on the excitement of the accomplishment. But many hours and many nautical miles later, I still love rowing this boat.
My original intention was to have the dory join the family kayak fleet and become a part of our adventures in the rivers and bays of southeastern Connecticut, and it exceeded my expectations. It easily handles the loads of coolers, beach chairs, blankets, towels, two big dogs, and anyone who gets too tired to paddle their own kayak. It does this with ease.
The middle rowing station is the most preferable for a single rower, and the forward and aft rowing stations are ideal when one of the kids wants to lend a hand with rowing. Once you get the Nova Scotian moving, it tracks beautifully and glides effortlessly. Typical of dories of its type, it is a bit tender at first, but the secondary stability is reassuringly solid. You can lean it over to one side, but it’ll stop there. I’ve hauled my 110-lb golden retriever over the side more than once without feeling I was risking putting the rail under. I also intended to use the dory to extend the boating season. I now enjoy getting on the water year-round and row through the winter when the Mystic River isn’t iced over. My dory doesn’t go into storage; it is always ready to go.
Kevin Power is a home inspector who lives with his wife and three teenage kids in Mystic, Connecticut. He has been boating for 44 of his 47 years and his fleet includes the dory, two kayaks, a rowing dinghy, a sailing dinghy, a Sunfish, a sloop-rigged centerboard dinghy, and a 20′ outboard fishing boat. He has always enjoyed simple woodworking projects such as rolling cooler carts, beer-growler caddies, and Adirondack chairs. As a beer-fueled joke, he started the Mystic Cornhole Company. The dory is the first boat he has built. His wife works at Electric Boat Division of General Dynamics in Groton, Connecticut, where the U.S. Navy gets its nuclear submarines. Kevin notes she doesn’t find it as amusing as he does when he says they are both boatbuilders.
Nova Scotian Particulars
Height of stem above bottom/2’6″
Update: Jeff Spira passed away unexpectedly in the spring of 2022. His website is no longer operating and it is presumed that his boat plans are no longer available.
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