The Working Tools – An Operative Perspective
Thanks to Bro Love, Tyrawley Lodge No 217 (Ballina, Mayo), for this extremely interesting and informative article.
THE WORKING TOOLS - AN OPERATIVE PERSPECTIVE
By Bro Love, Tyrawley Lodge No 217 (Ballina, Mayo)
About 8 years ago, I took my first stone carving lessons and have been carving stone as a hobby ever since. This operative interest in stone carving has carried over into the Lodge and I find I am always most interested in those parts of the ritual relating to stone working—particularly the Working Tools of each degree. This article and the accompanying videos are my attempt to examine the working tools in more detail and to illustrate how they are (or were) used by operative masons.
Overview of the Tools
In English Freemasonry, each Degree has three Working Tools associated with it, namely:
- First: 24 inch gauge, common gavel and chisel
- Second: square, level and plumb-rule
- Third: pencil, skirrett, compass
The English practice came into being in 1816 as the result of the Union and appears to have been based mostly on practices from the Antient’s Lodges i (Dyer 1976, p. 149). Interestingly, Irish Freemasonry has the same tools with the exception of the chisel—a curious omission that I’ll discuss in more detail. In most US jurisdictions, the First and Second Degrees use the same tools as in Ireland, but the Third Degree has only one Working Tool: the Trowel. ii
From an operative perspective, the tools could be said to be used for physical work (EA), quality control (FC) and design (MM).
Each degree also has an “ashlar” which is simply means “a block of hewn stone with straight edges for use in building” (Dictionary.com). The rough ashlar and the perfect ashlar could both be created using the tools of the First Degree and symbolise the work that the Mason must complete as they advance in Freemasonry. iii The Third Degree’s ashlar, however, is different in that it’s a tool for the MM to use in their work rather than the result of work they should do. The focus on ashlars as well as the inclusion of the level and plumb-rule, in particular, make it clear that the operative masons referred to in the ritual are those involved in the construction of buildings generally rather than sculptors or other specialised masons. Given the central theme of Craft masonry, this makes perfect sense.
First Degree Tools
The First Degree Tools have been described as “tools of action” (Rees 2006, p. 112) and as tools for “measuring and preparation” (Moore 2009, p.171). Of all of the Working Tools, only the First Degree includes tools for actually modifying stone. The other degrees’ tools can be used for quality control or design only.
The 24 inch gauge’s use is straightforward—an operative mason would need some way to measure their work to ensure that it’s build to the correct size iv. In speculative masonry, it is to serve as a reminder to divide the day between work, rest, recreation and service to God.
The Common Gavel is actually a confusing Working Tool. It is said in the degree to be used to “knock the corners and excrescences” from the rough stone . However, if you look at any definition of the word gavel, you quickly discover that a gavel is essentially a ceremonial hammer, usually made of wood, used only in conducting meetings. Prior to the 1816 Union in England, the Antient’s Lodges referred to a “gavel or setting maul.” Some Lodges used a hammer instead of a gavel, but these references disappeared after 1816 (Dyer 1976, p. 154).
1505 by Rueland Frueauf the Younger (1470–1545)
The Masonic term gavel comes from the Medieval English word “kevel” which is defined as “a hammer for the rough dressing of stone, having one square face and one pyramidal face” (Dictionary.com). Essentially, a kevel is a hammer/pick-axe combination tool that could be used to rough out stone into an almost usable shape. The picture above shows a kevel-like tool being used by stone masons in Bavaria in 1505 (this type of tool, called a Mason’s Hammer, is still used today by stone masons as shown below). A skilled stone mason could have easily used a kevel to create the rough ashlar of the First Degree, as shown in the video below. However, given the nature of stone, I think a kevel would only be practical for work on larger stones (see A Bit About Stone below).
The example of the gavel working tool in many Lodges is actually a stylised kevel and some Lodges use smaller, wooden kevels at the JW and SW tables. Kevel-type tools are also sometimes shone in Masonic symbolism (for an older example, note the third last plate in the Museum of French Masonry’s Faince, Porcelaine, and Verre online collection at www.godf.org/museefm/images/collections/faience/faience.html Modern stone masons use a “mason’s hammer” (which is essentially a modern, smaller kevel) to trim uneven edges from stone used in walls and cladding as well as to shape concrete builder’s blocks and bricks.
The use of the term "common gavel" has actually evolved. In Dr. Anderson's Constitutions of 1738, a Freemason was said to need two tools: a hammer to separate and a trowel to join (Dyer 1976, p149). By the 1790's, the WM's gavel was called the hiram and described interchangably as a gavel or mallet. When the working tools were formalised in the Union of 1813, the Antient's reference to "common gavel or setting maul" became the basis for the ritual (ibid, pp149-152).
For English Freemasons, the final tool of the EA is the chisel. This is said to “further smooth and prepare the stone to render it fit for…more expert workman” (Moore 2009, p. 100). Speculatively, the chisel complements the gavel by reinforcing its symbolism in assisting to symbolically chip away at our imperfections. For operative masons, the chisel is an absolutely essential tool. While it would be possible to create a rough ashlar with only a kevel, it would be virtually impossible to create a perfect ashlar without a chisel. Chisels come in a variety of shapes and sizes and the operative mason must select the correct chisel for the work at hand. The general rule is that you begin with the largest chisels—which will remove large pieces of stone—and use smaller and smaller chisels for more precise work. The smallest chisels will remove only the tiniest flakes of stone.
Likewise, thinner chisels will remove small layers of stone and leave the surface of the work largely flat. Thicker chisels are used to remove larger pieces of stone. Chisels which have flat surfaces with pointed ends (like a long triangle) will give the mason a smoother surface while chisels with pointed tips (usually one to five or so tiny pyramids at one end) are used to rough out shapes and to remove chunks of stone rather than thin layers. I put together the short video below to illustrate the shaping and some of the finer work that can be done using chisels.
Second Degree Tools
Researcher Julian Rees describes the Second Degree Tools as the “tools of testing”, or, in modern terms the tools needed for quality control (Rees 2006, p75 and 112). However, this description is slightly incomplete as these tools would be used throughout the building (and stone shaping) process to ensure that the individual stones and buildings had perfect corners (using the square), had flat, level surfaces (using the level) and that walls and the sides of large stones were perfectly upright (using the plumb rule).
The square, in particular, is a key tool of any stone mason. It is essential for marking out both corners and perpendicular lines for carving. My personal experience with chisels is that they have a natural tendency to create a curved surface. If you simply start banging away and let the tools guide you, you’ll end up with a smooth curve. To get a perfectly flat surface requires a great deal of control and constant testing to keep the sides perpendicular and to keep flat surfaces properly flat. A square would be essential for creating a perfect ashlar.
It's also worth highlighting that the tools of the Second Degree are also the symbols of the three principle officers of the Lodge. I suspect this alludes to the role of these officers in guiding the Lodge's affairs and ensuring that they measure up. To paraphrase Rob Morris, they help to ensure that we meet on the level and part on the square (Morris 1854).
Third Degree Tools
Researcher Duncan Moore points out that the Third Degree Tools are the “equipment of an architect.” He also makes the observation that “the Greek word for mason is TEKTOV (Tekton) and that the prefix ‘arch’ signifies a higher level—as in ‘arch’bishop or ‘architect’” (Moore 2009, p.171). The pencil and compass (together with the 24 inch gauge from the First Degree) can be used to draw extremely complex plans. In fact, with just these three tools, it is possible to draw virtually every polygon imaginable. If you didn’t get to experience the magic of the compass in school, have a look at this short video illustrating how a compass and ruler can be used.
The skirret is an unusual tool in that it is essentially a long piece of string wrapped around a handle. It would have been used by operative masons to lay out straight lines on the ground for masons to use as guides for building walls and the like. The modern equivalent would be the chalk line (which, according to Wikipedia has been in use since Ancient Egypt). Moore notes that the “Skirret is not really a mason’s tool; it is more often associated with landscaping and so may have come to [Freemasonry] from the Order of Free Gardeners or some similar source” (Moore 2009, p. 172). The skirret, then, could be seen alongside the suspended perfect ashlar of the Third Degree (essentially, a crane) as being another practical aid in the construction of buildings and monuments.
An interesting tool in the Lodge that isn’t included in the Working Tools is the maul. In Ireland, the maul is used as a gavel to run Lodge meetings and plays a key part in the MM degree ritual. At least one early Antient's tracing board shows only a maul and no hammers or gavel (Dyer 1976, p92).
The maul is quite similar to the “Portuguese Hammer” (the rounded hammer shown below) and is the hammer of choice for most stone carvers when doing finer work. The round head of the hammer causes it to slightly deflect off of the chisel, making it less likely that the mason will hit his hand with it. This same feature also seems to make the hammer hit the chisel more squarely which is important for detailed work. Personally, I’ve also carved with more normal hammers and they seem to result—at least in my hands—in both injuries and in the odd oblique hit which can result in slightly askew edges.
A Bit About Stone
Stone is actually a strange thing to work with. All of my life, I had come to think of stone as a hard thing that is difficult to modify. Most people do very little with stone apart from moving them about or possibly smashing them (with a sledge hammer) or splitting them (with a stone chisel). However, stone actually behaves quite strangely. Every time you bang on a stone, you create tiny cracks within the stone (called “stressing”). If you pounded a rock repeatedly with a sledgehammer, it will eventually split into a number of random sized and shaped pieces which have formed when all of the cracks connected.
But, if you use a chisel and pound on the rock in a straight line, you effectively connect all of these tiny cracks in a row and the rock will split almost perfectly along the line you’ve created. If you’ve ever split a brick or builder’s block with a hammer and large flat chisel, you’ve seen this effect in action. You can see this effect on a large scale in the video below.
What this means for stone masons is that stone must be quarried, transported and shaped with as little unnecessary “stressing” as possible. Working on stones that have been “stressed” will result in the work splitting in the wrong place. I’ve actually had entire stones split almost in half due to previous “stressing”—which is a huge setback if you’ve already spent many hours on a piece. For construction of a large building, this would also be a major consideration to ensure the building’s walls didn’t crack within a few years or even cause the whole building to collapse—something not uncommon in the Middle Ages.
I think for most Masons, we listen to the ritual and focus on the symbolic/Speculative aspects of the Working Tools. But, I think there is a deeper understanding to be had by actually looking at how the tools can be used in an operative sense which can reinforce and make more real the symbolic nature of each tool. As a Mason advances through the degrees, they are symbolically becoming more proficient in building, moving up from the humble maker of rough ashlars to becoming a master architect who not only designs, but oversees the most complicated and important parts of the work.
I would humbly suggest that if the Working Tools are ever reviewed in the Irish Constitution, that the chisel be added to the First Degree and that some consideration should be given to the Trowel for inclusion among the Tools. These “missing” tools have great symbolic meaning that would only add to the already rich tapestry of symbolism of the Working Tools.
- i--The English Master’s Installation ceremony of 1792 is one of the earliest recorded references to working tools and included the rule, line, trowel, plumb, square, compasses, chisel and mallet—in that order (Dyer 1976, p. 150).
- ii--The Trowel was a common symbol in English and Irish Masonry in the 18th Century, but largely disappeared from use after the uniting of the Antients and Moderns. The US Working Tools were originally the same as those used in English Freemasonry until they were modified during the 1832 Baltimore Convention (Sanchez, 2006).
- iii--In French Masonry under the Grand Orient of France, they sometimes use an extremely rough stone for the rough ashlar and a cube with a pyramid shape on the top for their perfect ashlar. Examples of this can be seen in the Lodges adjacent to their Paris museum. Visit their online museum website at www.museefm.org/
- iv--Interestingly, the yardstick (a 36 inch gauge) has been in use since at least the early 1500’s (see the images of older yardsticks at www.sciencephoto.com/media/363906/enlarge ). I was unable to locate any non-Masonic references to a 24 inch gauge prior to the 19th century, so it would be interesting to know whether the 24 inch length was invented by Freemasons or whether stone masons used a ruler of this length (Charles Dickens mentions a stone mason “with a two-foot rule always in his pocket” in The Mystery of Edwin Drood which was published in 1870). Another interesting tidbit is that under the Grand Orient of France, they appear to use a 24 centimetre gauge. One example I found in a Paris Masonic bookstore had no numbers, but was marked using different coloured sections of wood. The 24 cm gauge was hinged and folded in half, as you’d expect.
Dictionary.com. “Ashlar.” Available from: www.dictionary.reference.com/browse/ashlar
Dictionary.com. “Kevel.” Available from: www.dictionary.reference.com/browse/kevel
Dyer, Colin. Symbolism in Craft Freemasonry. Hersham, Surrey: Lewis Masonic, 1976 (revised 2003 edition).
Moore, Duncan. A Guide to Masonic Symbolism. Hersham, Surrey: Lewis Masonic, 2009.
Morris, Rob. "The Level and the Square" (poem). Available at: http://www.themasonictrowel.com
Musée de la Franc-Maçonnerie. Paris Museum and Online Collection. Visit their website at: www.museefm.org .
Rees, Julian. Making Light: A Handbook for Freemasons. Hersham, Surrey: Lewis Masonic, 2006.
Sanchez, Jorge. “The ‘Other’ Working Tools—The Chisel, The Skirret and The Pencil.” The Short Talk Bulletin: The Masonic Service Association of the United States. Vol 84 No 3. Available from: www.smithfieldlodge.com/Light/STB/Stb8403.htm