[Grand Lodge]
[Calendar] [Search] [Resources] [History] [Links] [Sitemap]
"There is nothing so indestructible as a symbol; but nothing is capable of so many interpretations."
Goblet d Alviella
Use our Search Engine to locate topics of interest, or email requests for specific information to our Grand Lodge Librarian.

The Working Tools

Q. How did the "Working Tools" come into our ceremonies? Were all our present-day "W.T.s" used and moralized from the earliest times, or were they introduced gradually?
A. Although there are, of course, ample records of the mason's tools as such, there are no really early records of the tools which were used in the course of the lodge ceremonies. In all the old MS. Constitutions until the 1650s the admission ceremony seems to have consisted of no more than a reading of the Charges and an oath of fidelity. A text of c. 1650 gives a form of the Obligation containing a reference to "secret words and signs", but the earliest mention of tools is in Randle Holme's Academy of Armorie, 1688. Holme was a Herald and a gentleman-Mason; and in a brief passage relating to the Free-Masons he says, "I have observed the use of these severall Tools amongst them"; he adds that some of them are borne in coats of Arms. He then explains a series of tools, e.g. shovel, hand hammer, chisel, pick and punch, all belonging to operative masonry. He does not state that any of these were used in the course of lodge ceremonies, and it is extremely doubtful that they were so used.
The earliest evidence as to the tools in the masonic ceremonies, comes, as might be expected, in the early catechisms and the later exposures. It so happens that the oldest texts that have survived are all in manuscript, which may be taken, generally, as having been laboriously written out to serve as aide-memoires. The printed pieces which begin with a newspaper item in 1723, were generally published from motives of profit, curiosity, or spite. This distinction between the prints and the manuscripts is worth noting, therefore, because it implies that a greater degree of trust can be placed upon the latter, though all of them must be viewed with caution.
The earliest evidence comes from the Edinburgh Register House MS., of 1696, with two later versions, almost identical, of c. 1700 and c. 1714. They contain only one passage which mentions tools. It occurs in the course of the candidate's greeting to the Brethren on his re-entering the lodge:-
" ... as I am sworn by God, St. John by the Square and compass, and common judge ... "
The "common judge" was a gauge or templet. A templet, described as a jadge, is pictured among the tools in the Mark Book of the Lodge of Aberdeen.
None of the other texts furnishes any more information on tools until April, 1723, when a newspaper The Flying Post or Post-Master published a masonic catechism without a title, but now known as "A Mason's Examination". It contains the same three tools mentioned above, and elsewhere in the text the Astler and Diamond are mentioned with the Square or Common Square. There are several French exposures of a later period c. 1742-50 which suggest that the ashlar may have been used as a stone on which tools were sharpened, but it is unlikely that it was a tool in itself. So far as I am aware, the "Diamond" has never been satisfactorily explained.
In the following year, 1724, The Grand Mystery of Free-Masons Discover'd, in reply to a question on how the lodge is governed, has the answer "Of Square and Rule", possibly the first reference to what is now the "24 inch gauge". (It also repeats the Diamond, Asher [sic.] and Square). A later text of 1725 has the answer "Of Square Plumb and Rule".
In a manuscript of the same year, 1724, The Whole Institution of Masonry, there is a question on the number of Lights in a Lodge, with the answer:—
"Twelve . . . Father. Son. Holy Ghost. Sun. Moon. Master Mason. Square. Rule. Plum. Line. Mell and Chizzel".
Here was a great advance, although it is of course not certain that all these tools were actually being used in the ceremonies. Another question in the same text brings the answer "with Square and Compass at my Breast", a detail that appears regularly in later texts. It is certain that those two were being used; but the others were at least being talked about. The Level, surprisingly, had not yet made its appearance!
So, in 1725, we have a large collection of tools including several not previously mentioned, e.g. the Rule, which may now safely be construed as the forerunner of the 24 inch gauge; the Mell, i.e. the Maul or gavel and the "Chizzel". It should be noted that the Plum and Line are given here as two separate tools; it is possible that the "Line" is to be read as an early version of the skirret; but it may well be a reference to the cable-tow; the Candidate in the Dumfries No.4 MS., c. 1710, in reply to one of its questions, says that he was brought into the lodge
"sham[e]fully w' a rope about my neck".
This set of "Twelve Lights" as they are called, appeared again in two other texts The Whole Institutions of Free-Masons Opened of 1725, a printed broadsheet, and in the far more interesting Graham MS. of 1726.
Another text of 1726, The Grand Mystery Laid Open, contains a disproportionate amount of nonsensical material, but one of its questions on the Tools requisite for a Free-Mason, brings the answer "The Hammer and Trowel ... " and later it appears that the Candidate holds the Trowel in his right hand and the Hammer in his left during the Ob. These details did not reappear in later versions.
A Mason's Confessum of c. 1727, gives the square, level, plumb-rule, hand-rule, and the "gage" [sic.] and the latter still appeared in the Mystery of Freemasonry in 1730, but (so far as I can ascertain) it then disappeared. This was apparently the first appearance of the Level.
And so we come to Prichard's Masonry Dissected, 1730, the most detailed exposure until that time. It mentioned the Candidate kneeling within the Square, the Compass at his N.L.B., and the "Moveable Jewels", i.e. Square, Level and Plumb-Rule which were also the Master's and Wardens' Emblems. In its description of the murder of H.A.B., the ruffians use "Setting Maul, Setting Tool and Setting Beadle", but we need not pursue them further.
A Dialogue between Simon and Philip, of c. 1740, adds only one item to our list, i.e. a "Quadrant", a 90 degree segment of a circle in which the curved edge is marked to show degrees, but that likewise failed to reappear.
Prichard's text was probably the earliest of the whole series to explain at least some of the Tools in something approaching the modern manner. In reply to a question on the uses of the Square, Level and Plumb-Rule, he says:—
"Square to lay down True and Right Lines,
Level to try all Horizontals, and the
Plumb-Rule to try all Uprights".
The Wilkinson MS., a parallel but fragmentary text of the same period, says:
"the Square to see Y' Corner Stones are laid square; the Levell that they are laid Levell And ye Plumb to Raise Perpendiculars".
This is even nearer to our present-day style of explanation, but early explanations in regard to the other tools are non-existent.
During the period 1730 to 1760, there is a gap in the publication of English Exposures and our best information during that period comes from a long series of French Exposures which began in 1737 and continued strongly throughout the 18th century. From our present point of view, the most interesting feature in the earlier versions of these texts is that they give narrative descriptions of the procedure of the ceremonies in addition to the Catechisms which were the main contents of the English documents; so that the French texts give us a very good idea of the actual details of the layout of the Lodge, floor-work etc., with several useful drawings of the tracing boards, i.e. the designs which were drawn on the floor of the Lodge. In 1742-4, the drawing for a "Lodge of Apprentice-Fellows" (i.e. First and Second Degrees combined), contained among other symbols the following tools:—
Square, Compasses, Level, Plumb-Rule, Trowel, and a Mason's Hammer (i.e. not a normal Gavel).
Within the next few years 1745 to 1751, the texts usually contained a note describing the Orator's lectures. There were apparently two such lectures in the course of the ceremonies, one of a moral nature approximating to our present Charge; the other was an explanation of the Tracing-board and the note generally adds that the Orator was at liberty to enlarge on these explanations if he so desired. The explanations, therefore, must have been impromptu spontaneous talks which varied according to the competence of the Orator. This may explain the fact that although the narrative descriptions and the Catechisms are quite elaborate, there still appears to have been no set ritual-explanation of the working tools and we do not find any particular tools allocated symbolically to the Second and Third Degrees.
In 1760 we have the first of a new English series of Exposures beginning with Three Distinct Knocks and now we begin to find several familiar explanations of some of the tools, but not all of them, because the explanations seem to have been confined to the E.A. ceremony, e.g.:—
"The Bible, to rule and govern our Faith; the Square, to Square our Actions; the Compasses is to keep us within Bounds with all Men, particularly with a Brother".
Later the working tools of an Entered Apprentice are explained as follows:—
"Mas.What are their Uses?
Ans.The Square to square my Work, the 24 Inch Gauge to measure my Work, the common Gavel to knock off all superfluous Matters, whereby the Square may set easy and just.
Mas.Brother, as we are not all working Masons, we apply them to our Morals, which we call spiritualizing; explain them?
Ans.The 24 Inch Gauge represents the 24 Hours of the Day.
Mas.How do you spend them Brother?
Ans.Six Hours to work in, Six Hours to serve God, and Six to serve a Friend or a Brother, as far as lies in my Power, without being detrimental to myself or Family: and Six Hours to Sleep in".
There are no explanations of tools for the F.C. or M.M. but in the legend of H.A.B., the ruffians now use the 24 Inch Gauge, the Square and the Gavel or Setting Maul. (In France they used three rolls of paper). It is not necessary to examine all the different Exposures of this period. They are useful as evidence of the developments which were beginning to take place but they show no great advance beyond the quotations from Three Distinct Knocks.
The main period of the development in the elaboration of our ritual was in the last quarter of the 18th century, which was its most fruitful period and the modern explanations, which must have used the best of that material, were all brought into our ritual at the time of the Union of the Grand Lodges in 1813 and shortly afterwards.

Ars Quatuor Coronatorum "Notes and Queries", p. 278-80. vol LXXVIII (1965), Harry Carr, ed..


© 1871-2024 Grand Lodge of British Columbia and Yukon A.F. & A.M. Updated: 2013/03/29