The Trowel – a Lost Symbol? – W Bro Steve Lourey
The trowel is a beautiful Masonic symbol which seems to be somewhat lost in English Freemasonry. We read in the Book of Amos, “Thus he shewed me: and, behold, the Lord stood upon a wall made by a plumbline, with a plumbline in his hand. And the Lord said unto me, Amos, what seest thou? And I said, a plumbline. Then said the Lord, Behold, I will set a plumbline in the midst of my people Israel: I will not again pass by them any-more.”
That wall would have been cemented to make it complete and that would have been applied by a trowel. The Vulgate Latin version renders it, “a plasterer’s” or “mason’s trowel”; with which they lay their plaster and mortar on in building.
According to Coil’s Masonic Encyclopaedia, its symbolism is that of spreading the cement which binds the brethren together, thus the Lodge is strongly cemented with love and friendship, and every brother is duly taught secrecy and prudence, morality and good fellowship.
In North American jurisdictions the proper place assigned to the working tool of the trowel is the Master Mason’s Degree, as in operative masonry, while the Entered Apprentice prepares the materials, and the Fellow-Craft places them in their proper situation, the Master Mason spreads the cement with a trowel, which binds them together.
According to Mackey the work of unskilled apprentices and craftsmen was not completed until the stones adjusted have been accurately examined by the master workman, and permanently secured in their places by cement. This is accomplished by the trowel, and hence this implement is entrusted to the Master Mason. Thus, the tools attached to each degree admonish the Mason, as an Apprentice, to prepare his mind for the reception of the great truths which are hereafter to be unfolded to him; as a Fellow Craft, to mark their importance and adapt them to their proper uses; and as a Master, to adorn their beauty by the practice of brotherly love and kindness, the cement that binds all Masons in one common fraternity.
The Master Mason is given the trowel because it is symbolic of his function in the great work of Temple building; when that tool has done its work there is nothing more to do, because the structure stands complete, a united mass, incapable of falling apart; the stones which were many have now, because of the binding power of the cement, become as one. If the stone represents an individual man, and if the Temple represents the Fraternity as a whole, it is evident that the trowel is the symbol of that which has power to bind men together. Burrage states that the equilateral triangle was originally the trowel. It represented the greatest and most abstruse mysteries, signifying equally the Deity, creation and fire.
The trowel teaches that nothing can be united without proper cement, and that the perfection of the building must depend on the suitable disposition of the cement. So Charity, the bond of perfection and social union, must link separate minds and separate interests; that, like the radii of a circle, which extend from the centre to every part of the circumference, the principle of universal benevolence may be diffused to every member of the community.
From some versions of the old catechism we learn that the junior Entered Apprentice was armed with a “sharp instrument” which was a pointed trowel. In exchanging the sceptre for the trowel it was the role of Junior Entered Apprentice being armed with the trowel as the means of keeping out all cowans and intruders. So the earlier use of the trowel may have been transferred to the sword.
The trowel was the emblem of circumspection and was called the “Jewel of the E.A.” In an early ritual the E.A.F. was extolled to “Emblematically…stop up all interstices in the Lodge so that not a sound shall escape from within nor an eye pry from without, whereby our secrets and mysteries may become known to the popular world.
In 1 Peter 2:5, the author describes us as living stones, built upon a spiritual house. The cement of those living stones is charity and concord. The Christian writer Chrysostom writes: From solidity follows compactedness, for you will then produce solidity, when having brought many things together, you shall cement them compactedly and inseparably; thus a solidity is produced, as in the case of a wall. But this is the peculiar work of love; for those who were by themselves, when it has closely cemented and knit them together, it renders solid. And faith, again, does the same thing; when it allows not reasonings to intrude themselves. For as reasonings divide, and shake loose, so faith causes solidity and compactness.
Interstice comes from the late Middle English from the Latin to ‘stand between’ and architecturally is an intervening space, especially a very small one, as in a, gap, opening, hole, cranny, crevice, chink, crack, or breach. For our ancient Brethren, cementing interstices was vital in preserving cisterns. Cisterns are subterranean reservoirs, sometimes covering as much as 4000 square metres of land, in which the rainwater is gathered during the spring or to preserve underground streams. Their extreme necessity is attested by the countless old, unused cisterns with which the Middle East is honeycombed. Cisterns were hewed into the rock and then lined with impervious masonry and cement. If the cement of the cistern gave way, the reservoir became useless and was abandoned.
So too with Masonry. If we do not take care to spread the cement of brotherly love, relief and truth, there is a risk that we, like the ancient cisterns, may become abandoned and useless.
Algernon, R. (1932). The director of ceremonies. London: Kenning & Son, p.89.
Buchan, M. (1992) The Masonic Trowel, Scottish Rite Journal – September.
Burrage, C. (1912). Annual address of Charles Dana Burrage. [Massachusetts]: The Society.
Haywood, H. (1995). Symbolical masonry. Kila, Mont.: Kessinger.
Mackey, A. Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry and its kindred sciences….
Macoy, R. General History, Cyclopaedia and Dictionary of Freemasonry
Roberts, Allen E. Coil’s Masonic Encyclopaedia.
Shackleton, E. (n.d.) The Symbols of the First Degree. Dormer Masonic Study Circle
From The Sunday Masonic Paper