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the tracing boardS


part II - Symbolism and the Teachings of Freemasonry

W. M. Don Falconer PM, PDGDC

The tracing boards enable a freemason to represent his deepest thoughts in visible form.

Operative origins

The tracing board is an emblem in speculative freemasonry that is derived from the tracing boards used in design and the laying out tables used in the stone yard or on the construction site by operative freemasons. In operative times the tracing boards and laying out tables were often called trestle boards, because they were large flat boards set up on trestle legs so that they could easily be moved when required. The master mason used the drafting or tracing board, equivalent to the modern drawing board, to prepare a general layout and the overall design for the required building. The laying out tables also were important items of equipment, because the details of the structural components and the joints required for fabrication and erection were worked out on them. These details were then transferred to working plans drawn up on the drafting or tracing board. In its original context "to trace" did not mean "to copy" as it does in modern architectural offices. It signified to trace out or to draw, in the sense implied by the Latin word tractus, from which it was derived and come down to us through the Italian, Spanish and French languages. In the process of evolution, the word acquired many diverse meanings, including to sketch, to scheme and to devise, as well as to plan. The Fabric Rolls of the York Minster provide one of the earliest known records of the use of tracing boards in England. From the inventory of stores for 1399 we know that "ij tracyng bordes" were then in use.

In operative freemasonry the kind of laying out table or tracing board that was used varied to suit the specific purpose for which the drawings were required. For example, full-scale details of joints and special fixtures were often set out on the site of the building, using the floor as a laying out table. Details found necessary during erection of the building and therefore required for immediate use, were often sketched on a portable slate. Archaeological excavations at several sites have unearthed slates used for that purpose and have also revealed design details that had been prepared on stone floors and on dressed stones later incorporated into the building. The final layout and detailed plans were usually drawn to scale on parchment that had been soaked and stretched wet over a drawing board, or on skins specially prepared for that purpose. In the Exeter Cathedral there are old documents recording the purchase of parchment in 1377, for preparation of the drawings required to continue the work that was begun in 1270 to transform the Norman church that had been built from 1112 to 1206. Those documents also record that a skin was purchased in 1389 for the working drawings required to complete the east window.

Speculative development

As the early speculative craft lodges were usually held in rented rooms, it was customary to sketch appropriate emblems on the floor in chalk or charcoal, so that they could easily be erased at the end of the meeting. A temple and other symbols were usually drawn, often encircled by a wavy cord having open looped knots and tassels at the ends. This was the indented tassel or indented tarsel referred to in the old catechisms, but it is not, as is sometimes suggested, the indented or tessellated border that is referred to in modern rituals. The knotted and tasselled cord symbolises the universal bond of friendship that should unite every freemason with his brethren. The four tassels often seen in the corners of the mosaic pavement have the same significance as the indented tassel, but those depicted at the corners of a modern tracing board in the first degree represent the tassels suspended in the corners of a lodge to represent the four cardinal virtues. Tassels are ancient symbols, which are derived from the Hebrew word tsitsith, or Sadhe Yod Sadhe He, which means both tassels and fringes. Numbers 15:37-40 in the New English Bible tells us that the tassel should be used as a reminder:

"The Lord spoke to Moses and said speak to the Israelites in these words: You must make tassels like flowers on the corners of your garments . . . Into this tassel you shall work a violet thread . . . to ensure that you remember all my commandments and obey them . . ."

As lodges became larger, the floor sketches gave way to durable floor cloths that could be rolled up after the meeting. Later these cloths were stretched over a trestle table or trasel, sometimes incorrectly called a tarsel. Still later the cloths were hung on the walls to save wear and tear, but nowadays they are usually replaced by less expensive printed tracing boards. The tracing board is called a jewel of the lodge, in which sense it is an important emblem in its own right, because it represents the spiritual tracing board that comprises the sacred scriptures in which are laid down the moral plans and divine laws that should govern our lives and actions. Each degree in speculative craft freemasonry has a tracing board comprising a multiplicity of emblems that have their individual symbolisms, but also are used collectively to illustrate the important truths communicated in that degree. The meanings of the symbols on a tracing board are explained in an associated lecture. In modern freemasonry tracing boards are mainly used in speculative craft lodges, although in earlier times they were widely used in most orders of freemasonry, some of which will be discussed. A very early set of tracing boards in the modern format was prepared for the Chichester Lodge by one of its members in 1811, Brother Josiah Bowring. He was a well-known portrait painter of London, who was initiated in the lodge in 1795. Most tracing boards now used in speculative lodges are derived directly or indirectly from a set prepared by Brother John Harris and published in about 1821. Brother Harris was a miniature painter and architectural draughtsman whose designs generally followed those of Brother Bowring.

Tracing boards in speculative craft freemasonry are usually rectangular with sides that are in the proportion of the phi ratio, which is called the Golden Section. It is mathematically and aesthetically elegant and results in the rectangular shape that is most pleasing to the human eye. The phi ratio equals half the sum of unity and the square root of five, which is 1.618 approximately. It also is the ratio that the sum of the length and width of a rectangle bears to its length. The phi ratio has some remarkable mathematical properties, including the fact that the square of phi equals phi plus one and the reciprocal of phi equals phi minus one. It is linked to the Fibonacci Series, in which each term after the second is the sum of the two preceding terms, beginning with 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13 and continuing to infinity. The ratio of each number to its predecessor progressively converges on the phi ratio as infinity is approached. The Fibonacci Series is frequently found in nature, like the ratios between the planetary orbits and the Mendelian laws of heredity. The phi ratio was the proportion used in the design of the Parthenon in Athens and in many other ancient classical buildings. In architectural and decorative work that is designed to utilise standardised components like tiles, rectangles in the proportions of 8:5 or a ratio of 1.6 are often used for convenience as an approximation of the phi ratio. Interpreted symbolically, the phi ratio represents the human soul, while the repeated application of the ratio reflects the human soul's dynamic development in an upward spiral. This suggests that, in the speculative degrees of craft freemasonry, the designers of the tracing boards were not only concerned with physical form and external symbolism, but also with aesthetics and inner spiritual symbolism.

Physical form, mental development and moral progress are represented by several different rectangles. The perfect square symbolically represents the physical plane, the external and lowest plane in the material nature of the universe, as well as the lower mental plane and basic knowledge. The oblong square has a ratio of two to one and symbolises the upward mental and moral progress of mankind in its search for the divine. In early speculative lodges this was represented by the perpend ashlar, which is a perfect square in cross-section and an oblong square in elevation. The Holy Place in the tabernacle and also in the temple at Jerusalem was an oblong square. It is represented in speculative lodges by the mosaic pavement, which therefore should be and usually is an oblong with sides in the ratio of two to one. The temple square has the proportions of three to one and represents the pi ratio, which is approximately 3.142, from which the circumference of a circle can be calculated being equal to 2 pi times the radius. The pi ratio reminds us of that important ancient symbol, the point within a circle, which typifies the creative power and infinite wisdom of God. Interpreted symbolically, the pi ratio represents the human search for the divine, for spirituality and for eternity. The tabernacle and its successor, the temple at Jerusalem, each had a ground plan in the proportions of three to one, which is called a temple square. The dimensions of the temple at Jerusalem were 60 cubits long from east to west and 20 cubits wide, twice those of the tabernacle. This proportion has always been adopted for the floor plan in lodges of operative freemasons. The tabernacle and also the temple at Jerusalem had a Holy Place and a Holy of Holies. The Holy Place was in the proportion of two to one, called an oblong square or a double square. The Holy Place has an important counterpart in the double cube of the altar of incense that stood in front of the entrance to the Holy of Holies. The altar of incense was two cubits high and square in section with sides of one cubit, made of acacia wood and overlaid with pure gold. The Holy of Holies was a square in plan and cubical in shape, with sides of 10 cubits in the tabernacle and 20 cubits in the temple.

Speculative craft freemasonry

The tracing boards used in the three degrees of speculative craft freemasonry differ significantly both in presentation and purpose. They are all in the proportion of the phi ratio and are presented in an upright or portrait format. Their main features will now be summarised. In the first degree an indented border of black and white triangles surrounds the tracing board, the black triangles outside and the white inside. Usually a tassel is depicted at each corner. Symbolically the viewer is facing the east, the orientation being identified with west at the bottom and east at the top. Within the borders a perspective view of the interior of a symbolic lodge is shown with a mosaic pavement of black and white tiles. The symbolic lodge has no walls and is open to the heavens, which suggests the universality of the science. Three pillars, one each of the Ionic, Doric and Corinthian orders, are shown standing freely on the pavement in the east, west and south respectively. Various implements are depicted on the mosaic pavement, in the centre of which there is a pedestal supporting an open volume of the scriptures on which are placed the square and compasses. A ladder rests on the scriptures and reaches to a blazing star in the heavens, where the sun, moon and seven stars also are shown. The rungs of the ladder support several symbols that represent the moral virtues. There is an explanatory lecture, which gives details of the symbolic teachings of the degree and sets out the precepts on which speculative freemasonry is based, of which a belief in God is the central tenet. The tracing board in the second degree is intended to represent the interior of the first temple at Jerusalem, looking towards the Holy of Holies in the west. This representation of the temple is entirely hypothetical, because the arrangement differs significantly from the description recorded in the scriptures. In particular, an entrance to the Holy Place is shown on the left, which would be in the southeast corner, with a pillar on each side. Those pillars represent Jachin and Boaz, which flanked the only entrance to the temple that was in reality at the eastern end of the building. A winding stair is shown leading from the entrance depicted in the southeast to the Holy of Holies in the west. In fact there was no winding stair in the Holy Place, although there were two in the chambers surrounding the southern, western and northern walls of the temple, one in the southeast and the other in the northwest. Although the River Jordan was east of the temple, on the tracing board it is towards the southwest when looking through the entrance shown in the southeast. A small waterfall can also be seen and an ear of corn growing nearby, reminding us of the defeat of the Ephraimites by Jeptha and his army. The lecture on the second tracing board describes the two great pillars in detail and explains how King Solomon's temple was constructed.

The tracing board of the third degree usually has a solid black border as a symbol of mourning and also to represent an open grave. As might be expected this tracing board is orientated facing west, opposite to the tracing board in the first degree, thus emphasising the differences between our entrance to and exit from this mortal existence that are symbolically represented in the two degrees. Within the grave is a coffin with its foot at the eastern end, the traditional orientation of graves to face the rising sun. An acacia bush, an ancient emblem of immortality, is placed at the western end of the grave near the head of the coffin. The interior of the temple is depicted in a vignette shown on and near the centre of the coffin, looking towards the Holy of Holies in the west. The emblems of mortality and the working tools of a master mason are displayed at the head of the coffin, while the working tools of a craftsman are near the foot. Also near the head of the coffin is a plaque, which has inscriptions similar to those of an epitaph on the headstone of a grave. Various other inscriptions also appear on the coffin. The accompanying lecture recapitulates the circumstances surrounding the untimely death of the principal architect and the subsequent recovery of his body. The importance of fidelity is emphasised and we are reminded of the faithful and diligent service that is required of us, in accordance with God's laws and for the benefit mankind, if we hope to receive our reward in a life hereafter.

Mark and Royal Arch freemasonry

The instruction of a craftsman begins in the second degree and is continued in the degree of mark master mason, in which the work is closely related to the construction of King Solomon's temple at Jerusalem, before the untimely death of the master craftsman. The tracing board of the mark degree also is in portrait form, in the proportions of the phi ratio. It shows an external view of the temple and surrounding countryside, looking towards the west. A sunbeam can be seen striking the roof of the temple, as a symbol of the commencement of a new cycle of life. Although the River Jordan is east of the temple, it is shown in the distance on the right, which is to the north. The scene is framed within an arched gateway of dressed stones decorated with various symbols.

In the centre of the keystone that completes the crown of the arch, is a circle circumscribing an equilateral triangle. From ancient times the equilateral triangle has been a symbol of the deity, because it is regarded as one of the most perfect figures. The circle, which is also regarded as a perfect figure, is a symbol of the all-embracing aspects of divine manifestation and is an emblem of eternity. Eight Hebrew characters, Heth Beth Aleph Aleph Sadhe Shin Mem Sin, are engraved within the circle. They are the initial letters of the words of two quite different Hebrew sentences. One sentence relates to the principal artificer at the time when preparations were being made for construction of the temple. The other relates to Hiram King of Tyre, at the time when construction of the temple had been completed and Solomon King of Israel was arranging for its dedication. When the two Hebrew sentences have been translated into English, the initial letters of the words in each sentence are HTWSSTKS. In the corners of the tracing board, immediately above the archway, there is an inscription in Hebrew that is taken from Psalm 118:22 and reads "The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief corner-stone". This statement is repeated and amplified in I Peter 2:7-8, when the apostle Peter writes his first general letter to the Christians in the five provinces of Rome.

An open volume of the sacred writings and an All-seeing Eye respectively adorn the two stones uppermost in the arch, one on each side of the keystone. The sacred writings are to govern our faith and the All-seeing Eye reminds us that the eye of the Almighty is always upon us to aid us in our laudable undertakings. Most of the other symbols depicted on the arched gateway represent well-known working tools of an operative freemason. In addition a rope and anchor, a ladder and an hourglass are also depicted. The rope and anchor represents our spiritual attachment to the deity and is a symbol of that firmly grounded hope that arises from a life of true and faithful service in the sight of the Lord. The ladder represents Jacob's ladder and is a symbol of the faith we entertain of being rewarded for a well-spent life in a life hereafter. The hourglass reminds us, by the speedy passage of its sands, that human life is only of a transitory nature and that as a consequence we must carry out our allotted tasks while it is yet day, before the night comes when no man can work. The hourglass is intended to emphasise the important and fundamental lessons of life that were imparted to the candidate when he received the degree of Master Mason.

The working tools depicted on the arched gateway are the mallet, the chisel, the plumb rule, the trowel, the twenty-four inch gauge, the square and compasses, the level, the cramp and the axe. The mallet is the operative freemason's tool that is similar to, but not identical with, the common gavel in symbolic speculative craft freemasonry. The mallet is used to impart a driving force, especially to the chisel. Morally it teaches us to correct irregularities, to curb ambition, to restrain envy, and to moderate anger. As the chisel is the operative freemason's tool used to cut and dress the stones, so emblematically it represents the education and discipline that is required to develop the latent virtues of the mind and develop human knowledge. The plumb rule is used by operative freemasons to try and when necessary to adjust the upright elements of a structure when setting them on their proper bases. It denotes that justness and uprightness of life and actions that ought to be practised by every freemason. The trowel is a tool used by operative freemasons to spread the mortar that binds the stones where required to complete the structure. Symbolically the trowel teaches us to spread the mortar of kindness and affection that should unite all members of our fraternity and ensure that brotherly love, relief and truth are practised in all of their aspects.

In speculative freemasonry the twenty-four inch gauge is a modern implement that replaces the straight edge, the twelve-inch rule and the three-foot rule that were used by operative freemasons in medieval Britain. No doubt the twenty-four inch rule was chosen for this purpose because its twenty-four parts could be used symbolically to represent the twenty-four hours of the day. The apprentices in operative freemasonry did not have a graduated rule, but they used a straight edge as a guide for the chisel when cutting a stone. The craftsmen used the graduated rules when marking out the stones ready for cutting and together with the straight edge when checking the dimensions and finish of the stones when being dressed and polished. Symbolically the twenty-four inch gauge reminds us that we must correctly apportion our time for labour, refreshment and sleep, having due regard to the duties we owe to our creator and to our fellow men, as well as for the benefits accruing to our families and ourselves. The symbolism associated with the rungs of the ladder is closely interrelated with that of the subdivisions of time associated with the twenty-four inch gauge. As we have received, so we should freely give. Our labours should not be focussed on the gratification of individual ambition, but should be directed for the benefit of all mankind, reflecting the virtues of faith, hope and charity that are represented in the ascent of the ladder.

The symbolism of the square and compasses is so well known that only a brief summary will suffice. The square teaches us to regulate our lives and actions by the principles reflected in the use of the line and rule by the operative freemason. The compasses teach us to limit our desires suitably in every position of life, so that we may rise in station by merit, live respected and die regretted. The level is a perfect complement to the square and compasses, being an implement used by the operative freemason to lay levels and prove horizontals. Symbolically it is an emblem of equality, reminding us that all are equal in the sight of God, so that rank and fortune will not be criteria for our advancement to a life hereafter, only goodness and service to God and man. The cramp is an implement used by the operative freemason to lift stones and other objects of great weight and put them in their proper places. Symbolically it represents that close and strong union that ought to bind together all members of our fraternity and help to overcome any difficulties that may be encountered. The axe is used by the operative freemason to cleave stones. Symbolically it has been an implement of punishment from time immemorial, reminding us of the punishment that awaits us if we fail to obey God's laws and commit offences towards God or man.

In the foreground of the tracing board, immediately in front of the left hand column supporting the arch, the craftsmen can be seen receiving their wages. Immediately opposite, in front of the right hand column, are the perfect cubic ashlar of the master, the keystone of the senior warden and the perpend ashlar of the junior warden. The cubic ashlar is distinguished by the master's square and the perpend ashlar is distinguished by the junior warden's plumb. The keystone is fitted with a lifting ring attached to the stone by means of a lewis and has the same markings as the keystone that completes the crown of the arch. These three stones occupy prominent positions on the tracing board so as to impress upon our minds the important lessons imparted to the craftsman during the ceremony of his advancement as a Mark Master. Finally, in the lecture though not illustrated on the tracing board itself, there is a dissertation on the masonic cipher that in earlier times was of considerable importance to the operative freemason. It is a symbolic reminder that we must keep secret a brother's confidences with the same strict caution as we maintain our own private affairs.

The royal arch degree relates to reconstruction of the temple at Jerusalem after the Israelites had returned from their captivity in Babylon. The tracing board in portrait form is in the proportion of the phi ratio. It depicts the ruins of the temple on which is superimposed a view of the interior of the temple, placed over an underground vault shown in section and representing the secret vaulted shrine in which the Sacred Word was deposited. The interior view of the temple is entirely symbolic and it is surrounded seventeen standards or banners. The royal arch banner, a Triple Tau within a circle, is depicted in the middle of the four principal banners under which the Israelites marched through the wilderness and camped around the Tabernacle, all arranged as an arc near the ceiling. The other twelve standards are the banners of the tribes of Israel, arranged in two columns of six, one on each side. In the centre of the pavement six candlesticks are placed to delineate a greater and a lesser equilateral triangle. A circle circumscribes the greater triangle. The circle represents the Sacred Word itself and the greater triangle represents the creative, preservative and destructive powers of the deity. Each light of the lesser triangle bisects a side of the greater triangle. These lights represent the Light of the Law as it was revealed in the Patriarchal, Mosaical and Prophetical Dispensations. An open volume of the scriptures, a scroll and various working tools rest on the mosaic pavement that forms the floor of the temple. A pedestal of pure virgin marble stands on the floor of the vaulted shrine, within a circle inscribed with the twelve signs of the zodiac. Twelve is regarded as a complete number, which represents all that can be seen or perceived. The zodiac is an ancient symbol of the cycle of life through which the soul accomplishes its development. On top of the pedestal there is a plate of pure gold inscribed with a circle, an equilateral triangle and various Hebrew characters. These inscriptions represent the Sacred Word and several attributes of the deity. All are brilliantly lit by sunlight shining through the cavity that was prepared by the workmen when clearing away the rubbish of the old temple, reminding us that the creator is the source of all life and light and the spring and fountain of virtue.

The Ancient and Accepted Rite

The Ancient and Accepted Rite is of French origin. Although many degrees of the Rite have tracing boards in the proportions of the phi ratio, some of them are a square, or an oblong square, or a temple square, as is appropriate to the symbolism of the degree. The 9 tracing board is in the upright portrait form and the 10 is in the horizontal landscape form. The 9 and 10 are concerned with the search for the three ruffians after the untimely death of the master craftsman and with bringing them to justice. Both of these tracing boards are in the proportions of the phi ratio, alluding to the return of the principal architect's soul to God who gave it. Scenes of the search for and recovery of the ruffians are shown on the boards. These tracing boards are in contrast to that of the 11, which is a square, because it deals with the mundane matter of selecting and appointing twelve princes to administer the districts occupied by the twelve tribes of Israel. The tracing board of the 11 depicts the physical details of the temple, reminiscent of the second tracing board of speculative craft freemasonry and also the tracing board of a mark master mason. However, to stress the importance of God in all matters, the board is surmounted by a triangle in which one of the names of God is inscribed in Hebrew. A square tracing board is also used in the 16, which relates to other temporal matters, in particular the troubles caused by the Samaritans before the erection of the second temple at Jerusalem, which necessitated Zerubbabel's journey to Babylon. That was when Zerubbabel sought to have the Edict of Artaxerxes rescinded by Darius and to obtain from Darius written confirmation that he would honour the Decree of Cyrus, enabling the children of Israel to live and work in Jerusalem unmolested and to commence the reconstruction of the temple. Within the square is a heptagonal figure with an open volume of the scriptures in the centre and an irradiated sword above it. Various temporal emblems are at the seven corners

The 7 and 8 relate to the appointment of a group of specialists immediately after the death of the principal architect, to ensure that the preparation of the working plans continued in accordance with the designs that had been approved by the three Grand Masters and also that the work would continue to be carried out in accordance with those designs. As these activities symbolise the upward mental and moral progress of humanity in its search for the divine, the tracing boards of these two degrees are oblong squares in the proportion of two to one. In the centre of the board of the 7 is a pedestal in the form of a perpend ashlar, supporting an open volume of the scriptures with the square and compasses on it. On the 8 board all of these are replaced by an emblem, which is an open pentagon in which an equilateral triangle encloses a circle circumscribing a nine pointed star, within which are three concentric equilateral triangles with three Yods at their centre. The lecture explains how this emblem represents the many attributes of the Deity. Both boards also include temporal emblems and have at their heads an irradiated triangle inscribed with different characters.

The 4, 5 and 6 tracing boards are in the proportion of three to one, the shape of a temple square, representing the pi ratio and symbolising man's search for the divine, for spirituality and for eternity. In the tabernacle and later in the temple the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies represented those aspirations. These degrees relate to the time immediately after the death of the master craftsman who had been personally responsible for the Holy of Holies. The temple was nearing completion, but the Holy of Holies required work of a special nature beyond the competence of an individual mason. Accordingly the work was entrusted to a group of seven skilled masons under the leadership of Adoniram and substitutes were provided for the secrets that were lost on the death of the master craftsman. King Solomon also made arrangements for the transfer to Hiram, King of Tyre, of the twenty cities in Galilee that had been promised to him in recognition of his assistance during the building of the temple. The tracing board of the 4 is subdivided into a double square to represent the Holy Place at the eastern end and a square to represent the Holy of Holies at the western end. In the centre of the Holy Place is a volume of the scriptures with the square and compasses on the open pages. Various items of the temple furnishings are arranged around it. Symbols representing the Divine Spirit are depicted in the Holy of Holies. In the 5 the orientation is reversed and the temple furnishings are replaced by a hollow square of mosaic pavement and other symbols. Both boards include representations of the two great pillars correctly oriented at the eastern end of the tracing board. The tracing board of the 6 is entirely symbolical. It has reminders of this earthly existence at the foot of the board, whilst at the head of the board a Yod placed in the centre of an upright oblong square represents God in his celestial sphere. The Hebrew characters Beth, Nun and Shin are arranged in the centre in the shape of an equilateral triangle, signifying a covenant, a promise and peace, to remind us of God's special relationship with mankind.

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