The Precision of the Chisel

by Midnight Freemason Contributor
Brother Erik Marks

"As the keen edge of the chisel is accurately shaped to cut the stone, it impresses upon the apprentice's mind that knowledge is essential in all activities." -WM Don Falconer, Masonic Essays' 98.
When I was entered into the fraternity, I was overwhelmed with information. I loved, and still do, being saturated with lots of new ideas.

Not long after, as the stone dust settled, I began to wonder how we shaped stone with just a gavel. I took it on faith, "that's the way we do things," and set the idea aside to learn the instruction set before me, but the question lingered in my mind. My brief thoughts here are not meant to be an exhaustive examination of the Chisel, rather it's a summary of some of my contemplations to date about my attempt to integrate greater precision into my life and masonic work. I'll include links embedded in the text to the original sources where available.

Last year, I was introduced to The Way of the Craftsman by W. Kirk MacNulty, and the question was re-awakened, but with answers. Part of what is so appealing to me about MacNulty's analysis and ideas is their basis in spirituality and Jungian psychology.
The chisel "…is said to be of exquisite sharpness and to be related to education. From this symbolism, we can infer that the Chisel represents the psychological functions of thought process: the analysis, classification, communication, storage, retrieval, sorting, and presentation of data." P. 109
In this passage, MacNulty refers to some aspects of what Jung calls ego functions. Ego, in Jung's schema, is a psychological structure of waking or conscious mind. The structures that pertain to the two unconscious realms of the psyche, personal and collective unconscious, are complexes and archetypes, respectively. Executive functions allow us to live and thrive in adulthood. They are integrated into, and go beyond, the physical power of the body, balancing and channeling the "passion" or power of the body into pro-social, constructive movements in the world.

The Chisel, as I've learned, is the third of the tools in the British Emulation degrees. In that system, there are three tools in each degree, corresponding to the three pillars of the temple. MacNulty teaches us about the balance of the three pillars: active, passive, and mediating.

This, he tells us, is the rule of three, as exemplified in Beauty (passive), Strength (active), and Wisdom (mediating). They are the three columns present through each of the stories of the temple.
"As the stonemason uses the hammer and chisel to shape the rock into the building block, so the Freemason must refine himself, chipping away at his bad habits, weaknesses, and personal shortcomings." Millar, The three stages of initiatic spirituality, P. 16.
With this understanding, the Chisel completes the bio-psycho-spiritual set of tools. It is charged with the task of education and precision, as is needed in making the work beautiful. As such, it refers not primarily ornamentation, though that is important as well and decorative. It is an implicit beauty, precision, of having the sides of the stone be perfected. The pure strength of the gavel may indeed cleave the rough edges, but we could consider the additional tool to sublimate the Strength into perfection is that of precision, Beauty, education, a maturing ego, and executive functioning.

This idea does not diminish in any way the Strength of the gavel. The Chisel without force is as misguided and ineffectual as a force without direction. Here we return to the opening pages of Pike's magnum opus. 
"Force must be limited, restrained, conveyed by distribution into different channels, and by roundabout courses, to outlets, whence it is to issue as the law, action, and decision…" Pike, Albert. Morals and Dogma (Illustrated) (p. 9). Global Grey. Kindle Edition. 
Though here, Pike speaks of the populace's force and the need for precision and restrained by channeling, it is the same principle of acting with intentionality.

Channeling the force of the gavel through the Chisel allows for increased precision of what is to be removed from the stone.

Since I've been working with the idea of the Chisel, I've been thinking about how to operationalize and apply it in daily life. The gavel and gauge I use for the bigger tasks: keeping to healthy eating and regular exercise. The more persistent, more complicated tasks require the Chisel. That being said, the reasons I don't eat well and refuse to exercise may also require a closer, chisel, examination. People around me have been reminding me of my negative first response (I'll call it NFR) to things. It's closed-minded and reflexive, not very masonic. So Chisel would be the proper tool for this tenacious character flaw.

How will you use it, I imagine you are asking? That is the question. Though our metaphor implies a chipping off of the habit, vice, flaw, its not so easy, right?

One of the Chisel's meanings is education. Even though I assume I know myself well and that I have an explanation for this flaw, I clearly need more information. Further education is needed about my inner workings to bring about change. Why the negative first response, Erik? That is a chisel question. I'm now faced with looking more deeply, so I sit still. I take some time to ground and focus, meditating for five to ten minutes before "getting out the chisel." I know I will need to remove some additional material on the stone before I find the secret. That additional stone is sometimes referred to as defenses or defensiveness. I may not like what I see; it may bother me to learn more, so I need to chip away at those thoughtfully to not miss any details.

Next, I call up an event from the past. The event needs to be recent enough to be relevant and for me feel inner resistance, yet old enough to have lost some of its sting that keeps me defended. Chip away at the layers. I begin to recognize there are assumptions I make about people and situations and my internal responses to them. The thought of the circumstances brings up related emotions and thoughts so quickly I move almost instantaneously to a reaction: don't go (to "x" event). After more chipping (time in self-reflection) of this type, I arrive at the problematic rough patches in the form of thoughts, to smooth down: "they won't like me …they'll discount what I have to say because I haven't been a mason very long or because I don't have masonic credentials to speak of… I'll get nervous and sound dumb…my thoughts will leave me, and I can't be of help." That last one is the worst.

Now for the smoothing.

Identifying the rough patch with the Chisel is not enough, now I need to do something with it. How do you smooth out these patches? On the surface (intended), it seems easy, right? You say: "Just don't think that way." For some, it may be that easy, just delete the thoughts, for most of us, it's not. The thoughts, feelings, and behavioral loops are built on layers of conditioning, assumptions, experiences, beliefs, long-repeated stories we've told ourselves in secret inner chambers never to be shown the light. Chisel uncovers those rooms and opens them to the light. This is where precision comes in, and with it, the repetitive application we could call chipping or the action of chiseling.

Because men aren't stone, our processes are organic, stored in multiple recesses of our psycho-physiology, our minds and bodies as one unit, and therefore prone to re-propagate themselves in times of distress: when excrement impacts the air circulation system, we revert to well-worn neural grooves, neuronal pathways, created over decades of reinforcement. For me, most effective way to implement the Chisel at this point is to: 1) acknowledge the flaw and accept is part of me for now; 2) look for the problem in daily life (gauge it); 3) look for the cues it is about to happen (Wisdom); and 4) restrain its occurrence when you feel the urge to engage (gavel and Chisel).

So, what does that look like? I write the instruction on my inner trestle board: be on the lookout for NFR and work to chip it off when it shows up. I allow myself to be reminded of the process I went through to find the basis of the NFR and of my plan. When it comes up: "Hey Erik, would you speak at LOI?"… Pause … "chisel please"… Pause, deep breath, chip, note the pattern, a little more gavel, remember this is a brother asking …chisel… Reply: "of course, I'd be honored."

This then brings me to the discernment, the rule of Wisdom in the first degree being the gauge.

Using the gauge, the craftsman knows where to strike, with the force of the gavel channeled through the precision of the Chisel. Beauty and Strength guided by Wisdom. I spoke with Mike Grubbs, a brother and new friend, a few days ago who taught me that a symptom he experiences, hypervigilance (constant scanning of the environment for danger), has been re-shaped to a strength; I would say, like a superpower. He calls it "Enhanced Threat Detection." I like this idea so much I've started using the phrase and concept with people who would like that language, too. This is his very personal way of chiseling an aspect of self into an asset. He used Wisdom and discernment to keep the part of his ashlar he deemed useful in his life, even if others might see it as a flaw or "symptom." He measured what was needed and chiseled away the rest.

Right Worshipful Cholka[i] reminds us the common gavel holds the function of conscience and instructs that use of the Chisel is utilized to make the "fine adjustments to our character." Again, in this reading, I find the gavel keeps us from the larger errors in life where the Chisel, through "discipline and perseverance," allows for the slow and painstaking task of changing the more nuanced aspects of character. I see and work with this process daily, in myself and the people I serve.

Of note, while preparing for this post about the Chisel I had the opportunity to have a text chat with Right Worshipful Brother Cholka who suspected the Chisel was dropped from the EA degree in 1832; His understanding may have been confirmed in my subsequent reading a Short Talk Bulletin[ii] where in that year the "Baltimore Convention changed many key practices of U. S. Masonry due to the anti-Masonic sentiments caused by the Morgan Affair."

Much of the power in Freemasonry is that it causes us to be exposed to new ideas, ways of thinking, and people with diverse opinions.

We are then asked to think for ourselves within a rich philosophic and spiritual structure. Finally, we are instructed to use the structure and the truths to which we are exposed to examine ourselves, challenge our assumptions. Then, we could elect the use of the Chisel in our work to change the things we find flawed in ourselves as a way of effecting the larger world.

Living apprenticeship allows us to always be at the beginning of our journey, to remain curious about new ideas, and willing to learn. Every time we open on the first degree, I find a reminder of the need to return to the beginning and be open. Though it is highly unlikely we will add the Chisel back to the American EA degree; its symbolic meaning can be adapted to any pursuit, in or outside masonry. We are educated to be precise with our words, thoughts, and actions. The precision of the Chisel is an underutilized metaphor readily available for your consideration.


Brother Erik Marks is a clinical social worker whose usual vocation has been in the field of human services in a wide range of settings since 1990. He was raised in 2017 by his biologically younger Brother and then Worshipful Master in Alpha Lodge in Framingham, MA. You may contact brother Marks by email:

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