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The Trestle Board
by Bro. Robert G. Aberdeen, P.G.St. (83-03-26)
The Terms "Trestle Board" and "Tracing Board" seem to have been used interchangeably through the ages, and although they appear to have a common origin, today they should be given two separate meanings. The term "Tracing Board" has come to mean the small boards or canvases, sometimes replaced by slide projections, on which the symbols peculiar to each degree are displayed for the purpose of explanation to the Candidate.
The term "Trestle Board", used in the context of a drawing board or drafting table, is in itself a Masonic symbol of moral law. This symbol is displayed in many lodges as a small board, often a chalkboard, with various lines and designs depicted, on an easel-like frame in the East, near the Master. Whether it is called Trestle Board or Tracing Board, it is this symbol which is one of the jewels of Freemasonry.
It ought to be clearly displayed in every Lodge which refers to it in the ritual. In the pocket reference One Hundred One Questions About tion 86 asks: Are the Tracing Board and the Trestle Board Masonically The answer given is: No. The tracing-board bears upon it representations of the several symbols of one or all the degrees; the trestle board is that drawing board, supported upon a trestle, on which, anciently, the Master Builder drew his designs.
There is a further explanation, which is covered more completely in the book Beyond the Pillars: From an early period it was the custom at each meeting of Freemasons to draw diagrams on the floor, including an outline of the holy part of the lodge, certain lines to guide the candidate, and some symbols. Naturally these also differed from degree to degree.
In those days the task of preparing, or "forming", the lodge required considerable time and skill. when the brethren were called from labour to refreshment, the drawings would be rubbed or scrubbed out. As late as 1811 in England the the tyler's equipment sometimes included a mop and pail for this purpose . . . The drawings were done with chalk, charcoal, and clay . . .
From 1733 on we find mentions of a substitute, in the form of ready made floor-cloths, one for each degree, on which designs were permanently painted. At first this innovation was greeted with hostility, on the grounds that it increased the risk of disclosure. Even 1 Claudy, one Hundred One Questions About Freemasonry, p. 56 2 Ibid. 3 McLeod, Beyond The Pillars, p. 90 after the practice came to be accepted there were still drawbacks.
The floor-cloths were hardly durable enough to serve as satisfactory carpets, and it soon became normal to rescue them from the floor and to display them on the wall or on a table. They are still found in lodges, although they have been reduced drastically in size, and their original function as a floor covering is no longer remembered.
In some parts of the world they are called trestle-boards, apparently from the trestle tables on which they were formerly set. in Ontario they are known as tracing boards . . . to remind us that they are descended from the drawings made under the direction of the W.M. before the work of the lodge began.
Colin Dyer, in Symbolism in Craft Freemasonry, tells us: The tracing board, like its movable companion, the square, is essentially the Master's instrument. The lecture tells us that it is for the Master to lay lines and draw designs on the better to enable the brethren to carry on the intended structure with regularity and propriety.
It is on the tracing board that the Master sets out moral teachings for the instruction and guidance of his brethren in the matter of living. in these days the designs of the tracing boards related to the different degrees tend to be of a standard pattern and to reflect by symbols the moral teachings of the Craft. They developed in this way through the last quarter of the eighteenth century and the first quarter of the nineteenth . . .
It is believed that the name "tracing board" is a corruption of the old Tressel or Tracel Board used in lodges in the late eighteenth century to display the masonic hieroglyphics, and in many lodges displayed on a tressel in the centre of the lodge. The lectures further compare the use of the tracing board by the Master in the instruction of his lodge, with the Volume of the Sacred Law as a means by which God may perform a similar function to mankind. it is regarded as the spiritual tracing board of God . . .
Later, quoting Dr. George Oliver, Bro. Dyer writes: I will now call your attention to a Board with a few lines, angles, and perpendiculars designed upon its surface. This is the Tracing Board; and though it may appear rough and of little use, is yet an immoveable jewel, and contains a lesson of inestimable value.
This board is for the Master to draw his plans on, for the direction of his workmen; but its mystic reference is to the great charter of our religious privileges, which, in all our open Lodges is displayed on the Master's Pedestal with its leaves unfolded as the visible standard of our Faith, subscribed with the hand of the divinity; the very ground and pillar of Truth.
The Pocket Encyclopedia of Masonic Symbols refers to the Master's Carpet or Tracing Board . . . in one section, and in a separate section it explains that the Trestle Board is a symbol of moral law: 4 ibid., p. 91 5 Dyer, Symbolism in Craft Freemasonry, pp. 92-93 6 Ibid., p. 93 7 M. S. A., Pocket Encyclopedia of Masonic Symbols, p. 54 The trestle board is that on which the master draws his designs, from which the perfect ashlar is made from the rough, and later, built into walls to construct the temple.
By analogy, the trestle hoard of the Speculative mason is that on which he draws the designs for his character and spiritual growth; in other words, lays down his moral law. (8) Mackey's book symbolism of Freemasonry, which first appeared in 1869, draws no distinction between the tracing-board and the trestle-board, although it leans toward the nioral law symbolism: To construct his earthly temple, the operative workman followed the architectural designs laid down on the trestle-board or tracing-board, or book of plans of the architect . . .
The trestle-board becomes, therefore, one of our elementary symbols. For in the Masonic ritual the Speculative Freemason is reminded that . . . [he should] erect that spiritual building . . . in obedience to the rules and designs, the precepts and commands, laid down by the Grand Architect of the Universe in those great books of nature and revelation which constitute the spiritual trestle-board of every Freemason.
The trestle-board is, then, the symbol of the natural and moral law. (9) The oft-quoted book masonic Problems and Queries says this about the origin of the Tracing Boards: In ancient times there existed a custom known as "Drawing the Lodge", a design being traced on the floor of the Lodge by the Tyler . . . Later . . . the mode was evolved of depicting the plan on a sheet of linen floorcloth, which could be rolled up when not in use.
These ancient floorcloths were the primitive form of the present-day Tracing Boards. Later the designs were transferred to Boards, the floorcloth being preserved only to show the square pavement. But if, answer to the question what is a Trestle Board?, the same book states simply: In ancient times the Trestle Board was a board upon which the Master inscribed designs for the guidance and instruction of the Brethren. It was found only in the First Degree.
Bro. Harry Carr in The Freemason at work makes no mention of the Trestle Board as such but he does have an interesting and relevant comment about squaring the Lodge. He says that: It is almost certain that the practice arose unintentionally. in the 1730s, the 'lodge', i.e. the Tracing Board, was drawn on the floor, usually within a border, or else the 'floor-cloth' (then just coming into use) was rolled out in the middle of the floor. In the small tavern rooms which were the principal places of meeting there cannot have been much space left for traversing the lodge and, if the 'drawing' or 'floor-cloth' was to be protected, a certain amount of squaring was inevitable.
8 Ibid., pp. 55-56 9 Mackey and Clegg, Mackey's Symbolism of Freemasonry, p. 89 10 Inman, Masonic Problems and Queries, pp. 226-227 11 Ibid., p. 228 12 Carr, The Freemason at Work, p. 35 In Pike's Liturgy of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite we find this definition: The Tracing or Trestle-Board is an oblong Square on which designs are drawn, by the Master Workman, for the government of those under him, in the erection of edifices.
It is therefore a symbol of Instruction, Education and Law; and thus has both a moral and political meaning. The Master of the Lodge represents Wisdom or Reason; and the Trestleboard teaches us, morally, that our conduct should always be regulated in accordance with the dictates of sound Reason, and not by Passion or Impulse . . . And the Trestle-Board is an apt symbol of those Free Constitutions, solemnly adopted by the general will, irrevocable and unalterable except in accordance with their own provisions, which are intended to survive the shocks of time, to guarantee private rights and an equitable exercise of the Powers of Government.
There is much additional evidence to support this theory, which the reader may research for himself, including the paper "Evolution of the Tracing Board" by E. H. Dring in Ars Quatuor Coronatorum, Volume 29, and the paper by T. O. Haunch, "Tracing Boards: Their Development and their Designers" in the same record of transactions, Volume 75. Given the foregoing evidence, one last reference will support the conclusion that the terms "Trestle-Board" and "Tracing Board" should, because of their differences in symbolism, be given two separate and distinct meanings.
In the 1842 French ritual of the Scottish Rite Degree of Apprentice, translated by Bro. Erik Palmer, after the degree is completed, the Worshipful Master explains that the Apprentice must memorize a "dialog of questions and answers" and orders: Bro. S. & J.D., prepare the Tracing Board of this degree.
The ritual then instructs as follows: (They rise, produce the carpet and spread it upon the pavement . . . The Deacons then rehearse the questions and answers for the benefit of the candidate. Question 64 asks: What does the trestleboard signify? and the answer is: It is the symbol of memory, of that precious faculty given to us to mold our judgment by preserving the record of all we perceive. 14 Palmer, A Working Ritual in English . . . p. 37 15 Ibid., p. 46
Carr, Harry, The Freemason at Work, London & Abingdon: Burgess & Son, 1976.
Claudy, Carl H., One Hundred One Questions About Freemasonry, Washington, D.C.: The Masonic Service Association, 1962.
Dyer, Colin F. W., Symbolism in Craft Freemasonry, Shepperton Middlesex, Engl.: A. Lewis Masonic Publishers Limited, 1976.
Inman, Herbert F. (ed.), Masonic Problems and Queries, London: A. Lewis Masonic Publishers Limited, 1964.
Mackey, Albert G. and Robert I. Clegg, Mackey's Symbolism of Freemasonry, Chicago: The Masonic History Company, 1960.
Masonic Service Association, The, Pocket Encyclopedia of Masonic Symbols, Silver Springs, MD: The Masonic Service Association, 1975.
McLeod, Wallace (ed.), Beyond the Pillars, Hamilton: Masonic Holdings, 1973.
Palmer, Erik (transl.), "A Working Ritual in English, Translated and Abridged, from the French Ritual of the Scottish Rite 1st, 2nd and 3rd Degrees," MS, New York: Grand Lodge Library, undated.
Pike, Albert, Liturgy of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry for the Southern Jurisdiction of the United States, New York: Macoy, 1878.
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Last modified: March 22, 2014