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Ashlars Rough Smooth Story of a Stone


by J. Fairbairn Smith

We are pleased to present this paper prepared by the eminent Masonic

Scholar, J. Fairbairn Smith, Editor Emeritus of the Detroit Masonic

World. Raised as a "Lewis" at the age of 18, in the lodge at Hawick,

Scotland, in 1925, Bro. Smith has become one of the most respected of

Masonic journalists. He is a "mould stone" from the quarry of Masonic


An eminent sculptor was once asked: "How do you carve such beautiful

statues?" He replies, "It is the simplest thing in the world. I ake a

hammer and chisel and from a massive, shapeless rock, I knock off all

the stone I do not want, and there is the statue. It was there all

the time."

In every Masonic Lodge room there is, or should be, the Rough Ashlar

and the Perfect Ashlar. These two and the Trestle Board constitute

our Movable Jewels. What is their significance? What do they have to

do with Masonry?

In our monitorial work we are taught that the Rough Ashlar "is a

stone as taken from the quarry in its rude and natural state" and

that the Perfect Ashlar "is a stone made ready by the hands of the

workman, to be adjusted by the working tools of the Fellow Craft."

The Rough Ashlar was not a stone that was merely picked up somewhere.

It was a stone that has been selected. Some work was done

upon it. It was apparently a good stone. It was a stone that showed

good prospects of being capable of being made into a Perfect Ashlar.

If it had not been a good stone, it would never have been cut out

from the quarry.

So it is with our prospective member. He cannot be merely picked up

somewhere. He must be selected. Before he is ready to be initiated

some work must be done upon him. He must stand certain basic tests.

He must be apparently of good material. He must be a man who shows

good prospects of being capable of being made into a good Mason. If

he had not been a good man, he should never have been

proposed for membership.

In changing a Rough Ashlar into a Perfect Ashlar, the workman takes

away and never adds to. He chips and chips. He cuts away the rough

edges. He removes the visible flaws, he does not create by chemical

means or otherwise, a new material. He takes that which is already

there and develops it into the Perfect Ashlar.

The stone from which the Venus de Milo was carved by an unknown

sculptor of ancient times, lay since the beginning of time in the

rocks of the Island Milo. A common, unknown workman may have cut a

hugh piece of marble from the quarry. But it took a master artisan to

carve out the beautiful statue. It took a good piece of marble and a

skilled artist to produce the Venus de Milo.

Not many operators in Masonry can make a Perfect Ashlar. So there are

not many perfect Masons in our Lodges. In our Ritualistic and other

work, we can take away much of the roughness, remove the sharp points

and obliterate the visible defects. We can produce as good a Mason as

there is within our power to produce. But the essential thing is to

have a good material upon which to work.

This statement is applicable to all mankind, but to us as Symbolic

Masons, it is pregnant with meaning, for, was not each one, at the

commencement of his Masonic career, placed in the Northeast corner as

an example stone, in the hope that the stone so placed would, in the

fullness of time, be wrought into a thing of beauty acceptable to the


What does the poet say of the stone?

Isn't it strange that Princes and Kings

And clowns that caper in sawdust rings,

And common folks like you and me

Are builders for eternity?

Each is given a kit of tools,

A shapeless mass and a book of rules:

And each must make, ere life is flown

A stumbling block or a stepping stone.

These are very true words. The kit of tools are those talents with

which God has blessed us to enable us to fulfill our mission in life.

We are told in the Volume of the Sacred Law that one man received

five talents, another, two talents, and yet another, only one talent,

so that our duty is for each to discharge his alloted task to the

best of his ability, and help those who have not been so well blessed

as himself. Thus each will be assisted in carving out the "Grand

Design" of being happy and communicating happiness and thereby of

being more "extensively serviceable to his fellow creatures."

The shapeless mass is a man's character, and each one of us is his

own Architect, Builder and Material, and like our predecessors, the

Operative Masons, we each must show our craftsmanship in working out

a perfect "Ashlar" fit to be tried by the square of his own


The book of rules is the V.S.L. "That great light that will guide us

to all truth, direct our steps in the path of happiness, and thus,

point out the whole duty of man."

Let us pause for a moment and earnestly ask ourselves, which are we

makingstumbling block or a stepping stone? If a man's life is such

that he cannot "join in the grand design of being happy and

communicating happiness to others," then he is a stumbling block, not

only to himself, but to all those with whom he is associated. If that

man is a Freemason he should study the ritual and discover the inner

meaning, so that he can learn to perfect his stone.

Let us trace whence comes this perfect stone. An ancient charge

provides that a mould stone shall be given to a visiting Operative

Mason to enable him to demonstrate his craftsmanship. The stones were

selected individual stones from the quarries to suit the requirement

of the material building. As Speculative Masons, we obtain our mould

stones from the quarries of life. Thus, when we receive an

application for admission to our Lodge it is our duty to carefully

scrutinize all the credentials of the

applicant from every angle, so that only approved material is

admitted to the Craft.

Freemasonry can and does improve good material, but it cannot make

bad material good. As with the Operative Mason, poor material would

have endangered the material structure. So with us as Speculative

Masons, a faulty Ashlar will endanger the Spiritual temple we are

endeavoring to build.

Having found, by the strictest inquiry, that the applicant, or mould

stone, is suitable, we have, by those inquiries, knocked off some of

the irregularities which surrounded him, and after his initiation, he

is represented as the "rough Ashlar," that is, the stone is no longer

the mould stone, but it is approximately a cube which still requires

a considerable amount of "dressing" before the "perfect Ashlar" which

is within it can be brought to light, and the candidate is given him

to "knock off rough knobs and evanescence," of his character.

Later on he finds that, although the common gavel and chisel are

suitable for reducing the roughness they are not capable of achieving

perfection. As a Craftsman he receives another set of working tools,

one of which is essential to perfection, namely, the square, and here

he learns that it is only by continual grinding and many applications

of the square that the stone can be brought to a true die, or cube.

In his capacity as a Craftsman and as a man of the world, he is

continually coming into contact with his fellows and he learns to

control his passions and to recognize the rights of others, with the

result that the stone he is working upon, namely, his character, is

gradually taking shape as a perfect Ashlar.

Later, he is called upon to hand his stone over to the Builder, who

cuts a beveled hole at the top, so that the stone can be attached to

a lewis and be hoisted up ready to be placed on the base assigned to

it by the Builder. Thus, he is reminded that the rope, the lewis, and

the crane represent the all sustaining power of God, and that if he

has discharged his duty faithfully and in accordance with the

precepts laid down in the V.S.L., he may rest assured that when his

final summons comes he will find

that the great Builder will have prepared a place for him in that

"Great Spiritual Temple not

made with hands eternal in the Heavens."

Finally, let us consider this "perfect Ashlar" from a geometric point

of view. Looking at the perfect "Ashlar," as it stands in the Lodge

we notice that it has six equal and exactly similar sides, and that

no matter how it is placed down, on the level, it must stand on one

of its faces and present a similar face to the observer, from any

point of view. It is the only geometrical body which requires no


from its fellows, but when placed in line with similar cubes, demands

it own space, and lines

up with the others on top, bottom and sides.

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