Speculations on the Broached Thurnel

Jack Brooksbank, MPS

The eighteenth-century lectures mention three immovable jewels, the Tarsel Board, the Rough Ashlar, and the Broached Thurnel, the Broached Thurnel being for Entered Apprentices to learn to work upon. Mackey's Encyclopedia of Freenasonry (1918) gives various interpretations of the Broached Thurnel, but states that "much difficulty has been met with in discovering what the Broached Thurnel actually was." Some of Mackey's descriptions or designations of a Broached Thurnel are summarized as follows: A turning lathe (Krause); a stone cube with a pyramidal apex (old tracing board); turret or little tower (from the French "tournelle;" broach work by chisels, called Thernal, Thurmer, or turner (Speth); stone chiseled with a broach or narrow- pointed chisel (Speth).

The New Encyclopedia of Freemasonry shows alternate spellings of "Thurnel" as "Thurmal" or "Thurmel" which, among other things, is described in Scotland as a working chisel used for broached work. Higgins stated that a broach signifies a skewer, which in Greek is "obeloskoi" or Egyptian "needle type monolith." The skewer, in French, is "brochette." Skewer, in English, is designated as a pin for holding meat compactly together, or a pin of wood or iron to pierce with. "Broach" in English can mean a roasting spit, any of various other pointed tools, boring bit, or church spire. "Broch" in English relates to prehistoric round stone towers found on the mainland and islands of northern Scotland.

One approach to this interesting subject may be to consider what task or predominant activity would have been delegated to apprentices or operative stone-masons. The extensive use of the chisel by stone-masons would suggest that some repetitive and primary use of the chisel would have been an essential element of the training and occupation of operative apprentice masons.

One function of using the chisel, at an early stage of stone work, would have been the chiseling of rows or lines of holes into the raw exposed stone in the quarry. Into these rows of holes would be driven wedges, causing blocks of stone to be split off, the blocks thereby having parallel and roughly flat faces, ready for subsequent shaping by more experienced workmen.

The quarrying of these parallel-faced pieces of stone would have been a very repetitive and labor-intensive activity, using many individuals. Consequently this would have been a very appropriate task and activity for numbers of apprentices. Chiseling large numbers of holes can be visualized as a good starting point for operative apprentices, requiring the nominal application of some learned skills, which would have provided repetitive opportunities to work with various types of stone. This activity would also require the understanding and use of the line, rule, compasses, and scribe to ensure that holes were in a straight line and located at the required uniform spacing and depth to ensure optimum conditions for wedging and splitting off the blocks of stone. The apprentice could thereby progressively become very familiar with the characteristics of various stones, together with the effective use and functions of the chisel in its various applications. He could also learn the use of the line, rule, scribe, and compasses, representing basic learning and skills essential to all his subsequent endeavors.

If this approach offers a reasonable or potential approach to our search for the elusive "Broached Thurnel," we might now ask if this function of producing holes, or the tools used in the process, may by the designation or description implied by the Broached Thurnel. If so, we can pose these questions: a) If a tool or combination tool, what sort and how did it acquire its name? And b) if a process, what were the descriptive elements or steps or features? The author, having had some training as a toolmaker and engineer, would like to speculate on a form of tool combination that might have been used for this task of producing repetitive holes in stone. One such form of tool could have been visualized, namely a chisel made from a round metal rod, supported in a hardwood sleeve, the sleeve being used as a convenient handle in addition to allowing the chisel to slide as it penetrated the stone. The point of the chisel could have been shaped to resemble a modern drill bit, whereby the chisel, with repeated hammering, would cause it to rotate as it penetrated the stone to produce a round hole.

The author would also like to speculate (with tongue in cheek) as a born Yorkshireman on a descriptive word that would relate to the task of producing holes in stone. Let us try to visualize an old Yorkshire stone-mason (such as the author's grandfather, Edwin) who may have directed his apprentice to produce a series of holes, spoken in a Yorkshire dialect, that would have sounded something like: "Er-lad-Brucht-Thanosal," interpreted as "Here you are, lad, broach, it thou (meaning you) knows it all," meaning, "Here lad, broach it, you know how it should be done."

This humorous speculation is somewhat out of place on these pages, but it does, however, help to remind us that many early trades named their tools for specific functions that described many craft processes by unique names and descriptions. It also encourages us to assume a broader-based search.

On the basis of a brainstorming session, with more serious intent, your author offers the following possible sources or derivations, in various combinations, of words that could have sounded like Thurnel. We should also bear in mind that well-known words or phrases of ancient origin, often spoken in various English dialects, would often be rendered in the written word with a variety of spellings, spellings that changed with the time and the skills of the scribe or recorder.

  1. Thornal—derived from thorn with awl (thorn: sharp-pointed barb; awl, pointed tool making holes).
  2. Thronol—derived from through with an-hole.
  3. Themhols—derived from them with hole (broaching them holes).
  4. Tornol—derived from turn with hole (Broaching—turning chisel to bore hole).
  5. Turnawl—derived from turn with awl.
  6. Troholw—derived from thro with hollow (Broaching through with hollow.)
  7. Thefurnal—derived from the with furnicle or funnel (furnide [oval stalk] or funne [from fanl], sleeved chisel).
  8. Thefrenal—derived from ferrule or Fennal with Awl (broaching with fer-rule-ringed sleeve) and fennal (rod-type chisel).
  9. Therbnol—derived from terebara or terebro with awl (old English word terebara [ginfie, borer] terebro [to bore or pierce]).
  10. Thenawl—derived from the-nail-awl (broaching with a nail-type awl chisel).
  11. Thenognel—derived from The-Noeglan-Oel (Old English Noeglan [nail]-oel [awl] type of chisel]).
  12. Thenaft—derived from thenax or thenne with awl (thenar palm of the hand, thenne old English worker).
  13. Thornsl—derived from Thor-and-awl (Thor, mythical god with a re- markable hammer).
  14. Therdul—derived from The-Vera-sabdula (Latin, vera broach, sebule, awl) broaching awl.
  15. Thegimawl—derived from The-gimlet-awl (gimlet, a small tool for boring holes).
  16. Thernol—derived from ther-an-hole (to broach there an awl).

So by tenacious and sometimes very tenuous propositions, we can weave a web of tenable composite words, based on a variety of devices and functions. The possible alternate designations or interpretations will, however, allow us to extend our speculations on the broached Thurnel of the old charges and lectures. Whatever the derivation of the Broached Thurnel, the subject is an intriguing and challenging one that could produce many other interesting propositions.