Tag Archives: locksmith service

Gun Safe With Lost Combination: How to Get the Combo.

When your safe or gun safe needs service you should contact a real safe company, rather than a locksmith.  This is especially true if the safe is locked shut and needs to be opened.  Safe technicians have more knowledge and experience in this area than a traditional locksmith.  They also have specialized tools to do the work properly.


The pictures show an Auto Dialer connected to a gun safe that we recently opened.  These specialized machines are great for some situations where a safe with a mechanical combination lock is in good working order but the combination is unknown.  The Auto Dialer is mounted on the front of the safe, gripping jaws are attached to the lock dial and electronics are then programmed.  When turned on the Auto Dialer will systematically dial every one of the 1,000,000 possible combinations on standard Group 2 mechanical locks.  When everything works properly the machine comes to a stop at the right number, and a display shows you the combination.

The advantage of opening a safe this way is that there is no drilling, no holes at all to compromise the unit’s security.  No damage to the paint either.

Very few of these machines are out there. They are expensive and a traditional locksmith is unlikely to own one.  For obvious reasons not everyone is able to purchase an Auto Dialer.  In fact, I have always suspected the FBI has a file on me as a result of owning one.

While the Auto Dialer is great for some situations there are many limitations which keep it from being an “every day” tool:

  • Auto dialers only work on certain types of mechanical locks. They work on standard three wheel Group 2 locks, locks that mimic Group 2, and several other types.  They do not work on Group 2M, Group 1, Group 1M, and many old locks.  Sometimes the type of lock on a safe is difficult to determine, which makes a safe tech’s knowledge and experience important.
  • Auto Dialers can work fast and don’t take breaks, but they can still take a long time to find the combination. Think about how many combinations “a million” really are.  You might get lucky and get the combination in an hour if the combo’s first number is low.  But when set on the fastest speed it can still take three straight days if the first number is high.  Some locks, for a number of reasons, need to be run at slow speeds so it can actually take as long as two weeks!  Occasionally the process can be shortened.  For instance, if it is suspected that the combination was a “MM-DD-YY date”, these can all be run quickly.  If it is known that the safe owner only used “zero and five” numbers for ease of dialing, these possible combinations can also be run quickly.  If the first or second number is known for certain, that dramatically reduces the number of combinations that need to be dialed.
  • The lock needs to be in good working order. Certain parts inside the lock might move too freely or may bind up.  Dirt in the lock or old grease can prevent proper movement of parts.  Parts can also be too worn for the machine to work.
  • The very process of using the Auto Dialer can wear out the lock before finding the right combination.  If the machine needs to run a long time, that by itself will be more work than most locks see in a hundred years.  Even when the machine opens the safe we frequently replace the lock due to wear from the process.
  • It is not worth hooking up the machine to locks with plastic or nylon parts. They will almost certainly not last long enough for the combination to be found.
  • Potential for theft of the machine severely limits where we can use it. We don’t want to be responsible for the wrong person getting their hands on an Auto Dialer.  As a result we seldom use it in the field.  We usually use it here in the shop when someone brings a safe to us.  It can run in the back room for hours or days without us worrying about it.
  • There are times when everything seems to be perfect, but the machine just plain cannot find the numbers it is looking for. It may take two weeks, dial every combination, and still give the message “Combination Not Found”.  Then you still need to drill the safe.

The Auto Dialer is certainly not the Silver Bullet cure-all.  It is a good tool when people bring us locked safes they bought at auction, or they inherit Grandpa’s safe, the combination for which he took to the grave.  Maybe they just forgot the combo and lost that little piece of paper with the numbers.  Few locksmiths have this tool, or the other specialized gizmos we have.  It takes lots of special, expensive tools, along with lots of experience to be really good at vault door or safe work. Look for that kind of company when you need safe service.

As I write this our Auto Dialer is in the back working on a vault we bought yesterday.  It has not been opened in 20 years.  It has the right kind of lock, the lock seems to be working well, the machine has tried about 35,000 combinations so far without stopping.  I just KNOW that this is THE ONE – the safe packed with silver and gold bars that will allow me to retire . . .

Lost Keys? Look for a Key Code!

Everyone loses keys at some point, so you should always have a back-up key for every lock you deal with.  It is always easier and cheaper to have a duplicate made rather than have one “originated” when you no longer have one to copy.

When you have lost that last key, your locksmith may be able to make a “key by code” relatively cheaply, depending on the type of lock.  On many utility-type locks a key code will be stamped on the face of the lock.  Looking up the code tells the locksmith which key blank to use and how to cut it.  For example, Code # FR301 is for Steecase furniture; it tells the locksmith that the right key blank is #K101, and it specifies cut depths and spacing between cuts in thousandths of an inch.

Cost for making a key by code is higher than just copying a key; it takes longer and requires special machines and reference materials.  It usually runs $10 to $20.  Price is most often determined by whether the key is one-sided, two-sided or a tubular type.  There are exceptions, of course.  If you have a safe or fire file with a high-security Medeco lock, for instance, your local locksmith probably cannot cut the key.  You may need to spend $50 to $100 to get a replacement key from the manufacturer.

Locks for which codes are typically visible include those for office furniture, car luggage racks, tool chests, towel dispensers, cabinets, file cabinets, gum ball machines, old steamer chests and low end key-locking safes.


If you find the key code a number of issues might still prevent an easy fix to your situation.  For instance:

  • If the code is too simple, say, three numerals like “158”, the locksmith’s computer will find a large number of different code series that use that number. Then it is hard to figure out which series is the appropriate one to use.  A more complicated code will eliminate questions.  For example, Steelcase’s key system is the only one that uses #FR301.
  • Some code series cannot be found in reference materials.
  • Sometimes the code is stamped poorly and cannot be read. In the photo you can easily read the lock maker’s name but it is hard to read the 221 key code.
  • There can be errors or typo’s in the way the code was recorded by the manufacturer, so the locksmith is given the wrong information to work with.
  • The lock could have been re-keyed at some point, so the original code is no longer valid.
  • Most lock shops will not have all the information resources and every machine required to cut every key.

Because of potential problems that are not our fault, when we make keys by code we do not guaranty them to work and we do not refund the cost.

As manufacturers change products over time, and as security requirements change, availability of key codes also change.  In the past Master printed key codes on the bottoms of padlocks, but now they do not.  There is a good reason for that:  It used to be that a person could get the code off the padlock on someone’s storage shed, then have a key made by a locksmith so he could steal tools.  Years ago it was easy to get key codes if you had a car’s VIN number.  All you had to do was look at the VIN through the windshield, then have a key made.  Remember when car theft was the most common crime in the U.S.?

Sometimes key codes were hidden but could be found if you knew where to look.  On GM cars from past years the code was on the ignition lock, but the lock had to be removed to see it.  With some foreign cars key codes were on the lock cylinder of the passenger-side door lock.  Now they don’t even have passenger-side door locks.

If you lose your last key, look for a key code before doing anything rash.  (You might need a magnifying glass.)  Chances are good that the local locksmith can make one for you.  But have him make two!

Transponder Keys for Cars

One part of the locksmith business I hate is when customers buy key blanks over the internet, then bring them in to our shop to be cut and programmed – for almost free, of course.  They try so hard to save money it is kind of insulting.  And fairly often they make their lives more difficult without saving money anyway.

With non-transponder keys for cars, motorcycles, etc., it is common for customers to pay more online just for the key blank than we charge for the key and cutting it, so they gain nothing.


Transponder keys, the keys with “chips” embedded in the plastic head, are cheaper online, but there are two important reasons.  1)  Internet sellers frequently provide low quality off-brand keys, a high percentage of which cannot be properly programmed.  2)  Online sellers pass all the risk on to the locksmiths who actually cut and program the keys.  Those risks include wasting time on defective keys that will not program, keys that affect the car’s electronics or computer, and those times when the locksmith makes a mistake on cutting the key.  The locksmith’s regular price factors in these risks.

Therefore, when key blanks are purchased elsewhere and brought to us to cut and program, we do not accept the risk – we pass the risk back to the customer.  That means:

  • We will be paid for our service, even if the key does not work.
  • If the key will not program we will spend no more than ten minutes attempting to fix the problem.
  • If the car’s computer or electronics are affected, our involvement ends.
  • We will do our best to cut the key properly, but if the key does not work we will not replace it for free.
  • We will not pay for towing the car or any other related costs.

If these policies are not acceptable the customer is welcome to go somewhere else.  We assume all the risks and stand behind the products we sell, but we will not pay for problems brought on by internet sellers.

Laminated Padlocks

Everyone is familiar with simple laminated padlocks.  Pictured are Master’s models #1 and #3, the most common padlocks in the world.  Master makes them by the million.  They have many variations – larger, smaller, longer or thicker shackles, all brass for use in corrosive environments, plastic covers, etc.  Other manufacturers copy them in large numbers as well.

Blog, Padlocks 001

These locks are a good value and suitable for numerous applications.  It is worth knowing their limitations, however.  For starters, most have case hardened shackles which are fairly easy to cut.  On some Chinese knock-offs the shackles are not hardened at all.  Shackles that are completely hardened offer more security.

Another issue is that probably 95% of these locks use the same type key, the Master M1 key blank (or a copy of it).  Without getting very technical here, there are only four cuts on these keys, and seven different cut depths.  This means that there are only about 2400 possible combinations of cuts – not very many.  For comparison, the standard Schlage house key has five cuts and ten different cut depths, so there are 100,000 different ways to cut their keys.  In addition, because of the way padlocks are sold into some markets certain combinations of cuts are sold in very large numbers.  With only four cuts, locks using the M1 keys are relatively easy to pick open or “bump” open – especially the cheap knock-offs.  And there are additional tricks that can make these locks vulnerable to being opened by the wrong people.

If you need a padlock that offers high security there are better choices, by Master and others.  Invest a little more money to get locks with more cuts on the keys, with shackles that are hardened throughout, with shackles that are protected from cutting tools or even with lock bodies made from different materials.  Go to a good lock shop to learn more and see a wide variety of products.

Note:  the names Master and Schlage are registered trademarks.