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 . . .
If you need to put your safe or gun safe in the garage here are the steps you should take:
- Invest in a heavier, higher quality vault, preferably TL-rated like American Security’s RF series gun safe.
- Conceal the safe the best you can. Build a cabinet around it or drape a blanket or something over it. American Security sells what they call a “Safe Cloak” for gun safes which is a fabric cover that makes your safe look like a cheap storage cabinet. It attaches to you gun safe with a magnet across the top and hangs down to ground level. If possible, put the safe in a back room or around a corner.
- Don’t allow service people or delivery personnel to go through your garage.
- Keep your garage door locked at all times to keep people out.
- Increase the perceived risk to a burglar — put up a sign stating that the house and garage are monitored. It helps to install a very conspicuous camera, even if it is fake.
- Anchor your safe to the concrete floor using high grade anchor bolts. Most fire safes are light enough to be picked up. If you don’t have the right tools or skills, hire someone who does.
- Don’t keep pry tools, sledge hammers, torches, etc. in the same area – keep them locked up in the house.
To avoid problems from cold and fluctuating temperatures in northern states:
- Use a dehumidifier rod (heat bar) inside the safe to keep temps as stable as possible.
- There can be a problem in those first warm humid days of spring when the ground is still very cold. The cold floor will keep pulling warmth from the safe causing condensation, making the safe sweat, which encourages rust. Antique safes are especially prone to rust. It is best, therefore, to have a small amount of contact with the floor. Thin squares of wood or plastic at the corners will minimize the problem. We usually use pieces of the plastic shims used to install windows and doors. Important Note: Don’t raise the safe too far off the ground; the bigger the gap there is between the floor and the safe, the easier it is for someone to move the unit. A big gap makes anchoring less effective too.
- Battery life in electronic locks will be shorter in cold situations. I would guess that electronic locks themselves would have shorter lives, but that is just speculation. Dial locks are less affected by cold.
Keeping your gun safe in the garage is less than ideal. Minimize risk by taking proper precautions.
The previous post was about a gun safe that was destroyed by a locksmith who had no idea what he was doing. Last week we had an even worse instance of this kind of work by a different locksmith with similar lack of knowledge.
The “victim” came to our shop needing to buy a replacement gun safe. His had been ruined when he called a locksmith to open it. The locksmith told him the only way to get it open was to cut a hole in the door. It had been a good safe with heavy steel and good boltworks. As you can see the safe was butchered. The locksmith left a pile of metal shavings on the floor and filled the customer’s entire house with drywall dust. The customer was charged $1200! And now he needed to buy a new gun safe!!
The real tragedy is that the problem was a loose spline key in the lock (see July 25 post) which we would have opened without even drilling a hole!
The man is now the proud owner of a Fort Knox gun safe, but he is very angry at the guy who cost him lots of money.
Again – if you have a safe problem, call a trained safe tech, not just a locksmith.
This low end gun safe was being used in a pharmacy (wrong safe for the application). When the cheap lock failed the owner called a local locksmith to open it. For some reason the locksmith started out by drilling six holes in the left side, and when that did not work he cut a large hole in the door to remove the lock. We were called to repair it, but the cost to repair and make it presentable was more than the safe was worth. How would you like to pay this locksmith’s bill for destroying your safe?
If we had been called first we would have opened the safe without drilling it at all, or by drilling one hole behind the keypad where it wouldn’t show. Calling the right technician first would have avoided:
- Needing to buy a new safe
- The hassle of removing and disposing of the old safe
- The hassle of moving in a new unit
- Wasting time to clean up the mess left by the locksmith
When you need a safe for your business, don’t go to a box store — go to a safe store where they carry appropriate safes. When you have a safe problem, anywhere in West Michigan, call a properly trained safe technician, not just a locksmith.
The photo shows a very low-end fire box or fire safe which is sold at big box stores. We get these in at our shop because they frequently need some kind of work. The cost of our labor often approaches the cost of a new unit.
These fire boxes have an Underwriters Labs “1 hour 350” rating so they apparently do well in a fire. The problem with these, however, is that people buy them for burglary protection because the packaging calls them a “safe”. You need to look pretty hard to find any steel here – both the exterior and interior are plastic, as are the working parts. Even the metal bolts are held in place by plastic. Poor excuse for a lock, too. If a burglar breaks into your home and finds one of these units he will go into a “happy dance” before he pops it open.
You need to use some common sense when buying a safe – if you are going to put valuables in it, spend enough money to buy real burglary protection.
A man whose gun safe we drilled open in late November relayed the following story:
Early in 2015 Jeff purchased a gun safe at a box store thinking it was decent quality and American made. (It wasn’t because this “manufacturer” imports 100% of their product.) Jeff’s safe malfunctioned and locked him out in late September. He was disappointed but not too concerned because opening day of deer season was still eight weeks away — surely he would have no trouble getting to his favorite rifle by then.
Jeff tried numerous times to call the company’s warranty department to arrange for the gun safe to be opened. Eventually he got an answering machine and was able to leave a message. After waiting a week or so without getting a return call the process was started over again. A few weeks later he reached a real person who apparently dropped the ball, because nothing happened again. He started over once more but the “customer dis-service” continued until after opening day of deer season. Jeff ended up borrowing a rifle to hunt with. He was not happy.
Obviously, few warranty issues take that long to get resolved, but some gun safe companies are known for their poor customer service. A little online research will tell you which companies to avoid. Buying you gun safe or vault door from a business that can service them will also save you from this kind of trouble.
About six years ago a California company wanted me to buy some of their chinese made gun safes which have a nice patriotic, all-American name. The prices were very good for safes with 11 gauge steel bodies. I ordered two to test the quality. When the gun safes arrived the steel was 2.5MM rather than 11 gauge — 17.7% less steel than advertised. (This is a very common lie, Chinese steel is usually in millimeters but importers advertise guage thickness.) The paint was also flawed, shelves were weak and the seals were coming off. We sold these units at our cost and never bought any more.
That company is still selling these products online directly to consumers, and through a few resellers. A small number make it into our area that way. We do service work for this California company when their products have problems. Their quality still sucks!
Last week we got a call from a lady whose husband had purchased one of these gun safes online. He has died and she did not have the combination. We told her that we could open it for a reasonable fee. We also told her that if she could find the serial number the company may have a record of the combination; but it might be a hassle to get it from them because they have no idea who she really was. I explained that they would probably want a notarized letter proving who she was, and might also ask for a death certificate. That made sense to her.
The woman called back 20 minutes later. She was shocked that the company gave her the combination without even asking her last name!! She thought we should know how careless the company is with people’s security.
People selling gun safes talk about protecting your valuables. But you need to be aware that many of them, especially online sellers, are just there to make easy money. Once they get your money they don’t care about you or the fact that you may put your life savings in their safe. They don’t want to be bothered by following appropriate security procedures.
Think about this: A visitor to your home might be able to write down the serial number of your safe, and then get the combination just by making a phone call! He could open your safe when you’re gone and empty it, leaving you to wonder how someone cleaned you out. Comforting, isn’t it? How much would you lose if this happened to you? You need to be really careful about what gun safe or vault door you buy and where you buy it.
Cheap gun safes, especially Chinese made safes that are sold in big box stores, almost always have weak shelves. The shelves are made of inferior particle board which is thinner than it should be, so the selves hold very little weight before they sag or break. I have seen brand new Chinese made safes that sag just from their own weight. Naturally, the wider the safe is this worse the problem becomes.
In my opinion it should not be necessary to fix a problem like that with a new safe, or avoid using the shelf for fear of it breaking, but there is an easy fix. The clips that the shelves rest on are usually 1/2” or 5/8” wide. At your local home improvement store buy some metal u-channel or square tubing that is big enough to go over the clips. Cut the material to the correct length and slip it over the clips on both sides of the safe. Your shelves will then lay flat and hold much more weight than before.
Fort Knox being a quality oriented company uses better, thicker shelving material. And on 51” or 61” wide safes they install tubing for support at the factory. As I always tell people, don’t save a few dollars by buying Chines made junk – buy an American made gun safe from one of the few trustworthy manufacturers.
Part of what you typically get with cheap gun safes / Chinese made gun safes is insulation made up from construction scraps. The pictures below show a new Chinese made safe in our shop for service. Notice that the drywall is pieced together from different kinds of drywall. The light and dark pieces are even different thicknesses. They are glued into place and the seams are mostly covered with tar-like glue. Some of the gaps are quite wide, which naturally allows heat to pass in a fire.
In the light colored pieces at the lower left you can see hammer marks from when these pieces were broken out from whatever they were previously nailed to. Look close and you can see boot prints. In a number of places the paper backing is loose – it pulls away from the gypsum when the pieces are broken apart carelessly. Frequently with this type of junk safe the drywall pieces will be smaller than what is in this safe, as small as 5” X 5”.
Remember a few years ago that many homes, especially in the southeast U.S., were left un-inhabitable by Chinese drywall with very high levels of formaldehyde? Well, that same drywall was (still is ?) used in Chinese gun safes. I have read that those formaldehyde emissions promote rust (guns), as well as lung cancer, heart disease, etc. Do you suppose they still use that crap in gun safes? What do you think happened with all that high-formaldehyde drywall? Where in the world could you possibly re-use that stuff? Think about it.
Do yourself a favor: Buy an American made gun safe.
It may seem like a natural fit for gun stores to display and sell gun safes. But just like we don’t know enough about guns to provide proper advice and service for weapons, gun stores don’t have appropriate knowledge to provide advice and service for safes. To them safes are a sideline, a way to boost sales and profits. At Hoogerhyde Safe, safes are our business — you can tell by the name, right? We know more about safes because we work on them every day, just like a gun store works on guns every day.
We have the tools, training and years of experience to do any service work that might be required after the purchase. It is common for customers to tell us “I bought my safe from the gun shop. Now that I have problems with it they say they can’t repair safes.” When you are out buying a new rifle and you are tempted to buy a new gun safe at the same store, ask this question: “If the lock fails and the safe cannot be opened, what specifically can YOU do to fix it?” If they do not have the ability to open it themselves that is the wrong place to buy a safe.