Tom Ziemer on Safes, Locks and Security

Tom’s Blog

Drilling Open Locked Safes or Gun Safes

The last post talked about using an Auto Dialer, one method of opening locked safes or gun safes without drilling any holes.  More often drilling is required.  There are right ways and wrong ways to drill safes, however, so it is important to hire the right people for this work.

Very often, especially in case of lock failure or lost combo, safes can be drilled in a way that leaves no visible hole.  The photo shows a great way to do this on what happens to be a Liberty gun safe.  The safe tech removes the dial or keypad, along with the dial ring/mounting plate.  The well-equipped technician will have a drill rig similar to the one shown.  It mounts to the front of the safe, screwing into the same holes used for mounting the lock.  The drill rig holds the drill solidly in place and helps control it so that drilling can be done with extreme precision.

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The tech’s experience and knowledge tell him what is wrong with the lock and how the lock is situated inside the safe.  Accurate measuring, or use of special drilling templates, allows him to drill a hole to hit one of a number of specific parts of the lock.  Often that means drilling right into the lock body which is tightly packed with lots of parts.  This also needs to be done without damaging anything inside the lock.

Before getting to the lock body it is necessary to drill though the safe’s outside steel; it might be thin or it might be up to 1 ¾” thick.  If it is a composite type safe there is insulation to go through.  There is also normally some kind of hard-plate steel to go through.   Special drill bits are required to penetrate most hard-plate.  If done right, one small hole is usually required to unlock the safe.  Repairs then need to be made, which involve filling the hole with a hardened tapered pins.  That restores the safe to its original level of security.  The lock may or may not need to be replaced.  When the repairs are finished and the dial is re-installed the safe is as good as before, and no one can tell it was drilled.

Last month we were called to open a locked vault.  Someone else had already been there and put four holes into the front of it, without getting it open.  The proper technique would have had the unit open with no visible hole.  So remember, if the lock on your safe or gun safe ever fails, make sure to call skilled safe professionals first.  In West Michigan or Central Michigan that would definitely be Hoogerhyde Safe.

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.

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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 . . .

Why You Should Not Buy a Gun Safe Online

Internet sales are increasing all the time, but buying some things online is just not a good idea.

Take kayaks, for instance.  You should never buy a kayak online because kayaks are very personal in nature.  The correct model will be dictated partly by the purpose for it, whether it will be used for speed, stability, fishing, rivers vs. lakes, etc.  But your personal height, weight, width and need for comfort will dramatically affect how the boat feels and performs.  An expert sales person can be critical to making a good decision, and you will probably be allowed to try it in the water.

Now, you could use that sales person’s expertise to decide which kayak is right for you, then turn around and buy it online to save a few dollars.  But that behavior sucks!!  You should reward the sales person, and that brick & mortar business for their service.  They pay local taxes and provide local jobs.  You can buy from what I call “the cheapest whore” on the internet (pardon me), but he doesn’t care at all about you and has done nothing but make a few dollars off someone else’s work.

In my opinion gun safes and vault doors are other things that should not be bought over the internet, for some of the same reasons.  While gun safes obviously are not affected by aerodynamics and buoyancy in water, their construction details are critically important to security.  There is more to it than can be shown with a few pictures.  An in-person conversation with a knowledgeable safe expert will be immensely helpful, compared to buying something online just based on price.

Most folks don’t know anything about buying a gun safe.  They may try to research online, but the majority of what is found there is wrong and misleading anyway.  Often a friend tells them which brand of safe they bought, but that friend probably doesn’t really know what he bought either.  For some people the next step is to look online for the cheapest place to buy that same model the friend bought.

I recently stumbled across a website where they sell over twenty brands of gun safes.  Most brands that you have heard about are supposed to be in stock, and I am sure that their price is pretty good.  It has to be, because they make their sales by being “the cheapest whore”.  But here is the issue:  While some of these gun safes are good, most are cheap, inferior Chinese products.  Some come from the same Chinese factories and the primary difference is the name on the front of the safe.  Some of the brands being sold advertise a certain thickness of steel but actually use thinner steel than advertised.  (The importers don’t know what to say when confronted by someone with a micrometer who actually measures thickness.)  Some of these brands use recycled pieces of drywall for insulation.  I have been told by one of the importers that he knows the fire ratings are bogus, and that some have never been tested.  Many have inferior locks.  Etc., etc.

Here is the point to my rambling:  This particular internet seller — and others who may operate the same way – are they ignorant of what they are selling or do they just choose to lie about what they are selling?  In either case do they deserve your hard-earned dollars?  If they actually cared about their customer, wouldn’t they make a value judgement about what they sell?  For instance, “Brand A and brand B are the same product except for the name on front.  Brand C is almost exactly the same price as A and B, but it has a more secure boltworks.  So my decision is to sell C but not A or B.”  Or “I know that brand X costs slightly less than brand Z, but I know that X lies about the amount of steel they use, so I will sell only Z”.  Doesn’t honesty count for anything?

Yes, low price is important to many people.  Even at the low end, however, some products have more value at the same price.  If a mis-informed customer wants to buy a Brand Q gun safe the easiest thing is to sell it to him and make a few bucks.  A better thing to do is suggest something in the same price range that offers more security or a legitimate fire rating.  The best thing to do is not even carry the safe with the worst value proposition.

I choose not to sell any low-end gun safes at all, because I won’t risk our reputation by selling inferior products.  Appearance becomes more important at the high end, but the same value principle applies to expensive vaults.  Appearances aside, if there are three different models in the $4000 price range, one will offer more security for the money.  Shouldn’t an honest, knowledgeable business owner sell that brand, or the two best?  Shouldn’t the sales person at least point out which one is better?

Support that local locksmith or safe dealer who takes the time to honestly help you make a good decision, who will point out the best value proposition, rather than just take your money.  There is real value in what he does.  His overhead is higher because the brick & mortar building is required to provide that service.  That is the business to work with, even if it costs a few dollars more.

Gun Safes Provide Convenient Access for Jewelry

Almost weekly older women come to our store looking to buy a safe for jewelry.  They usually want something about two to three feet tall with fire protection and a reasonable amount of burglary resistance.  Depending on the value of their jewelry, where the safe will be located and how much they are willing to spend there are a number of alternatives.  People expect trade-offs between cost, weight, security level, etc.  Two things they frequently have not factored in, however, are convenience and future practicality.

When I show them what they asked for they are typically happy with one vault or another.  But then we have a discussion about convenience now and the future.  With that three foot high safe they would normally be down on hands and knees to open it and find what they want from inside.  I remind them that their back and knees are probably getting a little worse every year.  “Think how hard it might be to use this safe in five or ten years.”

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I then suggest a Fort Knox gun safe in size 6026 — with four shelves rather than a gun interior.  This gives them a small footprint that will fit in many closets, more capacity and the ability to use the safe standing up.  I will jokingly bring up that in the future they could still use this safe even if they use a walker.  Funny or not, they understand this is actually a legitimate consideration. And while most safes are quite dark inside, getting the safe in Fort Knox’s Rimrock color with a beige interior (pictured) makes the interior light enough for them to find what they want.  Plus, they are getting a vault with good fire rating and great burglary deterrence.

These ladies very often come in with their husband, son, daughter or girl-friends.  They don’t come in looking for a gun safe, but their conversations turn to “I never thought of getting a tall skinny safe”, “what a great idea” and “that makes so much sense”.  They also love the idea of an easy-to-use, dependable electronic lock.  It always feels satisfying to make someone really happy with their purchase.

A safe that is inconvenient to use just won’t serve you well, especially in the future.  Consider whether the vault you buy now will still be the right one in five or ten years.

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.

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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!