Antique Safes With Asbestos Fire Insulation

The last post talked about hobnail safes which were made in the early 1800’s.  Wooden bodies covered with steel strips made them somewhat fire resistant.  In an effort to improve fire protection manufacturers switched over time to using other materials for insulation.

John Scott, whose hobnail safe was featured in the last post, seems to have been the first manufacturer to switch to asbestos, around 1840 or so.  His patent for using asbestos was issued in 1834.

The history of people using asbestos goes way back.  As early as 4000 BC asbestos fibers were used as wicks in candles and lamps.  Egyptians wrapped mummies in asbestos blankets around 2000 to 3000 BC.  It has been found in pottery from 2500 BC.  When burning tar was lobbed over fortress walls with catapults, it was held together with a bag made of asbestos.  But its use really took off during the industrial revolution.  Surprisingly, some of its harmful effects were known way back by the ancient Greeks and Romans because slaves working in the mines suffered from lung problems.

Personally, my first experience with asbestos was when I stole an asbestos rock from my high school science room because it was fun to peel off strands of the silky fiber.  And when the exhaust pipe on my old car rusted apart, it was patched with a sheet of thick asbestos felt, wrapped with a soup can, held together by coat hanger wire.  I must have breathed in some of it while laying on my back, looking straight up at my repair work.  Anyway, this is supposed to be about safes . . .

Pictured is one of my favorite antique safes.  The insulation is asbestos mixed with plaster of Paris, applied over the wood interior wall, then wrapped by steel plate.  This model does not make a very good end table because of the round top.  But it is a unique conversation piece.  I am not concerned about asbestos because the safe does not give off dust.

It is hard to tell which old safes contain asbestos, in part because it was used in different forms.  Some makers mixed it with plaster of Paris or concrete.  Some used soft board-like sheets, and some used thick, light-weight fiber “blankets”.  Safes with the soft boards or blankets usually give off dust, so I won’t deal with them.  Some manufacturers had fancy names for their asbestos insulation; the Macey Company from Grand Rapids, Michigan called it “H-E-L-F-I-T-E” to emphasize its fire resistance.

Thankfully, the safe industry kept evolving and eventually settled on different kinds of insulation.

Hobnail Safes: Antique Fire Safes

The 1832 newspaper ad shown here talks about the excellent performance of a “hobnail safe” when it went through a fire in New Orleans in 1831.  The safe in question was built by John Scott of Philadelphia, who was one of the leading safe makers at the time.  One of the hobnail safes in our store was apparently built by John Scott.  It looks just like the unit shown in the ad, inside and out.  This ad was, in fact, inside our safe when we bought it.

Hobnail safes have wooden bodies.  The wood was soaked in salt water prior to making the safe, so that it would be more fire resistant.  To give them more burglary deterrence strips of steel were interwoven and secured to the wood using large spikes with big round heads.  The big round heads all over the exterior are why they are called hobnail safes.  A fun thing about these units is that one, or several, of these spikes move sideways to cover up the keyhole.  Keys are typically huge “skeleton” type keys.  The other John Scott hobnails in our collection do not have stained and varnished wood interiors; rather, they are both pained in a strange “rusty-orange” paint.  Jesse Delano was the other major maker of hobnails in the U.S.

It does not seem to make sense that wood could be used to for insulation in a fire safe.  But apparently if the wood is covered from direct contact with fire, its porousness makes decent insulation.

Hobnail safes in good condition are unusual and, therefore, not cheap.  We have a few for sale, however, so call if you are interested in a nice antique safe.

Putting Safes or Gun Safes in a Garage

Safes and gun safes left in unheated garages or buildings are subject to problems with condensation when weather suddenly warms up.  Pictured is a beautiful, but very massive, antique Diebold Safe.  It demonstrates the problem perfectly.


We recently suffered through a cold snap during which night time temperatures went below zero every night for about a week.  It took days for this 4000# antique safe to drop completely down to these temps.  Likewise, when temps quickly warmed up to 55 degrees, it took time for it to warm up again.  Our snow all melted in about two days, making the air very humid.  Warm damp air created so much condensation on the cold safe that water was running down the safe’s surface.  That water by itself will slightly damage the beautiful artwork.  But when temps plummeted again the paint was further damaged.  Just like freezing water trapped in tiny crevasses will crack the surfaces of rocks or concrete, it will crack old paint.  This kind of moisture is also bad for safe locks.

Gun vaults left in unheated environments can be damaged the same way.  Some kind of heart source inside the old Diebold would have minimized damage by keeping it from getting so cold.  We recommend using a Dry Rod, Golden Rod or even a light bulb inside gun safes to moderate temperature swings.  If you plan to keep your gun safe, or any kind of safe, in a garage, ask a safe expert for advice.

Small Antique Safes for Sale

I have been collecting small antique safes for a long time, but I have been informed that it is time to thin out the collection.  Most of these safes are from about 13” to 18” tall.  They are too small to be very functional, but cute as decorations or conversation pieces.


Some folks claim these are salesman’s samples but most were actually sold to be used for storage of cash and jewelry in a home or office.  They typically weigh from about 70 to 100 pounds – a thief could walk away with one, but at least he couldn’t run with it.  Several have handles on top so maybe a poor salesman did have to lug them around on a regular basis.  They were built to be fire proof.  Some units have real wheels underneath, some have fake wheels, some have little feet and some sit flat on the ground.  There are both key and combination lock models.


Finding small antique safes for sale with good original paint is difficult so they don’t sell cheap.  If the paint is too plain or worn out to be attractive, they can be restored or customized to suit your taste.

A small antique safe could be your adult version of a piggy bank, or a visible reminder of that special savings goal.  A financial planner I know has a very classy little unit in his office, I think because it sends a message to his customers.  A small antique safe might make a great Christmas gift.  The units shown start at $700.  Call if any of these grab your attention, 616-458-6365.  Antique safes can be delivered, picked up at our shop or shipped across the country.

Rare Antique Safe by Carl Ade

Pictured is an extremely rare Carl Ade antique safe which is for sale in our store.  This may be the only one in the U.S. as I have never seen or heard of another one.  You can find posters and prints of old Carl Ade advertisements, but not actual safes.  A German member of the Safe and Vault Technician’s Association has seen several in Europe.  He said it was built in Stuttgart Germany between 1888 and 1892.  This particular safe was brought to Michigan in the 1970’s by a German manufacturer when they built a factory here.

Carl Odde Safe 008Carl Odde Safe 002Carl Odde Safe 001Carl Odde Safe 006


The safe is 36” tall by 28” wide and is built into a beautiful wooden cabinet which is 67” tall.  It Carl Odde Safe 004features true German quality including the most air-tight door I have ever seen.  The key is a rectangular brass tube ½” x 3/16” x 2 ¼”, with openings on the end and one side to expose precision tumblers inside.  Security is enhanced by unique hook-type bolts, which I have not seen anywhere else.

Carl Odde Safe 022Carl Odde Safe 013

If anyone has ever seen another Carl Ade safe please call to let me know.  We are always looking to buy high quality antique safes and vault doors.