Securing Historic Documents, Signatures & Stamps

Collectors of signatures, historic documents or stamps should secure their collections in good safes with two-hour fire ratings, right?  Maybe not.

Fire safes protect papers from charring and burning if there is a fire.  If you experience a fire, however, your documents are likely to be damaged by moisture in most types of safes.  When subjected to heat the insulation gives off water vapor to the point where the inside air is saturated with water.  As the safe cools down, lower internal temperatures cause the air to become super-saturated, so that papers will become damp or even wet.  They will get wrinkly and inks may get blurry.  In addition, water pressure from a fire hose may penetrate the crack between the safe door and frame, forcing water into the safe.  If the safe is in a basement and water pools up there, that water may also seep inside the safe.

People in the safe and gun safe industries usually recommend that valuable documents be protected by putting them in plastic sleeves or Tupperware-type containers to protect them from moisture damage.  This advice may be erroneous.  There are hundreds of different plastic compositions and each has its own characteristics. Good information is hard to find, but the melt point will vary depending on the exact chemical composition.

Consider Tupperware:  Most of their products are made from low density polyethylene (LDPE), high density polyethylene (HDPE) or high density polypropylene (HDPP).  From what I can find these materials begin to melt at temps as low as 278 degrees F for HDPE, or 266 F for HDPE.  Characteristics of the melting process also vary by chemical composition – they may just lose their shape, they might become sticky or they might give off damaging chemicals.  That process might damage the items you are trying to protect.  When fire safes are tested the inside temperature can go as high as 350 F before they are considered to have failed.  Plastic containers, therefore, could potentially melt inside a safe that is “performing well”.

Next:  A better type of safe for historic docs.


The last post was about what makes gun safes different from fire safes or fire/burglary safes. So what are the differences between a fire safe and a fire/burglary safe?

Fire safes are geared toward protection against fire, but that is only for fire. These are the products you find at box stores. Many of these products are rated by Underwriters Laboratories for one or two hours. But the fire rating can be accomplished with paper thin steel or even plastic safe bodies. Better units may also be “drop tested”, in which they are dropped 30 feet onto concrete while still hot from the fire test.  These safes may have good locks, but frequently the locks are very low security and made of plastic.  Lock bolts are normal small, few in number and often made of pot metal.

Most fire safes are on the small side, made for residential use. Some commercial units, however, are up to 80 inches tall and wide enough to require two doors. These giants normally still have steel that is only about 14 gauge thick. The composite insulation in fire safes is usually relatively light-weight and is made to retain moisture.

Fire/burglary safes are obviously intended to keep burglars from breaking in, in addition to providing reasonable fire resistance. To enable the safe to stand up to drills, cutting tools and prying tools the steel is typically heavier – 11 gauge, 10 gauge or 3/16 are common.  Lock bolts will be large and made of solid steel.  The composite material is likely more dense, too. The denser material may contain stones or other things to make drilling more difficult, and these materials resist sledge hammers better. There is a trade-off, however, in that the denser composite is not as fire resistant as the lighter material. So when you get better burglary resistance, you probably only get 30 minutes, or a maximum 60 minutes of fire protection.  Fire/burglary safes will always have good locks.

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One picture above shows 14 gauge steel which is common on fire safes, compared to 10 gauge which is common on fire/burglary units — 10 Gauge is 80% thicker. The other picture shows samples of the two composite materials used by one safe manufacturer. The more effective fire insulation, left, weighs 0.5 pounds. The more burglary resistant material on the right weighs 1.5 pounds.

When looking for a safe think about what you want it to do. If you only want it to protect papers from fire, a unit from a box store may be OK. If you want it to provide security against theft, then get guidance from a knowledgeable safe dealer.

Fire & Fire/Burglary Safes VS. Gun Safes: Big Differences

The vast majority of fire or fire/burglary safes, are built with an outer steel shell and an inner steel shell. The space between the steel layers is filled with a poured-in composite material similar to concrete. (Note that box stores frequently sell safes with plastic inner linings, and even plastic on the outside — don’t waste your money.) Photo on left shows a high quality Gardall fire safe, with steel interior and poured in composite insulation.



Almost all gun safes consist of an outer steel shell lined on the inside with drywall, and no inner steel. Most use Type X drywall which contracts and breaks into pieces during a fire. Drywall is a poor insulator compared to the poured-in composite. That causes manufacturers to misrepresent their fire ratings. Photo on right is a typical gun safe – fabric covered drywall, no inner steel.

Most quality fire safes have an Underwriters Laboratories fire rating of one or two hours. These safes have been tested independently under standard procedures at temperatures up to 1700 and 1800 degrees, respectively. Some have also undergone a 30 foot drop test. Imported units are normally tested according to Korean or Japanese standards, which are similar to U.L.’s. Gun safes will rarely pass U.L. tests so most manufacturers and importers do their own tests, or they make up numbers without testing. They often mislead consumers by mentioning “U.L. Rated”, but the U.L. rating they refer to has nothing to do with fire.

There are all kinds of ways to cheat when you test your own product. I have been told by people who worked there, that one company actually caulks the door shut during their fire test. Another way to fudge is to put the inside temp recorders in the bottom of the test unit where temps are lowest. Putting some kind of thermal barrier in front of the safe during the test also works well. For instance, remember how effectively even a sheet of paper blocks radiant heat coming off a camp fire.

If you want to protect papers or cash in a safe with the very best fire ratings available, you really should not get a gun safe. If a gun safe with inner steel and poured-in composite makes sense to you, look at Graffunder safes or Amsec’s BF series.

A Reason to Keep Cash & Silver in a Home Safe

Want some fascinating reading? Google “Iceland financial crisis”, “Cyprus financial crisis” or “Greek financial crisis”. These are big, complicated, interesting stories where problems at major banks and government mismanagement lead to financial failure.

One common feature in each instance is that citizens and bank depositors (that would be you and me if it were in the U.S.) paid for other people’s mistakes. In particular, with the Cyprus crisis of 2013, if you had deposits of over 100,000 Euros, almost 50% above that level were confiscated from your bank account. With one privately owned bank’s failure 100% of deposits were lost. If you were a non-resident who had over 3,000,000 Euros confiscated you were compensated with the opportunity to get a Cypriot citizenship. That would certainly make everything OK! The family of one of our customers, who is Greek, lost about 200,000 euros in Cyprus. My perspective is that Cyprus set an international precedent, making it OK for governments to steal from bank accounts.

Look at what has been going on in Greece. Banks were closed, withdrawals were limited, people could not get to their own money.

Now Google “U.S. Debt Clock”. Our national debt is over $18,000,000,000,000! That is $124,000 per household. Last year, with record low interest rates, our government paid $430,000,000,000 just in interest. Our government has no plan to address this. They keep spending more. In my opinion our elected leaders in both parties are incompetent, greedy cowards who are more interested in keeping their jobs – living on your money – than in running the country responsibly. YOUR money is at risk. YOUR retirement could be in jeopardy. (The politicians will do fine because they have given themselves a better deal than you and I have.) If our financial system should collapse the whole rest of the world does not have enough money to bail us out.

Here is the point: It is worth keeping some cash, physical silver, maybe some gold at home, out of banks. Buy a safe with an appropriate security rating or a gun safe with lots of steel.  It is entirely possible/probable that we are heading toward our own financial crisis. If that happens YOU will pay and YOU may not have access to your own money. Ask the folks in Greece, Cyprus, etc. My Greek customer would have been cheated out of more, except his family also keeps a good stash of silver and gold in a high security safe.

Naturally, there may be a bias here because I sell safes. But part of why I feel good about my job is the appreciation we receive from folks who were protected from fire, break-in, etc. with our safes. You can bet that if we should have a financial catastrophe in the U.S., many of Hoogerhyde’s customers will survive it better than those who put complete trust our government and banks.

Fire Rated Safe Saved Family’s Life Savings

The Hercules fire safe shown here in pictures was sold by Hoogerhyde Safe decades ago. It is really filthy and smelly right now because it just went through a bad house fire. It is small, 12 x 14 x 12, a light duty one-hour fire rated unit.  With little burglary resistance, it is not the kind of safe that a person should put much value into, but our customer had his family’s life savings in it – lots of cash.

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The fire was severe so the customer was afraid that his savings were gone. When we got his safe open he was ecstatic to find that everything had survived. He now has an emotional attachment to this safe so he wants it cleaned up and the lock repaired. His family’s life savings should go into a safe with higher security. If his safe had been discovered by a burglar rather than being burned in a fire there would probably be nothing left to protect. His retirement would take a dramatic turn for the worse.

Too many people will use a safe like this inappropriately. For protecting large amounts of cash or other valuables, buy a safe with burglary deterrence in addition to a good fire rating.