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  • The lock could have been re-keyed at some point, so the original code is no longer valid.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!

Railroad Locks & Keys, Fun Collectibles

A nice old gentleman who lives near our shop worked on trains his whole life.  He planned to give his railroad key collection to his grandson, but he brought them to me because his grandson had no interest in them.  I paid what seemed a reasonable price.  He came back several times to give me more keys as they turned up


We have never provided locksmith services for railroads so I don’t know much about train locks and keys, but they represent lots of history.  Most are stamped with initials of the railroad company who used them.  Those companies are almost all gone.  While most of the keys were for padlocks, several keys are unusual, like the one that he said opened the last generation of cabooses.  One is a cute little hinged key which he said was for the time clock in a caboose.  My favorite is the last one he passed on to me.  It is huge — 6″ long, weighing over a pound.  I couldn’t guess what it was for so finally he told me it is the key to start up a locomotive.  How cool!

Thinking about the history behind train keys and locks and all that other stuff takes you back to another era.  It is easy to understand why there are so many avid collectors of railroad memorabilia.