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.