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Antique Safes/Unlocking Safe


QUESTION: I am the property manager for a college fraternity that has an antique (circa 1920's)safe installed in its basement.  Following the closure/reopening of the house, the combination to the safe that I was given does not open the safe.  The local locksmith who assisted in the repair of the safe several years ago is uncertain whether the problem relates to an incorrect combination or whether the wheels in the lock are catching. He has tried listening with a stethoscope with no success.  We would like to avoid drilling the safe to get it open, however, we don't believe that if we have the wrong combination that the correct one will be located.  Can you offer any suggestions?


Sorry but - antique safes are over 100 years old, so your safe would have had to have been manufactured prior to 1912 to be an antique, though it may still be a collectible.

There are only three reasons that a safe lock will not open, in order, they are:

1:  Incorrect dialing sequence, (operator errors)
2:  Incorrect combination, (wrong numbers)
3:  Mechanical problems.

I doubt it would be mechanical problems, as these usually occur to an operational safe, where you open it regularly, and notice a problem.   While this may be the problem this will need to be diagnosed by a trained safe technician.

This would leave Operator errors (with correct combo), or the numbers are simply incorrect.

First note:   I never recommend using locksmiths for safe work as they generally do not have the training, knowledge or tools to work on safes.    While they have the best intentions and may have a cursory understanding, the majority of locksmiths simply do not understand safes.

As far as having the "correct combination" and the safe not opening, I had to open a safe yesterday at a facility that uses it regularly, but for some reason yesterday they all had brain freeze or something similar and were using the wrong combo.   After getting the safe open, their first question was about the malfunction.   When I decoded the lock to get the combo it was set on, they indicated that, "that" was the correct combination, when I asked them about the incorrect combination that they were actually trying, and had given me - they would all have made a great "I could have had a V8" commercial.   bottom line if the combination is correct, and the lock is being dialed correctly, it should open up.

This brings us to dialing the combination correctly.   There are a number of different variations in dialing sequences, based on the lock in question.   As you haven't provided me with any useful information concerning the safe or the lock installed, I can't provide you with what I believe would be the correct dialing sequence.   

So at this point, I have to believe that you are either not dialing it correctly, or you simply do NOT have the correct combination.

As far as "listening with a stethoscope" goes, while this does allow you to hear the lock slightly better, it has NOTHING to do with opening the safe, other than in the movies.   Manipulation is basically a mental graphing of the wheels, in order to determine probably points of interest to find the combination.   You are actually MEASURING the lock.   Any hearing aid or amplification simply allows a trained professional to refine what they are already feeling.    There are no clicks that tell what the combination is, to hear.   While manipulation is always a possible solution, it is never a guarantee, which means that you could easily be paying for the service and not the result.

Drilling, when done by a professional, trained safe technician will NOT damage the safe or lock.   Similarly to open heart surgery when done by a trained heart surgeon as opposed to using a "general physician", would result in a recovery as opposed to death.   The small hole, usually 1/4" or smaller drilled into the safe and lock to allow the lock to be decoded and opened, is easily repaired, and should not damage, or other wise diminish the value of the container.

So, bottom line - my recommendation would be to contact a local safe company to have their safe technician open the safe.   If you don't have a local safe company let me know where you are located (zipcode) and I'll see who I know in your area.

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Our zip code is 16802.  Since we are located in the center of the state and somewhat remote, it might be easier/less expensive to fly someone into town if they are coming from a distance.  Thanks for your help.


As usual, you "missed me by that much", to quote Maxwell Smart.   I was in Denver, PA two weeks ago for an antique safe auction, and had a couple days with nothing more to do than play the part of a tourist!

I'll give you a couple different companies to contact.

Ed's Safe Service          about 190 miles east of you.
267-475-6517      Edward Sellers
PO Box 486
Harleysville, PA  19438

Timchak Safe and Lock          about 170 miles west of you.
412-956-0328      Gary Timchak
2417 Woodbine Road
Aliquippa, PA 15001

Bear Lock & Safe          about 167 miles southeast of you.
410-285-0101      Bobby DeWeese
205 Cleveland Ave.
Baltimore, MD  21222

Larsnat Safe & Lock          about 134 miles east of you.
1150 West Penn Avenue
Womelsdorf, PA 19567

The list is in the order that I would recommend them, even though some are closer than others.   Hope this helps.

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Terry V. Andreasen (Andy)


Safe and Vault related Questions; Antique Safe Repair and Restoration; With over 44 years in the Safe & Vault industry, if I can't answer your question I know where to get the answer. Current Project: Restoration of an Ely Norris Cannonball Safe from the early 1900's. Will answer Safe & Vault related questions concerning age, value, restoration, moving, opening & repairing, parts, operation and history. Note: It is not my intention to teach you to open safes or to provide information which may aid in the unlawful opening of a safe. I will not give out drill points or information which I deem inappropriate.


44 years in the Safe & Vault Industry. Owner and Service Manager for one of the largest Safe & Vault companies on the West Coast. Graduate of Lockmasters Safe Lock Servicing, Safe lock Manipulation and Safe Deposit Lock Courses. Graduate of Locksmith Institute. Author of "The Coffee Table Guide to Antique Safes". Certified Instructor for the California Locksmith Association teaching Basic and Advanced Lock Servicing, Basic Safe opening and Repairing. Factory Trained by AMSEC, LORD Safes, LeFebure, Mosler, KabaMas, LaGard and Sargent & Greenleaf

Safecrackers International and the National Antique Safe Association Safe & Vault Technicians Association

The Coffee Table Guide to Antique Safes

Graduate of Locksmith Institute 1972 Graduate Lockmasters Safe Lock Servicing 1974 Graduate Lockmasters Safe Lock Manipulation 1975 Graduate Lockmasters Safe Deposit Lock Servicing 1985 Instructor Certified - California Locksmith Association - 1985 Factory trained by AMSEC, MAJOR, STAR, Johnson-Pacific, Kaba-MAS, Allied-Gary, ISM, Lord, Brown Safe, EXL, Mosler, Diebold.

Awards and Honors
2009 - 2015 Listed in AllExperts top 50 Experts. All Experts Categories - Safes & Security Containers, Locksmithing, Antique Safes. Retired US Army Chief Warrant Officer (CW4), with 39 years of total service. With numerous awards from Vietnam, Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom. US Navy - 1971-1981 US Army Reserve 1984-2013 US Army Retired

Past/Present Clients
US Secret Service, FBI, BATF, Local Law enforcment agencies, Diebold, Hamilton Pacific, Red Hawk Int., Chubb International, Bank of America, Wells Fargo Bank, Mechanics Bank, El Dorado Savings Bank, many Credit unions and smaller banks. McDonalds, Togos, BurgerKing, TacoBell, Carls Jr. FoodMaxx, SaveMart, Lucky's, Albertson's, Raley's, Safeway, NobHill, Bell Markets, PW Markets. Great America, Century Theatres, Cinemark Theatres, UA Cinemas, and many homeowners and small businesses. Provide warranty service for lock and safe manufactures. Service area is Northern California - Fresno to Oregon, including western Nevada

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