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Antique Safes/exposed boltwork safes


I noticed that higher end safes and vault doors from a century ago often had exposed bolts on the outside of the doors.  I love the look!  

Someone told me they were especially effective at sealing the crack around the door frame to prevent nitro from being poured in to blast it open.  The bolt work has long since disappeared.

- Any truth to the nitro thing?

- Why did the design change?

- I want a floor safe like this as a conversation piece in my "man cave". Yes, I'm nuts, but I love masterpieces of machinery!  Fully functional and able to be painted and polished to showpiece condition.  How do I find one?

Hi Scott,

The Bankers safes, Jewelers Chests and Vault doors did NOT have exposed bolt work.   The bolt work is ALWAYS on the inside of the door.

In order to make a door seal tightly enough to discourage use of prying tools and/or nitro, the edges of the doors have to be made fairly square.

If you notice most doors which close on a regular hinge, the open edge of the door is slightly tapered to allow it to close into the opening.   On the older style security doors the edges are all at virtually a right angle to the face of the door.   When the door closes, it does not close INTO the opening, but rather it remains out slightly (up to several inches), though the door is now parallel to the opening.   

The "PRESSURE BAR SYSTEM" on the outside of the door is used to PRESS the door into the opening - squarely!   When the door is firmly seated into the door THEN the bolt work can be thrown to secure it in place.

You have to remember that during the late 1800's and into the early 1900's explosives including nitroglycerine was fairly common place.   In fact I can remember people were still able to get dynamite over the counter (more or less) at many hardware stores up through the 1950's for special purposes, though the ATF had made it much more difficult to obtain without special licensing.   

Bottom line you don't see many of these older doors and safes being made after the late 1920's for a number of reasons.   #1 was the crackdown on availability of explosives by the ATF and passage of the 1934 National Firearms Act and the 1968 passage of the gun control act giving authority over explosives to the ATF.    The #2 reason was of course the Great Depression which began around 1929.   Everyone was lowering quality and cost for everyday items including safes & vaults, so manufacturers had to come up with alternatives to the very expensive older Bankers safes, Jewelers Chests and Pressure Vault door systems.

Generally Jewelers Chests are NOT going to be readily available as they are built inside of another safe, which means that it would have to be salvaged OUT of the main safe for one reason or another.

Bankers Safes do come up for sale, and of course price will be dependent based on what you have and its condition.    While vault doors do come up several times each year they have special problems - first is that they are generally still installed in the building, and the owner doesn't want to pay removal costs - which means that YOU the buyer may have to foot THAT bill, as well as freight & shipping costs, AND also still have to have it installed at your new location.

Finding vault doors cleaned and ready for sale is kind of the Unicorn in the business.

Obviously if you are interested in buying a nice Bankers safe, you need to start building a listing of potential companies that may run across one or have one for sale, checking web sites like eBay and Craig's List, etc.

Again, just like with the vault doors, a moderate size bankers safe can weigh 3 to 6 tons, so freight & shipping can be costly.  

The smaller a bankers safe is, the higher is price is going to be, generally.    This is simply a supply & demand problem - more people can display smaller safes, than bigger ones, so the demand is simply higher.

Bottom line, you are correct, a nicely restored bankers safe, especially one with all of the correct locks, cleaned and polished is the ultimate display item.

How do you start, the internet is a good source to look.   Check out    This is Guy Zani Jr.'s web site of some of his collection.   I don't know how often he updates it or what he currently has for sale, but many of the safes on the site were sold at auction about 2 years ago and many of the safes for sale have been on that page for at least 5-7 years so they may have sold as well.    Another thing to remember about Mr. Zani, is that he is a collector, and as a rule collectors buy small and sell high, so pricing tends to be biased.    This isn't a bad thing, but he isn't collecting safes for your benefit!

You can also check out antique dealers to see if they have any leads, and of course auction houses.    Again remember that it is in their best interest to sell as high as possible not only to make money for the previous owner, but they generally get a generous percentage.

you can have your browser look for "antique bankers safes"  to get some ideas of what might be available.

I would recommend learning about antique safes so you have an idea of what you are looking for.   There are MANY wonderful safes available just looking for new homes, what is available simply depends on how hard you are looking, and how specific your search is.
Keep copious notes on your searches as you may run into someone to trade info with.

If you are on facebook, you can check out "Matt's Antique Safe Restoration"   Matt Lamborn is one of the top restoration artist in the US, and many times he might know of a safe being restored, which is also for sale.

Good luck in your search.   If you find anything that you have questions about, feel free to run it by me first, but please be specific - don't ask me if "I" like it, and would "I" buy it because the answer would almost always be yes!    The real question is would YOU buy it.

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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