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Antique Safes/Need help with combination


Old man
Old man  
safe face
safe face  
QUESTION: HiDoug, I have taken a lovely old safe out of storage, but cannot open it. The cabinet is oak and has a old man with a swirly beard covering the safe door which is supported by a gargole base. The safe belonged to my grandparents and was from the Bliss Estate, Casa Dorinda in California. It was a ornamental piece in the entree of my grandfathers boarding school. The code R 4-5-20 is scratched into the face of the metal door of the safe.  I have yet, however, to use the correct sequence to make it open. Have you seen a safe similar? Is it American made? What sequences do you recommend? I do not want to drill it open.

ANSWER: Susan, the safe was almost certainly made by Herring Farrel Safe Co. of New York and Philadelphia in the latter 1800's.  The wood cabinet looks European but could have been made in NYC.  Either way it was likely made specifically for Herring.  Typically the comb sequence is 4L-3R-2L-1R to stop.  I have worked on similar Herring safes, but not with a heavily carved wood cabinet.  However, Herring was known for making some very fancy safes with cast iron trim designed to look like furniture.  The carved cabinet is exceptionally well done.  Doug      

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My husband and I have trie to open the safe using your recommended sequence however, the safe is still not opening. We may not have the right touch or be turning the sequence correctly. Do you have any recommendations for the intricacies for opening the safe? If I need help, whom do you recommend? I live in Portland, Oregon.

ANSWER: Yes, I was going from memory on that sequence and I should know better than to do that.  Those locks have a 2 piece driver cam which means nothing to to you but is important should it come to hiring someone to help get it open.  Try 5R to 4, 4L to 5, 3R to 20, 2L to 0, then R to stop.  This is the sequence I wrote down on another Herring that I had worked on so I know it is correct.  If it still doesn't work there are several possible reasons.  First is the numbers are incorrect.  Second is dialing the sequence properly.  5R to 4 means passing 4 four times and stopping the 5th time you get to 4. Third is the lock has wear problem.  On the lock I worked on the "2L to 0" was not working when dialed exactly on "0" but had to be dialed slightly off "0".   Doug   

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I tried the sequence and I think it is correct because the last turn did stop at 20. However, I still couldn't open the safe door. Do I need to push the knob up or down? Does it matter? Do I just keep trying the combo with various #'s a little off? The 5 on the dial is a little worn do you think that is to signal it needing to be stopped a little off the mark? Should I be feeling or listening for something as I turn the dial?

Susie Andersen

I think it would be wise to call in help on this.  Preferably someone who has been in the trade for a long time.  It could be something simple.  It is unlikely they will be familiar with the lock but they will be much more likely to find the problem, with my help if need be.  My email is macslocks  Doug

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Doug MacQueen


This unusual and highly innovative safe from the later 1800's is a Corliss. William, the much younger brother of George Corliss of steam engine fame, spent several years perfecting this design and it was first displayed at the 1876 Philadelphia U.S. Centennial Exhibition. I do extensive patent research helping me in the study of antique U.S. safes and safe locks. Repairs and part making for antique U.S. safes of the early to mid 1800's, both key and combination. Also the study of early round door chest designs up to and including cannonball safes of the early 1900's.


40 years in the lock and safe trade with a stint in bank service work. Openings, repairs and moving of safes of all types.

Charter member Safe and Vault Technicians Association SAVTA, National Safemans Association NSO, National Antique Safe Association NASA. No longer current.

SAVTA monthly magazine

CMS (Certified Master Safecracker- NSO) and CPS (Certified Professional Safe Technician - SAVTA)

Awards and Honors
2nd place national combination manipulation contest 1986 and now in 2016 1st place

Past/Present Clients

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