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Locksmithing/Tilton & McFarland Safe



I saw your post from 2011 on the Tilton & McFarland safe and just got one handed down to me from my father.  He used this safe in a bar and later used it for personal matters until he passed away.  In the past, the dial would get jammed and a family friend would come over and do something to the dials to get them turning again.  None of the surviving family members know exactly what he did.

As it stands, right now I have the two keys for the safe along with the combination, however, whatever we try we cant get the main dial turning.  

I have attached an image for reference and would appreciate any suggestions you might have.

Warm regards,

ANSWER: Ellen,

No problem, I've got two of these monsters in my garage, so I'm very familiar with the locks operation.   The older lock has 5 wheels and the younger one has 4 wheels.   As these are "straight tail piece" type locks, it actually has two combinations, one if dialed LRLRL and the second if dialed RLRLR, so depending on WHICH combination that you actually have you will need to dial the correct directions, accordingly.   As you didn't provide the combination that you currently have, I can't give you exact instructions for your lock, I'll give you the basic dialing sequences, and you will either have to try them out, or figure out which one applies to your lock.   Based on the photo, it appears that you have the newer lock with 4 wheels, so we will start with that one.   The key can be inserted either BEFORE or AFTER you have dialed the combination.   For this illustration we will insert it afterwards.

Dialing sequence will either be LRLR or RLRL as:

4 times left to your first letter,
3 times right to your second letter,
2 times left to your third letter,
1 time right stopping on the last letter.

Note:   My lock is set up with two drive pins in the drive wheel, so it actually dials as:

4 times left to your first letter,  (z)
3 times right to your second letter, (F/E)      (The combo can be on or between two letters)
1 times left to your third letter,  (A/B)
1 time right stopping on the last letter, (Z/P)

Note:   Left is counter clockwise, Right is clockwise.   Do not count the revolution of the dial, count the individual letter as it arrives at the 12 o'clock index mark.   If the lock doesn't work when dialing LRLR, then simply redial it as RLRL.

Key operation.
In order to insert the key, the handle must be turned fully counter clockwise until it stops.   This raises the lock levers to admit the access of the key.   Insert the key fully with the teeth "up".   Then rotate the handle fully clockwise to unlock the lock.

With the correct key inserted in the lock, the levers will remain at the correct depth for the lock to operate.   If the combination has been entered correctly, then the handle will rotate fully to retract the lock bolt allowing the door to open.

Note:   The key operation can be done before dialing the combination - turn the handle fully counter clockwise and insert the key, then dial the combination, finally turn the handle fully clockwise to retract the lock bolt to allow the door to open.

Hope this helps to explain the operation of this lock.

If it still doesn't operate, forward the combination sequence that you have written down so that I can take a look at what you have.

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

The combination is B-R-4, M-L-3, H'G-R-2, N-L-1.  However the problem is the dial will not turn at all with or without the key.  I need to know how to get the lettered dial to move.  My father would get it jammed every now and then so he would call his friend Rene to "unlock" the lettered dial.  I was never there to observe, but Rene did fix it more than a couple of times.  Rene has since passed away.  So I am turning to you for help.
Thank you, Ellen

ANSWER: Ellen,

Unfortunately, mechanical issues generally require hands on diagnostics and solutions, without actually seeing the safe and lock, the best that I can do is to guess at what the problem may be.

In general, the Dial WILL NOT turn if the lock is "unlocked" (bolt retracted).

Regardless of what you try, do it with the door OPEN.  DO NOT close and lock the door under any circumstance until you understand its operation.

Ok, lets start with the basics of the lock operation building upon what we have already gone over.   This lock can be secured in the locked open (bolt retracted) and locked closed (bolt extended).   Based on your description I would have to assume that you have it locked open (bolt retracted).

To lock the lock:
1.  Turn the lock handle fully clockwise (right) to raise the lock levers and allow key insertion.
2.  Insert the key - teeth up.
3.  Turn the lock handle fully counter clockwise (left) to extend the lock bolt, and allow key retraction.
4.  Spin the dial off.   the lock is now fully locked.

To unlock the lock:
1.  Turn the lock handle fully counter-clockwise (left) to raise the lock levers and allow key insertion.
2.  insert the key - teeth up.
3.  dial your combination:
    4 times left to the first letter, (B/R)
    3 times right to the second letter, (M)
    2 times left to the third letter, (H/G)
    1 time right to the fourth letter, (N)
4.  Turn the lock handle fully clockwise (right) to retract the lock bolt.   While holding the lock handle turned fully clockwise, the key can also be retracted.

Note:  The lock handle has a "neutral position" which is a position about 180 degrees from fully turned right or left.   This is the normal position for the handle when the lock is "locked" or "unlocked".   From this neutral position you would proceed with the instruction as listed above.

Note:   Many of these locks did NOT have the letters in Alphabetical order, for instance one of my locks has the following sequence:   A-B-C-D-F-E-H-G-J-K-M-Q-Z-P-S-R-T-U-N-X  (I-L-O-V-W-Y are not used).   The other lock uses:  A-F-B-C-D-N-O-M-K-T-S-R-P-U-Z-W-Y-X (E-G-H-I-J-L-Q-V are not used).    Combinations can use the letters or the "space" between the letters.

While these locks are only "slightly complicated", their operation is fairly simply "IF" you use them correctly, and understand the basics (as listed above).

If the lock still will not operate or function correctly, then either you are making an operational error or there is actually something wrong with the lock.

While some models of Tilton & McFarland safes had access doors allowing maintenance of the locks, many did not.   Both of my T&M safes did not have access doors, and the locks were buried in the insulation, requiring me to remove and/or dig the locks out of the doors to work on and service them.   NOT an easy task!

Ensure that "YOU" understand the above instructions, and are operating the lock correctly.   If the lock works, test it several times before closing and locking the door, as a lock out can be extremely expensive, and if not done correctly can result in ruining your antique safe!!!!

Note:  As this is an antique safe, it should only be used for display purposes, and not for securing cash, jewelry or valuable documents.   If you need a secure storage location, please purchase a newer safe that will meet your security needs.

Hope this helps.

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

QUESTION: Me again.  The door is locked shut.  But this is how it would be when my Dad had to call Rene to open it.  So I know it can be done...just dont know how.  

Thank you so much for your ideas and consideration.  Ellen


Based on the photo that you originally provided, I assumed that the door was opened as it is NOT fully closed in the photo.

As the design of the lock does not allow for binding of the dial when the bolt work is locked (lock bolt extended), this would indicate to me that either the lock is NOT fully or correctly locked, or that you have mechanical problem that has probably need to be addressed for years.

If the operations that I previously listed do not work, then it is time to have the lock checked out by a safe tech.

I never recommend using locksmiths, and in cases like this safe, I would also recommend that you use a safe tech who is familiar with antique safes.

Once you get it open, I would NOT recommend closing or shutting the door until it has been serviced and repaired.

Try turning the handle fully counter clockwise to see if it frees up the dial.   Also fully inspect the door to ensure that it is fully closed.   If it is in the position that I viewed in the photo, then it may simply be jammed.

Unfortunately, you've reached a point where it needs "hands on" diagnostics, and problem solving.

Sorry, I can't be of more help, but other than flying me out to see what the problem actually is, I'm kind of at a stand still here.


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Terry V. Andreasen (Andy)


Safe and Vault related Questions; Antique Safe Repair and Restoration; With over 40 years in the Safe & Vault industry, if I can't answer your question I know where to get the answer. Current Project: Restoration of two Tilton & McFarland safes from the 1860'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.


40 years in the Safe & Vault Industry. 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. 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

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 - 2014 - Listed in AllExperts Top 50 Experts. All Expert 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

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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 and Western Nevada)

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