Locksmithing/old wall safe


QUESTION: This is probably a different question than you're used to. I'm an author who needs a jewel thief to open an old wall safe in a Boston townhouse built in 1840. The safe could have been installed later, so it can be newer than the construction of the house, maybe the first part of the 20th century. How would my guy go about cracking it, and what tools would he need, if any? I don't need pages of description, just a believable step by step process and the amount of time it would take for a professional to do this. Any help you can give me would be much appreciated. I'd certainly mention your expertise in the acknowledgments unless you'd prefer I didn't. Thanks in advance.

ANSWER: Hi Polly,

Sorry, but this is actually a fairly common question - though the specifics may change from author to author, but I actually get similar requests several times each year.

First off, manufacturers weren't making "wall safes" in the early 1800's.   The few manufacturers that were building safes, were building fairly large units with thick walls.    Though any of these safes could have been built into a wall, they weren't "wall safes".

Around the 1870's and 80's, manufacturers began coming up with more innovative containers to meet numerous individual needs of the Victorian era.   Boudoir or Brothel safes and safes built into cabinets for offices or the bedroom became available.   These smaller personal safes could be mounted almost anywhere.

As far as "cracking" the safe, burglars weren't very sophisticated - they used hammers, chisels, pry bars and drills, though the drills were the "egg beater" type of manual drills.

So while we can probably come up with a safe that meets the needs of your storyline, and have it installed in relationship to a reasonable period, the big question would be "WHEN" is your story taking place???

Obviously someone trying to break into the safe in the 1850's is NOT going to have the same tools or skills as someone in the early 1900's, or even the 1950's, and certainly NOT the year 2015!    So you have to give me some more back ground on your story.

Next item is the "Professional Thief" thing.    With the exception of the movies and stories like yours, professional thieves are kind of like finding a Unicorn!    While they possibly exist, they are EXTREMELY rare, with the exception of thieves working for the government, who are nothing but a pack of thieves anyway!   But that's another story!

As far as a "STEP BY STEP" description of how they would break into or open a safe - sorry, but for security and liability reasons we do not discuss methods of opening safes.   Even when you see it in the movies, several of the most important steps are totally left out, or changed so that while it seems plausible, it really wouldn't work.   

Case in point, the 2001 Robert De Niro / Edward Norton Movie, "The Score", where they blow the safe open - while it seems real, and it does have it's basis in fact - it simply wouldn't work on THAT type of safe -  Stage Left to the Mythbusters - 2007 trying to duplicate the feat - it didn't work as advertised in the movie, however they did ramp it up, to actually accomplish the job of opening the safe - totally ruining everything inside it.

Problem - while they both shared your intent to provide a "story", the effect was that quite a few idiots who thought they could become safecrackers attacking safes at banks and jewelers shops.

In reality, there are three basic classes of burglaries, and specifically safe burglars.  

Group 1 - which comprises about 80-85% - are what we term crimes of opportunity - thieves that break in and find a safe.    They generally have no skills and/or tools, other than what they find at your house or business.    They also rarely get in, but cause thousands of dollars in damages.
Group 2 - the "SEMI-Professional".   While this group isn't generally an active professional criminal, and usually includes people that you know and/or trust - like family members or employees.   They have plenty of time to look at what you have, and determine how you protect it, so that they can come up with a workable plan (again refer to Edward Norton's part in "The Score".   He was the "trusted inside man".    

Even though this second group is much smaller - only comprising about 15-20% of all crimes, it accounts for the biggest dollar loss.   Because you trust them, they may already have access to keys, codes and combinations, etc., and over a period of time can usually come up with a plan to gain access to your valuables.   In fact you may even provide them with the opportunities by going on vacations etc. where they may have even more access to your stuff, and plenty of time to make it look like an outside job.     

As an example:   A shoplifter goes out the front door with a sandwich, a bag of chips and a soda!    Your trusted employee goes out the back door with a case of sandwiches, a case of chips and several kegs of beer for the weekend football game!    

Group 3 - the final group would be the professional burglars or safe crackers.   These guys only comprise less than 1/2 of 1 percent.   They ONLY have very specific targets who have been zeroed in on, because of a very specific set of circumstances, and usually when you don't want ANY evidence that they were there.    

For instance fake jewels traded for the real jewels, so that the owner doesn't know they have been robbed.    Making video or photographic copies of documents so that you have either the information or possibly the battle plans, without the other side knowing that you have them.

Professional's (other than in a book or the movies) DO NOT go after someone's house or personal stuff, unless it falls into the espionage realm indicated above.  

The type of safe that you are looking for, for your story line, would NOT be used to store any items that would remotely interest a professional, nor would it provide any type challenge.

The biggest problem with movies and books, is that they don't take into account the amount of onsite time to open a safe - whether by manipulation or drilling and scoping.    "IF" as you have indicated that (for what ever reason) this safe has been targeted by a professional, regardless of how he opens it up, the owner isn't going to know about it.    They might find "THE" item missing, but there is going to be no trace of how it vanished.    This means that "in reality", time - or the hint of time, would have to be present, to allow the safe to be opened in this manner.

And again as mentioned - the "ITEM" in side the safe would have to have ONE HECK of a pay off, to entice a pro to even go after it.    This means hours and weeks of watching the target to determine a schedule pattern, to allow time for the work.    Professional's simply don't get caught, and the reason why is that not only do they do their homework, but they also have several contingency plans set up to allow escape.

Anyway, basically I'm going to need more pertinent info about the time period, "ITEM" that is being absconded with, and place it is stored (Home / Business / Etc.).   

Final Note:   In general, people storing items of extreme value, do not store them in un-rated wall safes.    If it was important enough to have a professional take it, then it would have a really high security safe protecting it as well - even 100 years ago!!!

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

QUESTION: Thanks, Terry. I should have clarified my question more. The time period is present, and the safe is in the home of a dead thief, a friend of the person trying to open the safe who is also a thief. The wall safe was probably installed in the 1920s or even later in the old Boston brownstone. (it's fiction, and I can make the time frame any way I want. I can even make my apartment owner install the safe himself in present time.) My thief wants access to the safe to see if the dead man's bank statements are inside so he can get into a safe deposit box for which he has the key, but he doesn't know the bank. He has all the time in the world to get into the safe. He had access to the dead man's apartment, a residence not listed under his name, so not yet on police radar, and he had the security code, so he didn't need to break in. My main thief concentrates on gems, diamonds in particular, and works mainly in Europe. Believe it or not, he's a good guy in the book. A side question: if a locksmith, a crooked one, of course, knew the bank, could he make or obtain a master key for the safe deposit box? Thanks again for your excellent answer. Ever think of writing a book? :-)

ANSWER: Hi Polly,

Based on this information, I would recommend a more modern safe which was built within the last 30 years or so, as having an antique safe really doesn't add to the story line, though the safe could have been there when he took possession of the home originally.   

Unless you want to go into details about the safe, which the average reader isn't going to get anyway, it doesn't make much sense to do a lot of back ground on the safe - UNLESS you are doing a story like the movie and book - "The Hot Rock" - 1972 movie starring George Segal and Robert Redford.    In this comedy caper, the crew has to re-steal the diamond - or attempt to, numerous times before finding out it has been placed in a safe deposit box.

Which brings us to our NEXT serious of issues or problems.

Having the key and bank records are NOT going to get your second man into the safe deposit box.   Banks have extremely strict access rules, starting with YOUR name has to be on the access card, and in the event of a death of the box holder, until they have a court order and authorization by the executor of the estate, the box is basically sealed.

Ruses, like having your thief rent a second box so that he can gain access to the room to have HIS box opened and then while in there, saying while I'm here I'd like to check my other box, also doesn't work, as they make you start all over again, to verify the ownership of the box, and to have you sign the access roster for THAT box.

The movie "The Hot Rock" attempted to circumvent this, by using a Hypnotist to convenience the vault attendant to open the second box after a "KEYWORD" is spoken, but most people simply don't believe in hypnosis, so unless the book is written for kids, or as a comedy movie, this doesn't work either.

As far as a "MASTER" key for the safe deposit locks - no such thing.   Each lock requires two keys to open it, the banks GUARD key, and the "INDIVIDUAL" tenant key.   Every box has an individual, unique key.

As for writing a book - yes, I have - I'm almost ready to go to the publisher, I just haven't figured out which of the over 10,000 photos I can stick in!!!    Obviously mine is a History of safe manufacturers from the early 1800's through the mid 1900's, so its not a work of fiction, but it does men that I've had to double and triple research most of the book to ensure its accuracy!    I was trying for an April deadline, but I don't think I'm going to make it - work and family keep getting in the way of my hobbies!  :)

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

QUESTION: Thanks, Terry. My guy has the key to the box, and he has a crooked locksmith duplicate the bank's guard key once he knows which bank. This is probably not possible, but it's fiction, and I hope to get away with it. Once he gets into the house safe, he finds the info about the bank. This particular account was opened with an alias--the dead guy has many-- so the bank doesn't know the the account holder is dead yet. My guy goes in the bank as the dead guy having studied his signature. It's a large main bank, so it's less likely they'll remember the original man. 'Course there'll be a little tension about that. He also has papers from the safe to identify him, including the account papers.

Secondly, how does my guy get into the safe? Should it be a digital safe or a combination safe? Would he use a stethoscope on a combination? Which is easiest? When he first sees the safe, can we mention one, and if so, which?

Good luck with your book. You should write a caper fiction book though. Sounds like you'd do a great job.

Thanks again for all your help.

Hi Polly,

as far as getting into the safe, you will probably want to use a mechanical lock as digital locks cannot be "tricked open", and after trying a few wrong codes, the lock will shut you out (penalty mode).    The Penalty can last from 5-15 minutes - so with 1,000,000 possible codes, it would literally take 100 years to test them all.

Generally if the code is unknown on a digital lock, the lock has to be drilled - while this would be an acceptable method of entry, I don't think it as the "mystique" you are looking for.

Mechanical locks on the other hand (for the most part) can be manipulated open - though it isn't like the movies at all.    The difference between real life and the movies, is that opening a safe - like any other skill takes time to obtain results.    Generally in a book or movie, the plot is dictated by "available time".   The audience isn't going to sit quietly by for 20 minutes, much less an hour, for the safe to be opened, so it has to be a really quick - wham, bam - type of action.

We ONLY use stethoscope's or electronic listening devices to AMPLIFY what we can already feel, and NO the lock does not make bumps or clicks as the combination is revealed.    Basically the dial is used as a measuring device.   We are using the graduations of the dial to measure the circumference of EACH wheel - both individually and as a group, looking for variations.   If Each wheel was a "PERFECT" circle, and all of them as a group, were identical in size and orientation, locks could NOT be manipulated, however due to manufacturing tolerances and variations, it is possible for us to obtain measurements, graph them mentally, looking for indications.   After we get some indications, we run test combinations to either eliminate it as a possibility, or to figure out which wheel the indication is assigned to.

As we run through the variations and wheel assignments, we can (hopefully) narrow down the indications to an actual combination to open the lock.

Depending on the actual lock you are working on, AND the skill of the safecracker, it is possible to do all of the test dialing, measurements, combination graphing and testing in a couple minutes.   For instance my best time, opening a three wheel lock with an unknown combination is under 6 minutes.   The last one I did, a couple weeks ago, was in a noisy factory/machine shop, with around a dozen people watching and asking questions - even with all of these distractions the safe was open in under 20 minutes.

Problem with manipulation is that while it is a useful tool and skill, it is never guaranteed, meaning that some locks simply DON'T talk, so generally I won't waste more than about 30 minutes before I'll switch to plan B.

With the previous owner of your safe being deceased, this pretty much eliminates any time constraints, so your burglar dude, can dial away to his hearts content, within the confines of the story.

Generally manipulation is used for only a couple reasons - the main one being that you don't want the actual owner of the safe to be aware that you have opened the safe up and acquired the contents.   The US Government and Military use higher security, manipulation resistive or manipulation proof locks on safes which guard secret and top secret materials.
The second reason that we give manipulation a good try, is that if we successfully open the safe, we don't have to do any repairs.

Just as with your story line, and/or subsequent movie, you are restricted to a "time line" that you have to follow,  similarly, we as professional safe technicians also have time lines.   I may have 5 to 10 jobs waiting for my attention - and I can guarantee you that EVERY one of my customers think that THEIR stuff is MORE important than everyone else.   So I cannot afford to spend much time at anyone job.    I have to get the safe opened AND repaired, so that it is operational, in a minimum amount of time, and get down the road to the next safe - repeat as necessary!

So for the story line of your book, it makes JUST as much sense to drill the safe open as it does to manipulate the lock, as the main results are to gain access to the items inside, and NOT how it was opened.

Some of the movies which rely upon "FACTS" similarly to what you are trying to do, get the facts so wrong it shows that they didn't actually do their homework and/or it simply didn't meet their story line.

For instance in "The Italian Job", where they manipulate the first safe open underwater and then Charlize Theron has to manipulate the second safe open - in real life this would not have happened as high security safes like those purported in this movie, are required to have manipulation resistive locks.   This in no way deterred them from using this method as part of their plot, because the story could NOT have developed correctly if they used facts.   Their motive was getting the gold OUT of the safe and NOT necessarily how it was done.    Manipulating the locks was just part of the mystique, to keep the audience interested.

Ok, I've rambled on some what, but hopefully I've given you some ideas - my recommendation would be to have it simply drilled and scoped, recovering the combination and opening the safe.   If the guy knows what he is doing this can be done in between 10-30 minutes, as opposed to manipulation which might not even work!  


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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

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 and Western Nevada)

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