Introductory Locksmithing: Extracting A Broken Key

Introduction

Broken keys are a frequent and lucrative source of revenue for locksmiths. Analogous to lockouts, extracting broken keys can be done in quick order with the proper tools and know-how. Here are some of the finer details related to extracting broken keys from locks.

Broken Key Jobs

When you receive a service call/request for a broken key, stress to the customer that they do not touch the lock until you arrive. I have seen relatively simple key extractions made far more complicated than they have to be simply because the customer took it upon themselves to try to remove it. Sometimes they’ll exhaust all attempts to extract the key before they call you. In case they haven’t tell to them that they leave it alone until you arrive. Let the customer know that their actions can turn a quick and simple job into a costly one.

Methodology

Before you attempt to remove a broken key, you want to assess the lock and make sure the job is going to be as straight forward as pulling the broken key out. First, is the plug rotated beyond the key pull position?

key pull position n. any position, of the cylinder plug at which the key can be removed

If the plug isn’t oriented at the key pull position, the plug’s wafers or tumblers will keep the broken key trapped. In order for the key to be removed, you must rotate the plug to the key pull position.
Second, is the broken key behind a wafer or tumbler? Similar to the problem with the key pull position, if the broken portion is resting against a wafer or tumbler, it more than likely won’t pull straight out. You will have to address and overcome this potential problem.

Key Extraction Tools 

Whatever the tool, the purpose is the same: grab the broken key and pull it out. Here are different types of key extraction tools:

Tweezers 

Tweezers.

Tweezers.


I always have a pair of tweezers with a thin, sharp-pointed head in hand when called to extract a broken key. If there is enough of the key to grasp with the tweezers, that’s what I start with. They also are great at removing brass slivers that love to stick into your fingers. You can source tweezers from dozens of brick and mortar and online stores.
Peterson sells a scissor extractor set that functions much like tweezers. While marketed for automotive keys, I have found them more than sufficient for wafer and pin tumbler locks as well.

Spiral Extractors

Spiral extractors.

Spiral extractors.


I have always had great success with spiral extractors. Spiral extractors are ~.040″ thick wire with spiral teeth running along it’s length.
To use a spiral extractor, insert the spiral extractor somewhere between the key and plug. Press the spiral extractor in while rotating it clockwise. This process is very similar to tapping and, for lack of better words, that’s what you’re doing. The spiral groves of the extractor grab on to the key as it’s being fed into the plug. More is not always best with these, if you feed too much the force required to remove it will exceed the extractor’s tensile strength. When that happens, the extractor will break and you’ll make your situation worse. I usually try to feed spiral extractors 3/8″ to 5/8″ into the plug for wafer locks; up to 3/4″ for pin tumbler locks.
Once you have fed a sufficient amount into the cylinder plug, attach a pair of vise grips to the extractor’s handle. Before pulling, make sure your vise grips are in line with plug and you’re pulling straight out. If you pull at an angle you’re likely to cause extra force/work and you could potentially break the extractor.
The spiral teeth will wear down over time and some will inevitably break; it happens. Make sure you carry at least 3-5 on you at all times.

Saw-Tooth Extractors

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Saw-tooth extractors are typically .022-.025″ thick and utilize multiple teeth, like a saw blade, to grab the key and remove it.

Hook Extractors

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Hook extractors come in a variety of shapes and sizes but all utilize a sharp, pointed hook to grab and remove the key.
Saw-tooth and hook extractors are very similar in size and function. With the exception of the number of teeth and the shape of the teeth, or hook, they are comparable in size, both in height and width.  Both aim to grab the key on the top of the blade, where the key’s cuts are, to “snag it”. With that said, certain situations allow for both types of extractors to grab the side of the blank as well. Keeping with this possibility, Peterson manufacturers a type of hook pick called the sidewinder shim that is specifically suited for side grabbing.

Alternatives

If all efforts to pull the key out with a dedicated extractor fail or are proving fruitless, it may be time to remove the cylinder to give yourself more access to the cylinder and thus a better opportunity to remove the key. Keep in mind that this may or may not involve unlocking the door via a method other than the cylinder itself.
I have seen and heard of other locksmiths using super glue to remove broken keys. This is accomplished by gluing a small probe tool to the broken key, allowing it to cure, and pulling. Don’t do this. Glue doesn’t belong in a lock no matter the circumstances. I’ve been a locksmith for 11 years now and have never encountered a broken key that I couldn’t remove utilizing the aforementioned tools.

Preventing Future Broken Keys

Simply removing the key and collecting payment shouldn’t be the entirety of the service call. Try to find out what caused the key to break. Was it user error or is the lock not operating correctly? Before you leave, make sure everything/everyone is working as it/they should to prevent broken keys in the future.

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Introductory Locksmithing: Lock Functions

Introduction

Locks come in a variety of shapes, sizes, finishes, backsets, etc. These features were implemented to fill needs. Lock functions too were designed to fill needs. Situations exist where a door should always be locked, when it should never be locked, or when it should do X or Y. Locks with a variety of functions were and are therefore necessary to meet the needs of these situations. 

function n. a set of operating features for a particular type of lock or exit device which make it suitable for a specific application. The function is designated by a classification name or standards reference number. See ANSI or BHMA for a specific listing.

ANSI/BHMA’s Role

ANSI/BHMA standards both define and assign names and numbers (known primarily as function numbers but also as ANSI numbers or function codes) to functions. The use of function descriptions, names, and numbers is commonly associated with 2 lock types:  

  1. ANSI/BHMA A156.2 (Bored & Preassembled Locks and Latches) covers bored locks, such as cylindrical knobsets and leversets.  
  1. ANSI/BHMA A156.13 (Standard for Mortise Locks and Latches) covers mortise locks.  

While technically bored locks, interconnected locks and their functions are defined in their own standard, ANSI/BHMA A156.12 (Interconnected Locks & Latches); I will use the “cylindrical” nomenclature for the remainder of this article to avoid any confusion. 
Other lock types, such as deadbolts and even cylinders, have functions defined and assigned names and numbers by ANSI/BHMA standards. Mortise locks and cylindrical locksets will be the focus of this article since they carry many more functions than the aforementioned lock types. 

Standardization

Standardizing functions helps bring uniformity to our industry. All manufacturers include function names and numbers in their catalogs. If you were searching for a specific function across multiple product lines, seeing this function name and number would tell you how the lock operates regardless of the manufacturer or their product number. For example, a Schlage L9010 and a Sargent 8215 are passage function (F01) mortise locks. Here is a side by side comparison of their catalog entries, each with their function number listed: 

Sargent and Schlage F01 comparison.

Sargent and Schlage F01 comparison.

Unique Functions

There are multiple functions that manufacturers offer that ANSI/BHMA standards don’t define or quantify. This is especially true for mortise locks which can incorporate more features, such as a deadbolt, than cylindrical knob and leversets. For example, Schlage’s L Series mortise locks has 57 functions – less than half have a corresponding ANSI/BHMA function name or number. Fortunately, all manufacturers include drawings as well as thorough descriptions for functions that ANSI/BHMA standards don’t cover. This eliminates any guess work.  
A clear majority of the locks that we sell or service have a function name and number. With a bit of familiarity and practice, their identification will be as second nature as identifying a tool in your tool box. In this article, we’re going to discuss the most common functions, their features, and where they are generally found to help build this familiarity. I’ve included descriptions, names, and numbers from Schlage’s L (mortise) and ND (cylindrical) series locks to help illustrate each function discussed. 

Function Terminology

Before we do that, let’s take a moment to cover some terminology. When describing a lock, we need to differentiate between each side of the door. Avoid using terms like secured side. This causes confusion over interpretation. Use the terms “outside” and “inside” instead. Outside refers to the side of the door which houses the cylinder; manufacturers will sometime refer to this as the “cylinder side” of the door. Inside nearly always refers to the side of the door without a cylinder. There are functions with cylinders on both sides of the door but the manufacturer will adequately describe these functions. This is the terminology used by manufacturers and it would serve you well to not only understand it but also practice it.  

Popular Functions

Popular Schlage ND Series (Grade 1, Cylindrical Leverset) Functions

Passage (F01 for mortise, F75 for cylindrical) 

Schlage L Series (Mortise Lock) Passage Function (F01).

Schlage L Series (Mortise Lock) Passage Function (F01).


The good thing about functions is that their name gives us clues to their use or operation. Passage function locks are a good example of this. They allow passage no matter which side of the door you are on. No key is required and passage locks cannot be locked. 
Passage function locks are ideal where doors are either required, such as by code, or desired to latch but not lock. Examples of their usage include common areas and on stairwell doors. They are also commonly used in conjunction with deadbolts where allowed. 

Privacy (F02, F19, or F22 for mortise, F76 for cylindrical) 

Schlage L Series (Mortise Lock) Bath/Bedroom Privacy Function (F22).

Schlage L Series (Mortise Lock) Bath/Bedroom Privacy Function (F22).


Privacy function locks allow an occupant inside of a room to lock the door from the inside via a thumbturn or push button. Turning the inside trim retracts the latch and/or deadbolt. Furthermore, there is an emergency override on the outside that a user can operate with a coin, standard screwdriver, or similar object that allows them to open the door in the event of an emergency. For mortise locks, F22 utilizes a latchbolt, no deadbolt. F02 and F19 incorporate a deadbolt. On F19 function mortise locks, the latch cannot be retracted by the outside trim when the deadbolt is thrown, on F02 function mortise locks it can (the latch and deadbolt operate independently). Privacy function locks are common on restroom doors as well as interior residential doors.  

Office/Entrance (F04 for mortise, F82 for cylindrical) 

Schlage L Series (Mortise Lock) Office/Inner Entry Function (F04).

Schlage L Series (Mortise Lock) Office/Inner Entry Function (F04).


Office/Entrance function mortise locks allow the room’s occupant to lock a door by utilizing a key and either a thumbturn or a toggle switch. Some manufacturers offer both types. For locks utilizing a toggle switch,you can only lock the door using the toggle switch. The door remains locked when turning the inside trim and using a key only retracts the latch. The toggle switch must be returned to the unlocked position to unlock the outside trim. For locks utilizing a thumbturn, the door can be locked using a key or the thumbturn. The door remains locked when turning the inside trim. The door can be unlocked by the key or by returning the thumbturn to the unlocked position.   
For cylindrical locks, F109 (Entrance Function) is very similar to F82. In fact, most people refer to them both as entrance function locks. The difference is that F109 function cylindrical locks utilize a turn-and-push button on the inside. Pushing the button will lock the door until you turn the inside trim or use the outside key to unlock it. Pushing and turning the button will lock the door indefinitely; the button must be turned back to the “push” position for it to be unlocked the next time the inside trim is turned or the key is used. Office/Entrance function locks are very popular on residences and individual commercial offices and closets. 

Storeroom (F07 for mortise, F86 for cylindrical) 

Schlage L Series (Mortise Lock) Storeroom Function (F07).

Schlage L Series (Mortise Lock) Storeroom Function (F07).


Storeroom function locks always remained locked from the outside and unlocked from the inside. You can use a key to retract the latch but that will not unlock the lock. A storeroom function lock prevents someone from inadvertently leaving the door unlocked. Storeroom function locks are popular on rooms containing sensitive information, such as server rooms, or items, such as storage rooms. Storeroom function locks are also popular with doors utilizing electric strikes. This prevents someone from unlocking the lock, relying instead on the electric strike, while still allowing for a mechanical override if necessary. 
Most manufacturers now offer storeroom function cylindrical leversets with “clutched” levers. Standard storeroom function cylindrical leversets have rigid outside levers whereas clutched levers are not; they allow movement of the outside lever without retracting the latch. This protects against destructive entry attempts to open a cylindrical leverset by forcing the outside lever trim. 

Classroom (F05 for mortise, F84 for cylindrical)

Schlage L Series (Mortise Lock) Classroom Function (F05).

Schlage L Series (Mortise Lock) Classroom Function (F05).


Classroom locks are very popular on, you guessed it, classrooms. The function allows only key holders, such as teachers or other school staff, to lock and unlock the outside trim of the lock. You don’t want to give students or other individuals the ability to lock the teacher out, after all! 
It’s important to note that new hardware products and lock functions are being developed by manufacturers to help protect classrooms in the event of an active shooter or similar threat. Furthermore, life safety codes related to this specific situation are actively being debated, researched, and, in some cases, revised in response. The usage of the term “classroom” is highly popular with these new functions. I cannot stress how important it is to verify the function of these locks as well as their legality in your jurisdiction before choosing to service or install them.  

Other Functions 

Passage, privacy, storeroom, entrance, and classroom functions are by far the most popular and utilized lock functions currently. You can satisfy a large majority of customer’s requests with these functions alone. There are, however, dozens more functions available. It would serve you well to familiarize yourself with different manufacturers’ offerings by reviewing their catalogs. These also serve as excellent research tools if a customer requests a lock function that you aren’t immediately familiar with.  

Universal Function Mortise Locks

Best 45H “Universal Function” Mortise Lock. Screw positions (labeled 1-5) allow the lock’s function to be changed in the field.


BEST, Sargent, and Schlage offer multi-function/universal mortise locks. These mortise lock bodies are capable of multiple, different functions with a single lock body. Changes to the lock body, such as screws in BEST’s case as seen above, result in changes to the function. Changing of these functions can potentially require you to add, remove, or swap existing trim and/or components. For example, transforming a passage function mortise lock to a storeroom function mortise lock requires a mortise cylinder. It’s important to understand these changes when quoting to change the function of mortise locks so that you and your customer don’t incur additional costs during the job and/or potentially leave unfilled holes in the door. 
 

Introductory Locksmithing: Decoding Keys

Introduction

Examples abound of instances where you must decode a key in the field or in your shop. At its most basic level you may simply want the bitting from a key. You may need to decode a key to determine which key bitting specification it uses so that you know how to pin cylinders or cut additional keys to match the manufacturer’s requirements. Whatever the case we all must decode keys at some point.

decode v. to determine a key combination by physical measurement of a key and/or cylinder parts
bitting n. 1. the number(s) which represent(s) the dimensions of the key 2. the actual cut(s) or combination of a key
key bitting specifications n. pl. the technical data required to bit a given (family of) key blank(s) to the lock manufacturer’s dimensions

An example of a key bitting specification, Schlage's Classic.

An example of a key bitting specification, Schlage’s Classic.


Decoding keys may seem straight forward to any of you that regularly interface with a specific manufacturer’s key bitting specification. Schlage’s Classic key bitting specification, found commonly in commercial and residential settings, comes to mind. There are times, however, where we must service keys and/or cylinders belonging to a key bitting specification that we are unfamiliar with.  Unless you regularly service Corbin Russwin’s various key bitting classes and depth systems, for example, they might cause great confusion without the ability to decode depths from a working key. 
With all this in mind, the goal of this article is to show you various methods of decoding a key and how to utilize the information gathered. 

Methods of Decoding Keys

Direct and Blind Codes 

The simplest method of decoding a key is when a code is stamped on the key bow. This code can be a direct code or a blind code.

code n. 1. a designation assigned to a particular key combination for reference when additional keys or cylinders may be needed.
direct code n. a designation assigned to a particular key which includes the actual combination of the key
blind code n. a designation, unrelated to the bitting, assigned to a particular key combination for future reference when additional keys or cylinders may be needed

Direct Codes

A direct code is essentially what you input into code cutting equipment to produce a key to manufacturer’s specifications. Direct codes correspond to bottom pin lengths belonging to the key bitting specification. The benefits of decoding a key using a direct code is that it is quick and straight forward. A direct code will not clue you into the key bitting specifications, however. You must either know that information, know how to derive it, or know where to find it to make use of a direct code. 

An example of a direct code.

An example of a direct code.

Blind Codes

Blind codes are very popular for wafer locks but there are instances of their use in other platforms. To derive a key’s combination from a blind code you must have access to code books/software. You reference blind codes against one of these sources which in turn provides you with the direct code. Nearly all code books and code software contain either full or partial key bitting specification information; some even provide the information to produce a key with the combination(s) using various code cutting equipment. This greatly assists decoding as well as the ability to service additional, related keys and/or cylinders. 

An example of a blind code.

An example of a blind code.


Blind codes are often alphanumeric although there are times where the blind codes can be numbers only. These numbers cannot be confused with direct codes, however, because they will nearly always be less than the actual number of cuts found in the key. It’s also important to note that you should not confuse markings from a master key system with blind codes. The standard key coding system, SKCS, must be learned, understood, and practiced so that information stamped on the key isn’t confused with a blind code.  

standard key coding system n. an industry standard and uniform method of designating all keys and/or cylinders in a master key system. The designation automatically indicates the exact function and keying level of each key and/or cylinder in the system, usually without further explanation.

Key Gauge  

You can also decode a key using a key gauge.

key gauge n. a usually flat device with a cutaway portion indexed with a given set of depth or spacing specifications.

Examples of key gauges.

Examples of key gauges.


A key gauge allows you to insert a key into cutaway portion and move the key within it until the key comes to a stop at or near an index marker. At its most basic level this index marker will be a whole number that corresponds with a depth/cut within that system. There are key gauges capable of decoding more than cuts in a key, such as angles or Aft and Fore cuts with Medeco keys, depending on the system, but that is a story for another article. There are also key gauges with measurements on them that function much like a caliper. While not as precise as a caliper they can be very effective and quick. 
Keep in mind that you must know the appropriate key gauge for the key; there isn’t one key gauge that works for all key bitting specifications. Utilizing the wrong key gauge on a key will accomplish nothing more than wasted time.  

Calipers  

Digital calipers.

Digital calipers.


Calipers allow you to take actual measurements of the key, usually with accuracy of ± .001″. These measurements can then be used to determine the key bitting specifications out right. The process to decode using a caliper is rather straight forward. In fact, there is a formula for this process that you should commit to memory.

Cylinder Math

Effective Plug Diameter – Root Depth = Bottom Pin Length. 

effective plug diameter n. the dimension obtained by adding the root depth of a key cut to the length of its corresponding bottom pin which establishes a perfect shear line. This will not necessarily be the same as the actual plug diameter.
root depth n. the dimension from the bottom of a cut on a key to the bottom of the blade

The effective plug diameter varies by manufacturer but this information is readily available. You can find the effective plug diameter of multiple manufacturer’s on our Key Bitting Specifications page. On LAB universal pin kits, LAB lists this measurement on each pinning chart and labels it E.D., or effective diameter. Keep in mind that effective plug diameter is not the same as the actual plug diameter itself. The effective plug diameter accounts for tolerances, plug diameter does not. Avoid confusion by also committing this to memory. 

Measuring

The root depth is amount of material between the bottom of the key blade and the bottom of the key cut. You measure the root depth with your calipers.

Measuring root depth with calipers.

Measuring root depth with calipers.


By taking this measurement and subtracting it from the effective plug diameter, or what is needed to create the shearline, we are determining the correct length of the bottom pin. All measurements are taken within a thousand of an inch so you will need to compare the results of this formula against the manufacturer’s key bitting specification to determine the bottom pin/cut assigned to it. Bottom pins correspond to the cut, which simplifies things for everyone involved. For example, if your formula produces a difference of .270” and it is the Schlage classic key bitting specification then you can safely assume you have a 7 cut which utilizes a 7 bottom pin.  
Measuring with a caliper and comparing/deriving is usually slower than other decoding methods but it is the most accurate method. An added benefit of a caliper is that they are multipurpose. You can use calipers to measure other things, such as pins. They are also very helpful when calibrating key machines as they can provide precise measurements throughout the process. 

Visual Decoding 

Once you become very proficient with a key bitting specification or specifications, you can begin to visually decode keys. This process allows you to determine key cuts by using visual clues of the key. It takes some skill to be proficient with visual decoding. Once you are proficient with visual decoding you decode keys almost as fast as if it were a direct code (as long as the keys are accurate!). 

Conclusion 

I utilize all options and I would advise you to as well. Keep key gauges and a caliper on the truck and in the shop. Make sure you have access to code books or software. The situations at hand will determine the best, or perhaps only, method of decoding. You best bet is to become proficient at all of them.

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