Here’s an excellent write-up from our very own David Lewis on how to use free software to create master key hierarchy charts.


Master key hierarchy charts are valuable for both you and your customers:

  1. They are excellent tools for keying schedules/meetings because they help customers visualize how their system is laid out.
  2. They also help locksmiths (you) keep track of systems they service. I’ve yet to meet someone who can memorize how each and every system they’ve ever designed and/or serviced is laid out. And, short of spending (e.g. wasting) time analyzing the bitting list(s) each time to remember a system whenever you called to service it, a master key hierarchy chart instantly reminds you of what’s what. If I see that, for example, the AB master goes to the 11th floor, I’ll know instantly know where to go for the next available bitting. That sure beats going through past invoices/tickets and other notes to ascertain the same information!

Of course master keying software exists and some even produce master key hierarchy charts but we’re not here to promote this method at the expense of others – it’s simply another method and another trick/tool to add to your bag. With that said, I am not aware of any master key software that allows you to create a master key hierarchy chart without already tying it to a fully developed system. In other words, you must create the system first and the software then generates the hierarchy chart based on that data. When laying out and designing a system with a customer this can create additional, unnecessary work as you could potentially have to go back and make a revision or revisions. This method doesn’t require a bitting list or fully developed system, it’s only focused on the hierarchy chart itself.

Best of all, as we’ve already mentioned, it’s free!

Tools Required

You will need a spreadsheet program.  That could be Microsoft Excel or something free like OpenOffice.  You also need to download and install a free program named yEd Graph Editor.  The download page for yEd Graph Editor can be found here. 

If you haven’t used Excel in a while or aren’t too familiar with it, it might be a good time to go to YouTube and look up a video on Excel short cuts (copy down and fill down) – that can really speed up making the file/hierarchy chart.  The first one minute of this video goes over those short cuts.


1. Make a list of keys in a spreadsheet.  It can look something like the table above.  The grand master and master keys are listed on the left and the keys they are above (including non-top level master keys) are on the right.  The example here just lists the keys but you could be more descriptive about the change keys (BC1 – First Floor Purchasing Office, etc.).

2. Save the file.  If you are using OpenOffice or something other than Excel then save it in a XLSX format.

3. Next, open yEd.  Click on File in the upper left hand corner, then click on Open. Navigate to the folder the spreadsheet file is in and click on it. 

Note: The next two steps are the important ones.  The software will ask you how to graph the data and it uses some mathematical (graph theory) terminology but we can keep it simple. 

4. Follow along with the following screen shot. Highlight the first two columns of data with the mouse (click on the letter A, then drag over to B), then click Adopt next to the Data Range in the Edge List.  Next highlight the left column of data (click on the letter A) and click on Adopt next to the Column of Source IDs in the Edge List section.  Then highlight the right column of data (click on the letter B) and click on Adopt next to the Column of Target IDs in the Edge List section. Uncheck the box Property Names in First Row under the Edge List section.  Ignore the Node List section.

5. Click on the Presentation tab near the top of the MS Excel Import and change the Label Text to Node Label.  Click the option to Fit Size to Label.  Ignore the Edges section.  Change the Layout to Hierarchical.  Click the OK button.

6. You should see something like this:

Zooming in to see more detail:

Everything is laid out perfectly spaced.  To change the default yellow backgrounds, press Ctrl-A, then in the properties window to the right select whatever fill color you want (or no color at all).  Again, this example just uses the key names, but the change keys could be as descriptive as you want.  Note that if you add descriptive text to master keys, the master key needs to be listed the same in both columns.

The file can be saved, and then exported as a graphic image, or as a PDF file.