How To Open A Safe by Kenneth Kim, CRL, CPS
Can you open a safe? Someone asks me that question at least once a week. The answer is yes, I can and do open safes. Once this has been established the next question is either how do you “crack open a safe” or how much does it cost? The answer to both questions is actually the same, it depends. It depends on several factors including why you need to get the safe opened, the type of lock on the safe and which safe you need opened.
The reasons why you might need to open a safe include unknown or lost combinations, lock malfunctions or damage caused by a burglary or fire. The type of locks found on safes include electronic, mechanical dial locks and key locks. The type of safe can also be a factor. A fire safe has little or no protection against forced entry while a jewelers safe will have multiple layers of protection.
Lost Combinations or Keys
The proper way to open a safe is with the combination but what do you do if the combination is lost?
Electronic Push Button Locks
The manufacturers of quality electronic locks take steps to prevent lock bypassing and those locks with an unknown or lost combination will usually have to be drilled to get the safe open and the lock replaced. The locks on some cheap electronic safes can be bypassed and the combination reset.
Mechanical Dial Locks
A lost safe combination on a safe equipped with a mechanical dial lock is a different story. You can drill open a safe with a mechanical lock without destroying the lock. A professional can drill and repair a safe in a way that leaves the safe with as much security as it originally had and leave no visible signs of it having been drilled.
It is also possible to open a safe equipped with a mechanical lock without drilling. As seen on TV and in the movies, the method of opening a safe by “listening for the clicks” with a stethoscope or other audio device is based on a real safe opening procedure. The process is known as manipulation. Does this mean that a mechanical lock is less secure than an electronic lock? No, the skill level required to do this is so high that only a small percentage of professional safe technicians actually use this method to open safes, a non professional would have to rely on pure dumb luck to get a safe open that way.
Key locks on safes range from simple wafer locks to high security lever locks. Most key locks can be picked although some of the high security locks require special, very expensive tools, to pick the lock. Most high security locks end up being drilled and replaced because of the cost and difficulty of picking them.
Electronic Push Button Locks
Electronic lock malfunctions generally fall into three categories, battery failures, keypad failures and lock failures.
The most common failure is the battery. If you have a safe with an electronic lock that won’t open, try replacing the battery. Most battery compartments are in or under the keypad. Open the compartment to see which size battery it takes and replace the battery(s) with fresh alkaline batteries. Avoid the heavy duty non alkaline and batteries that advertise “engineered for today’s high performance electronics” or similar claims, these batteries are designed to output high current over a short period of time and you will end up having to replace them frequently.
Most quality electronic locks have replaceable keypads, should a keypad fail a new keypad can be installed and the safe opened with the combination. Most of the safes sold at big box stores are low cost imported safes which are not intended to be serviced. Should a keypad or lock fail on one of these units the safe will in most cases have to be replaced.
Mechanical Dial Locks
Most mechanical lock malfunctions can be opened with out drilling or otherwise damaging the safe. A skilled safe technician can run a series of tests, refereed to as Dialing Diagnostics, to determine which component inside the lock has failed. The technician can then either modify the combination to compensate for the failure or otherwise coax the lock open without further damage. Occasionally, a catastrophic failure will occur and a small hole will have to be drilled to bypass the failed component. The hole can then be repaired and the lock replaced. In most cases there will be no sign of the safe ever having been drilled.
Key lock failures can include broken keys, bent or damaged tumblers, broken springs and broken or disconnected bolts. Some broken keys can be removed, a new key made and the lock opened with the new key. For most other problems the lock will probably have to be replaced. A small hole may have to be drilled to bypass the failed component to get the lock open. The hole would then be repaired and a new lock installed. Occasionally the hole will be drilled in the lock itself and not need to be repaired since the lock is being replaced anyway.
Burnt, Burgled and Bungled Safes
Even though most insurance policies will replace a safe that has been subjected to a fire or burglary it is still important that the safe be opened in a way that prevents any further damage to the contents. A professional safe technician can open these safes in a way that preserves the contents. A safe may have to removed from a burnt building before opening for safety reasons. In most cases no repair would be done since the safe will probably be replaced although it is possible that some burgled safes might be repaired and put back into service.
A bungled safe is a safe that has been subjected to non professional opening techniques. A professional safe technician may drill one or two holes, usually 1/8″ to 3/8″ in diameter, to open a safe. On rare occasions a single 1/2″ hole may be drilled to defeat a time lock. A safe bungler may drill a large number of holes and still not get the safe open or worse yet use large diameter hole saws or “chop” a hole in the bottom or back of the safe to get in. These large holes can not be repaired to a level of security or fire protection equal to the original and the entire safe will need to be replaced. Note: I have heard claims by some individuals that they can return a safe with large holes to original condition but, if you think about it, anyone with that level of skill would know the proper method to open a safe and wouldn’t need to make such large holes in the first place.
What should I do if I can’t get my safe open?
Entering or dialing the combination incorrectly is a common problem.
Start by taking a 20 minute break, we all get frustrated at times and tend to repeat the same mistake over and over. Taking a break helps diffuse the frustration and in the case of electronic locks will allow the “wrong number penalty lockout” to time out for most locks.
Reread the combination card or instructions.
Mechanical Dial Locks
The better quality dial type locks have tight tolerances, if the combination calls for “34″ dialing “33″ or “35″ may not work, dial the combination slowly and be sure to stop right on the required number. The direction and number of turns is just as important as the numbers of the combination. If the combination calls for LEFT be sure you are turning the dial COUNTER CLOCKWISE and when it calls for RIGHT be sure you are turning it CLOCKWISE. You would be surprised how many times this turns out to be the problem. When counting the number of turns, you count the number of times the required number comes to the opening index, if you move the dial only one number before it comes to the opening index that counts as one time.
The standard dialing procedure for a Group 2 lock is
Left until the first number comes up for the 4th time
Right until the second number comes up for the 3rd time
Left until the third number comes up for the 2nd time
Right until the dial comes to a hard stop
Turn handle or pull on handle to open safe
Many of the cheaper fire safes (sometimes refereed to as “microwave safes” because of their size) use a simple type of lock called a Straight Tail lock. The last turn on these locks does not come to a hard stop, you simply stop on the last number and then turn the handle or key to open the safe
The Standard dialing procedure for the Straight Tail type of lock is:
Left until the first number comes up for the 3rd time
Right until the second number comes up for the 2nd time
Left until the third number comes up
Turn handle or key to open safe
Make sure you are entering the combination correctly. On some safes you need to press a “Start” button before entering a combination (some safes have a “C’ button or use the “*” as the start button). You may also need to press an “End” button (the “#” button is used as the end button on many safes. A sample combination would be C-1-2-3-4-# .
Most electronic locks will go into a wrong number lockout mode if an incorrect combination is entered too many times. Most electronic locks use a timed period (3 - 20 minutes) for the wrong number lockout. For these locks you just simply wait the required time and then enter the correct combination.
Some electronic locks require you to enter the correct combination twice to get out of the lockout, for example C-1-2-3-4-#-1-2-3-4-#.
Electronic locks are sensitive to bolt end pressure. Try turning the handle in the locking direction and hold it there, enter the combination and then turn the handle in the opening direction. If that doesn’t work try replacing the batteries with fresh alkaline batteries and try again.
I tried all of that and my safe still won’t open
If the safe is still under warranty call the safe manufacturers technical support line. They will talk you through some of the simpler trouble shooting steps. If that fails many will arrange for a technician to come to your safe to open and repair it.
If the safe is not under warranty then you will have to make the arrangements to get the safe opened.
How To Find A Qualified Safe Technician
Unfortunately there is no way to guarantee that any individual is qualified to open your safe unless you have used their services before and were satisfied with their work. To increase the odds of selecting a qualified safe tech you can take some of the following steps.
- When searching telephone directories or the Internet look for members of the Safe and Vault Technicians Association (SAVTA) or the National Safeman’s Organization (NSO). These individuals have access to resources and specialized training opportunities that will increase your odds of finding a professional safe technician.
- Use the Safe Tech Search on the Safe and Vault Technicians Association web site - savta.org
- Ask the safe manufacturer if they know of someone in your area they would recommend.
- Ask questions. How long have they been doing safe work? How do they open safes?
How much is this going to cost?
As a general rule no professional safe technician is going to touch a safe for less than $125.00 plus trip/service charge or mileage. The larger metropolitan areas will likely have higher minimum charges. If the safe needs to be drilled you can expect the minimum charge to at least double. There will likely be additional charges for parts. A high security jewelers safe will cost more to open than a simple fire safe and a burgled safe will cost more to open than a safe that has not been attacked. The cost to open your safe will depend on why you need to get the safe opened, the type of lock on the safe and which type of safe you need opened.
Some technicians charge by the hour plus parts and materials while others charge a flat rate based on the type of safe. Ask about rates up front, while the technician may not be able to give you a firm rate up front, a professional will at least tell you how the charges are calculated and give you a general idea of the costs involved.