NewsSo you want to get into safes. By Martin Newton
I am constantly faced with enquiries from people wanting to start up in the safe trade, so I thought I would write this article to give an insight as to what is involved.
About 10 days ago I had a call on my mobile phone, the caller asked if it were me by name and said he had been given my number by a mutual friend. He then said that he was standing in front of a ministry safe fitted with a MkIV Manifoil combination lock that would not open. For those that don’t know this job would fall into the category of high security. He wondered if I could give him a drill point. After asking a couple of questions I extracted from him that he had changed the combination on the lock less than 2 weeks ago and now it was not opening. The identity of the caller is still unknown to me, my advice to him, was to walk away from it and to advise the customer to call a professional safe engineer.
This article is aimed at being informative and educational to those who are considering getting into safes in some way shape or form. The above example is not an isolated instance, it happens to me about once every 2 months, I suspect it also happens to others.
So, where to start, the locksmith or safe business in the U.K. is unregulated. What that means is, that anyone who wants to, can set themselves up irrespective of knowledge or ability.
If we look at this from a perspective customers point of view it is probably a bit of a minefield, when it comes to choosing someone to fix there safe, if it is not via a recommendation of a previous good experience.
Membership or affiliation to an organization such as the MLA or S.A.V.T.A safe and vault technicians association may give some comfort of selecting someone who is reputable and capable, but it is by no means a guarantee that this will be the case.
From my point of view, I wish our industry was regulated, I would not use an unqualified electrician or gas fitter and I don’t think the unsuspecting public should be exposed to unqualified safe engineers. If you think that last statement is a little contentious then read on.
Let me suggest a hypothetical situation, a customer exists who has a low grade 3K cash rated safe and he loses his key. He goes to the yellow pages and calls a locksmith or safe engineer who arrives to open it. The safe has a low grade seven lever lock that is capable of either being picked with a two in one pick or visually decoded via an endoscope and opened with a makeup key. Our locksmith or safe engineer knows that that the safe can be opened without damage but does not have the equipment or skill to do so. He withholds this information from the customer and tells him that the safe needs drilling open, as that is the only method he is able to provide. In the belief that he is being given good advice, the customer agrees to having his safe drilled open.
My contention in this scenario is that a deception may have taken place along with a possible act of criminal damage. I know that might raise a few eyebrows amongst the diehards, but stop and think about it, if anyone of us was locked out of our brand new car, we would not allow someone to drill into it, we would look for someone who could do it without the damage.
Now I am not unsympathetic to those who are trying to get into the safe business, on the contrary, I believe I have helped and encouraged as many people as I can over the years. So hopefully the rest of this article will give some ideas on a more positive way forward.
First of all the reasons why people might require a safe specialist, lost or failed combination, lost or failed key, mechanical failure, electrical failure, user error and that’s about it.
Whilst this sounds simple, safes can then be broken down into different categories, these categories are assigned by A.B.I.S association of British insurance surveyors. Pretty much any container that has a lock on will be rated up to 1k. The next jump is 3k, 5k, 10k, 15k and so on, the higher the cash rating the higher the quality of safe. The things that affect cash rating are basically the physical strength of the safe, the quality of the lock and any countermeasures that are built into the design.
Because the safes are of different quality the knowledge and training to open them can be categorized as well. To keep it simple I am going to call it basic, intermediate and advanced, and I genuinely believe that this an order of how people should learn to deal with them.
The skills and knowledge of methods required to deal with lost combinations are as follows.
Dialing diagnostics, Manual Manipulation, Micro drilling, Minimum evasive drilling, Drill and Scope change keyhole, Soft drill, Auto dialer.
If any drilling of the safe is performed, proper drilling equipment and drill bits will be required as well as a knowledge of how to use it. Additional knowledge of professional repair methods, whereby the safe is restored to its former integrity or better, is also required.
For key lock problems the list is similar.
Wire picks, two in one picks, pin and cam picks, pick and form picks, scopes, make up keys, Minimum evasive drilling techniques, Key cutting or copying equipment.
Mechanical failure, usually due to a lack of maintenance and servicing, is the next
area of expertise that is required. This can best be described as the area of knowledge and information. I have a database of over 27000 digital files of information, mostly photographs including crucial measurements of the inside and outside of safes and vault doors. With experience I am able to get by without using this database up to a certain point. I can use diagnostic skills to identify problems and solve a certain amount this way. However as I write this I am aware of a well respected colleague who has been working on a locked out grade 5 safe for three days, those are the jobs where information is key and 20 years of database collection pays off.
More and more safes these days are being fitted with electronic lock mechanisms. Whilst there is a certain amount of remedial work that can be done to solve some problems, such as battery change, code change, keypad change and cable change, once these have been exhausted if a clump with a dead blow hammer doesn’t solve the problem then the previously mention drilling and repair skills will be required.
By this stage, those still with me will realize that there is a serious implication of equipment, knowledge and skill required to do this properly. The next question is how to go about putting those things into place.
If we deal with equipment first, there is no substitute for not having it. Reality is, that equipment costs, so some sort of budget or funding is going to be required by those who decide to go down the safe opening road.
In my view the following is the bare minimum that is required by someone offering basic safe opening services.
Drill Motor, variable speed.
Pre sharpened drill bits or drill bits and ability to on site sharpen. Grinder & diamond/green grit wheel.
Drill rig, does not have to be expensive, my first one was a pick axe handle with a notch cut out of it and a length of chain, a simple lever rig.
Selection of simple 2 in 1 picks and ability to use
Knowledge of combination locks and their workings
Forward firing scope
Side firing scope
Information is a little more difficult to come by, due to the nature of the beast individuals in the safe business are hesitant to share information. There is a little of anything that is commercially available to purchase. There are some internet forums that may assist and there are a few decent publications, mainly American, that can provide a good place to start. I know that the MLA has run some safe education courses, as I have myself in the past, this is probably a good way to get hands on experience without risk.
On the job training with an experienced mentor is probably the best course of action for those fortunate enough to be in a position where this is an option.
The skills side of life is probably the final hurdle that separates those who can and those who cannot. People have told me in the past that I am lucky because I can pick and manipulate. I rarely comment on the remarks but can’t stop the thought, do they think I just awoke one morning and found that I could do those things. No I did not, I learnt the basics through self teaching and then practiced obsessively until I knew I could do it. Again, in my view there is nothing stopping anyone getting a £60.00 pick and a simple seven lever safe lock and teaching themselves how to pick it. There is enough information out there for those who want to find it.
Back to the guy that was on the phone at the start of all this. If when he had been asked to reset the combination, he had studied the safe, taken photographs, taken measurements he would have known that no drill point in the world would have helped him with his lack of equipment knowledge and experience.
Whilst writing this article a couple of relevant things have happened.
Below are copies of two posts from a secure American Safe Tech forum. As you can see the problem is global, everyone wants to do it but no one wants to put in the time to learn how to do it. It’s as if we live in a world of expected free information.
I just got emailed a picture of this safe to open. It looks like a MacNeale and Urban. Customer says the dialing index has a star with a changing index at 1 0clock and has numbers not letters. Any help would be appreciated as it is 1.5 hours from me
What is the problem with the safe, Lost combo, lock malfunction, bolt work disconnect
If you are hired to open the safe and have bid a price that includes your travel time, why don’t YOU go figure out how to open the safe.
Maybe a loose dial ring, or might you be able to manipulate the lock open, or is the door just stuck
Dont you have an information collection of your own yet, or is it just easier to post and ask. I am not ribbing you, I am just asking as I would like to know what this profession has come to
I have also been asked to open a couple of safes, one is a combination malfunction the other a lost key. The guy with the combination problem bulked at my price but called the following day to have me do it. When I arrived I was confronted with a Chubb four drawer fire file that he had crow bared the top and back off in an effort to solve his problem. I had quoted him between £75.00 & £140.00 to solve it depending on how it went. I opened it in less than two minutes off the dial and charged him the £75.00. He had ruined £1500.00 worth of kit.
The lost key was a S & G Fas 6850 on a new Grade 3 security cabinet. This was a trade job at a fixed price. The lock took me two hours to decode and pick open. In view of the time spent versus cost charged I was not in profit. However I felt really good, my reputation was in tact and I had learnt a lot for next time.
To conclude, getting into the safe business is very doable, but realistic understanding and expectations of costs, time frame and effort are a must.
If you still feel like having a go after reading this, my top tips are as follows.
At any opportunity start recording information for a database. Photographs, measurements and relevant information.
Make a wish list of equipment and set about somehow acquiring it.
Learn to pick with a two in one pick, if you cannot teach yourself or find other help take a picking class.
Learn how combination locks work, learn to manipulate. Get the info from a book or take a class.
If you are a locksmith subcontracting work to a safe engineer, ask to go along to see what is involved, get some on the job experience, if they are worth their sort, they won’t mind.
Once you do get started, if you are out of your comfort zone or level of ability, call for help.