How To Dial A Safe Combination

"I have a combination, but it doesn't work."

Judging from how many people who have trouble with them, mechanical safe combination locks have to be some of the most non-user friendly devices ever invented.

Along with the “how much is my old safe worth?” question, “I have the right numbers but they won’t work” ranks right up there among the most frequently heard safe problems.

Please bear with me here. I promise, I will explain dialing in this session. But you probably need to read this if you're here because you're trying to dial a safe combination.

The percentage of intelligent and literate people who are unable to dial a safe combination without extensive coaching is amazingly high. I hear from them when they can't get the thing to work after repeated tries. They think of themselves as intelligent beings, so it must be that either the numbers are wrong or the lock is broken.

The hardest thing for most of the people I coach on the phone is to actually listen, hear what I say, and follow my instructions without misinterpreting or altering them.

I say the word "to" and they interpret it as "past." I say "dial left" (which is counterclockwise . . . it needed to be said), and they dial right.

Some people have brains that automatically reword things they hear, and others are consciously or subconsciously dismissive of a series of simple-sounding instructions. Until they try to follow them, that is.

The Main Problem

Assuming a combination is correct, most combinations that "won't work" aren't being dialed correctly. Another thing I hear a lot goes like this:

"My husband is an engineer/mechanic/watchmaker/rocket scientist (or whatever). He's tried dialing these numbers every possible way for hours without success. He says the lock must be broken."

The people who make these pronouncements are usually wrong.. In fact, it often seems that the more educated the frustrated safe dialer is, the more complicated they tend to make the dialing process.

Quite often this is because users who were never told how to dial properly over-complicate the process. It's not uncommon for me to visit a customer and be handed combination dialing directions that take up nearly half a sheet (sometimes more) of prose-covered notebook paper.

Confusing? No, it's mind-boggling. Most safe combinations can be jotted down in four or five very short lines.

They go in descending number of turns, and turning directions alternate with each number.


The need to "clear" the lock is safe and vault mythology. When people don't understand things, they either make stuff up or they listen to stuff made up by other people who sound as if they know what they're talking about.

It's not necessary to spin a safe dial multiple times before dialing in earnest and counting turns. You don't have to do anything to get the lock "in the mood." This is a baseless myth among safe users who were never properly schooled in how to dial a combination.

So remember: There's no such thing as "clearing it." When a user locks a safe by closing the door and then turning the dial several full turns, that activity is the locking process; the wheels inside the lock are all out of their opening positions, or "scrambled," if you will.

Spinning the Dial

Dial spinning doesn't help open the lock; it's like spinning your tires every time you drive away from the curb. All that does is wear your tires out faster.

The same goes for spinning a safe dial to "clear" it. When you do this, you're not "clearing it," you're just helping the lock wear out or break sooner. That part is okay with me.

However, if you want your lock to have a longer life, just begin counting and paying attention to the number of turns and directions as soon as your hand touches the dial.

Another activity that ranks right up there in terms of uselessness is the way so many safe users start the opening process by first turning it several times then carefully set the dial at "0" or "100" before beginning the dialing process. This is most often done by the same people who spin their dials to "clear" them.

People, that lock and dial assembly does not know what number it's set on. These are simply ritualized movements that people who neither understand their locks (nor want to) have incorporated into their safe opening routines. When I ask people why they do such things, I hear answers like "I dunno . . . the person I got the combination from just said that if I always do it this way, it will always open."

In fact, the only thing they're really sure about is that spinning the dial "clears" the lock. They don't know how spinning "clears" the lock, but that's what they've always heard. Nor do they know why they believe this mythology.


When dialing, count "times TO the number being dialed," NOT how many times PAST it.

Substituting the word "past" for the word "to" is probably the biggest contributor to the troubles people create for themselves when dialing safe combinations.

So LOSE the word "past" from your vocabulary when dialing.

Every time the number you're dialing touches the index mark (at top center on the ring around the dial) counts as 1 time TO the number.

A typical mechanical safe lock combination might look like what you see below. The turns and directions shown are the most commonly used. 

4 times left to 41

3 times right to 22

2 times left to 63

1 time right until dial stops and will not turn any further

(Dials for some locks must be turned to "0" or another number after the combination numbers are dialed, instead of to a stopping point).

"Left" means counter clockwise.

"Right" means clockwise.

Did you notice? The word "Past" did not appear once in those dialing directions.

Not opening? Keep reading.

That first sequence above is probably the most commonly seen dialing sequence for most current US-made 3-wheel safe locks. A three wheel lock actually has four wheels, but the fourth wheel is just there to connect to the dial and drive the three combination wheels Below are some variations on that theme. The principles that operate the locks don't change, however.

Below is a less-common dialing sequence, seen on some older US-made units. You'll notice that the first line says "5 times right." This tells us the lock has four combination wheels, plus one driver wheel. The fourth combination wheel gives more combination possibilities (a total of 100,000,000) and requires dialing 5 times to the first number to ensure that all the wheels are moved. The "five times left" and "five times right" sequences are most common today on bank vault locks, which routinely have four wheels. Four wheel locks were also quite common in many older (pre-1940s) safes.

5 times right to 75

4 times left to 41

3 times right to 22

2 times left to 63

1 time right until dial stops and will not turn any further

(Note: Some lock dials must be turned to "0" or another number, instead of to a physical stopping point, after which you take your hand off the dial and turn the handle to operate the door bolts).

Also . . . it's true that some combinations must start to the left, and some must start to the right. If you're not having any success dialing your lock the first way shown, it doesn't cost anything, nor will it hurt anything if you reverse the turning directions while keeping the number of times you dial to a given number the same. Thus, that first combination shown would dial as follows if you reverse things:

4 times right to 41

3 times left to 22

2 times right to 63

1 time left  until dial stops and will not turn any further

(Note: Some lock dials must be turned to "0" or another number, instead of to a physical stopping point, after which you take your hand off the dial and turn the handle to operate the door bolts).

 However, you can rest assured that the first sequence shown is the correct sequence for the majority of current US-made combination locks.

Some combinations have more than three numbers. What I've said here about alternating turning directions and descending number of turns is generally applicable no matter which direction you start dialing. .

If you don't have any luck it's time to look in the phone book under "Safes" and hire a safe technician to come try the numbers and show you how to work the safe.

CA License 1985
CA Contractor 553337
Safe and Vault Service in the San Francsico Bay Area and Northern California


Anonymous said…
Thanks so much for explaining this to me - no problems for our trusted people getting into the safe the first time now.
Anonymous said…
Thank you for this! Your blog was the only set of instructions that actually explained how to move the dials accurately and hence open my safe. You saved me big time!
Majindre said…
Thanks! Nobody at work here could get the safe open, but I finally did it thanks to your instructions.
Anonymous said…
wow. can't believe I have never known how to properly open a safe before now. Everyone I've ever asked about opening safes has propagated the "clearing" myth. Thanks so much for opening my eyes to the truth.
Anonymous said…
I found this article to be the perfect solution for my needing a little combo-lock refresher course in order to open my grown-up safe for my home business. I say it that way because, although its been well over a decade(s) since I last operated combination lock to get in and out of a high school locker, the child in me is a bit disappointed that after successfully opening the thing 20+ times a day for 4 years of my life, this "grown-up" I like to call myself couldn't recall even the first step. So thanks for helping me vindicate myself for the sake of my inner child! Lol

Also, while I'd like to believe that the rest of the population won't so easily forget how to do something they've done 12,000+ times in their lives, I know that I did. So given that, and the fact that I absolutely consider myself to be intelligent and an excellent, patient, comprehensive follower of instructions, perhaps I should be keeping an eye out for your variation of the next bestselling 'for dummies' brand tutorial because your article was VERY WELL WRITTEN, you have captured human nature to a tee! It was an amusing read, well explained yet concise and the way you ever so eloquently bring to ones attention the reasons why some people fail to truly comprehend seemingly simple instructions while allowing those people to see why, without them consciously even realizing that they do fall into that category of people, and most importantly without causing anyone regardless of their learning/comprehension habits/abilities to feel dejected/condescended and subsequently loose interest. You have a refreshing live and let live attitude and a very rare and valuable diplomatic quality this world could certainly use more of and I just wanted to let you know that even via something as random and simple.this your true wisdom shines through. I really could easily foresee a style of writing such as yours doing quite well in the realm of instructional literature.
Mike F said…
After watching countless YouTube videos, I found your posting. THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU. You made it simple and sure enough it worked. Again....thank you!
Unknown said…
Perfect I had an old safe I thought I was going to have to pay out the ying yang for.. Thanks for the post.
Anonymous said…
I have a Major in-ground safe and the right combo
Would the cold weather affect opening the safe
It is only 3 years old, never been wet and set in concrete in my outside
garage The temp is in the mid 30"s

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