Old (Locked) Safes: Should You Buy One?

Advice For Prospective Buyers of Used/Locked Safes

By Ken Dunckel
Safecracker: Safe and Vault Opening and Repairs
San Francisco Bay Area and Northern California

It's common for a caller to tell me something to the effect of, "I bought an old safe with no combination. How much would it cost to have it opened?"

Sometimes the caller tells me how much he or she paid for it, sometimes not.

However, by then it's way too late for good advice. And that good advice is this: A person with a locked safe and no combination, whether it's relatively new or ancient, has nothing to sell.

Older (pre-1940 or so, but that's arguable) safes generally do have more eye appeal. However, if the safe you're looking at can't be used, eye appeal is all that it has; it has no value until it's opened and made usable.

The person trying to sell a locked safe for which the combination is unknown or nonfunctional has probably heard prices for hauling it away and didn't want to pay for that. Therefore finding some person who not only wants it but who is also willing to pay for it and invest the time, energy, and requisite dollars to acquire it is a godsend.

What usually happens is that the happy buyer shells out the money, does whatever it takes to move the safe to his or her home or business, and only then starts calling around to see how much it will cost to get the box open and working.

This is where I come in.

Once I get a description (or better still, a snapshot or two) of a locked unit, I give a price.

The next step is for the caller to answer in a shocked and incredulous tone, "how much?"

I repeat my price, and often the next answer is to the effect, "But I only paid $100.00 for it!"

You paid $100.00 too much.
Moreover, the comment "but I only paid $XX" begs the question, "So, the opening fee can never exceed the cost of acquisition?"

Is that a rule? If you got the safe for free, would I have to pay you for the privilege of opening it?

 Another popular response to my price is, "but the guy I bought it from said it would probably only cost $100.00 or so to have it opened!"

The guy you bought it from didn't know Jack about safe opening prices, but he was probably willing to tell you anything in order to get this thing hauled away for free.

When you buy a used, locked safe with unknown combination, there are a few considerations:

1) It might be locked because there is some kind of grave mechanical malfunction.
Not that this can't be overcome, but if a specific part is needed to restore function to a safe, it's important to know that many parts for older safes are hard to impossible to find. Fabricating a part is feasible, but only if one is willing to pay that added (and sometimes appreciable) cost.

2) There might very well be something inside the safe, but don't count on it.
Except in special circumstances, most people in their right minds don't forsake their locked-up valuables and walk away.

3) The person you hire to do the opening work might have to drill to open the safe, then repair it afterward.
Lots of callers automatically assume that whoever takes the opening job is going to "crack" the combination by careful listening and dialing.

Well, this might happen, depending on who you hire and his or her skill set. It's what I do routinely. The process is manipulation, a systematic method that employs sight, sound, and touch, coupled with a clear mental image of how various locks are designed and their operation. I do it often, and I have a very good success rate. But I'm here to tell you: While many people in the lock and safe industry have attended classes in manipulation, only a small percentage of them around the world use it routinely in their safe-opening work, because there are no guarantees that the safe being manipulated will open after one, two, or three-plus hours. It's a business for most of us, so if one's manipulation skills are more theoretical than experience-based, it's wiser to cut time losses and go right to drilling. Drilling is usually more time-predictable.

Manipulation is my first choice, but I sometimes have to drill. The good news is that when it's done by an experienced and well-equipped technician, any drilling done to effect an opening is repairable, often undetectably. Last, don't try to dictate the safe-opener's methods. You're buying the result, not the process.

4) The person you hired for the opening gave you pricing for opening the door that is visible. This doesn't usually include opening locked inner safes (not uncommon in old safes) or locked smaller compartments. More work means more money.

Some safes have inner safes, some don't. A locking inner compartment is an option, not a standard feature, as I explained to a lady who felt that my opening quote for the outer door should have included the three locked inner safes we found. Her reasoning: "You are in this business, so you should have known there would be inner safes." She only backed off a little when I answered that if I'd had the x-ray vision it would have required to know about the three inner safes, why didn't I just look through the outer door to see the combination instead of drilling?

Often inner safes are tougher (Latin for "more expensive to open") than the outer safe.

5) If you're put off by opening prices you've heard and decide to hack, pry, saw, or cut the safe open yourself, be assured that it's a lot more work than you might have imagined, and that you will almost certainly destroy the safe by rendering it totally unrepairable.
But have fun.

The smartest thing you can do is to get pricing on the opening before, not after acquiring a locked safe. Make your cost/benefit evaluations before paying any money.


Note to readers: Please feel free to comment and post your thoughts about this and any of my posts. Don't worry, I'm pretty thick-skinned. Thanks.


Sometimes the caller tells me how much he or she paid for it, sometimes not.kolelocksmithindianapolis

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