Do It Yourself: How To Open Your Safe

Copyright 2012 by Ken Dunckel
Safecracker Safe and Vault Service
Serving San Francisco Bay Area and Northern California
Licensed and Insured

In the past month I've followed the work of two misinformed do-it-yourselfers.

1) A property owner found a safe left behind by the previous resident. Not only was it in the way of the remodeling, he was curious about whether there were contents. A contractor doing work there assured the owner that he could open the safe.

Long story short: The contractor failed. He didn't give up until after doing grievous damage to the safe with hammers and grinders. In other words, a safe that could have been opened with zero to minimal damage and made usable was reduced to a piece of unrepairable junk.

After paying me to open it, the owner had to have it hauled out and scrapped.

This was a clear-cut case of "contractor machismo." Plenty of able-bodied guys with pickup trucks and job boxes full of heavy construction/demolition tools can't get their heads around the concept of a stupid box holding up against them and their tools.

If it wasn't so pathetic it would be funny. In fact, safe technicians actually do have a few laughs over stuff like this when we get together to trade lies over beers.

2) The other one was an old style double door safe owned by a lady whose father had died and taken the combination with him. The lady and her family knew there were important contents in the safe.

The lady's brother got impatient and frustrated. He went after the safe with a hand sledge. After knocking off the dial and running a steel punch rod down the dial spindle hole into the interior where the lock was, he tried (unsuccessfully) to overcome the lock by more hammering and punching. When it became apparent he and his hammer weren't having the desired effect, he hammered on first one, then the other bolt control handles on the double door unit.

Both handles sheared off, of course, and he finally gave up.

The damage he did turned what should have been a half-hour job for me into a few hours' work. The safe was ruined.

Very common . . . Safes mistreated thus by erstwhile safecrackers are usually beyond (affordable) repair, and require added work (not to mention expense) to open.

My point in both cases is that otherwise intelligent people who attempt do-it-yourself safecracking don't usually give safe makers any credit for anticipating what real burglars or do-it-yourselfers might try. But think about it . . . it's the safe makers' job to make their safes hard to open by force, and some of them take their jobs seriously.

Common Do-It-Yourselfer Attacks

Dial Attacks
They attack the dials, prying or hammering them off. Next they punch the threaded dial spindle, which connects the dial to the lock. They usually punch it inward, in hopes of dislodging the lock. I always marvel that anyone would think it's that easy. Safe makers expect this type of attack. They usually design them so that spindle-punching will activate other locking mechanisms inside.

They saw, grind, or try to torch-cut the hinges, in hopes of seeing the opposite side of the door fall open. I wonder if they thought about whether the safe makers ever thought about that. Well, they did and still do, and it's very basic to design a safe door for resistance to opening by hinge-cutting. In fact, hinge attacks are among the hallmarks of amateur attacks on safes.

Lock Drilling 
This is something that works only if the drilled hole is in exactly the right location. Just drilling a hole in the vicinity of a safe's lock, whether it's a key lock or a combination lock, does not guarantee success.

Safe makers commonly use drill-resistive barrier materials in front of the locks to slow or stop drill bits. Drill bits from the hardware store (and even better ones) won't get through. Safecrackers use drills and drilling equipment designed specifically for safe work, and even with tools making a hole often takes some knowledgeable effort.

Wedging and Prying
Wedges and pry bars are ancient, and they're the most basic of forceful tools. They are extremely powerful when employed intelligently, but there are limitations. Safe makers anticipate wedge-and-pry attacks, and design safe doors in a way that often precludes or greatly complicates the application of these tools.

Burglars and do-it-yourself safecrackers often try to wedge and pry, or sometimes just pry. It just isn't that easy with most decent safes, and usually does more damage than good. Simple as those tools are, their effective use requires a skill set that most people don't have. But they can do a lot of damage.

Grinders/Cutting Wheels
These tools cut steel readily, and sometimes fairly quickly. Ferociously noisy, they create showers of sparks, metal shavings, and fine metal dust. Because of the speeds at which they operate, they're dangerous to use. Sometimes the user will burn up or break a number of wheels. Whether the sparks and hot materials that find their way into the safe interior will damage anything inside is anybody's guess. Safes breached thus are ruined more often than not.

An oxyacetylene cutting torch in the hands of an experienced user will certainly cut a hole in a steel safe's door or wall. It can take time, it will be noxious, and it can be dangerous to use indoors. Torching progress can be slowed appreciably by any other materials enclosed in the safe wall, and the safe will of course be ruined. Not to mention that not much else will be going on around the torching operation---it's disruptive.

Not to mention the fact that cutting torch operators often damage or destroy any contents that might be inside the safe. There's another down side to cutting torches: Unless you know exactly what is inside a safe, how can you be certain that heat and flame from a cutting torch won't set off ammunition, explosive/flammable substances, or toxic materials that don't react safely when superheated. This isn't scare tactics, it's for real.

Remember, anything that fits inside a safe can be inside a safe.

* * * * * * * *

It's a fact that given unlimited tools, time, energy, and perseverance, any safe or vault will finally yield. After all, a safe's purpose is just to buy time for the owner. Nobody, even in the safe industry, reasonably expects any safe or vault to be completely impregnable to all sustained attacks.

But if it slows them down, it's done its job.


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


Anonymous said…
I very much enjoy your blog posts. They are a most interesting look into a little known craft... i.e. safecracking. Thanks.

Popular posts from this blog

Antique Safe Prices & Values: "How Much Is It Worth?"

How To Dial A Safe Combination

Safe Boobytraps: Tear Gas and Unknown Contents