Does Drilling Ruin A Safe?

"Open Only" or "Open and Make Usable"

People who hire me to open safes often make wrong assumptions. The first clue that a caller is has been making wrong assumptions comes when I ask,

"Do you just want it opened, or do you want it opened and made usable again?"

Upon hearing this, many callers react with surprise or confusion. The misconception many people have seems to be that not only can I open every safe by some magical process in which I divine unknown combinations, but when the door finally swings the safe is ready to go back into service with no further work . . . wrong.

While it's true that some safes can be opened without damage, many can't be opened thus. First you need to understand that there are different ways to open safes:

This is the James Bond/Jimmy Valentine/Raffles type of safe opening . . .

The tuxedo-clad operator steals away from the cocktail party to the upstairs study, goes unerringly to the safe concealed behind the framed picture on the wall. His clever fingers expertly twiddle the dial for a few turns, after which the safe opens. He extracts the valuables, locks the safe, then returns to the party, and nobody the wiser. No force, no noise, no damage; not a shred of physical evidence left behind.

The preceding scenario has been promoted so often in various media that people have come to accept it almost automatically, to the point that this image of "safecracking" comes immediately to mind for millions of people. It's been immortalized in TV, movies, and print.

Time for a Reality Check: The manipulation process only applies to safes with mechanical locks operated by numbered dials. Manipulators combine sight, sound, and touch with detailed knowledge of combination lock design and operation.

When feasible, manipulation is preferable. Manipulation doesn't damage the safe, so no repairs or parts are needed after the safe opens, unless some pre-existing condition dictates repairs or parts replacement after the safe opens.

An experienced manipulator can identify which type of mechanical lock design he or she is dealing with, as well as whether or not it's a good manipulation candidate.

Besides being my first preference, manipulation is my specialty in the safe opening business. I'm very good at it, but let me be first to tell you: I can't open every mechanically-locked safe by manipulation.

For various reasons, not all mechanical locks are good candidates. Some are specifically designed to resist manipulation. Others are in such poor condition that manipulation isn't practical or feasible.

Since manipulation training was first offered in the 1950s, thousands of safe technicians worldwide have learned the basics of the process, But just knowing it's feasible and how it's done doesn't automatically make a technician good at it. Of thousands who learn basics, only a small percentage practice and gain enough proficiency to apply it routinely and successfully in their day-to-day work. The majority of technicians content themselves with knowing the basics of how it's done.

So yes, manipulation is a real and viable process, and no, it's not always feasible.

Thus, it's not realistic to hire a safe technician to open a safe and stipulate that he or she must open that safe by manipulation. Not only do skilled manipulators get no guarantees the process will work, always keep in mind that it's the result (open safe) that is for sale in the first place, not the process.

Worth repeating:

When it comes to opening a safe, you're buying the result, not the process.

This is the opening method used by most safe technicians. Drilling into a strategic part of a safe's lock allows the technician to defeat the locking function.

To open a safe by drilling, the technician must know something about the specific lock used in the safe. Just drilling a hole any old place won't defeat a lock, A drilled hole must be placed precisely, and after a hole to the lock is made, the technician needs to know what to do next.

Also, when it comes to drilling, there's no secret "sweet spot" known only to the initiated and which will allow the driller to open any and all safes. Drilling locations (not to mention results) vary widely, and are dictated by a variety of circumstances.

Safe makers anticipate drilling attacks by placing drill-resistive barriers between the door front and the lock. Such barriers are intended to stop, slow, or complicate the drilling process. They require special drilling gear to penetrate.

As long as the hole(s) being drilled are knowledgeably placed, drilling doesn't ruin a safe. Locks and dials can be replaced. Holes drilled by safe technicians can be plugged securely.

An ignorant, careless, or poorly-equipped safe technician can do damage that makes a locked safe more difficult to open, or worse, impossible to repair efficiently. A common enough scenario is to get a job assignment to open a safe, arrive, and then find that "someone else" has already tried and failed to open the safe in a previous drilling attempt that was abandoned.

When that's the case, the opening price usually increases, especially if damage done in a previous unsuccessful opening attempt wasn't disclosed during the initial negotiations.

If you hire a safe opener who tries, fails, and leaves the safe damaged, be sure to disclose this fact when you contact whoever you're thinking of hiring next.

Ken Dunckel

Serving the San Francisco Bay Area Since 1979
Licensed and Insured


Popular posts from this blog

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

Safe Boobytraps: Tear Gas and Unknown Contents

Safe Combinations On File