One of the most common questions that I get from new locksmiths is, “What tools should I buy?” That has always been a difficult question. Since I have been in the business of selling tools for over 20 years, one might expect me to have a list of my own tools ready to offer to anyone who asks, but in my opinion that sort of thing is called a catalog. I’ve always been hesitant to push my own products. (I guess it was all the years I spent hanging round with Bill Reed.) I want my products to stand or fall on their own merits, and I’d much rather have the respect of my customers than a few bucks. And, as an old friend of mine once said, “You can shear a sheep many times, but you can only skin him once.”
As a result, I try to point people toward the tools that I think will do the best job, without bias toward my own products. When there are several tools out there that will do the same job, I try to give people the information that they need to make the choice that is right for them. This seems to have worked well for me through the years, judging from the number of friends I’ve gathered versus the enemies I’ve made.
Recently, I was asked to put together a list of tools that I felt were “Essential Tools.” The job was much harder than I had expected at first, but this article is the result. I’ve broken the list down into three categories: Automotive tools, Residential & Commercial tools, and Safe & Vault tools. I could have listed dozens of tools in each category, but in order keep things simple, I’ve limited myself to sort of a top 10 in each category.
Lots of other tools may be more important to actually getting the job done, but these tools were chosen as those that give you the most “bang for the buck.” Also, I didn’t bother to list the standard hand tools or the more exotic tools that would require a lot of discussion. I also avoided the subject of transponder programming tools since that topic would require an entire article by itself. So please accept this list as a place to start, rather than as a destination.
A good hand-held scope – In the automotive field, we tend to work in tight spaces with tiny parts. No matter how good your eyes are, there will be things that simply cannot be seen without a good scope. I own several different scopes and keep one in the truck and one in the shop at all times. I started out with an honest to goodness medical otoscope designed to look into a patient’s ear. This tool was expensive, fragile and very limited, but at the time it was the best that I could find. Now, there are dozens of reasonably priced scopes on the market that use LED technology to put more light into a smaller space, and most of these tools come with removable probes for manipulating tumblers inside the lock as you work.
My favorite scope is the 3 in 1 scope offered by Lockmasters and other distributors. This tool is reasonably priced, versatile, and well built. There are lots of similar scopes on the market as well, sold under a variety of different names, but in the end they are pretty much the same. The thing to watch out for is plastic parts that may not hold up, and a good warranty.
The JMA TRS-5000 Cloner – This tool is not used for programming, and it is just too handy to leave out. The JMA machine will clone all of the standard cloneable keys plus the “electronic keys” that are out there just like any of the dozen or so other cloners available. What makes this cloner different is that JMA also offers proprietary keys that no one else has available yet, and this machine is the first one on the market that will work with these keys. If you need the ability to clone keys that other machines cannot clone, the JMA machine is really the only choice at present. Of course, in this business things change rapidly, and I understand that several other manufacturers will soon be introducing similar machines; perhaps before this article is published. But at this time, the JMA TRS-5000 is the only one I would buy.
John Blankenship Motorcycle Books – This seven-volume set is the best source for motorcycle information that you can get – period. I’m constantly amazed at the wealth of information that Blankenship has put together. The photography is excellent and the photos are done in close-up high resolution so you can see exactly what you need to see. The indexes in the books are well laid out and it only takes a moment to find what you are looking for. Each book is also available on disc in the PDF format so you can load it onto your computer or mobile device. I always stayed away from motorcycle work until I got these books; now I’m ready to tackle almost anything on two wheels!
The Framon IMMS001 Impressioning Tool – My old friend Frank Agius designed this tool specifically for Hank Spicer. Both of those guys were masters at their trade. Hank was a master at impressioning, and Frank was a master machinist. The Framon impressioning tool is simply the best tool of its type available. Sure, Vise-Grips™ work okay, but the Framon tool works a lot better, and it’s not made in China. (Yes, the Irwin tool company moved their production of Vise-Grip™ tools from Nebraska to China last year. It breaks my heart.)
Ford 10-Cut and 8-Cut Ignition Breakers– There are actually several different breakers out there for the different locks. I keep a breaker for the 10-cut, 8-cut sidebar, 8-cut non-sidebar, and the old Focus ignitions in my tool kit at all times. There are plenty of times when the most efficient way of solving a problem with a failed Ford ignition lock is to simply break the thing and replace it. This is especially true if speed is important, and since I find myself doing more and more work for auto auctions, I just don’t have time to waste on these relatively inexpensive locks. There are several different breakers out there for these locks and as far as I know, all of them work pretty well. Here are the four different breaker tools that I use:
Ford 10-cut ignitions – the “Sure Shot Bypass Key” part number 78
Ford 8-cut sidebar ignitions – the Aable 8-wafer Ignition Force Tool, part number F8FT01 (This tool will also allow you to drill a small hole and pick the lock if that is what you need to do.)
Ford 8-cut non-sidebar ignitions – the Aable “Ford 8 No Sidebar Force Tool” (The name of the tool is also the part number)
Focus Ignition (Huf locks only) - the “Focus Buster” tool part number LKM1126
The Gator Tool – The Gator Tool allows you to remove and replace the face caps on many automotive door and deck locks with no visible damage to the face cap after the lock has been re-installed on the vehicle. This is one clever tool and it is extremely well made. I only use it on vehicles where I either do not have a replacement face cap or no face cap is available. This tool can really get you out of a jam! I used it recently on an older Volvo, which apparently had a stainless steel face cap. Someone had deliberately broken off a key from some other car in the lock and I was unable to remove the twisted piece of key without disassembling the lock. If I had not had the tool, I probably would have had to order a replacement lock from Volvo. But with the Gator Tool, I had the problem solved in under an hour. One word of caution about the Gator Tool: If you get one, be sure to practice with it first on some old locks. I will absolutely guarantee that you will scratch the first couple of face caps you try to put back on until you get the hang of using the tool.
Tech-Train VATS Interrogator – This is the only full-featured interrogator on the market that offers a five-year warranty. Yes, this is one of my tools, and it has been out of production for a few years. Used ones were selling for several hundred dollars on the auction sites until Lockmasters, Inc. put it back into production last year. The revised version is almost identical to the original with two exceptions. The toggle switch was replaced with a rocker switch to make it more damage resistant, and the coiled cord was replaced with a non-coiled cord for better durability. This interrogator allows you to read both single and double-sided VATS keys, interrogate the vehicle by either hooking up under the dash or through the ignition lock. It also allows you to test the lock for bad contacts and / or broken wires without removing the lock from the column. Included with each Tech-Train Interrogator is my “VATS Made Simple” DVD, and the TT4002 VATS ByPass adaptor.
Face Cap Removal Pliers – these are also known as “Cap Ripper Pliers” and they are available from almost any distributor. They are manufactured by Channellock Tools and the part number is 748. You may also find them distributed by “Lock Technology” under the part number LT450 at many distributors. Regardless of where you get them, they are invaluable for quickly and cleaning removing replaceable face caps.
The Determinator – These tools are custom made by “Determinator Tom” and they can really save you a lot of time on a variety of jobs. They are essentially impressioning aids that help you make a key quickly by determining which cuts on the key are high or low. Once you learn how to use the tools, you should be able to make a working door key in less than five minutes for most vehicles. There are over forty different Determinator sets available now and new sets are added as new vehicle lock systems are introduced. You can buy just the sets you think you’ll need or the entire assortment. The prices are reasonable and with practice, the tools will make your job a lot easier.
Adams Rite Tool – The LKM237 from Lockmasters, Inc. takes advantage of a weakness in some of the most popular lock systems used on aluminum frame glass doors. The hooked end of the tool can be inserted into the latch and used to operate the same mechanism that the key uses to unlock the door. This tool is a real time saver when you can use it, especially on double doors. If a latch guard is in place, or the door fits too tightly, the tool cannot be used. But, on some single doors without a latch guard, you can use an air wedge to spread the gap far enough to use the tool. I also use this tool as a method of selling latch guards. After the owner has seen how quickly you can unlock the door with this tool, they will usually want you to install a latch guard before you leave.
HPC Hollow Follower Set – This is a very handy set of followers that takes up almost no room in the truck or toolbox. I have had and lost more followers in the last 30 years than I care to think about. The darn things seem to roll away on errands of their own with absolutely no notice. With this hollow follower set, I have a full set of followers, including one for those weird “peanut” cylinders I still run into occasionally, tucked inside my tool box. When I worked for the Navy, parking on base was often far from where I needed to be, and by carrying this set of followers and a LAB Mini Kit (LMK003) in my toolbox, I was often able to do the job without having to go back to the truck.
Ace Breaker – This clever tool, the ABK-01 from Aable, makes short work of almost any tubular lock. You can usually open a tubular lock in less than a minute with this tool, if you are willing to destroy the lock. I’ve drilled tubular locks by hand and used hole saws to cut the pins, but this tool makes the job very simple and straightforward. The set has three major components: a breaker tool to remove the hardened center post (if there is one), a drill guide, and a drill bit that is just the right size.
AK-U-Temp Installation Templates – These sturdy templates solve a lot of problems. In my early days as a locksmith, I installed a boatload of deadbolts and I wish that I had one of these back then. They are light weight, durable, and inexpensive, and if you use them correctly, you’ll never drill a hole in the wrong place. I’m a big fan of simplicity and these things are about as simple as you can get, and they do a great job.
Hinge Doctor Kit – These are very cleverly designed tools for adjusting worn or sagging hinges. As an institutional locksmith, when I was working for the Navy, I spent a lot of time trying to keep overworked and abused hinges doing their job under tough conditions. If I had been able to use the Hinge Doctor back then, I would have been a very happy man. Four Hinge Doctor tools can be purchased individually or in a set. They are:
The HA1, for commercial hinges
The HA2, for residential hinges
The HA4, for large ball-bearing hinges
The HA4, for institutional style hinges
Kwikset knoblock cylinder removal tool – This simple tool (Kwikset Part number 80152) is almost impossible to live without if you have to work on Kwikset locks. I know that this may seem silly to some of you, but I have spoken to more than one newbie who was utterly baffled trying to remove the cylinder from a Kwikset knoblock. These tools are just too essential to live without, and they are so cheap you can afford to have one on every workbench and in every toolbox. If you don’t have one get one!
Mortise Cylinder Tap & Die Set – This is another very basic tool that many beginners fail to appreciate until they need one. With a cylinder tap and die set, you can clean up damaged threads on lock cylinders and on door locks. This kind of damage happens when would-be thieves use a brute force attack, or a “Mr. Fixit” type gets carried away trying to save money by not using your services. These sets are not cheap, but there is simply nothing else out there that will do the job.
X-Out Damaged Screw Removal Sets – These tools allow you to remove damaged screws quickly and easily with a cordless drill. They are great for breaking loose damaged Philips head screws without damaging whatever the screw is securing. They also work well on many of the so called “tamper-proof” screws that we run into all the time. They are available from Sears and the “Big box” stores as well as many locksmith distributors.
LAB Cylinder Cap Removal Tool – This is another essential tool that I hope you already have. This tool is used to remove the cylinder end caps from Schlage, Weiser, and many imported locks. It is a hollow double-ended tool that can slip over the tail-shaft of most deadbolt locks to remove the end cap while simultaneously depressing the locking pin that holds it in place. This is another tool that is just too useful and too inexpensive to live without.
Wedgeco 3000 Broken Key Extractor Set – This simple set of broken key extraction tools contains all that you need to deal with the most stubborn broken keys. The kit includes several spiral key extractors that can be inserted into the keyway and wormed into place so that you can pull the broken piece of key out. But, the really clever part of this set is the special spreader pliers that are designed to hold the wafers out of the way on double-sided locks. These pliers are spring-loaded into the open position and have very narrow tips that will slide deep into most keyways. Understand though that the pliers are designed more to spread the tumblers apart that to pull the key out. If you put too much force on the narrow tips you will damage a very useful tool.
SAFES AND VAULTS
The Spikemaster II– This tool allows you to unlock a variety of electronic safe locks with little or no drilling. My locksmith friends who work on electronic safelocks all agree that one of the most useful tools you can have for electronic locks that have been attacked, or have failed, is the Spikemaster II from Mike Yarberry and Lockmasters, Inc. This tool set works through the spindle hole, so drilling is usually eliminated. The kit includes probes for the most common locks, as well as a well made DVD that shows you how to use each component of the kit. And as new locks are introduced, or new methods developed, the kit is updated.
Safe Deposit Nose / Door Puller kit – These are available from a variety of sources including HPC and Lockmasters, Inc. You can buy them one component at a time or as complete kits that do everything. You absolutely cannot do serious safe deposit work without the ability to pull noses and / or doors. In my opinion, smaller is better for both nose pullers and door pullers. You will have a lot of trouble using the larger units on small doors or on doors that are on the edge of the nest. Door pullers also need to have an effective way to spread out the force that is used, either to several doors or preferably the frame of the nest. You never want to hear that gut-wrenching crunch as an adjacent door is crushed while the door you were trying to pull hasn’t budged. I did a series of Safe Deposit DVDs a while back and Lockmasters, Inc. offers their “Neutralization Kit either with or without these DVDs. If you are new to safe deposit work, or plan to train new employees, I strongly recommend these DVDs.
Dead-Blow Hammer – Without a doubt this is the one tool that I have used to open more safes than any other. When a mechanical lock hangs up, or a piece of debris is trapped between the bolt and the frame of the safe, there is no better tool to apply the shock you need without damaging the door. Dead-blow hammers use lead or steel shot contained inside the head to apply a shocking blow without the bounce-back that you would get from a traditional hammer. In addition, the outside of the hammer head is usually coated with a rubber or plastic coating so that you minimize damage to the painted surfaces of the safe. You can get a good dead-blow hammer from a variety of sources including Sears, Harbor freight and most locksmith distributors. They also come in a variety of sizes and weights, for different jobs.
The Diebold 175-70 pick from Lock Defeat Technology – This tool was designed by Phil Shearer, and it works so well that some banks won’t let you use it. With this tool you can almost always pick open a Diebold 175-70 lock with no damage at all. Unfortunately, some banks don’t want their customers to know that the lock on their safe deposit locks can be picked at all. So, even though this pick can do the job in seconds without damage, you may still have to pull the door in a lot of cases. But if the bank will let you use the tool, you can be in and out quickly and cleanly. The only caution that I have is that you need to know exactly what you are doing when you attempt to use the tool. Read the instructions carefully and practice on a lock in a vise before you attempt to use the tool in the field. The tool is a rugged, quality built tool, but it is not idiot-proof. About the only way that you can damage the tip of the tool is through carelessness or misuse. If you do manage to damage the tip, expect to pay for your error.
Diebold Change tool – This is a factory tool that is manufactured by Diebold (part number 509) and sold by most safe and vault distributors. The tool includes a clutch so that you will never strip out a change screw. Sure, you can use makeshift tools to do the same job, but why would you want to? This tool works on the Diebold 175-70 locks and the Ilco 5400 series locks and will cost you less than the one lock that you will inevitably mess up by over-tightening the change screw.
Keedex Change Key Set – There is no more aggravating feeling than to spend half an hour find a parking space, then after locating the custodian of the safe, you discover that the change key you need is back in your truck! The Keedex change key sets keep all of the change keys that you’re likely to need in one easy to used tool. It sure beats a bunch of loose change keys in a key blank box!
ITL2000II™ Auto Dialer from Intralock – Think of this tool as a robot technician that never gets tired or bored. You can set this gadget up in a matter of minutes, turn it on and come back the next day and it will have dialed all of the 1 million possible combinations on a traditional three-wheel lock. If you know even one number of the combination you can shorten the time required to find the combination to less than an hour. It even has an adjustable speed setting for dealing with locks that have loose or unlocked wheels. This is like having a hard working helper that will never ask for a raise or even a paycheck! If you are serious about safe work you need one of these, even if it is only to demonstrate to your customers why they need to upgrade to electronic locks.
Roll-A-Lift set – This is the solution for moving almost any safe that you may need to move. I’ve had access to one of these sets for about 20 years, and would never want to try to move a safe without it. They are essentially a set of two heavy-duty hand trucks with hydraulic lifts that you can strap onto the safe. I’ve moved supermarket safes, cannonball safes, and many gun safes by myself with one of these. Once I even moved a wrecked car that only had three wheels with this. After you get it into position and tighten the straps, you just pump up the two hydraulic jacks and you’re ready to go. You can get them with steel wheels or rubber coated steel wheels that won’t mar most flooring. If you need to move safes on a regular basis you need one of these.
A quality drill rig – There are many different makes on the market, and no one rig is ever going to be able to deal with every circumstance. Versatility is the key. After all, a rig that is secured by chains wrapped around the safe will have a hard time on a safe that is mounted in a wall or in the floor. Magnetic drill rigs are hard to use on floor safes, and simply will not hold on some fire safes that have a thin outer skin over the cladding. When you choose a drill rig, choose wisely and shop around. In my opinion, the most important feature on any rig that mounts to the safe, is the ability to either remove the drill, or move it out of the way, and then put it back exactly where it was with a minimum of effort. If you have to re-mount the rig every time you want to take a close look into your hole, you’ll soon be looking for a different rig.
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