Factors to Consider When Choosing a Scope

The right scope is key for safe opening or for wafer reading.

Safe Opening
Both types of scopes that I’ve covered above can be used in safe opening, but they have very limited usefulness in that arena. In general, safe opening procedures that involve a scope require you to drill a hole through the door and into the lock. Once you have a hole into the lock, the scope is then used to look into the lock and either dial open the lock, manipulate electronic components, or locate structures inside the safe or lock.

Two of the most important things you want to look for in a safe opening scope are the ability to see into thick doors and around corners. Obviously, both otoscopes and ophthalmoscopes would be of limited value for these jobs.

Generally, the type of scope preferred for this type of work is known as a “Borescope.” These tools generally have a lens and a light source on the end of a probe that can be inserted through a small hole into the safe. Once the tool is inside the safe, the user can hopefully see whatever needs to be seen to solve the problem through the other end of the tool.

Traditional borescopes have an eyepiece that the user looks directly into in order to view the interior of the safe. Some newer borescopes use a camera system to send the view from the scope to a video screen or laptop computer to enlarge the view and make dialing easier. Lens adaptors will allow the image produced by some traditional borescope to be displayed on a monitor as well.

In order to see into the works of the lock, you will often need to literally see around corners, so most borescopes come with a selection of angled mirrors. These mirrors are essentially tips that fit over the end of the probe. The angle of the view provided by the tips varies a lot from brand to brand, but generally ranges from 45 to 70 degrees and in some cases even as much as 110 degrees.

Most borescopes offer one of two types of probes, either rigid or flexible. Rigid probes usually offer better image quality than flexible probes but are more fragile in field use. The exceptions to that are the electronic scopes that use a tiny camera mounted on the end of a flexible cable. With most borescopes, the price you pay is directly related to the quality of the image that you’ll get. Other features such as size, convenience and accessories all figure into the price, but image quality is the top concern.

Image quality can be hard to define, and will vary according to how the tool is to be used, and the lighting conditions. Since most borescopes see around corners with mirrors, the image is often reversed, which is something that the user will have to take into consideration while using the tool. More expensive scopes offer a prism system to “correct” the image. In the end though, no matter how wonderful the optics may be, it all comes down to the quantity and quality of the light that is used to illuminate the field of view. You want the most light that you can get with the least amount of glare. And unlike hand-held scopes, most borescopes offer adjustable lighting as a standard feature.

Most borescopes use a light source that delivers the light to the end of the borescope by way of fiber-optic strands. From there, it has to illuminate the work area and then be reflected back into the lens. Only a fraction of the light that goes into the work area comes back to your eye in the form of an image, so more light is almost always better. This is especially true if the working area is a relatively open area where the light has to illuminate a large volume. An example of this would be when you’re drilling a safe from the back in an attempt to unlock the door by dialing open the lock using the change-key hole. Not only would you want a rigid probe, so that you could aim the tip exactly where you want it, but you will also need a lot of light since most of the light will go to waste inside the cabinet. On the other hand, if you have drilled directly into the lock and are looking directly at the wheel-pack, too much light will only make the job harder.

Today, the connection for the light source on most professional borescopes has been standardized in what is known as an “ACMI Fitting.” Scopes that use this system will accept a variety of different interchangeable light sources. The light source can vary from a modified flashlight to a full-blown fan-cooled powerhouse capable of illuminating a room. With one of these monsters, a huge amount of light is transmitted into the scope by way of a fiber-optic cable while the heat produced by the light itself is dissipated into the surrounding room, where it can’t hurt the delicate parts of the borescope.

Photo 3 shows the GRANDKITAF “Hawkeye” adjustable focus borescope kit from Lockmasters, Inc. This kit includes two scopes of different lengths (7” and 17”) as well as two modular light sources that are based on Mini-Maglights. A borescope with adjustable focus allows you to see what you are doing from just about any distance. (Scopes that do not have an adjustable focus must be moved in and out like a magnifying glass until the subject is in focus.)

Photo 4 shows the LKM2014KIT from Lockmasters, Inc. that has a 26” long probe and an 110VAC stand-alone illuminator. Scopes of this type are for serious safe and vault work and are priced accordingly. The view through one of these monsters is nothing short of stunning, since the illuminator is capable of pumping 150 watts of light through a hole only one quarter of an inch in diameter! If this is the kind of work you do, then a scope of this nature will pay for itself in short order.
Some borescopes have flexible probes that not only allow you to see into hidden areas, but are also much less fragile than traditional straight borescopes. But as with anything else, there is a trade-off involved; the flexible borescopes generally cannot deliver as much light to the field of view or produce as clear an image as the straight borescopes. However, with the recent advances in LED and fiber-optic technology, some of these flexible borescopes can do some amazing things without costing you an arm and a leg.

I once used a hand-held flexible borescope, like the LKM 112575 24” Flex-Scope shown in photo 5, while hanging 60 feet up in the air in a boson’s chair to help retrieve a wire that had slipped down inside the mast of a sailboat. That scope probably saved us a couple of thousand dollars that it would have cost to haul the boat out of the water and remove the mast. While that is not a usage that most locksmiths would run into, I hope you get the idea of how versatile and handy the ability to see into inaccessible places can sometimes be.

Now that the cost of digital cameras has fallen, and the quality of miniature electronics has increased, there are some neat new electronic flexible borescopes on the market. The LKM6100 V4 electronic borescope, shown in photo 6, is one example. It features a built-in 3.5” LCD screen and a probe that is only 5.5mm in diameter. The built-in light source can pump a variable amount of light into the scene using tiny LEDs that surround the camera lens on the end of the probe. The V4 works a lot like a digital camera, with a built-in memory plus a card slot that accepts SD cards. If you see an image on the screen that you want to save, all you have to do is press a button!

Car Opening Scopes?
Being in the car-opening business, this is one of the questions that I’ve been bombarded with for years. Ever since I ran an ad comparing my car-opening videos to having x-ray vision, people have been either asking me to suggest a scope for car-opening, or suggesting scopes for me to try for car opening. The sad truth is that even the amazing scopes of today just don’t work for car opening, and I should know because I’ve certainly tried.

In theory, a scope like the V4 should be able to show you anything you want to see inside the door. But in practice, it’s just not a very useful solution. Even with today’s tiny probes, you still have to wedge a significant gap between the glass and the weather stripping in order to insert the probe. And, once you get the probe inside the door, you really have no way of steering it so that you can see particular targets inside the door. Another problem is that once the tip of the probe is inside the door cavity, the light spreads out so much that you either have to pump huge amounts of light into the door, or get the tip of the probe close to what you are trying to see.

Photo 7 shows a 12VDC flexible borescope that I paid $1400 for at one time to try to see inside of car doors. This little beauty uses a freestanding illuminator that can light up a ballpark, but it will also drain a car battery in short order. Over the years, I’ve done my best to get my investment back on this tool, but car opening is just not the way to do it. Scopes in general are just too expensive and fragile to use for such mundane jobs. And to add insult to injury, on many modern cars with cable linkages, there is nothing worth looking at inside the doors anyway.

All of this doesn’t mean that borescopes are useless for automotive locksmiths. They can be really handy when you are fighting a disconnected linkage or some other problem inside the door as long as you can roll the window down. I use my flex-scope regularly to check out the inside of new car doors before I pull the panel, but I always do it with the window down. This allows you to get the probe into the door without a lot of stress and you can usually use a second tool or a bit of fishing line to steer the tip of the tool where it needs to go.

In short, the scopes on the market today are incredible when compared to those available just a few years ago. But, before you open your wallet, make sure that you know exactly what you want to use your new scope for, and make sure that the scope you buy has the features you need. And as with any other investment of this nature, beware of buying from distributors who cannot give you tech support, or who only do business over the Internet. Remember, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Scope sources are:
Lockmasters, Inc., 2101 John C. Watts Dr., Nicholasville, KY 40356. (800) 654-0637. www.lockmasters.com
MDS (Medical Diagnostic Services, Inc.), PO Box 1441, Brandon, FL 33509. (800) 435-9352. www.mdsincorporated.com
Mark Bates Associates, 200 Orchard Drive, Nicholasville, KY 40356. (888) 622-5495. www.mbausa.com     

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