Electronic Scopes: More Than Toys

Dec. 3, 2009
Wafer lock reading is one of the jobs made easier by electronic scopes.

No matter how hard I try, I don’t seem to be able to stop the aging process. In my mind, I’m still 18 and can do anything; unfortunately I’m stuck in a 57-year-old body that has more limitations every day. One of the most aggravating limitations that I’m coping with is my vision. When I was in my 20s, I had perfect vision and I could make keys by impression all day long without having to use anything to help my eyesight. Now I need contact lenses, a magnifying visor, and a lot of light. Even reading code numbers is getting more difficult. Of course, the dot-matrix codes don’t help any either.

Wafer lock reading is an aspect of automotive locksmithing that I didn’t really appreciate until I was in my 40s. As the impressioning marks got more difficult to see, I realized that I could often get the same information by using a scope to read the wafers inside the lock. Soon, I was carrying a fairly pricey medical scope around with me to decode door locks. In the mid-1990s, Strattec started stamping the depths on the wafers of VATS ignition locks and some of the Ford 8-cut locks, and I soon found another use for my scope.

At first, the biggest problem I had with the scopes was the price, but LED technology has reduced the price of the hand-held scopes while improving the light output at the same time. Now I own two hand-held scopes, (photo 1) one that stays in the shop and one that lives in the truck. The more I use the scopes, the more I love them.

About a year ago, Lockmasters started carrying a relatively inexpensive (as borescopes go) electronic scope, the V4 scope, (photo 2) that piqued my curiosity. My first thoughts were that I might be able to use it in my annual car opening research to check out the inside of doors without having to pull the door panel. As it turned out, the tool did give me a better understanding of what was in the door, but I soon discovered that there was no substitute for getting my hands inside the door.

Please understand that I am not talking about using this scope for actual car opening. Trying to get this scope inside a door with the window up would be hard enough, but aiming it where you want it to go with the window up is virtually impossible. When I use this scope on a car door, I’m doing it with the window down and the weatherstripping pulled aside so that I have the maximum amount of room in which to work.

The V4 scope incorporates a flexible camera probe with an integrated light source into what is essentially a digital camera. You can see the full-color output of the probe in real-time on the built-in screen, and you can also capture the image or a video on a removable SD (Secure Digital) card, just as on most digital cameras. I can essentially “freeze” the image and then move the scope to where I may have better lighting, or be more comfortable to examine the image.

If I need to, I can even transfer the image to my computer and blow up or enhance the image by using various imaging software packages. With a little fiddling, I’ve even mounted a probe on the end of the scope with cable ties (photo 3) so that I can manipulate the tumblers inside the lock while watching the image on the screen. Unfortunately, this usually requires three hands: one to hold the handle portion of the scope, one to manipulate the probe and another to hold the end of the probe in place against the lock. An assistant is a huge help.

I’ve also used this scope for odd jobs around the house, the boat and the office, usually while running wires through tight spaces. Once I took the scope to the top of a sailboat mast, 60 feet in the air and used it to help snag a wire that had slipped out of reach inside the mast. Having the mast “stepped” (removed and replaced) would have cost a lot more than the cost of the scope, and the owner was extremely pleased.

Of course the typical uses for a scope like this are for safe work, but I have done very little safe work for the last decade. At one time, I was the base locksmith at the Naval Air Station Pensacola, and almost all I did was safe work and I know I would have loved to have had a scope like this at that time. I’ve loaned the scope to a friend who does bank equipment work and after he tried it once, he decided to get his company to buy one for him. He particularly liked the optional angled mirror adapters that allow you to see objects at 70, 90 and 120 degrees from the shaft of the scope.

One of the basic problems or benefits of electronic devices, depending on your point of view, is that if you wait a while, the quality will go up and the price will go down. This also seems to be true of the new breed of electronic scopes as well. The new EZ Scope from Lockmasters, Inc. (photo 4) is a perfect example. Introduced recently, the EZ Scope provides most of the features of the V4 scope, without the ability to capture the image, and with a smaller display screen.

Outside of the price, the thing I liked the best about the EZ Scope was the probe itself. The probe on the EZ Scope incorporates an articulating sleeve that you can shape as you need it. Compared to the probe on the EZ Scope, the probe on the V4 scope is very limber and hard to aim inside an open area like the inside of a car door.

Both scopes provide a lot of function for the money spent, and I keep finding new ways to use them. The ability to record an image with the V4 scope is something that I personally like, but for many technicians, I can see where this feature would not be that important. The one thing that I did not like about the EZ Scope was that it did not produce as much light from the probe as the V4 scope, but the image pick-up apparently does not need as much light. In a side-by-side comparison, the light coming from the probe on the V4 was obviously brighter that on the EZ Scope, but the images on the screens were nearly identical.

I took the remainder of the photos with the V4 scope to show the kind of images that it can capture.

Photos 5A and 5B show a typical view that you would see while drilling and unlocking a safe equipped with a three-wheel lock.

Photos 6A and 6B show the numbers stamped on a VATS ignition lock. By pulling the tumblers down with a probe as in 6B, you can the next tumbler in line.

Photos 7A and 7B show essentially the same thing but on a Ford 8-cut ignition. Generally you can read the depths off of one side of the keyway but not the other because the wafers face in opposite directions.

Photo 8 shows a view inside a Chrysler door lock. With practice, you can read the depths of the cuts just by observing where the wafer sits in relation to the ward inside the lock.

Photos 9A and 9B show the inside of a Nissan 300ZX door. Photo 9A is a shot of the lock and 9B is the bellcrank that is attached to the inside lock control cable. Pushing down on the bellcrank unlocks the door.

Both scopes include nice cases to protect your investment, and provide you with capabilities that were unheard of just a few years ago. In this tight economy, I know that we all want to get the most from any investment we make in our business, but anything that saves time in the field will also increase your bottom line. If you are seriously interested in an electronic scope, I urge you to attend a trade show or visit your dealer to try these scopes out for yourself. Just try to resist the urge to look inside your own ear. Trust me, it isn’t pretty.