Essential Tools for the Automotive Locksmith

Feb. 1, 2009
You need a computer, key code software, hand tools, key machines and transponder machines.

“What tools do I need to buy in order to be successful as an automotive locksmith?” This is such a common question at trade shows and training events that I have compiled a list of tools that I consider essential.

In 1973 when I first became a locksmith, the essential automotive tools were basically an impressioning file and a pair of Vise-Grips™. Today, my van is packed with all kinds of specialty tools; electronic tools, a computer, and lots of reference material. I’m sure that if you asked 100 automotive locksmiths to make a list like this, you would get 100 different lists. But I’d also wager that a lot of these things would be on most of the lists. So, take my suggestions for what they are – suggestions. This is the stuff that works for me in my area, but if something else works better for you, then that’s great.

The first thing that a new automotive locksmith will need is information - information on bitting, key blanks, code locations, and much more in order to originate keys. The volume of data can be easily overwhelming. Trying to carry that much information around the old-fashioned way in books and magazines will quickly fill your truck and drive you crazy. The solution is to buy a quality portable computer, and fill it with software that will help you find the information that you need. That doesn’t mean that you won’t still be carrying around some books, but by keeping as much info as possible on your computer, you’ll reduce the clutter and be able to find what you need faster.

A lot of folks just starting out try to cut some corners in the computer department by buying a used laptop. As a rule, a used laptop has very little value. You can usually pick them up on the cheap, but if you go this route, make sure that you get one that will do the job. I personally am using a three year old Sony VAIO.

Here are a few things that I would look for in a new computer:
Get a Windows™ machine. There is very little in the world of locksmithing that will run on a Mac, unless you set it up to run Windows™ as well as the Mac operating system (OS) by way of the “Bootcamp™” system. By the time you do all of that, you’ve pretty much tossed “cheap” out the window.

I prefer a laptop running Windows XP™ rather than Vista™, but those are getting harder to find, and Vista™ is getting better. I suspect that I’ll make the transition to Vista™ some time next year myself.

If you go with a used laptop, try to find one with a 9-pin serial port. These are getting harder to find and even though there are USB to serial adapters, a true serial port can be a huge advantage with some of the equipment that you may want to attach to your laptop.

Get the fastest machine you can afford, along with the largest hard drive you can afford. There is no substitute for speed, but you can augment a small hard drive with any one of a number of small plug-in drives that are powered by the USB port.

If you don’t know much about computers, most communities have night classes available, and I would recommend you take one. In today’s world, the computer in your van is probably the most important tool you’ll carry with you, and you owe it to your customers and yourself to know how to use it.

Now that you have the computer, you’ll need software. Probably the most basic and most used tool in your software library will be your code software. At one time, code software did just what the name implies – looked up codes. But today, code software has morphed into a multi-function tool that provides a lot more information. Most modern code software will also provide you with spacing and depth information, code cards, cam and carriage information, and other machine-specific information for whatever code machine you use. The more advanced code software will also help you in other ways by providing information on:

—Transponder systems
—Key blank cross reference information
—Fill-in programs that will help you progress a key when you only know part of the bitting
—Vehicle specific look-up capabilities
—Bitting information

What the finished key will look like
I use the Genericode software, which has all of these features. Photo 4 shows a typical look-up screen that displays the code and key cutting information in an easy-to- follow format. In addition, Genericode will interface with most automated key machines, so that after you have looked up the code, all you have to do is push a button to cut the key, assuming that you have an automated machine.

Several other systems provide similar capabilities. I also like the InstaCode software and its clone Kreate-A-Key that is marketed by Ilco, as well as the Blackhawk software. Here are a couple of commercially available software packages that I have found useful.

Autotel, which is produced by Auto Security Products (ASP), has a wealth of information on most domestic and imported vehicles. It provides part numbers, application data and a lot more for a reasonable price. Photo 5 shows a typical look-up screen from Autotel.
John Blankenship has produced a wonderful six-volume “Guide to Motorcycles” that is available in printed form or in a pfd format that you can load onto your computer. If you work on motorcycles, this information is priceless. Photo 6 shows a typical page from one of John Blankenship’s books as seen on my computer.

In addition to code software, I also use several other software packages in the course of an average day. A lot of that software is free and available in the “.pdf” format (Portable Document Format), but you will also need the Adobe Acrobat™ reader software, which if it is not already installed on your computer, can be downloaded for free. Below is a list of some of the free software that I use on a regular basis.
Ilco “Auto Truck Key Blank Reference Guide.” This is the pdf version of the printed book. This information is updated annually and can be downloaded from the web. Because it is provided by Ilco for free, it is a form of advertising, so don’t expect to find much in here about products that Ilco does not manufacture.

STRATTEC Part Search software. This is another free application that is provided by one of the leading automobile lock and key manufacturers. Once again, don’t expect to find stuff here on products that STRATTEC doesn’t make, but they make a LOT of stuff.
Auto Security Products has a catalog with photos of their products in the pdf format on their website that is designed to be used over the web, but you can also download it to your computer for use when you are in the field without an Internet connection.

For automotive locksmithing, you’ll need a basic set of hand tools, in addition to the impressioning file and Vise-Grips™ mentioned earlier. I carry two sets of Torx® screwdrivers; one with individual drivers and another with all of the common sizes in one fold-up set. I use the fold-up set for convenience, but often you will find that you will need a longer shaft and there is no substitute for the individual drivers. I also use two sets of fold-up Allen wrenches, one metric and one SAE, for convenience, but keep a set of long individual Allen wrenches in the truck for when I really need them.

I also consider a set of both metric and SAE nut-drivers as essential tools for automotive work. I keep tools like the nut-drivers and Torx® drivers in roll-up cases like the ones shown in photo 8 out of self defense. I’ve learned through the years that if I don’t organize tools like these, I will not be able to find them when I need them. Or worse yet, I’ll leave them behind on jobs one by one until I have to buy a new set. The cases let me see at a glance if I have put all of the tools back in place before I roll up the case. These cases came from Duluth Trading Company, but there are other vendors as well as Harbor Freight who sell a variety of compact tool organizers.

As far as specialty hand tools go, there are a few that I would never be without. A door panel clip tool like the one shown in photo 9 makes door panel work a lot easier, plus it makes a dandy sliding glass door opening tool.

I always carry a set of security bits along with a driver to use with them. I found this small ratchet set at Lowes and cannot believe how handy it has turned out to be for getting into tight spaces.

The 2-in-1 wedge from A-1 tools is another favorite tool of mine. I seldom use it to pop upholstery clips, but it’s wonderful for holding the door panel away from the door while you reach inside with your hand or with another tool.

The steering wheel kit from Matco Tools has everything I need for steering column work. Plus, the case helps me keep track of all my tools. Similar kits are also available from Snap-On, and Mac Tools.

And of course no automotive locksmith should be without an oops kit - part of mine is shown in photo 13. Door panel clips will inevitably get broken or lost, so I carry an assortment of replacements as well as super-glue and industrial strength contact cement. I’ve found the “Welder” brand of contact cement to be great. I’ve also found that a lot of the materials used in modern door panels simply shrug off super-glue.

What kind of key machine you put in your van will depend largely on how much you have to spend. If you are just starting out, I’d recommend staying away from a high dollar automated machine until you build your business to the point where you actually need one. I’ve been using the Framon #2 manual code machine shown in photo 14 for over a decade and it has never let me down. As far as I’m concerned this machine is bullet-proof. There are other manual machines out there that also do a good job, such as the HPC 1200 or the Ilco Universal II.

My high-security machine is also a Framon machine. Photo 15 shows my old Framon Sidewinder, which looks a lot different from the current version of the machine shown in photo 16. I love both machines, but since my old one is still going strong, I’m keeping it until it dies.

Someday I hope to upgrade to a Framon 2001 shown in photo 17, but since I don’t do the volume of work a lot of other locksmiths do in the field, I just can’t justify the expense right now. But, if I ever quit writing and making videos to go back to full-time locksmithing, I’d have one in my truck in a dirt road second.

This is the part of the article that I’m going to get the most static about. Remember, these are suggestions based on my personal experience, not a sales pitch. Basically there are only two manufacturers making multi-vehicle transponder machines in the North American locksmith market: Advanced Diagnostics and Silca. Let’s take a minute to look at the tools offered by each.

Based in the UK, Advanced Diagnostics (AD) has a long track record of producing specialty tools for the automotive market. They have been around since before transponders and they make a lot of automotive tools that locksmiths have generally never heard of nor will they ever need. The tools that locksmiths do use are sold under several different names, even though they are all manufactured by AD. Some of the names you may be familiar with are: T-Code (photo 18), T-Code Pro (photo 19), Codeseeker, MVP (photo 20) and MVP-Pro.

The AD tools fall into two basic categories, traditional tools that use periodically updated software that must be purchased, and tools that use “Tokens” which are used up each time the tool is used. If you purchase a T-Code or a T-Code Pro, you can theoretically use the machine as much as you like without incurring any new cost, unless you want to add software for new vehicles that are introduced. If you buy an MVP or an MVP-Pro, the cost is considerably lower than for a T-Code or T-Code Pro, but every time you used the machine you would use up a token. Replacement tokens are purchased over the Internet as needed, and the cost depends on the quantity of tokens you purchase.

For the T-Code and the T-Code Pro, periodic software upgrades are released to keep the tools current for the new vehicles. The process of developing and releasing new software never stops and there is no end in sight. Some of the latest software updates will work on both the T-Code and on the newer T-Code Pro. However, many of the newer vehicles can only be programmed with the newer T-Code Pro, because the software for those vehicles will not operate on the older T-Code.

NOTE: A while back, AD discontinued the T-Code and replaced it with the T-Code Pro, allowing owners to trade in their old tools. A similar process is now going on with the MVP and the MVP-Pro with various incentives for users to trade up to the new equipment. I have included the older machines in this article because there are still lots of them out in the field and they are constantly being bought and sold as used tools.
Silca is based in Italy and their tools are sold mostly through Ilco distributors here in North America. There are only two Silca tools, the SDD (Silca Diagnostic Device) shown in photo 21 and the TKO (Transponder Key Originator) shown in photo 22. The SDD was the original Silca tool and as time went by a multitude of adaptors and cables were introduced in order to handle the newer vehicles. The TKO was introduced almost two years ago as a replacement for the aging SDD. All of the functions of the various adaptors and cables were incorporated into the TKO so that only one cable was needed. A trade-in program was offered to those who wanted to trade in their old SDD tools on a new TKO, and many owners did so.

Just as with the AD tools, periodic software updates were necessary to keep up with the new vehicles. The major difference though is that so far, all of the updates continue to be compatible with the older SDD tool.

What vehicles can and cannot be programmed with these tools? If I included a list of all the vehicles that each machine could program here in this article, it would be obsolete by the time the article was printed. It’s just easier to say that at any give time there are vehicles out there that one machine can program and the other one can’t, but this is constantly changing. The two manufacturers are constantly working to out-do one another. This is great for us in the field because the competition keeps the market up to date and helps to keep the costs down. In the end though, no matter which machine you buy, there will always be brand new cars out there that you will not be able to program until the software is introduced.

I’ve had an SDD for a long time and plan to keep it as long as possible. So far, I’ve done well with the machine, and since I paid it off years ago, all I’m getting from it now is profit. Someday, I’m sure that I’ll need to upgrade, but so far I’m thrilled that Silca is keeping their software updates “backwards compatible” so my elderly SDD (shown in Photo 21) can keep on working.

I’ve also positive experiences with the various AD tools. They are both tools that are designed to do a job. As long as I get the job done profitably, I’m a happy man. I see no need to be fanatical about one tool or the other. They both work and I’m happy with my choice. I hope you’ll also be happy with your choice.

Regardless of what machine you buy, look into the tech support that is offered for your machine. Some distributors simply sell the machines and have no experience in actually using the machine. Others offer extensive support after the sale. I can assure you that if you are just getting started in transponder work, you will be calling tech-support occasionally until you get the hang of using the machines.

I could go on quite a bit more here about cloning machines, specialty machines like the NGS and others as well as the books I carry with me, but I’m afraid I’m out of space. If you’re interested, you can always email me at [email protected]