The Dirty Dozen: 12 tools you probably use every day!

Asking locksmiths for their views is like rolling the dice; you're never sure what you'll come up with. In fact, if you ask 10 locksmiths for an opinion on something, you'll likely get 11 answers. When trying to untangle the issue of tool preference, they're even more opinionated.

I recently decided to try to answer a new locksmith's question: "What tools are the most essential for a locksmith?" I thought to myself that I simply would take a survey of locksmiths who I deal with on a regular basis, combine their informative suggestions and come up with a simple little list. Surely these security professionals would agree on something as basic as their favorite tools. Hah!

After extensive research and surveying thousands of locksmiths around the world (would you believe dozens of locksmiths around the Midwest?), I came up with the following list of tools a locksmith reaches for on a constant basis. In many cases, two locksmiths in the same shop had different opinions on the brand or model of a tool. For example, there are many manufacturers and styles of picking guns -manual, electric, painted, chrome, fixed, adjustable, etc. Other tools are very unique and specific. There may be only one brand to fit your needs.

This survey threw out the common hand tools such as drills, screwdrivers and hammers - you know, the stuff we use all the time. Instead, we concentrated on items that would be found mainly in the toolbox or tool kit of someone in the locksmith profession. Pin kits, key machines and key blanks were also not considered because they usually aren't found in the toolbox category.

For the purposes of this article, I chose the most-often mentioned brand to represent the type of tool selected. In many cases, a variety of manufacturers offer similar or identical tools. Sometimes there is a considerable price difference between competing brands; more often, there is not. Likewise, there are material differences. Follow tools, for instance, come in solid or hollow varieties and can be made from brass, steel, aluminum, nylon or plastic.

Locksmiths being strong-minded, there probably are fewer than two locksmiths in the entire reading audience that will agree with this entire list. I do bet, however, that you have many of these tools somewhere in your arsenal. If there are some tools shown here that you've never heard about, maybe you're missing out on an easier way to do things.

In reverse order, here are the most popular tools, according to my survey:

12. The Keedex K-22 Lever Opening Tool
This unique piece of bent metal rod is a really great idea, yet simple. By reading and following the instructions (yes, people actually do use tools without doing that), you can quickly and easily open most locked doors outfitted with levers. Regardless of any high-security lock cylinder installed on the outside, the inside lever of any lock must unlock or open the door simply by turning it. If someone were on the inside of the locked door, they could simply open it. This ingenious little tool is a piece of strategically formed wire and a loop of nylon cord. The working end of the tool is fed under the door bottom, rotated upward, slid into position and leveraged to turn the inner lever. Suggested dealer price is about $16. For more information, contact your favorite locksmith distributor or visit

11. The PRO-LOK MCOT Under-the-Window Tool
Often described as the slim-jim of the '90s, the under-the-window car-opening tool was invented by PRO-LOK (yes, they have the U.S. patent to prove it). The tool is fed into the door between the window glass and weather stripping. It is lowered, rotated, and raised until the tip is on the inside of the car. The tip is then used to manipulate the lock button or door handle to open the car. Like the slim-jim, the MCOT (Multi-Car-Opening-Tool) has undergone a vast number of improvements and variations since its introduction. New tools with wider mouths, longer reaches, different applications and knurled tips have come onto the market. Almost all car-opening tool manufacturers offer their own version of the under-the-window tool. This type of tool won't work on everything, but when it is applicable, it avoids the problems associated with manipulating linkages inside the door cavity. Suggested dealer price is about $13. For more information contact your favorite locksmith distributor or visit

10. The Majestic LPG1 'Lockaid' Picking Gun
The picking gun seems to be one of those tools that locksmiths either love or hate. Not too many are in the middle on this one. Some (perhaps those who've never had much luck with it) say they don't need it. Many other locksmiths, though, wouldn't leave home without it. This original pick gun has inspired many imitations, both manual and electric. After learning the basic operation and practicing with it, this tool manipulates the pins by applying an impact of the pick tip from an inner spring, actuated by pulling the trigger. Upon impact, the pin stacks are momentarily separated at the shear line, allowing the turning tool to rotate the core. With the adjustable tension set at the right level and the proper amount of torque on the tension tool, the lock opens. Suggested dealer price is about $44. For more information contact your favorite locksmith distributor or contact Majestic Lock Company Inc. at (201) 343-7728

9. The Major SCT-1 Schlage Cap Tool
About the size of a standard plug follower, this handy knurled tool performs a couple of vital functions that most of us do every day, sometimes dozens of times. The projecting pin on one end allows you to reach into a partially disassembled Schlage-type lock housing and depress the screw cap retaining pin on a knob or lever cylinder. After depressing the pin, the tool is turned, which turns the tailpiece. Then the knob retainer can be pushed in and the knob or lever removed for keying. The other end of the tool is used to spin the screw cap on or off the end of the keyed pin tumbler cylinder. It is machined to fit into the scalloped edge of the screw cap and it's made to keep the pin depressed as the cap is rotated. Tighten until snug, and withdraw. With a little practice, you'll get just the right amount of snugness, where the key turns smoothly without binding, but is easily withdrawn. If you usually do this job by hand with a bent paper clip, you'll love this tool, especially on big rekeying jobs. Suggested dealer price is about $18. For more information, contact your favorite locksmith distributor or visit

8. The Ilco TD3A Transponder Detector
Transponder keys are considerably more expensive than standard keys. The original transponder keys were easy to identify because of the extremely large heads and offset hole in the head. Newer transponders are slim and trim and can look almost identical to a similar plastic-headed key blank. With the huge cost difference, the last thing you want to do is to cut a key on the transponder blank when the customer simply needs a standard key. This little tool is about the size of a television remote and performs a valuable function. After inserting the customer's key into the opening, you press a button and identify whether a transponder is present. If it is a regular key, a light is lit, telling you no transponder is present. If a transponder is in the key head, one of several lights will illuminate, identifying the manufacturer of the transponder and guiding you to use the proper programming steps. Suggested dealer price is about $155. For more information, contact your favorite locksmith distributor or visit

7. The PRO-LOK AO-60 Double-Sided Wedge
As simple as it is, this tool ranked well. A molded piece of red plastic with two different wedge thickness heights, this handy little tool is designed to be insert between the window and weather stripping on a car door window. After the opening is created, an inspection light and linkage tool can be lowered into the door cavity. Enough of a gap is created to provide a visual sighting of the linkage to use the tool to open the vehicle. Suggested dealer price is about $6. For more information, contact your favorite locksmith distributor or visit

6. The Keedex K-18 Safe Change Key Set
Along the same idea as a hex key set, this tool combines 12 of the most popular safe change keys into one handy little tool. The set includes four S&G, four LaGard, two Mosler and two Diebold change keys. Another similar tool is made for GSA safes. If you've ever searched for the right change key at the bottom of your toolbox, or worse yet had to make a return trip to the shop to get the right tool, this is the tool for you. If you've ever had to open a locked-up safe because you used the wrong safe change key as a shortcut, shame on you. All change keys are made of stainless steel and their description and use is imprinted on the case housing. Suggested dealer price is about $74. For more information, contact your favorite locksmith distributor or visit

5. The HPC SUT-14 Following Tool Set
Follow tools are everywhere. Most tools manufacturers make them in varying sizes, styles and colors. This set was chosen as the most versatile following tool that would cover most of your rekeying needs in a convenient package. The set consists of three chrome-plated, hollow brass following tools, all stored in a hollow brass tube with plastic end caps. All three followers fit into each other, storing snugly inside the tube. The small tool is .395 inch/10mm; the most common size is .495 inch /12.6mm and the large follower is .550 inch/14mm. Suggested dealer price is about $19. For more information, contact your favorite locksmith distributor or visit

4. The LAB Curved Shims
What can you say about shims except that when you need one, you really need one, and nothing else will work. LAB has a reputation for quality products and these shims are no exception. These curved shims are .0015" thick stainless steel and exceed industry standards. As important as these specialty items are, you should never be on the job without some extras. The listed tool is a pack of 25 shims in LAB's famous plastic vial. They're also available in a pack of 100. Suggested dealer price is about $4.50. For more information, contact your favorite locksmith distributor or visit www,

3. The Grobet-Swiss Key File
Wow! If I ever got a difference of opinion, it was about files. While most locksmiths agreed that Grobet-Swiss offers some of the best key filing tools available, picking the most popular was almost impossible. After arguments about round (rat-tail) files versus pippin files, the length, size and number (cut coarseness) was endlessly debated. By a slight margin, the 6-inch, #4 cut pippin file was chosen as the slight favorite over the 6-inch #2 round file. The ability to lean the pippin file (when impressioning a key) to form and shape the cut tilted the vote. Suggested dealer price is about $32. For more information, contact your favorite locksmith distributor or visit

2. The Kwikset 81467 Cylinder Removing Tool
I realize that an inexpensive chunk of stamped-out metal isn't much of a precision tool. But, if you've ever poked your hand with a dirty screwdriver (or bent the face of a Kwikset knob) trying to pop out the cylinder for rekeying, this tool is worth more than its weight in gold. Often called the 'pickle fork,' this little tool's suggested dealer price is about 40 cents. For more information, contact your favorite locksmith distributor or visit

1. The HPC Air Wedge
This is one of the coolest tools since the slim-Jim for car opening locksmiths. Originally manufactured in Europe for the construction industry, the pump-up wedge is very versatile. The designer sold them in a set of four to be used for window and doorframe installation. One bag on each side of the frame allowed the installer to pump each side up until the frame was square and level, then fasten the frame in place. Discovered by an auto club representative on vacation, the original was brought back into the United States. After numerous phone calls and faxes, an agreement was reached and HPC named it the Air Wedge. Other lockout tool manufacturers have followed with their own versions and HPC now also sells a wide version of this tool. After inserting this flat nylon bag into the doorframe, the rubber bulb is pumped slowly, inflating the bag. The opening for a reach-in tool is created without tearing the weather stripping or scratching the paint. The bag resists over-inflation. Suggested dealer price is about $29. For more information, contact your favorite locksmith distributor or visit

Many locksmiths have carried a wide variety of tools in their toolboxes over the years. As times and products change, so do our tools. For locksmiths like me who have been in the business since the 1960s, which of us ever thought we'd not be using a slim-jim on a constant basis? Likewise, we never dreamed of transponder detectors, lever lock openers or air wedges back then.

Maybe in 10 years or so we'll do this tool survey again and find out that we can't live without Gillespie's Virtual Shearline Diffuser, the famous Levine Levitation Illuminator or the popular Johnson Jumbo Jiggler. Who knows?