Getting Started in Automotive Locksmithing

July 2, 2018
You'll need key machines, transponder programming devices, specialized tools, transponder cloning equipment and reliable code data

"What do I need to get started in automotive locksmithing?" That’s a question that I hear all too often. Sometimes it’s from guys just getting started, but lately I’ve been hearing it from established shops that have stayed out of the automotive business up until now for one reason or another. Often, the person asking is part of the younger generation, taking over the family business, and looking for ways to expand the business. There are many reasons why a new or an established shop might want to expand into automotive, but they almost always have the same questions: “Where do I start?” and “How much do I need to spend?” Naturally, no one wants to just waste money, so the real question is “How do I get the most bang for my buck?”

Let’s take a look at some of the things that automotive locksmiths need to own that non-automotive locksmiths traditionally don’t have.

  • Manual or computerized code machines for duplicating and originating automotive side-milled keys
  • Transponder programming devices (Yes, you need more than one!)
  • Specialized tools for decoding, picking, and/or disassembling automotive locks
  • Transponder key cloning equipment
  • Reliable sources of data, information, code numbers, PIN numbers etc.

Key Machines

There are a lot of “keyless” cars out there that use proximity fobs instead of keys for normal operation, but all but one of those vehicles, sold in the U.S., have an “Emergency Key” for use when the battery in the fob or the vehicle won’t work. (Do you know the exception? Email me at [email protected] if you know or want to know.) And many of those “E-Keys” are side-milled keys, so having the proper key-cutting equipment is still one of the first things that you will need to invest in.

Established shops may or may not already have some side-milled key cutting equipment, but is it up to date for modern vehicles? For an old-timer like me, the very idea of having to periodically update your key machine is something that I have trouble wrapping my head around. But, in this era of computerized key cutting equipment, it is a reality.

All of the traditional key machine manufacturers offer various machines designed for automotive work. In addition a flood of new machines are coming into the US from China and other parts of the world. It is important that you do your homework before you rush out and buy a computerized machine, but there are several basic things that you need to factor in to your choice.

Integrated computer or stand-alone computer - Some machines offer the ability to operate from a separate computer or tablet, rather than with an integrated computer. Some people feel that if the computer fails, a separate computer or tablet is easier to replace. While that is true, the software that is necessary to operate the machine will also need to be installed or downloaded into the new computer and the new computer will have to be configured to the machine.

Warranty - Longer warranties are becoming the norm, but obviously you want the longest warranty that you can get. You will need to factor in whether the manufacturer will provide a “loaner machine” while your machine is being serviced, turn-around time for warranty service or exchange. If you are considering purchasing a machine from outside your home country, be aware that import duties may apply both to the original purchase and for any shipments to or from the country of origin for service.

Tech Support – This may be the single most important decision that you will make regarding the purchase of your machine. If you need help with your machine in the field, will there be anyone for you to contact for help? Of course your own mechanical ability will enter into your decision. Are you the type of person who traditionally needs help? Or are you the kind of person who figures things out for yourself? I know two people who have identical machines; one of these people calls for tech support on a regular basis, while the other has never called for tech support. The machines are identical and the people live in similar areas with similar markets, yet one needs a lot more help that the other.   If you think you will need tech support, you probably will, so you should factor that into your decision making.

There is not nearly enough room in this article to cover all of the choices, but here are a few of the most popular machines on the market today.

Manual Automotive Code Machines – If you are already a locksmith, then we can assume that you have code machine for traditional edge-cut keys that will also do edge cut automotive keys, so I won’t cover those here. Instead, I’ll focus on code machines that can originate and duplicate side-milled automotive keys, which are also known as “laser-cut” keys and “sidewinder” keys. Personally, I dislike the term laser cut since I don’t think that there is such a thing. I’m certain that somewhere there is a key machine that uses a laser for measurements, but I doubt sincerely that anyone produces a machine that actually cuts keys with a laser.

Before the introduction of manual side-milled code machines, the only way that a locksmith in the field could originate a side-milled key by hand was to use “Guide Keys.” Guide keys were essentially space and depth keys for side-milled locks systems and were used to originate side-milled keys one cut at a time. They were difficult to use and required a lot of skill to use properly.

Framon SD2. (Photo 1) The SD2 was the first manual side-milled code machine, and as far as I know, it’s still the only one on the market. I own one of these and love it! This machine uses depth and spacing rods to control the X and Y axis motion of the key as it is being cut. The depth of the cut is set manually before cutting of the key begins. The machine comes equipped with rod sets for the following vehicles / systems:

  • GM & Saturn HU100
  • Ford HU101
  • Lexus short and long
  • Honda / Acura
  • VW / Audi / Porsche – Also includes special VW vise
  • Hyundai / Kia (Lexus style)

In addition to these systems, rod sets are available for:

  • Infiniti
  • BMW 2 Track
  • BMW 4 Track
  • Mercedes 4 Track
  • Saab BC & 251
  • Subaru
  • Fiat
  • Lexus 80000 Series
  • Hyundai T/C 2 Track
  • GM Captiva / Pontiac G8
  • Opel / Pontiac GTO
  • Ford Tibbe – includes special Tibbe fixture

Automated Automotive Code Machines – New computer control systems and hardware developed for robotics have brought the cost of owning a computer controlled machine down to the point where it is hard not to justify owning at least one. The convenience factor alone is worth the investment if you do automotive work on a regular basis. There are now so many computer controlled machines on the market that I had to limit myself to three machines due to space limitations.

Ilco / Silca Tri-code H.S. (Photo-2) This is a very robust machine descended from the long line of Tri-Code machines. The product of decades of development and refinement, this machine offers a wealth of high-end features. The built-in computer control system comes pre-loaded with the specifications for thousands of automotive lock systems so you can originate, duplicate, and decode virtually any automotive key within minutes of unpacking the box. The machine comes pre-calibrated and ready for work. The intuitive interface and the soft-touch keypad make learning to use the machine easy. The three position vise jaw, with depth dial, coupled with the high-speed carbide steel cutter provides exceptional versatility. An optional accessory package allows the user to duplicate and originate edge-cut keys as well as side-milled keys.

When decoding a key, the system can automatically compensate for wear so that the keys you produce are virtually identical to the original keys provided with the vehicle. A built-in data port allows you to easily update the software as new systems are introduced.

3D Pro Xtreme - This is the 5th generation machine from Laser Key Products, a U.S. based company that was founded by a locksmith. They produce equipment designed specifically for locksmiths. The original 3D Pro was also the first machine designed to cut both side-milled keys and edge-cut keys.

The 3D Pro Xtreme can be used with a stand-alone PC or tablet, but can also be ordered with a tablet device pre-loaded with the software. Initially the machine will require set-up and calibration allowing the user to customize the set-up for the type of work that they plan on doing. Once set up, the machine is easy to operate, quick, quiet, and produces a key that is cut to factory specs.

Xhorse Condor XC Mini. (Photo 4) This machine is produced in China by Xhorse, who also manufactures several specialty transponder programming and cloning tools. I have had one of these for over two years and am impressed daily with what it can do, considering the price that I paid for it.

At the time I bought mine, I had to order it directly from China and learned the hard way that when you do that, you are dependent on the distributor that you bought it from rather than the manufacturer for updates and service. (My distributor went out of business and virtually disappeared shortly after I got my machine!)

There are now numerous distributors in the U.S. who sell the machine, so I would recommend that if you buy one today, purchase it from a U.S. distributor.

The Condor Mini XC comes standard with two vises – one for side-milled keys and one for edge milled keys. Additional vises are available for Tibbe and other applications. (I use the Tibbe vise regularly for the Ford Transit Connect vehicles made from 2010 – 2013.) The machine includes an integrated computer with touch-screen operation. The on-board database of vehicle specifications contains thousands of vehicle systems, and Xhorse provides free updates through your distributor. You can also add your own cutting specifications if you have the cutting data. (If the specs that you have are in the US format, you will have to convert them to metric before you can input them.)

Because it is a Chinese machine, tech-support is sometimes had to get, but I have never really needed it. But I know others who don’t have my problem solving skills who complain loudly about the lack of tech support.

Transponder Programming Devices

Transponder programming devices that connect through the OBD II port fall into two general classes: Dealer Tools and Aftermarket tools. As the name suggests, a dealer tool is the same tool that is used by the dealerships. If you want to spend the money, you can generally purchase essentially the same tool that the dealerships use. In the early days of transponder systems, this was often the only choice for some vehicles, but even today some vehicles, simply cannot be programmed with anything but a dealer-level tool. An aftermarket tool is what most automotive locksmiths rely on for their day to day work. These machines offer software to handle a wide variety of vehicles, but the software for some vehicles may be limited strictly to key programming and offer little or no diagnostic software for locating and clearing error codes.

There are also aftermarket tools that are limited to one or only a few lines of vehicles. The D-Max from A and E Computers is an example of that type of tool. The D-Max operates only on Chrysler vehicles and can be extremely useful now that Fiat, which owns Chrysler, has made the process of obtaining PIN codes as difficult as possible. The D-Max allows the use to “pull” the PIN code directly from many Chrysler vehicles and program keys. It also offers some dealer-level diagnostic aids as well.

Here are a few of the most popular transponder programming tools on the market today:

Smart Pro from Silca / Advanced Diagnostics. (Photo-5) A few years ago, there were basically two companies producing multi-vehicle programming tools for the locksmith market: Ilco/Silca and advanced Diagnostics. That all changed in 2014 when the Kaba Group, which owns Silca and Ilco, acquired Advanced Diagnostics. The newest offering from the new Advanced Diagnostics USA is the Smart Pro. This new machine replaces the order T-Code Pro, MVP Pro, as well as the Silca TKO, which went out of production shortly after the two companies merged.

The Smart Pro is being called a “Hybrid Machine” because it can operate in the same was at the T-Code Pro and the MVP Pro combined. The owner can choose to use the machine as a “Token” machine or purchase the software packages that they use the most. The token system allows the user to use the software on a “pay as you go” basis rather than purchasing the software outright. This gives the user the ability to cover a lot of different vehicles without a huge investment in software. If you find that you use a lot of tokens for a particular type of vehicle, you have the option to buy the software and use it as much as you like without any further cost.

Owners of the older machines are being offered a generous trade-in on their old machines and adapters such as the “Smart Dongle,” based on how long they have had their old machines. For more information on trade-ins, contact your distributor.

The TrueCode Smart from KeyProgrammers Ltd. (Photo 6) The TrueCode system has been around for about ten years, but it wasn’t sold in the North America market until late in 2016. The system was developed by Chris Cleasby, the technical Director of KeyProgrammers Ltd., who is himself an automotive locksmith. Chris also does the majority of the coding for the software used in the TrueCode system. The hardware consists of a cable that has an OBD-II plug on one end and a USB plug on the other, and a USB “Security Dongle.” Your laptop must have two open USB ports as well as the Windows® 7 or later operating system. The TrueCode system is modular, which means that you can pick and choose just the modules that you want, or purchase “Package Deals” for selected applications. The following modules were developed specially for the North American market:

  • Chrysler / Dodge / Jeep USA (Automatically pulls and enters SKIM code for most vehicles)
  • Fiat USA
  • Ford / Lincoln / Mercury USA (Bypasses 10-minute delay for many vehicles)
  • Mazda USA
  • Nissan USA (Now includes automatic routines for both 4-diget and 20-character PINs)

SmartBox Key Programmer Generation 2. (Photo 7) The SmartBox application list (available online at ) lists almost 5000 different vehicles that it will cover. The machine allows the user to not only program keys, but also many remotes and it will read transponder information and clone many different types of keys. A transponder “Unlocking feature” is also supposed to be released in the near future. The machine also includes a remote frequency tester.

The machine operates on a “USE” system which is similar to Tokens. Each “USE” costs the user $10 at this time. The software is updated regularly and the manufacturer recommends syncing the device over the internet every 2 weeks because of frequent updates. The machine MUST be synced at least once every 30 days for continued operation. A single “USE” is generally used for each key programmed. There is no charge for reading transponders, programming remotes and man diagnostic functions such as reading and clearing error codes.

Specialized Tools 

Specialized tools for lock picking, decoding and service are  absolutely essential in the field. Without tools like these, your automotive work will be limited to “Codesmithing.” (More about Codesmithing later.) These tools allow an automotive locksmith to be independent of dealers, code brokers, and online services that provide key codes and charge a healthy fee for their services. With the proper tools, an automotive locksmith should be able to generate mechanical keys quickly and easily for virtually any vehicle in the field 24/7.

Nothing that man makes is perfect and the biggest problem that I see with key code services is that they are far from perfect. If you are dependent on key code services, what do you do if the code that you get is wrong, or the vehicle has been rekeyed? In my area, way too many so-called “locksmiths” will simply walk away from a job if they can’t get a working key code from the VIN. That kind of thing does not engender customer trust, and often results in negative online reviews when the customer is forced to find someone else to do the job.

Here are a few of the specialty tools that I use on a regular basis:

Lishi 2-In-1 Picks. (Photo 8) The Lishi 2-in-1 picks have truly revolutionized automotive locksmithing. They work on a very simple principal that is only has only been made practical by precision computer controlled machining. These amazing little picks, which are specifically designed for a single lock system, allow you to pick the lock one tumbler at a time with great precision.   Once the lock has been picked, and the tumblers are all in the same positions that they would be in if the key was in the lock, the same pick that was used to manipulate the tumblers, is used to decode the lock. That sounds simple, but without extremely precise engineering it is impossible to accomplish.

One of the great things about the Lishi 2-in-1 tools is that they all work the same way. Once you learn how to operate the tool, the procedure is the same for any wafer-tumbler automotive lock. If you can pick simple Ford 8-cut door locks, that have 6 tumblers, you should also be able to pick Honda HON66 locks that use “split-tumblers” and have as many as 12 tumblers. The Lishi 2-in-1 tools are available for almost all modern automotive applications, but here are the ones that I use the most in my daily work.

  • FO38 – Ford 8-cut door and deck locks
  • CY24 – Chrysler door and deck locks
  • GM39 – GM 10-cut door and deck locks
  • GM37 & GM37W – GM “Z-Keyway” door and deck locks
  • HU100 & HU100-10 – GM side-milled 8 and 10 cut locks
  • HU101 – Ford, Jaguar, Land Rover side-milled locks
  • HU66 – VW, Audi, Porsche locks
  • HON66 – Honda side-milled locks

Unfortunately, a word of caution about buying “Lishi” tools is in order. The real Lishi Tools are designed and produced by a Chinese gentleman named Mr. Li. At some point, an ex-associate of Mr. Li copyrighted the name “Genuine Lishi,” and now uses it to market copies of the real Lishi tools. Due to the poor copyright laws in China, there is little that Mr. Li can do about this issue. Instead, he now has his own picture on the side of the real Lishi tools because apparently the Chinese won’t knock something off that has a person’s picture on it. If you want the “Real Deal,” make sure that you only buy tools that have Mr. Li’s picture on them as shown in Photo 9. I have an “Original Lishi” CY24 Chrysler 2-in-1 pick that I have NEVER been able to use to pick a Chrysler lock. I have a real CY24 Chrysler 2-in-1 Lishi pick with Mr. Li’s face on it that I use and depend on daily. I have compared the two tools side-by-side under a powerful magnifying glass and can see absolutely no difference between the two tools, but the real one works and the “Genuine Lishi” doesn’t.

The Determinators from “Determinator Tom.” (Photo 10) Tom Tusing is the developer of the Determinator system, but he is usually referred to as Determinator Tom. Tom is a locksmith and he began designing these tools for his personal use many years ago. Because so many automotive door lock systems have such wide tolerances, it is often hard to precisely decode the locks without taking them apart. The Determinator tools do not try to get precise readings in most cases, but instead use half-depth increments to get you close to the actual bitting of the lock.   They allow you to quickly and easily cut a key that is very close to the working key. With a little impressioning skill, you can then convert that close key to a working key in a matter of minutes.

In most cases, when I use a Determinator, I can get the key to turn the second time I put it in the lock. This type of tool is invaluable on the GM Z-Keyway and other lock systems that are so sloppy that they rarely decode properly with the Lishi Tools. Tom also makes specialty ignition decoders and decoders for oddball locks like the Corvette emergency lock that only uses an abbreviated version of the normal Z-Keyway specs.

Ignition Removal Tools from Accu Reader. (Photo 11) These specially designed tools allow the user to quickly remove many ignition lock cores without picking or drilling. These simple tools can really save the day, or make the process of making a key to a problem vehicle a LOT easier.

The first time that I really needed one of these tools was on a Chevrolet Cruze that came from the auction with no keys. I made a key by decoding the door lock with the HU100 Lishi 2-in-1 tool, and then discovered that someone had either rekeyed or replaced the ignition. By using the Accu Reader GM High Security Ignition Lock Removal Tool (Yellow end) I was able to simply pop the ignition lock core out and decode it. Once I had it decoded, and compared it to my door key, I realized that the lock had been rekeyed. I was able to make my door key fit the ignition by simply swapping two pairs of tumblers. There are four separate tools in the Accu Reader GM High Security Ignition Removal Set that will allow you to remove most GM side-milled ignition lock cores in seconds.  

Transponder Cloning Equipment

Modern cloning tools do a lot more than simply clone keys. I often use my cloners to check which transponder is actually in the key, or to see if there is actually a working transponder in the key in the first place. Some new machines actually allow you to manipulate the data on the chip so you can do things like unlock a used key or prox fob, convert a Ford 40 bit chip to 80 bit specs, and more.

Here are a few of the most popular cloning devices:

884 Decryptor Ultegra and 844 Decryptor Mini. (Photo 12) Both machines have the same capabilities as far as cloning go, but the 884 Mini is designed for portability and uses a Bluetooth system to integrate with Android devices. The 884 Decryptor Ultegra interfaces with a computer for advanced cloning and updates by way of a traditional USB cable. Both allow the user to clone Philips® fixed code and Philips® Crypto (ID46), Texas® fixed code and Texas® Crypto (4D), Megamos® fixed code and Megamos® Crypto (ID48) transponders: covering over 3000 car makes and models and up to 90% of cars and trucks still on the road today.

The Keyline GKM glass transponders allow you to easily clone virtually all VW and Audi keys by using chipless keys or a chipless switchblade remote like the ones produced by Key DIY and Xhorse. (Proximity fobs are not supported yet.)

Ilco RW4 PLUS. (Photo 13) The RW4 PLUS allows the user to clone Texas Instruments (TI) and Philips encrypted code and fixed code transponder keys. The RW4 PLUS is a stand-alone device requiring no PC or internet connection during normal operation. Software updates are free for one year from purchase and are downloadable from the web via a PC and USB connection. Some of the important features of the RW4 PLUS are:

  • It can identify the presence of a transponder and indicates chip type,
    value and manufacturer
  • Code Generation Capable
  • Software updates are based on new vehicle information &
  • 12V DC adapter included for “on the road” services
  • Compact, lightweight and portable
  • Built in “soft touch” key pad
  • Multiple language support
  • Easy to read LCD screen

VVDI Key Tool Kit (Photo 14) This interesting tool doesn’t fall easily into a single category. It is a hand-held transponder reader, cloner, and remote tool. With this tool, the user can read, identify, and clone many different types of chips (more coming soon). In many cases, “locked” (used) transponders such as those used in the Chrysler system and GM Circle Plus system can be “unlocked” and returned to service with this tool. You can also check most remote frequencies and functions as well as clone or program “universal” remotes.

Data Sources

At sporting events, they say that “You can’t tell the players without a program,” and you really can’t do automotive work without data – LOTS of data! How and where you get your data, training and technical help when you need it is as important as, or possibly more important than, having the proper equipment. But, the most important thing is to have data sources that you can trust. Having the wrong information or incomplete information can be a nightmare.

I recently had a conversation with an industry figure in the safe and vault business. He believes that automotive work is beneath him because it is “just so easy – any kid with a brick can open a car.” He went on to tell me that automotive locksmiths have no need for tech support because “it’s all on YouTube.”   When I got back to my computer I sent him some YouTube videos of people unlocking cars with tennis balls and other such foolishness. I also sent him this link to a video on YouTube ( which is a new story about a guy posted a video on YouTube supposedly showing you how to how to drill a hole in your new iPhone to access the “hidden” earphone jack. I don’t know if the video was meant as a joke or as a malicious prank, but hundreds of gullible people actually drilled hole in their new iPhones!

The point that I’m trying to make here is that yes, there is a lot of good stuff on YouTube and other video sharing sites, but a lot of it is just junk! Whether it is meant as a joke, a prank, or is just wrong, it wastes a lot of your time and it is potentially dangerous to depend on that type of “Tech Support.” I suggest that if you really want internet help, you should join one or more of the legitimate automotive locksmith forums listed below.

And regarding key code services, there are many different sources out there, but there is not a single one that will guarantee that they can give you the actual and/or correct key code for any vehicle. There are errors in the databases, human errors, and the possibility that the vehicle may have been rekeyed, or had the ignition lock replaced by a shade-tree mechanic. People who depend solely on key code services, and have no idea how to generate key if the code is wrong, are only one step above scammers in my opinion. Especially those who simply walk away when they get an incorrect key code! To make matters worse, the “low-ball” prices often quoted by codesmiths make the legitimate locksmiths look like thieves when they charge a fair price for actually doing the job. I get calls for help from codesmiths all the time, and have to resist the urge to tell them to tell the customer to “Call a locksmith,” and hang up! (OK, I’ve done that a couple of times, but only in extreme cases.)

Here are some of the places and/or sources for information that I trust:


Code Software:

Online Information Sources

o   Locksmith Friends

o   Locksmith friends Automotive

o   Locksmith Network

Conventions, tradeshows and classes