Key Machines: Essential Equipment

April 1, 2021
Investing in the right key machines for your business is crucial.

Key machines, the cornerstone of most locksmith businesses, range from the manual type that require your attention for the entire process to computerized models that do everything but take the key blank out of the box it came in. They represent a major investment, so choosing the right machine is vital.

When I started locksmithing more than 40 years ago, automatic machines were used frequently, and I remember the Borkey semi-automatic becoming popular, along with other variations of it. Trace the key back and forth, and if you kept it calibrated, keys were duplicated nicely. I remember using a Curtis clipper for originating automotive keys after you had a code, and who could forget using sets of depth keys, each one having different depths, to duplicate onto a blank?

We have come a long way. I spoke with a few locksmiths who cut lots of keys and have much to say about key machines in 2021.

JC Magee Security Solutions

Jack Magee owns JC Magee Security Solutions in Woodbury, New Jersey. The family-owned business has been around since the 1940s and in the current location since 1962. Jack’s grandfather was an ALOA charter member.

Locksmith Ledger (LL): When you agreed to speak with us about machines, you immediately said you loved your Intralock Tools 9700. What did you use before the ITL?

Jack Magee: We used the HPC 1200, and that was fine, but the ITL does pretty much everything with a lot less effort. [A Silca Bravo III] is what I use here and in my trucks. Whenever we need a machine for a van, we get one of these. If someone starting out asks, I would tell them to go with the Bravo. For code cutting, go with the ITL.

This bit key machine has been here since 1962, and we still use it. Without it, we couldn’t make these keys unless we did them by hand.

LL: Is the ITL easy to use?

Jack Magee: Yes. Use the book to learn which insert and jaw to use. It guides you through easily.

LL: Do you ever have trouble figuring things out? (John Magee, Jack’s son, joins the conversation.)

John Magee: Not really. We do lots of high-security keys, so if you’re cutting ASSA, for example, you must remember you’re cutting tip to bow instead of bow to tip.

LL: Do you think your choice of key machine makes a big difference for your business?

Jack Magee: Yes, it does. With these machines, I can be much more efficient and get to other things. Time is money. Some locksmiths balk at paying too much money for a good machine, but it pays for itself quickly.

LL: Some of my customers will buy a less expensive machine for a truck than they do for the shop. Do you cut many keys while on the road?

Jack Magee: When I started, my father wouldn’t give me a key machine for my truck. He just didn’t want to spend the money. If I did a job and they wanted 20 duplicate keys, I’d file them by hand. I went to my mom and told her I couldn’t do this anymore without a machine, and she told me to go get one. Working without a machine taught me a lot about filing keys. I can still do it if I must, but, of course, I’d rather not.

LL: How about key punches? Do you use any?

Jack Magee: Yes, we use punches for Medeco Keymark, Schlage and BEST keys. We used to do Kaba but still do X4, Primus and ASSA and use punches for many of those.

LL: Are there other machines here you still use?

Jack Magee: My grandfather got one to duplicate the tubular keys back in the ’70s. We would advertise that we made Ace round keys. They were a big deal back then. We have had it rebuilt a couple of times, and it still works fine.

LL: What do you see as the next-step improvement when it comes to key machines? Can it get any better?

Jack Magee: There will be a next step up, but I’m not sure what it will be. The next machine I would like to have is a milling machine. You could do all the side milling needed and essentially create a key blank fully milled, including high-security ones.

CLC Locksmith

CLC Locksmith in Cinnaminson, New Jersey, is a three-generation business owned by brothers Cliff and Larry Shafer. Larry’s son, Tom, is the third generation and runs the shop primarily while the others are on the road. I spoke with Tom and Cliff. Ironically, I also was delivering an Ilco Speed 044 key machine they purchased.

Locksmith Ledger (LL): You have several key machines lined up here. Do you use them all on a regular basis?

Tom Shafer: Yes, with the exception of one, because it has a function that none of the other automated machines has. It’s an older Club machine, and we cut sidewinder and laser cut keys with it, like Mercedes keys, and it’s a true duplicator. As a duplicator, it has been a true workhorse.

LL: Which machine do you use the most?

Tom Shafer: The Bravo III; we have two of those. Before that, we used the Bravo II. As long as I’ve been here, it’s been the Bravo. Cliff can talk about what was used before I got here. I have a Bravo II in my van.

LL: So, each machine lined up here is used regularly, and it appears that each is somewhat specialized. If you were being consulted about which machines to use and invest in, would you recommend the ones you use?

Tom Shafer: I would, but the answer to that question depends on what they are looking to do. If you aren’t going to cut automotive keys, then you wouldn’t need three of them. A laser machine could be eliminated. If you do mostly duplication and origination, then I’d recommend them all.

LL: What is your go-to code machine?

Tom Shafer: The HPC Codemax for conventional single- and double-sided keys, not high-security keys. If it’s a key with no information in the Codemax database, then I’ll use my Framon #2. That’s the machine I learned on for originating. It’s the most accurate machine out there. With the Framon, I can do whatever I need to do manually, like cut in between factory depths. I couldn’t do that with the Codemax, because it’s just interpreting factory info. If you can use the Framon, then you can certainly punch numbers into the Codemax.

LL: Do you use any key punches?

Tom Shafer: We still have an [Ilco] Exacta. Those things are the bomb! It’s a shame they aren’t made anymore. I still use mine for Ford and Chrysler and some GM. I can carry it over to a car with no problem. We also have the Big Blue Punch for BEST A2.

LL: Which machines do you use in your trucks?

Tom Shafer: It depends on whose van you are asking about. I don’t do much commercial work, so I don’t need a punch for BEST. Larry has an HPC 1200 code machine, because he does file-cabinet keys. Each of us tends to specialize in different areas of locksmithing, so the machine we have fits in with the type of work we do.

I have a Bravo II and a Framon. I’m the youngest one here, so I have machines that have been used by others, but they still work as well as when they were new. With the potholes we deal with, we need something that’s durable. They tend to last, and that’s why I bought the Speed 044 you brought us today. Another employee here has an HPC Codemax and an Exacta punch for BEST, since he does so much of our commercial work.

LL: When you’re in the market for another machine, how big a factor is cost versus what the machine actually does?

Tom Shafer: If it’s a duplicator, we’ll go with what we know works for us, and we’ll make the money back quickly. If you’re looking at a high-security laser cut machine, having good support from the factory is crucial. Another factor is how often will it be used? The Speed 044 I just bought won’t be used 5 percent as much as the Bravo, so I can get away with the less expensive machine for the application.

LL: Are you able to cut any key for customers with the machines you have here? Bit keys as well?

Tom Shafer: We cut bit keys with a slotter. With the old Club machine, we can cut dimple keys after changing out the cutter. We don’t cut Mul-T-Lock, since that requires their machine. A machine that cuts dimple keys is an example of one I wouldn’t buy, since it wouldn’t pay for itself in our lifetime. Tibbe Jaguar keys are another, but we don’t see many around here.

Cliff Shafer: We used to have an Ilco automatic where you loaded the key and pushed down the lever and watched it go back and forth, but it had no deburring brush. You’d have to take the key out and go over to the brush. We got the Bravos and got rid of the automatic, because it was slow and only moved at one speed. We did work for a large company that would come in with a gym bag full of keys to duplicate 10 each of. That came to about 10,000 keys in the course of a month. We liked the Bravo so much we got another.

LL: What does your choice of machine come down to?

Cliff Shafer: We cut a lot of keys, so we need something that’s quick and also flexible, so we can change jaws when needed. In my van, I have a manual machine. I’m out doing safes and access control, so my needs are different from the others.

Tom Shafer: I have a new machine I use primarily for automotive when I go out to a car. It gives me updates for free, and it’s battery-powered. I can carry it to the car and cut the key on-site without needing power. It doesn’t do conventional pin-tumbler keys, like Schlage, but will do your older Fords as well as late-model cars. It has a key-code database, so I could put in the cuts, and it’ll tell me if it’s a good code, and it’s all done on my phone. This is great as long as I have a charged phone with me. There are trade-offs: In this case, it’s [that I have] virtually no support at all.

South Penn Lock & Safe

My next visit was with Dana Barnum, owner of South Penn Lock & Safe in Media, Pennsylvania.

Locksmith Ledger (LL): Which key machines were you using back in the mid-1970s when you began?

Barnum: Mainly the Ilco hand duplicator. I took the Foley-Belsaw locksmith course, and we’d use a small file cutter that would take forever. We started using depth keys and progressed to a little heavier cutter that was faster and was a 3-inch diameter cutter. During the ’80s, we went to a 4-inch cutter, which cut much faster. Our first semi-automatic was the Borkey key machine. That was a very expensive machine back then.

LL: How did you originate keys back then?

Barnum: We used the original HPC machine, and we used the cards. That was hot stuff. We used it for another five or so years, and along came the ITL. It was computerized. I have one of the original machines. We use it now for small file-cabinet keys as well as Medeco Keymark. The serial number is less than 100, so it’s one of the first.

Then, we went to the smaller computerized [ITL 950C] we could put in our trucks. You can sweep back and forth; it doesn’t do all that the 9700 could. I got another one for the shop workbench. It’s been my workhorse for 20 years now, and it still works fine and is accurate to the thousandth [of an inch].

LL: How many trucks are on the road? Do they all have an ITL machine in them?

Barnum: Mostly the HPC Blitz, and my son has an ITL in his. They all code cut. We have a [Pro-Lok] Blue Punch we use for origination of BEST and some Schlage. I still use the decoder attached to it, which is a very accurate way to cut keys.

LL: The Framon originator is one I was weaned on. Did you have one of those?

Barnum: Yes. The Framon is very much like a lathe, with the XY axis. You could dial your measurement in and get it within a thousandth. You could move over a little left or right as needed. The problem with the HPC machine using cards is that you went by the line, and if you were slightly off or wanted to move your cut over just a hair, you’d have to move over slightly by eye. With the Framon, you could dial in 1–2 thousandths as needed and cut a little off center from what you dialed in.

LL: What about this older Ilco semi-automatic KD50?

Barnum: This had the sweep back-and-forth action. It was state of the art when I got it. For tubular keys, I still use [a] Scotsman to duplicate or cut by code. We also have an original ABLOY machine. I have enough high security, so I haven’t jumped into the newer keyway. My current workhorse semi-automatic everyday machine is the Silca Bravo.

LL: Are all of your high-security keys cut on the ITL?

Barnum: The ITL doesn’t cut ABLOY or Gemini. We have a machine in the back for dimple cutting. I also have a Triax machine in the back for two- and four-track automotive keys.

LL: Are you able to cut any key a customer walks in with and feel good about it working properly for them?

Barnum: Every time I say “yes” to that, somebody walks in with an oddball. SARGENT Keso is one I don’t mess with, and I don’t think SARGENT wants us to. It’s a dimple key that’s cut on all four angles. There’s a special machine that’s very accurate. I’m only aware of some government facilities that have it to cut the keys.

LL: If somebody came to you for advice about which key machines to use in their business, would you recommend the ones you use?

Barnum: I’m thinking of a fellow locksmith I’ve known for years. I kept reminding him that he needed to buy an ITL 9700. He finally did a couple of years ago, and he’s very happy he finally did. That machine will cut small desk keys super accurately, Medeco, and if I think it’s off, I can adjust the spacing by the thousandths successfully. We have to be precise.

(Barnum motions to a Mul-T-Lock KC5 and the Silca Triax-e.code.) These two machines have cost me the most to buy. The Triax-e.code cuts the two-track and four-track high-security automotive keys. I use it for Mercedes keys. This other one cuts the Kaba Gemini. The jaw is set on a 15 percent angle on both sides.

Then there’s the Mul-T-Lock KC5, top of the line. We can duplicate by swiping the credit through the slot in the machine. It uses the information to make the key perfectly each time.

LL: What ideas do you have regarding machines that could do more or the future of key machines in general? Where do you see this industry going?

Barnum: I leave the design work and experimental machining to the experts, but I refer you to the Mul-T-Lock machine. It’s digital; it does everything, including setting itself to be accurate each time you turn it on. It does its own homing. I’d imagine the machine would check the key you’re using and would be able to tell you, “your key is off by 15 thousandths.”  You make the adjustment, and you’re good. That’s the future of machining and key cutting.

Steve Kaufman has worked for distributors in the locksmith industry since 1993 and worked as a full-time locksmith from 1978 through the 1980s. Kaufman is the sales manager for IDN Hardware out of its Philadelphia location.     

About the Author

Steve Kaufman

Steve Kaufman has worked for distributors in the locksmith industry since 1993 and worked as a full-time locksmith from 1978 through the 1980s. Kaufman is the sales manager for IDN Hardware out of its Philadelphia location.