Opportunities in Safe Deposit Boxes

Jan. 26, 2011

Professional locksmiths call on a variety of special job skills to generate profits. Things like basic key duplication, rekeying and lock installation are a given. Even selling safes is a common occurrence in lock shops.

In addition, there are numerous specialty areas in the security trade. Some locksmiths choose to specialize in electronic access control, alarms or CCTV; some focus on high-security automotive and others in new construction of residential homes. Each requires an investment of time, knowledge, education and equipment and each is ignored to some degree by many qualified locksmiths, usually for a variety of reasons.

At Starfleet Lock and Safe Inc. in Springfield, Illinois, owner Gene Gyure Jr. CRL has combined a group of special services to offer to his customers in addition to his commercial lock focus. He sells and services burglary and gun safes, and is certified to open, repair and service GSA containers, cash handlers and electronic safe locks. He also does a lot of safe deposit work.

If you aren't doing safe deposit box service now, someone else is servicing those accounts. In many cases the institution is paying higher time/mileage prices by using a security service from many miles away because they don't know you can accommodate their needs locally and economically. After all, have you ever told them?

Gyure tells them. He promotes his services by contacting financial institutions with a colorful flyer advertising his specialized safe deposit box services. He realized that with a minimum financial investment and a little education, one of the easier profit avenues often overlooked by locksmiths is promoting and performing safe deposit work for banks and hotels.

Every city of any size has hotels, banks and savings and loan companies. Small towns may have one or two banks and larger cities have dozens of banks and branches. Most of these institutions have dozens or hundreds of boxes in a vault or secured area. (Photo 1)

Gene and I recently went on a short drive to service some outlying banks in three Midwestern communities. I asked and was given permission to photograph the work but the banks shall remain nameless. These notes and photos are from our visits that day.

Safe deposit boxes come in many sizes, shapes and brands. Recognized brands include Sargent & Greenleaf, Diebold, Mosler, LeFebure, and Kumahira/Security. Some manufacturers of safe deposit box locks like Corbin, Ilco and Yale have dropped these locks from their product lineup. Other makers that no longer exist include Bates, Eagle, Herring-Hall Marvin, Miles-Osborn, Precision, Victor and York.

Standard safe deposit boxes consist of a body, cover plate, locking bolt with fences, lever springs, guard and renter levers, and guard and renter keyways. The keyway consists of a foot to move the bolt (renter side), a post and a nose. The keyway assemblies may be found as three separate pieces, two pieces or all one piece. The nose is contained by the cover plate with a rimmed horn (collar), also referred to as the nose. We will use the term nose to refer to the entire horn/nose assembly.

These locks utilize a wide variety of specifications including body size, nose height and diameter dimensions, nose width positioning, post size and directional relationship, number of mounting screws, etc. Usually one brand is not interchangeable with another, even for different models within the same manufacturer.

Although some safe deposit locks are pin tumbler, the vast majority of them are lever locks. Old and new, these boxes are usually found in nests of multiple boxes. It is common to find a mixture of sizes and brands within the same bank vault. Although the size of the boxes varies from very small to quite large, the locks for a given brand will remain consistent in a nest.

You will also find a mix of left-handed and right-handed locks within a nest. Handing is determined by the position of the hinge. If the hinge is on the right side of the door, it is a right-handed lock. This is why a right-handed lock has the bolt projecting on the left side of the lock. The common design positions the noses of the lock toward the bottom half of the lock body to allow for travel of the levers.

Some brands offer a lock with noses along the center line, allowing them to be used in either the left or right position. Yet another style uses a lock where the bolt is double-ended. Instead of disappearing into the body when unlocked, the bolt simply projects out the other side, also allowing use in either left or right applications.

The common safe deposit lock uses two keys – the renter's key and the guard key. Neither key can open the box by itself. As the name implies, the renter's key is held by the person paying a monthly or annual fee to the institution to have access to the vault and individual box. The bank does not keep copies of this key when the box is rented. The guard key is maintained by the bank. Renter keys are all different in a nest of locks and the guard key is identical for all locks in the group.

Both keys must be used at the same time. The guard key is inserted first and turned (lining up the levers) to its stop. Then the renter key is inserted and turned. Two things occur at this point; the renter levers line up and the bolt is withdrawn by the foot on the renter post. The guard key has no foot and cannot withdraw the bolt by itself. In some locks the renter key cannot be fully inserted until the guard key is in the unlocked position.

Some boxes have only one nose. The guard key is inserted first and turned to its stop. This moves and stages the guard block lever. When the guard key is turned back and removed, the renter key is inserted and turned to open the lock.

For the purposes of this article we will look at a common method of attack when the renter keys have been lost. Pulling the nose on the renter side will gain access to the levers and bolt mechanisms. Since the bank has a working guard key, only the renter's side will have to be attacked.

We'll look at two methods of pulling the renter nose - using a specially-designed tool and a dent-puller. When the nose is pulled on some safe deposit locks, the horn can be reattached and a new nose and post inserted. Then the lock is rekeyed with new levers or a key is fit using existing levers.

Other than pulling the nose, other methods are available for gaining entry. When a door is pulled or forced instead of manipulating the bolt, the lock will be damaged beyond repair because the bolt will shear and break or tear away the back of the lock housing. These locks will need to be replaced with new or rebuilt locks.

In the case of older nests, you may be dealing with very old or obsolete locks and replacement locks may not be easily obtained, if found if at all. These doors can usually be opened by drilling the hinge screws instead of damaging the lock. Of course, this calls for repairs to the door itself.


For the first lock we used a Neutralization Kit from Lockmasters, Inc. The Nose and Door Puller Kit is simple and effective. (Photo 2)

The use of a specialty tool is a professional method of attack that will gain access to the box in a matter of minutes. Using this tool, the lock is damaged or destroyed while the door and hinge are not affected. Repair or replacement of the lock is required and the new lock must be set or matched to the guard key the bank is using in that nest.

Other common tools required will be a drill motor, small drill bit, basic screwdrivers and a few probe tools. (Photo 3)

Our first victim is door number 205. (Photo 4)

A small hole is drilled in the center of the renter keyway. A sheet metal screw is tightened into the nose. The tool shaft is positioned and attached to the screw head. On some boxes, the hole is drilled and tapped using a machine screw instead of a sheet metal screw. (Photo 5)

The nylon puller cup is slipped into place over the shaft and the nut and washer is tightened by hand. (Photo 6)

The ratchet wrench is put into place and secures the nut. (Photo 7)

The flat T-handle wrench keeps the threaded shaft stationery while the ratchet wrench turns the nut and begins to pull the nose. (Photo 8)

Note: While most safe deposit doors are solid metal, this one was constructed of a hollow channel material. As pressure was being applied the door began to depress very slightly inward. We stopped and removed the nut, puller cup and shaft and the door returned to its original shape.

Using the included rectangular nylon spacing block as a bridge, we began again. The block puts the stress on the outer edges of the nest framework, bridging over the hollow door and spreads contact pressure on the door to prevent door from denting or collapse. (Photo 9)

Remounting and reattaching the cup, shaft and nut assembly got us back in action. (Photo 10)

Slowly tightening the nut pulled the nose away from and out of the lock plate. (Photo 11)

With the post and attached foot removed, inspection of the lock with a screwdriver or probe allows removal of any shavings or small parts loosened during the pulling process. (Photo 12)

With the guard key inserted and turned, use a probe tool to reach under and behind the renter lever stack to ascertain that they have dropped away from the fence. Use the probe to gain access to the bolt mechanism and retract the bolt. (Photo 13)

The door is open! (Photo 14)


A common dent puller is also effective but doesn't present the same degree of professionalism as using the specialty tool. As stated above, using either tool normally damages or destroys the lock without compromising the door and hinge.

At the next bank, our victim is door number 1838. After verifying it is the correct door with the bank official, a small hole is drilled into the renter post. Using a small screwdriver traps the keyway to prevent any spinning during drilling. (Photo 15)

The hole is drilled and ready. (Photo 16)

The Dent-Puller/Slam-Hammer is ready for action, along with various probe tools. (Photo 17)

Inserted and screwed into place, a quick slam of the weight along the shaft removes the nose and post from the renter side. The foot may come out at the same time or may remain inside the lock body. (Photo 18)

Using a modified safe deposit key blank as a probe, the position and resistance on the bolt is felt. (Photo 19)

With the guard key in position and turned, a probe tool is used to locate and withdraw the bolt mechanism, unlocking the door. (Photo 20)

With the door open, the lock is removed to be rebuilt, repaired or replaced. If the bank doesn't have another lock on hand, the screws are reinserted into the door so they can be used again when the lock is replaced. (Photo 20)


The methods shown in this article show two different methods of pulling the nose on safe deposit locks. There are other methods of entry to a safe deposit box including picking and manipulation of the levers, impressioning or cutting a key by code information or accessing records of the cuts.

It should be noted that drilling for the bolt fence, bolt mechanism and drilling out the hinge screws are possible methods of compromising the box. While repair to the door is required, some of these methods will not damage the lock – an important consideration when you have no replacement lock available.

When you get to the job, how do you know whether to pull the nose, drill for the hinge screws, or what course of action to use? The best method of entry is determined by considering the following factors:

  • •                     The Lock – Identify the lock in use. If it is a newer lock, damaging the lock is usually no problem since it can be easily replaced. The bank may or may not have a stock of replacement locks on hand. If it is an older, obsolete lock, a replacement may be hard to find if it is available at all. The costs, availability and replacement labor will necessitate a return call and additional labor time. In most cases, don't destroy it if you can't replace it!
  • •                     Time – Does the bank need to re-rent this box immediately or do they have other empty boxes available?
  • •                     The Renter – When a key is lost, the renter usually bears the cost. In this case you must set a firm appointment to meet with the bank official and the renter so they can be present when the box is opened.
  • •                     The Non-Pay – If the agreed rent amount is defaulted upon, the bank follows a series of rules to contact the renter and resolve the non-payment issue. After a stated period of time – or when a person dies and rent is not received – the bank will take control of the box. In these cases you probably will meet with the bank official only.
  • •                     The Bank – It's usually up to the bank manager or official to determine how quickly the box needs to be opened and who bears the cost of labor and materials. They may want it immediately and replacement is not an issue. Or, time is not a factor but the lock must be replaced to original specifications.
  • •                     Protocol – Professionalism is a must. Never reach in and pull out or open a safe deposit box by yourself. There is a tremendous liability involved. A bank official and/or the renter must be present when you are doing the work. Once the door is open, allow the bank official or the renter to withdraw the box from the nest and open the lid.

There are plenty of opportunities for profit in the field of safe deposit service. Make up a small promotional flyer or tri-fold brochure advertising your company's ability to service safes and safe deposit boxes for these accounts. Get on the internet and do some research to create a list of banks, savings and loans and even hotels in your area. Don't forget to include smaller communities in your area, most have at least one banking institution.

Then take a few hours in the afternoon on a couple of different days and go cold-calling these accounts. Excuses for not doing this are easy: I'm too busy, I don't have time, I hate cold-calling, etc. Simply deliver your material with a business card and ask for a name and phone contact to follow up with regarding safe deposit work.

There is a respectable profit to be made here. Charge a fair price, but don't give it away. It is a special ability and service that you offer, charge accordingly. You have to target this specialty customer base, contact and inform them of your services and convince them to give you a try when the need arises. If you don't tell them how good you are, who will?