Recently, television programmes such as The Repair Shop have brought home the sentimental value and historical importance of family heirlooms and antiques.

If you have such an item, whether it’s a recently inherited family treasure, an intriguing antique you couldn’t resist buying, or something you’ve had in your possession for some time, there is a good chance that it may be fitted with a lock, for which the key is long lost. Worry not though, as there could well be a solution, and it could be one that may potentially unlock an intriguing past!

How to unlock your heirloom

Antique lock repairs From grandfather clocks to cabinets and bureaus, from storage chests to luggage trunks, there are many heirlooms that could potentially be locked and therefore frustratingly out of bounds to the beneficiary or purchaser.

Many heirlooms like these will be fitted with the original locks, some of which will not have been used for several years. It is not at all rare for such items to have become parted with their keys, leaving you wondering how you will ever get inside.

Fortunately, many antique pieces made between the 18th and 20th centuries tend to be quite straightforward to work with. Numerous old locks were created purely for decoration and can therefore be easily by-passed. However, this is not always the case, and it is also important to take care not to damage the lock, or the piece itself. So do think twice before inserting that paper clip or coat hanger you possibly had in mind.

Using skeleton keys to access antique locks

Skeleton keys, also known as ‘bit and barrel’ keys, are the most common key type for heirloom pieces.

These keys are constructed in three main parts: the bow, the barrel and the bit. The bow is the ring-shaped section that you hold as you insert the key into the lock. The bit is the carved end that inserts into the lock to disengage it. And the barrel is the shaft between the two ends.

You can usually fairly easily buy skeleton keys which are reproductions of the original keys made for antique furniture. The process of finding the right one can be a bit of a trial and error routine however, although it shouldn’t take too long, because the locks on most antique pieces didn’t tend to be very complex in design, which means you probably won’t need to try too many before you find one that works.

The problems with antique locks

The trouble with antique locks is that, even though they don’t tend to be complex in design, they can throw up a number of challenges.

A lack of care over the years can leave antique locks tricky to work with. If the piece has been restored, but the lock itself was not removed at the time, it could have become clogged with debris and finishing product such as varnish.

In such cases, it may be necessary to remove the lock and either clean it thoroughly, or even refurbish it.

Older locks can also suffer with broken springs. If the lock can be easily removed, or the bolts do not appear to align properly or simply won’t engage, then the spring may be out of action. If this is the case, it will be necessary to disassemble the lock housing in order to inspect it. This can be difficult, especially if the screws have become rusted or corroded. If the spring is broken, it will need replacing.

What is the best way to access an antique lock?

The best and safest way to access an antique lock and get inside a locked heirloom is to take it to a specialist locksmith who offers specialist antique lock repairs and key cutting services. If it is not possible to take the piece itself to the locksmith, then you could initially liaise using photographs of the piece, or by arranging a video call.

If you are providing photographs, be sure to take detailed, high quality shots that clearly show any engraved markings on the lock in order to help the locksmith identify it and potentially locate a matching key.

If it turns out that your heirloom requires a new lock, it is essential that the replacement is in-keeping with the period and sympathetic to the piece itself. You wouldn’t want your treasured antique spoiled by an out-of-place addition after all.

The benefit of having a new lock expertly made for your heirloom is that it will be fitting for the piece, but more importantly, it will also provide a much more enhanced level of security. Where antique locks were mostly made only for decoration, an expert locksmith will be able to create one with a modern mechanism that actually protects whatever you keep inside the item.

Antique lock repairs and replacement antique keys from Barry Bros Security

At Barry Bros Security, we have been providing locksmith services for 75 years, and are proud to offer a specialist service in antique lock repairs and antique key cutting.

Whether you are looking for a replacement key for an antique lock, or you have an antique lock that needs to be repaired, restored or rebuilt, our skilled Master Locksmiths Association accredited locksmiths have the expertise to craft handmade keys that function perfectly, whilst remaining sympathetic to the original antique design.

We are also able to reproduce antique locks for external doors, internal doors and gates and regularly assist the owners of heritage properties with locksmith services.

If you have a need for a specialist antique lock and key service, please get in touch.