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The locks installed on the doors and windows of every home represent the most common, and perhaps most effective, form of security. That means locks can be taken for granted, until they no longer work properly or the key is lost. Homeowners should work to understand the basics behind these essential household devices, as well as how to address common problems related to them.
Types of Locks
The concept behind a lock-and-key mechanism has been around for centuries, so it's no surprise that their basic design hasn't changed much in recent years. At the same time, a number of different types of locks are now available to meet specific needs.
Perhaps the most common type of lock is the pin tumbler lock. Enclosed in a doorknob, these devices contain spring-loaded pins of varying sizes, which must be pushed upward before the knob can be turned to open the door. When the correct key is inserted into a pin tumbler lock, the grooves on the key's blade push the pins up to the precise height needed to allow the inner chamber to turn. Pin tumbler locks are popular because they are relatively secure for most residential applications and generally inexpensive. Since the entire locking mechanism in this device is contained in a single cylinder, pin tumbler locks are also very easy to swap in and out. This comes in handy in apartment buildings, for example, where locks may need to be changed frequently as tenants come and go.
Pin tumbler locks come in a number of configurations. In residential environments, they are the primary mechanism for operating knob locks and deadbolts. Most exterior doors on homes and apartment buildings will have at least one of each of these locks. Knob locks are quick to open and can be convenient when minimal security is acceptable, but they are very easily forced open. When paired with a deadbolt, the door becomes much harder to open. Deadbolts work by driving a thick metal rod into the door frame, which prevents most quick methods of defeating locks, like using a shim or brute force. Still, deadbolts aren't impenetrable, as they can be lockpicked or defeated with much stronger ramming force.
Other common types of residential locks include mortise locks, which combine the action of a doorknob and deadbolt in one. Mortise locks engage a deadbolt with the turn of the key, just as normal. But upon unlocking, the doorknob will open in tandem with the deadbolt. These locks tend to be much stronger than traditional deadbolt designs, but are often harder to install and thus more expensive.
Finally, there's the "jimmy-proof" deadbolt, a type of lock often found in older residences. These locks engage a metal rod that fits into a separate chamber outside of the door frame, rather than through the frame. While its design is simple, it has many advantages over traditional deadbolts or mortise locks. It is impervious to being pried open like many deadbolt systems could be, hence the "jimmy-proof" name. It is also typically harder to pick, and is very inexpensive.
When a lock stops working, no matter where it is in your home or office, it's likely to be a source of frustration. However, it's rare for a lock to suddenly fail to open without exhibiting some signs beforehand.
What To Do If Your Lock Stops Working
Common lock problems include issues opening or engaging the lock, or difficulty securing a door in the proper position to lock it.
- Locks that are stiff or difficult to open may require lubrication. Fortunately, this is one of the easiest maintenance tasks to perform on a lock, and might be worth performing on a regular basis. To lubricate a lock, first get an industrial lubricant like WD-40. Apply the lubricant by spraying it directly into the keyway, which is the hole that accepts the key. Slowly run the key in and out of the lock a few times, then try opening and closing it. This should fix most stiff locks, but if not, you may need to disassemble the lock itself and apply lubricant inside the device.
- Check the door and frame to ensure everything fits in place. Wooden doors and frames are prone to warp and change shape slightly over time due to temperature changes, moisture and many other factors. This can slowly cause the door to move out of alignment with the locks. Make sure the door is hung correctly in its frame, and also check any external screws securing the lock to the door, as these may become loose over time.
- In some cases, the problem may lie with the key instead of the lock. Metal keys can wear out after years of repeated use. This problem can usually be solved by having the key copied by a professional. However, a key that is copied enough times will eventually accumulate errors and may not work even while brand new. In this case, it's probably best to replace the entire lock.
Replacing Your Locks
Since locks are essential security devices that might be used multiple times per day, they are bound to wear out eventually. Rekeying or replacing locks can be done on your own in some cases, but may require a professional locksmith.
When a lock is rekeyed, the cylinder containing the tumbler and pins is removed from its enclosure and replaced with a new cylinder. This is often done when a new tenant moves into an apartment that was previously occupied, but it may also be necessary if a lock needs to be replaced.
Replacing all components of a cylinder lock, or working with locks that don't use a pin tumbler system, requires a different procedure for replacement. Installing a new lock of the same type will be the most straightforward option.
- First, determine the type of lock you have, as well as the manufacturer or model if possible. You should also obtain measurements of your door and frame.
- Remove exterior and interior knobs by unscrewing any visible screws you find. Many knobs will include a decorative cover on the interior side that can be removed.
- Once you've removed the entire lock, find the screws on the inside of the door frame to remove the latch or deadbolt.
- With everything removed, repeat these steps in reverse order to install the new lock.
If you want a new lock that is different from your old set, more advanced installation is required, and you may want to consider hiring a professional for the job.
The term locksmith traditionally referred to people who designed and built locks, but today is generally used for those who repair and replace locks. Locksmiths can be available on-call to help people if they're locked out of their home or apartment.
If you've lost your keys or are otherwise unable to enter a locked building that you normally have access to, you will need to call your local locksmith. To save money and ensure you're hiring a reputable contractor, it may help to do some research on locksmiths in your area ahead of time, so you can be prepared if you need to call one.
- If possible, research local locksmiths online and take note of any that have poor reviews or complaints.
- When calling a locksmith, confirm their address matches what you found online or in a directory. Then ask for a cost estimate for the service you need, and ask to have them bring a written copy of this estimate.
- Some states require locksmiths to be licensed. If your state is one of them, require the locksmith to bring proof of registration when they arrive.
Upon arrival to your home, a locksmith should ask you to prove that it is in fact your residence. They should also be able to unlock most common locks without requiring them to be drilled or completely replaced. Be sure to obtain an invoice that lists all charges before agreeing to pay.
Training to Be a Locksmith
Locks are ubiquitous around the world, which means the skills to service them are always in demand. Becoming a locksmith could be a rewarding career opportunity, but like any other job, will require a bit of preparation.
Locksmiths do not generally require formal education, but need to undergo extensive hands-on training and possibly certification. Locksmiths-in-training can receive foundational knowledge and skills through programs offered at technical colleges or vocational schools. These would include basic courses on lock mechanics and manipulation, along with general skills like business management.
From there, most trainees seek an apprenticeship, where they work alongside a professional locksmith. This allows them to gain experience in the field. It can also put them on a course toward certification, which involves a standardized procedure that, once completed, allows locksmiths to legally conduct business in their state.
Successful locksmiths need to be skilled with their hands and in the use of tools. While these skills are essential for the day-to-day tasks that a locksmith performs, they also benefit immensely from being personable and able to work with people to solve problems.
There are a number of trade associations and organizations for locksmiths that may help them find work, receive training and connect with like-minded business partners. These organizations may also help consumers find a reputable locksmith. Locksmith trade associations in the U.S. include:
- Associated Locksmiths of America
- Society of Professional Locksmiths
- Institutional Locksmiths' Association
Contact these organizations to learn more about how to become a locksmith, or how to go about choosing the right professional for your needs.