How Do Skeleton Keys Work?

When you need to find a key or unlock a lock, you should reach for your trusty skeleton key. These ancient tools are now used in many professions including locksmithing and law enforcement. But how do they work? This article will give an overview of the history and function of this handy tool for unlocking doors.

What Is a Skeleton Key?

A skeleton key is a type of lock pick that some people use to open the door. The name comes from the fact that it has small metal pins or “teeth” on one side, which are inserted into and move around in all areas of an unknown lock’s internal mechanism when turned by hand. Skeleton keys are usually made out of steel or other metal that is not reactive with rusting when exposed to moisture. They come in various sizes depending on what type of locks they are designed to open. Skeleton keys can be used to bypass the locking system on various types of locks, which is why they are sometimes referred to as “lock-picking tools.” A skeleton key is a type of key that features a unique shape at the end to unlock wards or locks with obstructions inside. A true skeleton key does not exist, but people often use this term when referring to three different types of keys:

  • Skeleton Key – This key is a must-have for any professional locksmith. It has an axial shaft and may fit many different lock types because it comes with pre-cut bits that can be fitted to the specific customer’s needs. The solid cutting edge of this tool will also help you make quick work of opening doors when time is tight. This skeleton key does not just look cool; its durable construction makes it perfect for professionals who need tools they know won’t fall apart in their hands whenever there are emergencies on site.
  • Bit Key – This key has a series of triangular metal pieces mounted on the shaft. It is not as flexible as other types, but it can be used to open many different lock styles and sizes because you can use them interchangeably with each one. The Bit Key may look like just another cool skeleton key for your collection, but its versatility makes this tool worth considering for your toolkit.
  • Barrel Key – These keys are lighter in weight because they contain less metal. They can slide over a post or pin inside the lock when you insert them into that hole, which means it is easier to open locks with skeleton keys than other types of key shapes such as square or triangle-shaped ones.

How Do Skeleton Keys Work?

Skeleton keys, also called tubular locks or pin tumbler locks, are a type of cylindrical lock with pieces that can be opened by rotating the key. The name comes from their long thin shape which resembles a human skeleton’s ribcage and spine. They have several pins on top of each other that require skillful manipulation to open. Skeleton keys only work with lever locks and certain types of warded locks.

Lever Locks

  • Lever locks are the most common type of safety lever locks and use a tubular key that can be turned to open or close.
  • Lever locks are an essential security device for outdoor gates, fences, railings, and other high-risk areas because they require both hands on the lock in order to release it.
  • The skeleton key can push the levers to the correct height while bypassing wards. It does not matter which lock you’re opening, only that you have a master key with two of its pins intact. As long as those three or four pinholes are all aligned and pushed down at once in your own set order – it will grant access.
  • Lever-type locks are intricate and often complex, making them hard to pick. The key must be at the right height so that it pushes all of the levers up just enough for you to push your way through with a small amount of force.
  • The key is inserted into the lock and must be turned at an angle to align each of the pins. It is then required to push down on all three or four levers, depending on which type you have, in a specific sequence – typically one per side.

Warded Locks

  • Warded locks are the most common type of lock-in used today. The earliest known warded locks were found on Roman sites, dating back to the second century BC.
  • The wards are a series of vertical slits or notches that are designed to keep out anyone without a key with matching shapes.
  • When trying to pick a warded lock, you need to find the right-sized key with corresponding notches and guide it into place.
  • A warded lock is a variation on this design that also uses pins as an additional security measure. The ward slits are cut so they can be raised up when the correct key is inserted, but still, block out everything else.
  • The more complex the lock, the more picks you’ll need to find it.
  • Skeleton keys are often used to open warded locks. Originally, skeleton keys contained the majority of metal that would not interfere with any wards in place on a lock and were mainly made for furniture such as china cabinets where they provided an elegant solution but also allowed easy access when needed.
  • As time went by manufacturers began adding more and more wards around the outside of their locks, preventing these types of skeleton keys from working effectively.
  • Nowadays other than being used for opening some antique pieces or old furniture, it is rare to come across this type of key which has now been replaced by pin tumblers among others.


Skeleton keys nowadays are often just used in cartoons and movies as an easy way to get access into a building. In reality, skeleton keys can still be purchased but they serve very little purpose outside of novelty items. This is due to the fact that modern locks are more robust and can withstand greater force than earlier models thanks to advances in technology. With this information learned about how skeleton keys work, you should be able to use them as a mechanism in your own writing.

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