How to Unlock an Antique Without a Skeleton Key

Antique furniture, especially desks, bureaus and chests, often come equipped with original locks. Normally, you can easily unlock these older pieces with a skeleton key, but sometimes those keys have been misplaced and are inaccessible to you. Fortunately, most American and Western European pieces made from the 18th through the early 20th centuries are fairly simple to work with. In fact, many old locks were built for pure decoration and can be easily bypassed, even without a skeleton key. You may even be able to gain access easily using only common household items.

Key & keyhole with light
credit: haveseen/iStock/GettyImages
How to Unlock an Antique Without a Skeleton Key

Skeleton Keys and How to Find Them

Skeleton keys are known as "bit and barrel" keys and have three distinct parts: the bow, the barrel and the bit. The bow is the round part at the opposite end of the end that you'd insert into the lock. The bit is the carved end that inserts into the lock to disengage it. The barrel is the shaft connecting the two ends.

Most skeleton keys available for purchase are reproductions of original, functional keys that are effective for use on antique furniture locks. Finding the right key for your item can require trial and error. Alternatively, you can look for and purchase a set of keys with varying barrel and bit sizes and configurations. Because the locks on most antique pieces aren't complex in design, a set of eight or ten keys will probably include at least one that fits your piece's lock.

Problems With Old Locks

Old locks can present a few challenges, despite their relative lack of complexity. Most commonly, neglect can render a lock difficult to work with. If the lock in question is on a piece that was stripped and refinished, but the lock itself was not removed before the work was done, it can be clogged with finishing and debris. The solution to this problem is to remove the lock, clean it thoroughly, then use liberal amounts of a lubricant such as WD-40 before attempting to use a key or pick it.

Another common problem with antique locks is a broken spring. This can result in bolts that can be easily moved without a key, bolts that don't align properly with the selvage holes in the lock, or bolts that simply do not lock into the correct position. To resolve this problem, you'll need to disassemble the lock's housing around the pin and bolt so that you can visually examine the spring. Typically, screws secure the lock housing to the other frame. All you have to do is find a screwdriver that fits the screw, remove the screws, then extract the lock's interior mechanism. Work carefully here, because the screws on antiques may be badly rusted or corroded.

If you find a broken spring, you can remove it with a small screwdriver or similar tool. Replace the old spring a salvaged one from a similar lock or even with a piece of a bobby pin.

Consult a Locksmith or Experienced Antique Dealer

Another alternative to repair damaged locks as well as gain access to a locked piece is to consult a locksmith who is experienced in dealing with antique locks, or with an antique dealer. If you can bring the piece itself into the locksmith or dealer's shop, this will probably be more convenient by allowing the expert the greatest possible range of options in repairing and locating a suitable key for your lock.

If that isn't a feasible option, try taking a few high quality pictures of the lock for your selected locksmith or dealer to use in identifying and repairing your lock. Specifically note any engraved markings on the lock. This information may help the locksmith or dealer locate a matching key.

Using Paper Clips and Coat Hangers

To try your hand at picking the lock yourself, you'll need some makeshift tools. Fortunately, those tools are probably within your home already. You can clip a piece of stiff, sturdy wire such as a coat hanger and bend it into shape by creating a 90-degree angle at one end. Be sure to leave enough "barrel" space for you to work with as a handle.

For smaller locks you may find a sturdy paper clip that's been straightened out will fit better into the lock's mechanism. This is especially true for smaller pieces, such as jewelry armoires and jewelry boxes, which tend to have smaller locks with smaller component parts. Like with the wire coat hanger, you'll want to bend one end of the straightened paper clip into a 90-degree angle, leaving enough space on the other end of the clip to grip as a handle.

Picking the Lock

Try inserting the wire or paper clip carefully into your lock's keyhole. Once you feel a little resistance, indicating the wire has been inserted fully, carefully twist the wire. If you feel the lock bolt move into the open position, you've successfully picked the lock. However, more than likely this method will require several tries before successfully opening the piece.