How Do Skeleton Keys Work?

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Skeleton keys tend to give off an eerie and mysterious vibe in literature and thrillers, but what is a skeleton key? While skeleton keys have made a name for themselves in mystery novels, these antique keys used to serve a practical purpose in homes. Though they're mainly used as collector items today, if you live in an older home, you may find some lying around that you can put to good use.

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What's a Skeleton Key?

Skeleton keys are a type of master key used to open a series of locks on a similar system. Skeleton keys became popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, but key and lock systems have been used throughout history, possibly dating back 4,000 years.

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Skeleton keys were given their name not because they were made from bone but because they were stripped down to the necessities, or bare bones. Most skeleton keys are long and narrow with an ornate design, but they can vary in style. Though they vary in style, all include three essential parts: a bow, barrel, and bit.

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The bow is the key's handle. It is often circular or may include an ornate design. The barrel is the longest part of the key and is typically long and narrow on skeleton keys. The barrel links the bow and bit to one another. The bit is at the key's end, and the part is inserted into the lock to open it.

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How Do Skeleton Keys Work?

While skeleton keys can open multiple locks, they cannot open them all. The locks need to be on a similar system for the key to work. These systems are often found within a home or business. Skeleton keys can open numerous locks in a system because the serrated or jagged edge is removed. This allows the key to fit into a system of warded and lever locks and to open multiple locks with a single key.

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Can You Replace a Skeleton Key?

If you recently purchased a house or antique cabinet with a missing skeleton key, you may be able to have a replacement made. Most locksmiths should be able to create a new key to fit your lock.

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You can also try purchasing standard skeleton keys online or at a hardware store to see if they work for your lock. Most of the skeleton key locks you find in old homes or furniture are a combination of three popular styles sold online and at hardware stores.

What Are Skeleton Keys Used for Today?

While you may find skeleton keys in homes built in the 18th or 19th centuries or at an antique store, they've become more ornamental than functional. Some people enjoy collecting antique skeleton keys, which can vary in price from $10 to $1,000.

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Skeleton keys are also a popular ornament on jewelry, like necklaces and pendants. These are often popular birthday or graduation gifts since they symbolize access and the ability to unlock any door.

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