The straight dope on skeleton keys

Sometime during my childhood, my father explained to me that there was such a thing as a “skeleton key”, which could open any lock. I’ve seen it mentioned in many places, but it recently occured to me that I only see references to skeleton keys in older books, movies, etc… Did skeleton keys really exist? Could they open every door, most doors, or only a few doors? Would they work as well today as they used to?

Skeleton keys were only useful on old ward locks, not on more modern Yale locks which are pretty much universal today.

The picture at the top of this page:

shows some ward lock keys, so you’ll know what I’m talking about. Compare them to the keys you have in your pocket. The wards were the obstacles the key had to get past to open the door. Skeleton keys were made of nothing but metal wire, or just about, so they got past just about all wards.


They still can come very much in handy when buying, say, antique furniture or something like that.

There has never been one all-purpose skeleton key that can open any lock.

Until fairly recently, for any traditional type of lock, it was possible to create a set of skeleton keys such that, if you applied the skeleton keys systematically to the lock, and had the right combination of skill and luck, there was a strong chance you could defeat the lock. As well as skeleton keys, some people also made picks, which are not keys at all. Picks are made from sections of wire and pieces of thin ‘shim’ steel. Again, it was possible to create a set of picks designed to be used on a given type of lock, although picks would work on a broader range of locks than skelton keys. Using picks correctly takes knowledge, skill and lots of practise.

Today, modern locks are generally too sophisticated to be defeated by any simple use of either skeleton keys or picks, although as a general rule (and at the risk of stating the obvious), the cheaper the lock, and the older and more traditional the design, the easier it will be to defeat it.

I once owned a set of picks designed for use with Yale locks. I bought the set over the counter for cash at a shop in South London (the shop is no longer there).

Digressing slightly… it is relatively rare these days for anyone to bother actually using skeletons or picks. It is usually simpler and quicker to either eliminate the lock (smash it out, drill it out, break through by sheer physical force) or eliminate the need to get around it (steal the right key, trick someone into giving you access). Note also that these days a lot of security issues don’t concern physical locks but software locks such as passwords and pass codes. See Kevin Mitnick’s book on ‘social engineering’ for information on how people get around these.

I grew up in a huge stone house built in the early 1900s with ward locks and a skeleton key that opened them. Man that house was awesome.

Most cheap house door-type locks can be readily defeated by a novice with a snap pick and a torsion wrench. While more sophisticated locks to exist with features that cause the tumblers to bind across the shear line (mushroom or spool tumblers) the vast majority of locks you come across on a daily basis are pretty easy to pick. Even more expensive plain tumbler locks can be bypassed by someone with a moderate level of experience. Some manufactures, like Schlage, will add addtional features like a bump rib, a second set of tumblers, or retracted tumblers that require specialized tools to open.

I doubt it was ever common for professional burglers to use lockpicks and engage the lock directly. It’s always been much easier, generally speaking, to attack another part of the security chain; with many older, non-deadbolt locks it’s easy to use a putty knife to shift the latch, or to use a crowbar to pry the door jam away, and it’s not hard to break a window silently if you want to. Lock bypass is an exercize for clandestine entry, locksmiths, and hobbyists.

As for the OP, although universal skeleton keys don’t exist for modern pin or wafer tumbler locks, they still find use for simple warded locks like those found on handcuffs, cheap luggage, et cetera. Don’t believe the crap you see on television about magic pick guns either, where the detective/thief/whatever inserts the pick needle into the lock, pulls the trigger, and voila, the lock is open. It doesn’t work like that at all.


These “old” keys are still quite common in Europe. Most of the keys on my keyring are for ward locks.

My wife worked for a lock shop and I have installed, repaired and service quite a few locks of all kinds myself.
I do not recall of having seen a skeleton (warded lock) key made of wire.
Most were of cast iron or similar metal. If one had to be made to fit a steel blank was cut on a machine as far as possible and then filed to fit by hand.

Ah, I stand corrected.