Having a key break off in one of your locks can be a real pain in the neck. But with the proper information, you can better understand the problem and take steps to solve it. With the information I provide in this article, you stand a perfect chance of removing the key yourself and preventing it from happening to you in the future.
WHAT CAUSES KEYS TO BREAK
Most keys, even brass and nickel-plated keys, will eventually wear out and break along any of a key’s cuts. But some conditions will speed up the process, such as:
1. The key has one or more deep cuts, which become the “weak point” of the key. After so much use (or just a little abuse), the key will break at these points. Having a deep cut as the first cut (next to the head of the key) can be real trouble, but a deep cut in the middle of the key can cause big problems too;
2. The key is made of a light-weight material not suitable for everyday use. Keys cut on aluminum blanks are a prime example. They will also break at a deep-cut “weak point” only sooner. Identified by their lightweight and either grey in color or sometimes bright colors such as red, green, blue, or gold.
Usually, before a key breaks, one or more tiny cracks will appear by the cut about to give way. You may want to check your keys right now -at least the ones you use and depend on every day. If you see a tiny crack being formed by one of the cuts or if the key is bent or misshapen in any way, go to your nearest locksmith or key shop and get another one or two made. And to be safe, don’t carelessly toss the old key away. A new key could be made from the pieces and used to access your property.
BROKEN KEY REMOVAL TOOLS
We, locksmiths, have a variety of tools for removing broken keys from locks. One of the more common tools I use is made of springy steel that is 5″ long, 5/16″ wide at the handle, and .022″ thick. There is a small tapered barb at the end of this tool that will dig or “bite” into the broken key piece so the piece can be pulled out.
It is not necessary to invest in a broken key extractor tool. As long as the tool you use is made of sturdy metal, is narrow enough to enter the keyway, and has a barb to grab onto the broken key, you will likely be successful. A scroll saw or jigsaw blade should do the trick.
PROCEDURE #1 – Partial Key Broken Off In Lock
When a deep cut gets too weak somewhere in the middle of a key, you end up with the key’s front part in the lock and the remainder in your hand. The good news is the lock is probably in the proper position for key removal (more on that later).
FIRST – unless the lock has been in good working order (with the key going in and out smoothly) before the key breaking off, I suggest spraying a lubricant such as WD-40 or Tri-Flow in the lock’s keyway first. You want the broken key piece to slip out as easily as possible, and a dry or gummy lock will make the job harder.
SECOND – insert the removal tool into the lock’s keyway so that the barb (or teeth) can contact the key piece’s cuts to be removed. It would help if you told me how far to insert the tool based on how much of the key you still have in your hand.
THIRD – let the barb “bite” into one of the broken key pieces’ cuts and give the tool a sharp tug towards you. The key piece should be coming flying out.
FOURTH – take the two pieces of the key to your local locksmith or key center and get another one or two made.
PROCEDURE #2 – All But Key’s Head Broken Off In Lock
When the first cut in the key is deep and gets too weak, you end up with just the key’s head in your hand. Most of the time, what remains in the lock is the operating part of the key. All key cuts necessary to operate the lock are stuck in the lock (if you are fortunate, enough of the key will be sticking out, so small pliers/tweezers are all you need to remove the broken piece-but that usually doesn’t happen). You can test if the lock will operate by taking a small screwdriver and, using it as a key, try turning the lock cylinder. If the lock cylinder does not turn, follow procedure #1. If you can turn the cylinder more than a few degrees to the right or left, you have to make sure the lock cylinder is positioned to remove the key. Let me explain…
Most locks have one position that a lock cylinder must be in for key removal. If you were to insert a key in almost any pin tumbler lock and turn it, the key could not be removed until the lock cylinder is back in the proper key removal position. The same is true when removing a broken key piece that still works the lock. The key cylinder must be in its normal key removal position, or you will be wasting your time trying to remove the broken piece.
As in Procedure #1, we suggest spraying a lubricant such as WD-40 or Tri-Flow in the lock’s keyway first.
SECOND – insert the removal tool into the lock’s keyway so that the barb (or teeth) can contact the key piece’s cuts to be removed. It would help if you did not have to insert the tool very far – so that it reaches the first or second cut of the key piece.
THIRD – let the barb “bite” into one of the broken key pieces’ cuts and give the tool a sharp tug towards you. The key piece should be coming flying out of the keyway.
FOURTH – take the two pieces of the key to your local locksmith or key center and get another one or two made.
Now that you have read through this information, you should be ready to attempt removing a broken key on your own.

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