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Do It Yourself: Maintain and Fix Locks #30DaysofGOOD

A little bit of everyday care and some household products will keep your locks opening smoothly. Read our tips.

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Things are easier said than done, or so the old adage goes, and we couldn't agree more. That's why we do 30 Days of GOOD (#30DaysofGOOD), a monthly attempt to live better. Our challenge for July? Do It Yourself.


Locks are made to be robust and dependable. However, with all their tiny moving parts, even locks made from non-ferrous metals like brass have the potential to seize up. When this happens, your home becomes not only impenetrable to robbers, but to you as well. A little bit of everyday care and some household products will keep your locks opening smoothly.

First, let's look at how locks work. The most common keyed locks are called tumbler locks. They contain a plug, which houses a row of pins of varying heights. When a key is inserted into the lock, it slides into the plug and the jagged edge pushes the pins into alignment, allowing the plug to rotate. When the plug rotates, it latches or releases a clasp, allowing the lock to open or close. Although this style has been refined for centuries, the internal components are very small and can be exposed to a lot of foreign matter and wear.

You can keep your locks rotating smoothly by using a spurt of lubricant every six months. Graphite powder works great for this. You can get it dry, in a small squeezable tube that blows dust inside the lock opening. You can also get it wet, in a spray can with propellant that penetrates deeply into the lock, then evaporates to leave a coating of graphite everywhere. Of the two, the spray version is more thorough, but if you use it, make sure to wear gloves and keep a rag handy to wipe the overspray and leakage.

If you aren't able to stop by a lock shop or hardware store for graphite powder, a few blasts of WD-40 is often sufficient to keep the small pieces sliding smoothly. There's an eternal debate in the DIY community about the right usage of WD40. Technically, it's more of a degreasing solvent than a lubricant, although many people use it for light lubrication jobs like squeaking hinges, and in this case, keeping the pins inside a lock sliding smoothly. The criticism is that it strips away any "real" lubricant and then evaporates, leaving the metal pieces exposed to future seizure.

If you need to fix a stuck lock, here's a truly DIY method. Use a small dollop of motor oil dripped onto your key or into the lock. In a pinch, you can even source the oil from your car's dipstick—pull out the stick and wipe the excess on the key, insert it into the lock, and rotate it various times to help spread the oil internally. And while you're at it, you can make sure your car isn't running low on oil.

Sticking mechanisms aren't always the cause of lock problems. Key or lock damage, or mis-cut spare keys can also cause frustration when you try to get into your house. In those cases, it's best to consult a locksmith. They can reset the pins on your lock and issue you a new key. Many will come to your home to do the job, but if you're comfortable with a screwdriver, you can also remove the lock apparatus and bring it to their shop.

Read more of Mike Senese's DIY tips and projects at DO IT.

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