Hand Carved Jailer's Keys

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Project by Brit posted 10-28-2018 07:57 PM 1297 views 4 times favorited 21 comments Add to Favorites Watch

Three years ago my wife and I visited Zion National Park, Utah, USA for a few days during one of our touring holidays on the other side of the pond and one day after a nice hike, we stopped at Wildcat Willies in Springdale for some food.

It was a welcoming place and I quickly made a new friend.

Whilst tucking into my burger and fries…

I looked around at the wild-west memorabilia that adorned the walls. Some of it was humourous…

and some of it was just interesting. One thing that caught my eye was a bunch of old keys (presumably for the jailhouse). I thought they would make a challenging hotel room carving project, so I took a quick photo to remind myself to have a go.

I didn’t set out to make an exact replica of these particular keys, I just used them for my inspiration.

The project started out in my workshop as a short plank of lime wood as wide as the key ring and as thick as the keys. Try to imagine how many saw cuts I had to make and which saws I needed to cut out the basic blank. You’ll have to imagine it, because I didn’t take any pictures of that bit. LOL. Let’s just say it was a lot of careful sawing by hand before I could start carving.

The next thing was to carve the ring to its approximate diameter and separate each key blank from the ring itself so they could move freely around the ring without fear of snapping it.

The rest of the work was all done in various hotel rooms with a Mora carving knife, some small files and a modicum of profanity. I say that because the most frustrating thing about this project was the awkwardness of it. I found that when I was working on a particular key, I had to constantly be aware of where the other keys and the ring were and arrange them so I didn’t inadvertently put pressure on them. Because of this, I kept putting this project aside for a few months and then picking it back up again. I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to throw this project at the wall. Obviously I didn’t, but needless to say I’m relieved to call this one done.

Here’s some progress shots at various points along the journey.

I thought long and hard before ebonizing this piece because I also quite like it au naturel. To help me make my mind up, I took a photo of the finished carving…

and used my photographic software to show the inverse of the image.

To my mind the keys looked more realistic coloured black and seemed to have more weight to them, so I decided to go with that. Now there are a number of ways to ebonize wood. Perhaps the most commonly known is to stuff a load of de-greased steel wool in a jam-jar, fill it up with white vinegar (which is 5-10% acetal acid and 90-95% water), screw the top on, wait a week and then hope for the best. IMPORTANT – You must punch 2 or 3 holes in the lid to let it off gas. When you apply the mixture to wood, you are relying on a chemical reaction to turn the wood black. The extent to which this process is successful depends on the wood you are applying it to. If the wood has a high tannin content, it should work fine. If it doesn’t, you will need to take about 10 tea bags and brew a very strong cup of tea and add that to the mixture. In short, this method can work but it is often a bit hit and miss.

I didn’t even try that method because I already knew that you can’t get any blacker than Indian ink. Not all Indian inks are the same mind you, so you need to do your homework on what they contain. My favourite for this type of application is Windsor and Newton which contains shellac.

Indian ink is lightfast and highly water resistant once dry. I should point out that I intentionally only gave this piece a light sanding to P180 grit because I wanted the keys to have some imperfections and texture under the ink. After all, when you look at old keys they aren’t exactly smooth. I applied the ink with a small flat brush (a little goes a long way) and gave it two coats.

I’m really pleased with the way they turned out. The following photos link through to my Flickr page where you can enlarge them for closer inspection if you’re interested.

Hand Carved Jailer's Keys 1

Hand Carved Jailer's Keys 2

Whilst carving these keys I got to thinking about how much we rely on keys in our everyday lives and before I knew it, I’d written a poem.


-- Andy - Old Chinese proverb says: "If you think something can't be done, don't interrupt man who is doing it."

21 comments so far

View MyChipCarving's profile


648 posts in 3765 days

#1 posted 10-28-2018 08:17 PM

Really well done! Loved your story too.

-- Marty,, 866-444-6996

View Don W's profile

Don W

19500 posts in 3208 days

#2 posted 10-28-2018 08:37 PM

that is awesome! Patience is the key!

-- - Collecting is an investment in the past, and the future.

View duckmilk's profile


3980 posts in 1965 days

#3 posted 10-28-2018 08:57 PM

Wow Andy, those are stunning! I second what Don said above, that took a lot of patience and the poem is very suitable.

-- "Duck and Bob would be out doin some farming with funny hats on." chrisstef

View stefang's profile


17039 posts in 3975 days

#4 posted 10-28-2018 09:35 PM

Amazing Andy. A really fine piece of work to be proud of. Also a great conversation piece to have hanging around the house. I lived in Utah (Sandy) for 5 years. Some truly spectacular nature, both alpine and desert.

-- Mike, an American living in Norway.

View Brit's profile


7891 posts in 3483 days

#5 posted 10-28-2018 09:45 PM

Thanks guys, I appreciate it.

-- Andy - Old Chinese proverb says: "If you think something can't be done, don't interrupt man who is doing it."

View CL810's profile


3991 posts in 3629 days

#6 posted 10-28-2018 10:50 PM

Great craftsmanship and patience Brit! Well done.

-- "The only limits to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today." - FDR

View Northwest29's profile


1695 posts in 3131 days

#7 posted 10-29-2018 02:43 AM

Great project and well done. Thanks for sharing!

-- Ron, Eugene, OR, "Curiosity is a terrible thing to waste."

View therealSteveN's profile


4906 posts in 1215 days

#8 posted 10-29-2018 02:54 AM

Nice job on the keys, look plenty real.

Never got to Wildcat Willies, we’ve been to Zion a number of times. We go to Vegas 2 to 3 times a year, and Zion is one of our regular outbound trips, love the area. Burger looks pretty good, We’ll have to try Willies.

Thanks for posting, and congrats on your 3.

-- Think safe, be safe

View Ivan's profile


15605 posts in 3508 days

#9 posted 10-29-2018 06:26 AM

Very impresive! ...that’s a ’’hard jail time work’’ indeed!

-- Ivan, Croatia, Wooddicted

View rilanda's profile


174 posts in 2795 days

#10 posted 10-29-2018 07:09 AM

great project well executed

-- Bill, Nottingham. Remember its not waiting for the storm to end, but learning to dance in the rain that counts. If you dont make mistakes, you make nothing at all.

View Jim Rowe's profile

Jim Rowe

1103 posts in 2953 days

#11 posted 10-29-2018 09:09 AM

Fantastic workmanship! Now for the matching wooden lock???

-- It always looks better when it's finished!

View Brit's profile


7891 posts in 3483 days

#12 posted 10-29-2018 09:35 AM

Thanks everyone.

Jim – My wife said ”Are you going to build the jail next so I can put you in it?

-- Andy - Old Chinese proverb says: "If you think something can't be done, don't interrupt man who is doing it."

View Oldtool's profile


2812 posts in 2831 days

#13 posted 10-29-2018 11:07 AM

Nice project with a good story behind it.

-- "I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The point is to bring them the real facts." - Abraham Lincoln

View Jim Rowe's profile

Jim Rowe

1103 posts in 2953 days

#14 posted 10-29-2018 11:54 AM

Smart lady your wife!

-- It always looks better when it's finished!

View mikeacg's profile


1300 posts in 1698 days

#15 posted 10-29-2018 12:29 PM

I love whimseys but this is the first time I’ve ever seen keys! Great project to look forward to during this winter’s storms. Thanks for sharing!

-- Mike, A Yooper with a drawl,

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