Pick or over-ride lock on antique roll top desk?

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Forum topic by JeffP posted 05-21-2015 11:34 PM 15515 views 0 times favorited 11 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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573 posts in 1839 days

05-21-2015 11:34 PM

Topic tags/keywords: question

I realize this is a bit off topic for lumberjacks, but at the same time I suspect it is a good potential audience for the topic and may yield some useful suggestions.

I recently inherited a circa 1900 roll-top desk which has been locked for about 50 years now. I also inherited a bag full of antique keys…only problem is that NONE of those keys work on the desk.

I have fiddled with it for a couple of hours and didn’t get anywhere. I don’t want to force it open and break the lock, but at the same time, I don’t feel a need to preserve its lockability. As long as there is no cosmetic damage, any opening technique would suit me.

So, any ideas on how these locks work and how I can get it open?

-- Last week I finally got my $*i# together. Unfortunately, it was in my shop, so I will probably never find it again.

11 replies so far

View Picken5's profile


281 posts in 3139 days

#1 posted 05-22-2015 03:53 AM

Can you post some photos of the lock – well, what you can see with it being locked? Many old roll-top desks used double-bitted lever locks. Below is a picture of a modern knock-off of one that you can get from Kennedy Hardware if you’re restoring an old roll-top desk.

If that’s what it is, the older ones can be pretty difficult to pick. The lock manufacturer “borrowed” the design of this lock from old safe locks. The desk version had fewer levers so they weren’t as secure, but the double tangs on the bolt in the photo is what the lock makers wanted in their design. Turning the key would retract the two tangs on either side of the bolt. The bolt went into the strike plate and the 2 tangs went behind the strike plate. (The rectangular shape in the middle of the strike plate is actually a spring-loaded cover that pushes out of the way when the bolt enters it and then springs closed when it comes out. It keeps dirt from falling into the hole of the strike which is usually in the base of the desk just below the lock. I’ve seen similar locks on jewelry boxes.

I used to be a locksmith many years ago and my brother-in-law had the same problem so he asked me if I could pick it. I’ll admit I was pretty rusty at picking when I tried, so I failed. Couldn’t pick it. You might find an old-timer locksmith in your area to give it a whirl. With my brother-in-law’s desk, we managed to pry up the roll-top about 3/16” without damaging anything, then fashioned a make-shift right angle screw driver with a very short “L” on the blade end and slowly – very slowly – managed to loosen the screws on the strike plate enough to get it open.

If you can get to the underside of the desk top where the strike is installed, may be able to drill a couple of small (I’m thinking 1/8” dia) up at an angle so the drilled holes end up in the cavity of the bolt. Then you may be able to insert 2 stiff wires (coat-hanger wire) into each hole and push the tangs back into the bolt. The tangs are most likely spring loaded so you could lock the desk by just pulling down the desk’s roll-top.

Good luck.

-- Howard - "Time spent making sawdust is not deducted from one's lifetime." - old Scottish proverb

View JeffP's profile


573 posts in 1839 days

#2 posted 05-22-2015 09:55 AM

Thanks so much!

Someone had long ago hogged out some of the wood underneath the strike plate. Even with that, since I didn’t know what the mechanism looked like or how it worked, I was not able to fiddle it open.

I will tray again now that I know what I’m trying to move and in which direction.

BTW, except for the big fancy decorative plate on the front, the part of mine I can see looks very much like your photo.

-- Last week I finally got my $*i# together. Unfortunately, it was in my shop, so I will probably never find it again.

View JeffP's profile


573 posts in 1839 days

#3 posted 05-22-2015 01:02 PM

Thanks Picken! Just got the top of the desk open.

Lots of moderately old desk-type stuff from the 60’s and 70’s in there.

Found a speeding warning ticket that my Mom got in 1998. :)

Probably the most interesting thing I found in there was a key…to the desk.

-- Last week I finally got my $*i# together. Unfortunately, it was in my shop, so I will probably never find it again.

View SirIrb's profile


1239 posts in 1677 days

#4 posted 05-22-2015 01:06 PM

pay a locksmith to pick it and make a key. post pics of what you find inside.

-- Don't blame me, I voted for no one.

View Picken5's profile


281 posts in 3139 days

#5 posted 05-22-2015 02:04 PM

Glad it worked out for you, Jeff.

-- Howard - "Time spent making sawdust is not deducted from one's lifetime." - old Scottish proverb

View BurlyBob's profile


6358 posts in 2712 days

#6 posted 05-22-2015 02:50 PM

But of course the safest place to keep a key, is on the inside of the locked desk. Brilliant!!! Thankfully you didn’t have to damage it.

View Tim's profile


3821 posts in 2408 days

#7 posted 05-23-2015 05:28 PM

That is funny, but it’s good to have the key in any case.

View ams123's profile


1 post in 979 days

#8 posted 12-10-2016 07:12 PM

Thanks to everyone who’s posted here (and a few other places around the internet), I got my roll top desk open!
Posting my technique in case it can help someone else:

If you remember your missing key looks similar to the picture posted by Picken5 above (a two-sided simple skeleton key,)

OR if looking into the lock you see a small round hole in the background with a slot that goes both below and above that hole in the foreground (imagine the very end of the key pictured fitting into the hole and the side parts filling the slots)

The strategy is to create a fake key that just approximates the side parts of the original key – just enough to fit into the slots and turn like the real key!

1. Find a regular-sized binder clip (not mini, should be about 1.5 inches) + a thicker rubber band + masking tape + a metal file or pliers
2. Squeeze one of the metal legs of the binder clip so it comes off – Now you’ll have a roughly V shaped piece of metal, with little wings at the top of the V
3. Use your fingers and the rubber band to squeeze the V together. You’re trying to get the sides to come together so those top little wings form the top of a capital I shape. This takes a lot of squeezing, but you can do it! (Pliers would probably help if you have them handy)
4. Once you get the two sides pretty close together, use masking tape to do the last bit of squeezing – wrapping it around the part closest to the little wings end (keeping the rubber band at the front end makes it too thick to fit into the lock.)
5. Now you have a “key” – test out the size and use a metal file to make the wings shorter if needed to fit into your lock. If you don’t have a real metal file, you can try cutting the ends a bit with pliers – but be careful because the spring steel of the binder clip is super hard.
6. Once your “key” is small enough to fit into the lock, use it like a regular key – mine took several turns to throw the latch, but it worked!

Good luck!

View Jim Jakosh's profile

Jim Jakosh

22994 posts in 3552 days

#9 posted 12-12-2016 01:26 AM

That is what makes Lumberjocks so great! You can get input from any of 140,000 people with a myriad of backgrounds!!.

cheers, Jim

-- Jim Jakosh.....Practical Wood Products...........Learn something new every day!! Variety is the Spice of Life!!

View GeneHill's profile


1 post in 2 days

#10 posted 08-15-2019 05:04 AM

Clever key!!

I just removed the top of the desk. From under you can see the two flanges that pop out to lock the top to the base. Just push each in with a flat blade screwdriver and pop the lock open. Hope this works for you.

View OleGrump's profile


359 posts in 792 days

#11 posted 08-16-2019 05:10 PM

Glad you got your desk open. Congratulations on a wonderful inheritance, of which many of us are envious, no doubt. I’m surprised no one has asked the question: Is the roll a “C” or an “S” type? I hope for your sake it’s an “S”, as they are not only the most desirable, it seems the interior is more spacious and laid out better.
Ain’t it fun digging through the contents of an antique desk?

-- OleGrump

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