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My new old house has skeleton key locks throughout. The home was remodeled and had new locks added to the entry doors on the main floor to use, however the skeleton key setup is still there for looks.. Although it does work throughout the house and at every door still.

We have an unfinished basement with an exit door that has one of these old locks as well, but they didn't add anything new and so it honestly is the only way to open this door.

It was working last week when we were moving in and cleaning up, but now it's no longer working. The door is locked shut and whenever I put the key in, I can make it into the inner chamber and rotate the key somewhat both ways, but it comes to a stop and I can't get it to turn or anything. I could try forcing it, but I don't have anything, that I know of, that I could get in there that would be able to do the job. That and I don't know if the shape matters like modern keys.

I tried taking the cover off in hopes that this might give me some access to it, but it only removes the handle. I'll attach a picture below.

Old lock without cover

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Is it possible the bolt is binding? You've already got the mechanism lubed up, spray some between the door and the jamb around the latch too. Try putting a prybar or big screwdriver or wood shim or etc. under the door and lifting it a little, see if it turns; same thing with the prybar on top of the door, and on the latch side. Push or pull the door a little and see if it will turn. If it's binding just a little pressure in the right direction may be enough to let it move.

  • I didn't see this answer to try it, but I believe this is what would have worked. I was able to get some WD40 in it and then found this right angled pick that was a little big for the lock, but I was able to twist it until I got it in and then forced the lock open. However, when I went to close it back, the bolt is/was hitting just beside the hole. I forced the door shut and then could open and close it fine. Seems to be wearing against the wood. Tightening it up on the hinges would prevent this from happening again. Thanks everyone. – TFK Jan 8 '16 at 2:49
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Generally, this type of lock is really easy to service. If you remove it completely from the mortise on the door (after removing the door from the hinged side), you should be able to find the screws to remove the lock cover. You'll see something similar to this (although there are innumerable designs):

mortise lock innards

Once you have the lock open, it's a fairly straight-forward process of cleaning out the gunk, checking to make sure that the springs are intact and functional, and oiling or greasing as appropriate. While you have it apart, I'd also check the key that you have to make sure it engages the lock appropriately. If not, you might have to get a new one made.

Image from The York Town Snuggery - http://bmorelife.blogspot.com/2012/02/mortise-lock-repair-101.html

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It could be the wrong key, there are only a few designs. You can usually get them at Mom & Pop hardware stores. Plan B is to take the pins out of the hinges & take the whole door out to then remove the old lock & fill the mortises with glued-in oak.

  • We only have the one key, and it works on every lock in the house - it still works on others so I know it's not the key. – TFK Jan 7 '16 at 1:44
  • Typically, entry doors would have a different & bigger key. I thought not to mention it, but If you have a right angled flat head screwdriver you can see if that fits & turns after some wd40 or something. – Iggy Jan 7 '16 at 1:57
  • Oops, I misread your answer the first time. I get what you meant now. The keyholes are all the same size throughout and the key fits them pretty well. As for the hinges, I pulled the pins but the door won't flex any/enough to get it to pull out. I don't own a right angled screwdriver myself, but I'll see what I can find. – TFK Jan 7 '16 at 2:17
  • Oh, that's too bad. The hinge thing usually can be wiggled out, crowbar it if you don't really care about the door or the jamb. But, if you can't get another key or get your key to budge it from a lot of spray lubrication. I'd have to say cut the deadbolt with a few recip-saw or jig saw blades or maybe a grinder blade or 3. – Iggy Jan 7 '16 at 2:27
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    I'm glad you opted to not ruin the door, hopefully it has a beautifully stripped & refinished future unbeaten by any new door. – Iggy Jan 7 '16 at 2:46

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