There’s nothing quite like the charm of an older home. Whether you’re restoring a hundred-year-old Craftsman bungalow or you live in a stately Queen Anne, these pieces of history are filled with dreamy little details to discover. And just when you think you’ve found every piece of custom craftsmanship, there’s always something new waiting in a corner or closet.


Spend much time talking to the owner of an older home and you’re bound to hear about crystal doorknobs, stamped bricks hidden in the attic, shaving disposal slots, and more. One of the most charming pieces of history these homeowners are likely to come across is a skeleton key.


Simple, functional, and yet pretty enough to display, the skeleton key is a symbol of a time when craftsmanship was everything. In this post from Minneapolis Lock & Key, we’re taking a closer look at skeleton keys from their history to skeleton key lock repair concerns. To schedule your residential locksmithing services, give us a call today!

What are Skeleton Keys?

When you think of a stereotypical key symbol or image, chances are pretty good you’re thinking of an old-timey skeleton key. Vintage dealers and jewelry makers love them, and they’re often used in art and decor. They’re even the image that’s used when someone is given the keys to a city. But what is a skeleton key, anyway?


The name “skeleton key” says it all. A skeleton key is just that—a type of master key or passkey that’s been stripped down to the basic key function so it can access a number of doors in a home or building. And although we tend to think of skeleton keys as decorative and ornate, any antique key that has a shaft, bow, and flat extension (tooth) to open several locks meets the criteria.

How Does a Skeleton Key Work?

Think about your house key. It’s different from a skeleton key because it has a serrated edge. Without this serration, a skeleton key is able to open a number of locks—typically, they open warded locks.


With a skeleton key, the warded section has been removed, allowing the key to open every lock within a designated system. For skeleton keys that work with lever locks or locks that use a system of wards and levers, the skeleton key bypasses the wards and pushes the levers to the correct height.

History of the Skeleton Key

Lock mechanisms are one of humanity’s most ancient technologies, dating back as early as 6,000 years ago in ancient Assyria. These early locks would evolve into the wooden pin locks used in ancient Egypt and later into the more recognizable warded locks we see today.


In the sixth century BC, Theodorus of Samos would invent the lock and key mechanism, which would later be commonly used by the ancient Romans. Wealthy Romans would use locked boxes to store their valuables, wearing the keys as rings to show off their affluence.


Metal locks and keys came into more frequent use during the medieval period and frequently took the form of Gothic “drunk man’s locks,” which allowed light through the keyholes. These locks were often attractive and ornamental. Skeleton keys would come into use after the invention of the modern flat key and were commonly used during the late 19th century through about the 1950s.

Size of Skeleton Keys

Anyone who collects vintage skeleton keys will likely have a collection of various styles, shapes, and sizes. If you find a skeleton key, you can often determine its use by its size:


●        Tiny skeleton keys are typically used for diaries and jewelry boxes.

●        Small skeleton keys of three inches or smaller usually open furniture and cabinets.

●        Medium skeleton keys are between three to four inches in size and typically work with old doors.

●        Large skeleton keys are used to open gates.

Skeleton Key Design

One of the reasons collectors love skeleton keys so much is that they often hearken back to a time when form was just as important as function. Here are just a few examples of unique skeleton key designs:


●        A key may be stamped with a date.

●        A key may be hand-crafted.

●        It may be engraved with a room number, hotel name, or manufacturer’s name (like the prized Corbin skeleton keys).

●        It may be made of brass or iron.

●        The bow may feature a unique design like a heart or lion.


Some more unique skeleton keys may even be worth some money to collectors. When in doubt, it’s best to talk to an antiques dealer.

What to Do When You Need a Skeleton Key

We’ve talked about some of the cool things you can learn from your skeleton key. But what if you’ve lost yours or you’ve moved into a home with a missing skeleton key? Although skeleton keys can typically open any lock in a system, it may not be as simple as going online and purchasing any old skeleton key. That’s because the diameter of the barrel and size of the key itself can vary from one lock to the next.


If you need a new skeleton key, we’ve got you covered at Minneapolis Lock & Key. Unlike most residential locksmithing services, we’ve been in business since many skeleton keys were brand new. To connect with our residential key creation services, call 612.823.8148 or contact us online today!