The Vault Door

“And what might Sir be wanting this time?” The sales assistant’s tone held a hint of sarcasm. I had already been to the counter of a Shepher’s Bush hire shop twice. The first time was to get ear defenders. The second time was to get a breathing mask.

I had been asked to open a vault door that had stayed undisturbed for at least twenty years. This was in the basement of a disused bank building that had been sold once to the usual trade of the area — the rag trade — and was about to be sold again. The upcoming owners wanted full use of the basement but there were these two vaults to be removed. The vault that the late, but probably unlamented, bank had actually been using was already open. Praise be for that. It was a Tann vault door a foot thick with two very serious combination locks, thermal and mechanical relockers, glass, … Something I wouldn’t want to tangle with.

The other vault was much more modest but much more interesting. Because it had a very old Hobbs lock on it and I wanted a Hobbs lock for my practice/collection shelf. I’d already checked with the agent that I could take any “scrap” I wanted.

First of all I’d had a good look around. Inside the scary Tann vault were two regular safes. (By now shoulder-high monstrous safes seemed regular.) And inside one of the safes was a drawer which when picked open contained around 130 keys. Some were labelled; some were not. One of them had looked like a Hobbs key — hooray. But it hadn’t opened the old vault — boo. The key had fitted but nothing inside would budge. I’d sent in clouds of Plusgas penetrating spray with no success. I’d gone away, come back and sprayed WD40, and gone away again. Nothing. Still hadn’t budged.

All this was in an unlit basement that had been deserted for a couple of years. Just me and my portable lamp. I really didn’t want to put a hole in the lock so I had put a little hole in the door and looked inside with a borescope. I could see that one common trick with very old vault doors wasn’t going to work. The boltwork inside the door was pretty robust stuff; it had none of the give that the trick relies on.

So I had decided to make two cuts right through the door and into the main bolt bar thereby removing a crucial section of it, and allowing the handle to move the boltwork despite the lock’s bolt still being engaged in the main bolt bar. (A safe lock has a bolt but that’s not what secures the safe door. The lock’s bolt simply stops the safe’s main bolt work — five 3-inch iron bolts in this case — from moving.)

After two minutes of cutting, I was hearing loud ringing noises. All the walls of the basement were bare and echoing madly. My poor ears. I had brought no ear defenders. (Silly.) But there was a hire shop three doors down the street. So I’d gone and bought some ear defenders.

After another two minutes of cutting I had tasted iron. “This is quite a small cellar; and there’s no air moving”, I thought. “Pretty silly of me not to have brought a mask”. At least the goggles were where they should have been in the van, and were already perched on my nose. Back to the hire shop.

Now I could smell burning. But not burning iron. This door was of giant-sparkler-grade iron. The spark shower was unusually impressive. The sparks were bouncing off the low ceiling and onto what little hair I have remaining.

“Do you have any hats”, I was sheepishly asking the hire shop assistant on my third visit. They didn’t. I remembered being shown how to make a “printer’s pie” at some point in another career. People operating printing presses would make protective hats out of newsprint. So I made myself a hat from that day’s Independent. It must have looked quite a sight. I think I was probably cackling madly by this point.

Well, I got my lock. Undamaged. And, by the time it was finally out of the opened door, the key — yes, it was the right one — had decided to eventually start working.

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  1. […] for a vault door that needed rekeying. This bank was much bigger than the one that was home to my last bank basement vault foolishness. I couldn’t find the bloody thing. It’s not easy to lose a vault door but this basement […]

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