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I Learned the Hard Way So You Don't Have To: Sticky Locks

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Before last night, if you asked me what to do about a stuck lock I'd have been the first to tell you to look for a lifehack on youtube.  Be smarter than the average Joe Schmo, though, right?  After all, MacGyver was a show about cleverness and improvising, not about going to a professional for advice.

That was before I ended up shivering in the rain, locked out of my house, all my MacGyver-ing to no avail, and that's why I'm here to pass along the professional advice that came along with the locksmith that finally saved us in the end.

Now, the lock in our metal screen had admittedly been sticking for a while.  Sometimes that meant shaking it, sometimes jerking the key, but also sometimes, nothing at all, which made it easy enough to ignore.  When both my wife and our roommate both complained about it, though, I also figured it would be easy enough to fix.

No problem, I've got it handled.

A friend recommended that I go straight for the WD-40.  It seemed logical enough - it gets rid of squeaks, makes hinges swing more smoothly...and in theory, it should loosen locks as well. It did seem to help a little, so I moved on and promptly forgot about the issue, quite satisfied with my handiwork.

 Until, that is, last night.  Last night, which was the coldest and wettest night we've had so far.  Last night, when the deadbolt lock turned to a point just before unlocking...and stopped entirely.  I tried to turn the key, but eventually my chilled fingers just didn't want to try anymore.  When my wife tried, using both hands for extra leverage, it still wouldn't budge.  That kind of situation only makes her more determined, however, and she went at it again with even more determination, at least, that is, until it wrenched right past a snapping point with a tiny chime of broken metal.  There was some blinking, and probably some four-letter words, but then we were quickly back to assessing our situation.

Now what?

My wife's key was hanging just inside the door, tantalizingly out of reach.  The key we hide on the back porch was missing - scary, till we realized after a few texts that our roommate had locked herself out earlier and accidentally taken it.  Naturally, she was also housesitting a forty-five minute drive away.  But, we reflected, even having another key probably wouldn't be of any use if it was just going to snap off anyway.  Not wanting to attempt to pry open or break a window, we brainstormed, and here's where the further attempted-cleverness comes in.

My memory flashed to a youtube I'd glanced at that showed a supposed lifehack for loosening stuck locks, and here's what it said: whittle away the wood from a #2 pencil, exposing the graphite.  Then, simply jam that graphite into the keyhole.  Next, grind up the graphite by pushing your key in and out, and voila!  A happy and smooth lock, just like with the powdered graphite you can buy at the store!

We've got it figured out this time...right?

We didn't have a whittling knife handy, but we did have a car, a grocery store around the corner, and soon enough, mechanical pencils.  Several pieces of ground up graphite later, we inserted half the broken key, turned it with a pair of pliers from the back porch...and promptly broke off even more of the key.

That, naturally, was when we finally gave in and called a locksmith.  We were supremely lucky that as even late at night as it was, he arrived within half an hour.  Not only did he keep us from shivering in the rainy dark much longer, while he worked on the lock, he kindly gave us the professional advice the internet couldn't.  I'll do my best to learn from him and break down how to deal with a sticky lock as simply as possible:

  • Never use WD-40.  It might work initially, but then it will eventually attract dust and create even more of the gunk that makes locks stick.
  • Never use graphite lubricant, either.  It also might work at first, but really only if you buy it in the store, and especially not if you do something as silly as crush up pencil graphite.  In any case, you're effectively adding more debris to the situation, and even if that form of dust also lubricates, it doesn't clean.
  • When you first start to notice the lock sticking, get a lubricant made specifically for the issue.  The difference is that it both lubricates and cleans without adding any debris or potentially gummy oils to the problem.  Our locksmith recommended Tri-Flow, but there are several to choose from.
  • If you're dealing with a deadbolt, remember that it's not just the cylinder (where you're putting the key in) that might be sticking...you also have the latch itself to deal with.  The faceplate of the lock can usually be easily removed with a screwdriver so you can spray the same lock lubricant on the lock mechanism as well.

In any case, we were very lucky in the end - we got a locksmith who went out of his way to help us learn the right way to do things.  For those reading this, I hope you don't have to go through the same cold, wet, frustrating experience we did.  

Take the professional advice we had to pay for, and you won't have to.

Tri-Flow Superior Lubricant - 4oz Aerosol
Amazon Price: $6.95 $3.72 Buy Now
(price as of Dec 2, 2013)
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