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How Do Keys Actually Work?

Most people know how to use a key.

Yet, at the same time, most people don’t know how keys actually work.

For thousands of years, keys have been the method of choice to gain access to places and things.

It’s an everyday mystery: once we insert the key into a lock, what happens? What makes the key turn? What makes the lock open? And how does it all happen inside a tiny, delicate space?

See it in action.

This incredibly cool animation (video source YouTube – Stian Berg Larsen) perfectly illustrates what happens when the right key meets its lock. Enjoy!

The components of a key.

A close up of a key

Keys may be small, but they have many individual parts to them.

What’s truly unique is that all these elements must be absolutely precise.

Or else, the key won’t fit and the lock won’t open. And that’s when frustration sets in.

There are five parts which make up a typical key which you would use in your home or office:


  • Bow (or more commonly called the “Head”): This is the part of the key which sticks out once it’s placed in the door lock (in other words, it’s the part which you hold and turn).
  • Shoulder: This part of the key prevents it from going any further into the lock.
  • Blade: The long, slender part of the key which actually makes its way into the lock.
  • Cuts: Along the blade, you’ll notice little jagged pieces running along it. Those are called cuts.
  • Tip: The pointy end of the key.

How does it all work?

Key cuts

The cuts which are along the blade of the key are designed to align perfectly with the key’s lock. Inside the lock are spring-loaded mechanisms called pins.

When the correct key slides into a lock, the pointed cuts on the blade allow the pins to move up and down until they are lined up along track that’s called a shear line.

When all the pins are synchronized with the shear line, they can turn and the lock will open.

Ever notice that sometimes a key will fit perfectly into a lock, only to not have it open? That’s because one of the pins inside won’t line up with shear line. This will prevent the lock from turning – and ultimately opening.

When your keys don’t work, call us.

Now you know how keys and locks work together.

You should also know to give us a call when your keys and locks aren’t working properly – or if you have a key jammed inside a lock.

Our 24/7 locksmith service will be there – fast – and fix your keys or locks right on the spot.

Got more questions about keys, locks or home security in general? Tell us what you’d like to know; and one of our expert locksmiths will be in touch with you.

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