Review of Upscale House Locks
This was written in 2014. Please see the 2016 addendum at the end for recent changes.
Here I will review the Kwikset Smart Key, which has a different technology and thus warrants its own review. A package containing a matching deadbolt and lever in black retails for $70 at Home Depot, about double the price of their conventional pin tumbler lock. The $45 Schlage reviewed in my previous column is available with a lever and in black for $63. The $63 model gets all the same number of stars as the $45 model, as the difference is one of aesthetics only. It is mentioned again so the Smart Key and Bump Stop can be compared directly to the inexpensive locks previously reviewed.
Also, I will here review Master’s Bump Stop design, though without mentioning price since they are not available at Home Depot or, as far as I know, any hardware store; suffice it to say that they are less expensive than Schlage, but not as nice looking. Master is not available in black, which is always more expensive, nor is it available in sets of matching levers and deadbolts. There are levers available, but they are commercial grade, with large roses, and do not look as nice in a residential setting.
Historical note: Master used to sell only padlocks and, when they introduced house locks, they tried to force retailers to buy them by saying, “If you do not buy our house locks, then you cannot buy our padlocks.” Retailers responded, “Very well; cancel our padlock order. Goodbye.” Master back pedaled, but a lot of retailers – including, apparently, Home Depot – never forgave them. But Master’s marketing tactics are of no concern to me and I will review them here without bias.
The Schlage and the Smart Key are black in color; prices are current for Home Depot in August 2014. The Master is not compared on the basis of price.
|Smart Key Lever
|Keyway||SC1||KW1||SC1 or KW1|
|Twist Resistance||*****||* (pre-2016) ***** (post 2016)||*****|
One good thing about Smart Key levers is that the cylinder and the interior switch for changing the function are the same diameter, so the inside and outside levers can be swapped, making them ambidextrous. Levers with pin-tumbler cylinders are handed; installing the wrong one is a common mistake. Commercial-grade levers are straight, but residential-grade levers of the type reviewed here should be convex upwards; convex downwards looks funny and is not very ergonomic. This is not a liability for Schlage if you are buying it from a locksmith who knows the difference between left- and right-hand doors. But, if you buy it yourself and install it wrong, a locksmith cannot fix a Schlage, only sell you a new one; he can fix a Smart Key by switching the levers. This issue does not affect my review, but is something the consumer should be aware of.
Smart Key can be twisted open. This discovery was a godsend for locksmiths. When they first appeared in hardware stores and I had gotten over the shock of Kwikset – who had not had an original idea in 60 years – doing something completely new, I was like, “How are we going to open this?” Like the General Motors ignition switch, it cannot be picked without putting pressure on the sidebar and there is no way to do that. Because there are two drill points, it is difficult to drill. Believe it or not, for the first month or two after its release, my standard opening technique was to chop the entire lever off with a reciprocating saw. I did not get any customers locked out of a deadbolt during this time – because deadbolts cannot be locked without a key, they rarely result in accidental lockouts – and I was not looking forward to drilling one.
The fact that Smart Key can be twisted open did not stay a secret for long. Thanks to the internet, everybody now knows this technique. YouTube videos of teenagers twisting open Smart Key locks are now so prevalent that the technique is referred to as Kwikset’s “internet problem.” Back in the day, when printed material was the only means to disseminate knowledge, publishers had a code of conduct that precluded how-to manuals for criminals. A few publishers, like Paladin Press, broke that code, but book stores would not stock their books and so the information was not easy to find for the uninitiated. Unfortunately, the internet does not have any such code of conduct and videos of Smart Key locks being twisted open can be found by anybody that Googles “Smart Key.”
Master’s Bump Stop is halfway towards the How to Modify an Inexpensive Lock instructions that I provide. But halfway is not half as good; the objective is to present the attacker with a dilemma. One must have both a very short and a very long bottom pin. The former can be defeated with a Babe Ruth bump and the latter can be defeated with a granny bump, but one cannot be Babe Ruth and granny at the same time. Presenting an attacker with a dilemma is similar to combined arms tactics in the military. The enemy dodges one weapon and walks right into another. If used alone, the enemy could always dodge your weapons, though in different ways. But, if used in conjunction, even relatively weak weapons can prevail.
Not only is Bump Stop only halfway towards my modification, it is easy to pick open, because the short bottom pin rests on a little ledge and this ledge is in all the pin chambers (to allow the bump-resistant pin to be positioned anywhere) and it makes all the other pin chambers easy to pick. I am not sure why Master wants the short bottom pin sitting up there. What is wrong with having no ledge and just matching a short bottom pin to a long top pin as I recommend?
So we see that Smart Key gets five stars in pick resistance and one star in twist resistance; Bump Stop is just the opposite, getting one star in pick resistance and five stars in twist resistance. If burglars chose their tools randomly, then it would be hard to say which lock is better. But burglars are not ignorant; a Google search of “Smart Key” or “Bump Stop” quickly informs the burglar that the former can be twisted and the latter picked. In the modern internet age, there is no reason to expect a burglar to bring locks picks against a Smart Key lock when there are YouTube videos on the internet of these locks getting twisted open in ten seconds. Nor can one expect a burglar to try twisting a pin tumbler lock such as the Bump Stop.
The Smart Key is more drill resistant than its competitors, but that is irrelevant because it can be twisted open.
Smart Key cylinders are not durable; even in the absence of burglars twisting them open, they sometimes just stop working. This seems to be especially a problem here in the Southwest because we get a lot of dust storms, but I have found cylinders that did not work even in brand new locks. Regardless of security concerns, the Smart Key is just not durable enough for high traffic areas, such as the gates of apartment complex swimming pools. It is only a matter of time before the cylinder fails. Also, I have seen instances of drive-by rekeyings; that is, tenants who have been issued a pool key rekeying the gate lock to their own key in an effort to take command of the pool area.
It amazes me the lengths people will go to eject those they do not want from the pool and introduce non-residents they do want into the pool. In one case I was replacing a $70 Schlage pool latch every few days because it was getting kicked open. The management finally caught that guy and pressed criminal charges against him; his desire to go swimming has now excluded him from most gainful employment because of his criminal record. Duh!!!
Anyway, getting back to the subject of locks, Smart Key uses the same latch as the pin tumbler Kwikset locks reviewed in the previous column. I will not repeat that information here, but suffice it to say that I am not impressed. Master is equal to Schlage in this regard. One star for Kwikset and four stars for both Master and Schlage.
Bottom Line: Like a chain that breaks at its weakest link, Smart Key is easy to twist and Bump Stop is easy to pick, and that is that. Schlage gets at least three stars in every category and is thus a good all-around lock. Their cylinders are not exemplary but neither do they have any glaring weaknesses. Schlage would have to make drastic changes to achieve Grade 3 status, as I will define it in my upcoming column, A Proposal for a New Grade of Lock, but they are a solid Grade 4. So Schlage gets the nod in upscale residential locks. Note that Defiant does not make a black lock or anything that can be regarded as upscale; they market to people who care more about saving money than they do about how nice their front door looks.
Master’s Bump Stop is definitely better than Kwikset’s Smart Key, which will become important in my next column, Review of Electronic Deadbolt Locks. After all, it does not matter how cool the electronics are if the key override cylinder can be twisted; a deadbolt’s basic function is to secure your house, not to provide cool electronics for technophiles to play with. So I can tell you right now that Kwikset’s SmartCode is not going to be a winner but – to built up suspense – you will just have to wait and see whether Master or Schlage comes out on top.
2016 Addendum In July of 2016 I purchased a brand new 980s Smart Key deadbolt and attempted to twist it open. My Smart Key Twister broke! So apparently Kwikset finally came through with their promise to make the Smart Key stronger, which is something they have been saying for some time. I had never before had any difficulty twisting one open, but now this technique does not work. So give Kwikset five stars on twist resistance, but only if you are buying brand new locks
Sneak Peek! Schlage got the nod in this review, but I also said that it is not exemplary. In my next column I will review electronic deadbolt locks that use the same cylinders reviewed here and again find them wanting. In the column after that, I will propose a way to modify inexpensive locks that puts all of these upscale locks to shame. But this modification can also be used on the upscale Schlage considered here, so it is possible to have both security and aesthetics.
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