Losing your only key can be an inconvenient and somewhat costly mistake to both your time and wallet. However, by spending a little time making a backup key, you can save yourself from an unfortunate and very annoying situation.
This guide will cover a variety of ways to copy your key. We'll start by looking at some cheap and accessible services that you'll likely find nearby. Then we'll dive into some crafty techniques to copy your key by hand using materials you may have at home.
You'll need an original key to copy for all of the methods below. If you don't have your original key, skip to this part of the guide for what steps to take next.
Let's get to it!
1. Key Copy Kiosks
If you're looking for a quick, cheap, and easy way to make a copy of your key, consider checking out a key copying kiosk—the most popular of which are Minute Key and KeyMe.
Key duplicating machines are automated self-service kiosks that don't require interaction with a locksmith or any employee whatsoever. They work by laser-scanning your key to determine the type of key and the depths of the cuts. They then cut a perfect duplicate within minutes.
You can use these machines to copy most house and padlock keys, and some even copy car keys and RFID key cards/chips. All you need is your original key and a card for payment.
However, each kiosk brand offers different types of keys and services, so you'll need to look into the kiosk near you to see what they offer. More complex keys can sometimes be scanned at the booth, programmed elsewhere, and mailed to you.
Key kiosks are pretty nifty and let you choose from various key designs. You can get decorative keys with kittens, flowers, or even your favorite sports team. You can even color-code keys for different locks!
So if you need a quick key made up and don't want to deal with any hassle, key kiosks are worth checking out. I've used them dozens of times over the years and have yet to have a key not work.
2. Retail Stores
Another quick and easy way to copy a key is using a retail store's in-house key duplication services.
Some common retail stores that offer key copying services are:
For a full list of places to copy keys, check out my guide on where to get keys made.
The benefit of using retail stores over key kiosks is that they commonly offer a wider selection of keys—such as key fobs, transponder keys, RFID chips, and keys for high-security locks. Their services are also relatively cheap.
Truly, the only two drawbacks of retail stores are they are not as fast and easy as an automated machine and don't offer the vast selection of keys and services that a locksmith provides.
You need to bring your original key to clone to use retail services. If you don't have the original key to copy, you'll need to have a locksmith decode your lock, or you can use this as an opportunity to upgrade your locks!
If you need a copy of a key, there truly isn't a better option than consulting the grand wizard of the locks and keys—the locksmith!
Now there is a common misconception that locksmiths are an expensive service—and in some instances, they can be.
However, key duplication is not one of those services, and many locksmiths can offer you top-tier replicas of nearly any key you need for a low price.
Pro Tip: If you need a new car key, you'll save a TON of money by bringing it to a locksmith rather than a dealership.
A locksmith is also who you'll need if you no longer have the original key to copy. While a more expensive service, a locksmith can decode the bitting of your lock and cut you a new key per specs.
Additionally, a locksmith can help you upgrade the security of your doors and locks while you're at it!
Check out my article on the average price of locksmith services in 2022!
4. How to Copy a Key at Home
There are also ways to copy your key by hand without the need for external services such as kiosks or locksmiths.
Before we jump into these DIY methods, it is important to state that short of buying your own key cutting machine, homemade keys rarely perform better than professionally cut ones. They also tend to be more fragile.
But a poorly working key is always better than no key at all, so let's cover three great methods of copying a key yourself.
Method 1: Copy a Key with a File
The first do-it-yourself method of copying a key is filing down a key blank to match your existing key.
This is a relatively easy method and only requires owning a vice, a file, and a key blank that fits your specific lock. If you try using a key blank from the wrong type and brand of lock, the key likely won't even enter the keyway.
Note: This method only works with pin tumbler lock keys and will not aid in copying most other types of keys or keys of higher-security locks—such as dimple locks or pin tumbler locks with sidebars.
You can find a key blank for your specific lock at:
- A local hardware store or retail stores like Home Depot or Ace
- A local locksmith
- Online stores like Amazon, Grainger, or CLK Supplies
When it comes to the file, you'll ideally want a pippin file (expensive), Dremel (kind of expensive), or triangular file (cheaper). However, with a bit of improvising, most small files will probably work.
To copy a key with a file, follow these three steps.
- Align both keys side-by-side and clamp them in a vise or vise-grip
- Begin filing away at your blank while using your original key as a guide
- When your filed key is done, insert it into the lock and test it
If your key doesn't work, realign it back with the key and make sure you didn't miss anything or misalign it while grinding. If the key doesn't fit into the lock at all, check for any slag or pieces of metal extruding from the side of the key.
If that's not the case, you may have used the wrong key blank. Double-check that your key blank matches your original exactly.
Method 2: Outline and Copy Key on Other Material
Another way to make a quick and dirty key by hand is by tracing your key onto another material and cutting that tracing out.
This isn't a long-term solution by any means, but if you need a quick backup, it does work well.
To use this method, you'll need a sturdy material for your cloned key that won't break in the lock. Common materials include soda cans, old credit cards, hotel keys, and even metal objects like butter knives if you have a file.
The best technique to outline and copy a key requires clear packing tape, a lighter, pliers, your original key, a cutting tool, and some material for your new key.
To outline and copy a key, follow these steps:
- Cut a strip of clear packing tape that is bigger than the key you want to copy.
- Grab the head of your original key with some pliers and use a lighter to heat one side until it turns black (soot buildup).
- Let the key cool, and then place the black side onto the tape and press firmly.
- Remove the tape, and a black imprint of the key should remain.
- Place the tape on the material you wish to make a key from and cut around the imprint. Be as precise as possible.
- Carefully test your new key.
If you use a somewhat fragile material (such as a gift card), don't force anything. Breaking off a piece in your lock is a problem you likely don't want to deal with.
Method 3: Copy a Key With Clay
If you want to take the super-spy approach to duplicate your key, you can always take a cast of your key and mold a copy!
This method is much harder and more labor-intensive than simply getting a copy made. However, if you have an obscure key that you can't source a blank for, or you just want to have some fun and don't care about the cost or effort, this method will give you a highly accurate and functional copy!
But note casted keys are not as strong as traditionally cut keys. While they may work, don't expect them to last forever.
To copy a key with clay, you need:
- A key to copy
- Lighter or torch
- Melting spoon
- Mold material
- Casting material
Ideally, you'll want to use clay to make your mold. But you can also make decent molds using Plaster of Paris, a bar of soap, or even bubble gum.
The best materials for casting your key will be zinc, copper, aluminum, or steel.
Below is an excellent video on casting keys by Deviant Ollam.
Just be careful not to break off any pieces into your lock and if you do, be sure to check out my guide, 11 Ways to Get a Broken Key Out of a Lock.
What if You Lost Your Original Key?
If you have lost your only key, you won't be able to use any of the methods above to make a direct copy.
However, this doesn't mean all is lost! Depending on your situation, there are some decent options available.
Call a Locksmith
Now calling a locksmith can be a slightly more costly option than the others below; however, it is the easiest and most reliable path to take.
However, if you have locked yourself out and have no other means of entry, a locksmith is your only real non-destructive option beyond manipulating the lock yourself (which we'll discuss next).
Once they arrive, you can discuss options from there, but the most cost-effective routes will likely be replacing the lock or getting it rekeyed.
Bypass the Lock Yourself
If you've locked yourself out and need a way in, you can always try to bypass the lock or door yourself. There are many ways to do this, and the two guides listed below should help you out!
Note: Never mess around with a lock you don't personally own. This includes apartment locks that are owned by your landlord. While methods like lock picking are relatively gentle, things can still go wrong and quickly ruin your lock.
Replace your Locks
Losing your only key makes for an excellent opportunity to upgrade those old locks with something new.
For the price you would pay for a locksmith to drive out and rekey your locks, you could buy some shiny new knobs yourself.
Rekey your Locks
Rekeying your own locks typically requires that you have the original key. But if you are up for the challenge, there are ways to bypass this requirement—such as shimming the core.
Check out my guide on rekeying locks here for a basic understanding of the process.
Is It Illegal to Copy a Key?
It is not illegal to copy regular keys, such as house keys, car keys, or padlock keys.
Nevertheless, the line between copying keys and using them illegally is a thin one with no wiggle room. If you do not own to the lock or what the lock protects, using a key on that lock is essentially illegal. So don't do that.
There are two other types of keys to consider—"Do Not Duplicate" keys and "Restricted "keys.
"Do Not Duplicate" keys are not illegal to copy. These keys are very deceiving, and there are no laws preventing someone from copying these keys. While some keying services and locksmiths won't duplicate them for you, there are no legality issues to worry about.
However, restricted keys are a different story. U.S. patent laws protect these keys from duplication, and duplication rights are limited to the key's original manufacturer. There can also be a fat fine for copying restricted keys (up to $10,000).
As you can see, there are a ton of ways to copy a key, and you are certainly not limited to the methods on this list.
Your local Home Depot is an excellent choice if you want a quick and easy copy.
However, consider visiting a local locksmith if you wish to support local businesses (which is always recommended). They are just as cheap, and it's an excellent way to vet local services in case of catastrophe ever strikes. You never know when you'll need a good locksmith!
I hope that you liked this guide and if you would like to learn more about lock picking, home security, or locksmithing, be sure to check out my Academy for more free guides like this one.