Several years ago when I moved up here, I needed a U-Haul van to carry my tools and bought a red Master Sphero Combination Padlock for securing the van door during the trip. I put the combination slip in my wallet, knowing it had a useful lifetime of about three days, and it did survive long enough to unlock the van. Since then the lock has sat on a shelf and I have no idea where I might have put the combination and instructions. Yesterday it seemed to me like a good afternoon project to try and crack the lock and put it back into use.
My experience with opening combination locks isn’t full of success. I usually have problems even when I have the combination written down and the padlock operation instructions in plain view. I have known several people over the years who found them simple to outwit, including a fellow soldier in Alaska many years ago who could crack any combination lock in the building in under a minute, by touch. I tried to figure out how he did it, but my fingertips apparently aren’t that sensitive.
In maintenance work, at hotels and resorts, I’ve seen simpler approaches to cracking locks that got in the way. At one hotel where I worked, I noticed a couple of employees kicking a guest’s door in when the battery in the electronic key reader failed. That’s certainly one way to do it, but they were very embarrassed when they found out the manager had a key in his desk that opens them all from underneath the card console. No one ever mentioned how many doors they ruined before someone told them the sane way to do things. Physical force usually works well, and the most common way of removing a troublesome padlock is still a good pair of boltcutters.
Trying for a less damaging solution this time, I was tinkering with my Army buddy’s system for awhile, unsuccessfully, and then turned to the internet. This guy I knew could just stand at somebody’s locker and twirl the combination lock for a few minutes and then pop it open. Made you just want to punch him and stomp him into the polished f-ing barracks floor. Apparently I’m not the only one who forgets combinations, because there’s some useful material online about how to circumvent this problem. One way is to record the serial number on the back of the lock and write the company. If you can convince them you own the property, they might be able to send you the code. My receipt went away even before the combination disappeared, so that was a dead end.
Several websites offer some help, intended for legal applications of course, and all of it time-consuming enough that I doubt any thief would prefer them to boltcutters and and a crowbar. I did have problems understanding the instructions, even though it was obvious that most of the people offering the information knew exactly what they meant. The rest of us don’t, exactly. It seems that the manufacturer doesn’t use all the possible combinations of the 40 numbers on the lock dial. That makes sense. The combinations used derive from the third number in the combination, which might be any of the forty. A fairly simple mechanical manipulation reveals that number, but the manufacturers keep throwing little changes into the works so the same old shortcuts don’t always reveal the third number. If that seems confusing, there’s much more to be confused about.
Finding the third number depends on turning the dial with the shackle under tension. You’ll find twelve places on the dial where the dial catches. Marking down the numbers to either side of those places gives you twelve possible third numbers for the combination. Several of those sticky places were put there to confuse anyone trying to hack the lock. A list of the others leads to deciphering which one is the actual third number, and a simple mathematical operation generates the possible first and second numbers from the single third number. Then you have only about 60 or a hundred possible combinations to try.
I went through all of those, and the lock didn’t open. Hmm. After juicing the lock with silicone lubricant, just in case something internal wasn’t working right, I read the websites again and found more information on the Sphero, a model which might not respond to the usual solutions. Fortunately, the third number on the trickier Sphero reveals itself with a wider range of movement on the true sticky point. I’d already noticed that and finding the real third number was easy this time. I found the right code after only a few minutes of trying combinations.
If you need to reclaim a lost combination I recommend two sites:
WikiHow’s “How to Crack a Master Lock Combination Lock” explains the basic method, with enough step-by-step procedures to follow if you’re persistent. The information there would work with many locks but did not unlock my Sphero.
Overview of Combination Recovery for Single Dial Padlocks gives more detailed information but in a format that is more difficult to follow. You’ll find instructions for actually operating the lock (something I’d also forgotten) and specific instructions for the quirks of the Sphero. Although by the time I got to that part I had no confidence in the process, it worked eerily quickly for me.
The neighborhood is in no danger, I definitely won’t remember the system for long. In fact, I’ve forgotten it already. I did file away the combination and operating instructions in a safe place this time. In a minute I’ll forget where that is, and then it will disappear into that extremely safe location where I put things so I can never possibly lose them. I have no idea where that place is, though.
It’s still a good idea to have boltcutters handy, just in case you don’t have a day to spare.