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Review of Inexpensive House Locks

In this column we will review inexpensive residential locks available at Home Depot. None of these locks claim to be pick-proof or bump-proof; locks that do make this claim will be considered in the next column, Review of Upscale House Locks. Later I will discuss how real security can be achieved.

Commentators to this blog should keep in mind to whom each column is addressed. If I’m advising the laborer on how to protect the $200 TV in his $450 a month apartment, then don’t plug the Medeco Maxum that you bought. Similarly, if I am discussing high security locks like Medeco or ASSA, then don’t start telling us about how you put a wooden dowel in your patio door.

Here I will review packages containing a matching deadbolt and knob or lever in satin nickel that retails at Home Depot for less than $45. I assume satin nickel because this color is available from all the manufactures that Home Depot currently stocks and is more subdued – and thus nicer, in my opinion – than chrome silver and shiny brass, which are a bit less expensive. Some but not all of these locks are available in antique brass or black for more money. Our purpose here is to review these locks on the grounds of security and reliability and so I eliminate aesthetics from consideration by assuming the same color for everybody.

I will assume that the person reading this review is a homeowner contemplating the purchase of locks for just one door, not the wholesale purchase of locks for an entire house or even an entire housing development. This assumption implies that one wishes to maintain compatibility with the other locks on the house.

To maintain compatibility, the first step is to determine what keyway you are currently using. There are really only two: Schlage and Kwikset. (There were brands with other keyways in the past, but none have been sold in American hardware stores for at least twenty years.) There are multiple brands that use Schlage and Kwikset keyways, so you want to look at your key, not at your locks. These keys look like this:

Kwikset keys sometimes they have the code KW1 on them. Compatible keys have the same outline but only one key ring hole.

Schlage keys sometimes have just the letter C instead of the code SC1. Original Schlage keys have the name “Schlage” stamped on them.

If you have a Schlage keyway, then you may also purchase Baldwin or Emtek locks. All hardware stores stock Schlage while only the more upscale ones stock Baldwin or Emtek, which are excluded from this review on grounds of expense. Emtek’s principle claim to fame is that their locks are available in black. But Schlage is now selling black locks – confusingly called bronze – and, since Schlage is both less expensive and better than Emtek, there is no reason to buy the latter. Baldwin is too expensive for this review, so suffice it to say that they have the same security and reliability as Schlage.

For reasons explained below, Kwikset knobs and levers are reviewed separately because there is a significant difference in their security and both are within our price limits. All of the locks in the chart below are satin nickel in color; prices are current for Home Depot in August 2014.

Schlage Knob
and Deadbolt
Defiant Knob
and Deadbolt
Kwikset Knob
and Deadbolt
Kwikset Lever
and Deadbolt
Price $45 $22 $31.5 $36
Keyway – Keys SC1 2 keys KW1 4 keys KW1 2 keys KW1 2 keys
Key Code Security ** * ** **
Knob Security *** **** * ****
Pick Resistance *** ** * *
Bump Resistance *** ** * *
Twist Resistance ***** ***** ***** *****
Drill Resistance *** *** *** ***
Durable Cylinder **** **** **** ****
Durable Latch **** **** * *
Durable Lock **** **** * **

Key Code Security. If you leave your keys where people can look at them, they may be able to determine what the key code is and then ask a locksmith to make a key with these cuts. Reputable locksmiths will refuse such a request but not all locksmiths are so honest and, anyway, the thief could do this himself with a hand file if he is very careful. Schlage and Defiant both stamp this information on their keys, presumably to aid locksmiths when keying locks alike, though we have gauges to measure the depths and do not need this information printed for us. Kwikset does not stamp this information on their keys. KW1 keys can be read by someone who is practiced in this skill because they have only six possible depths. SC1 keys have ten possible depths and are much more difficult to read.

Since Defiant uses the easy to read KW1 keyway and has the key code stamped on their keys, they get one star. Kwikset gets two stars because they do not stamp this information on their keys, but it is not particularly difficult to read their keys. Schlage gets two stars because filing off the numbers is an easy and free modification and, once this is done, it is fairly difficult to read their keys.

Only high security locks with restricted key blanks or cuts that cannot be made with a hand file (e.g. Medeco or Abloy) are free of this threat, and these locks are far beyond the price level considered in this review. While Schlage keys with the numbers filed off are fairly difficult to read, it is far from impossible; people with $45 locks on their house just need to get in the habit of never leaving their keys lying around where people can get a close look at them.

Knob Security. Observe that the Kwikset knob and lever columns are identical except regarding the security of the cylinder. The cylinder of a Kwikset knob can be pulled straight out; this is a terrible security weakness and it is shameful that – except for the short-lived Titan – Kwikset has never corrected a security gap that has been known to locksmiths since WWII. The Kwikset lever gets four stars and the knob one star.

The other manufacturers also sell levers, but they are not included in this review because they do not differ in security or reliability from their knobs. Since our purpose is to review security and reliability, not convenience, I did not want to skew the price comparison by including a feature that adds to the price only for the convenience of people with shaky hands.

Schlage gets three stars compared to four stars for Defiant because it is possible to pull a Schlage knob or lever, but the technique is more difficult than that for Kwikset knobs and sometimes requires a specialized tool available only to locksmiths. Attempting to pull a Kwikset lever or any Defiant cannot be accomplished without the complete destruction of the lock. Of course, all residential-grade locks are a bit tinny and their complete destruction is not inconceivable, so they get four stars, not five.

Pick Resistance. All of the locks considered have conventional pin tumbler cylinders and so their pick resistance depends on the following characteristics, listed in order of importance:

  1. 1) Close machining tolerances.
  2. 2) Saw-tooth cuts on the key.
  3. 3) Spool-shaped top pins
  4. 4) Flat-topped bottom pins.

All bottom pins have to be rounded on the bottom so they slide over the key; this has no effect on security. But Kwikset has bottom pins that are rounded on both ends to keep costs down; because they can be inserted either way, manufacturing costs are reduced. Their machining is looser than Schlage and they have never come from the factory with spool pins. They get one star.

Defiant has roughly the same machining tolerance as Kwikset and they also have bottom pins that are rounded on both ends. But, because Defiant locks include at least one spool-shaped top pin, they get two stars. Defiant can be made more secure by using after-market bottom pins (Lab is a major supplier) that are flat on the top. But this review is of new unmodified locks, so Defiant gets just two stars.

Modern Schlage locks get three stars because of their closer machining tolerance. The ones from decades past would have earned four stars, but Schlage has reduced their quality standards. While still better machined than Kwikset or Defiant, Schlage is resting on their laurels and enjoying a reputation for being very difficult to pick that is no longer fully deserved. Except for the short-lived Maximum Security deadbolt, Schlage locks do not come with spool pins while this is standard on Defiant.

All of these manufacturers can be made more difficult to pick by having saw-tooth cuts on the key; that is, both shallow and deep cuts. But none of the manufacturers make any effort to eliminate flat keys from their manufacturing process, so this just adds an element of randomness to the difficulty of picking a particular lock. In statistical terms, there is more variance within these manufacturers than there is between them.

Bump Resistance. Bumping is another technique for opening a lock. It depends on the same characteristics listed above, except for the spool pins, which have no effect on bump keys. Because Defiant’s spool pins do not help it against bump keys, it gets two stars in this category. Schlage and Kwikset get the same three stars and one star, respectively.

Internet gurus trying to get their 15 seconds of fame by teaching the slavering internet masses how to pick locks have promulgated a myth that good quality locks with close machining tolerances are easier to bump than poor quality locks with loose machining tolerances. This is pure bull; but don’t tell them because the more we allow such gurus to spread untruths, the safer we all are. I think this myth is mostly due to one guru, whom I shall not name, that makes much ado of the fact that he bumped open a Baldwin, which he takes to be a high-security lock because it is expensive. While not low security, Baldwin has the same three stars as Schlage; Baldwin is expensive because of aesthetic reasons.

In a later column, Modification of Inexpensive Locks, I will explain how the security of all three of these brands of locks can be greatly improved. The one thing that is constant is the machining tolerances. So, of the three manufacturers, Schlage has the most potential for security. But again, this review is not about potential, it is about out-of-the-box security.

Drill Resistance. A pin tumbler lock can be made resistant to drilling by embedding a hardened steel pin inside the brass cylinder; it must be completely inside to avoid rusting. None of the manufacturers considered do this; drill resistance is a feature seen only on high-security locks like Medeco and ASSA that far exceed the price limit we have imposed on this review. Somewhat ironically, considering how fragile the Smart Key is, our later review of it will note that it resists drilling.

But, even without this hardened steel pin, drilling a lock is not particularly easy. Also, it requires a powerful drill of the type that has only recently become widely available with the invention of lithium batteries. In the past, when the 9.6-volt Makita was the only portable drill available even to professionals, drilling was less of a concern. I have never seen a lock that was drilled by a burglar, so even today it does not warrant the concern generated by the plethora of websites hawking lock picks and bump keys. All of the reviewed locks get three stars.

Durable Cylinder. Cylinder failure is not unknown, mostly due to dust storms, salt water or vandalism. But, in general, pin tumbler locks are fairly robust and a few squirts of lubricant will usually get them going, or at least get them open so they can be replaced. All of the manufacturers get four stars; again this is for later comparison to the less-than-stellar Smart Key.

Durable Latch. Schlage and Defiant get four stars, not five, because failure is not unknown, but it is rare and usually caused by vandalism or over-use. No residential grade lock should be used on a commercial business – even for restrooms or passageways where no security is needed – because the constant flow of traffic will just wear them out.

But the failure of Kwikset latches is systemic. Like the security gap that allows Kwikset cylinders to be pulled out of their knobs, this is something that Kwikset has known about for decades and never fixed. Shameful!

If you currently own Kwikset, turn the knob and observe whether the latch fully retracts. If it becomes increasingly difficult to turn the knob and it stops with the latch still extending a few millimeters out of the door, then your latch is wearing out. The door opens only because there is a gap of a few millimeters between it and the frame, but the latch will get worse until eventually it will not withdraw from the frame and your door will be stuck shut.

This problem is so common that I always carry a dozen after-market latches in my van to retrofit Kwikset knobs whenever I observe this problem while rekeying someone’s house. Lazy locksmiths would replace it with an original Kwikset latch, which is just going to have the same problem a few years hence. I have never been called back to repair one of my retrofitted Kwikset knobs.

If Kwikset doesn’t know how to make a latch that lasts, they could just buy the same ones that I am buying, but apparently they don’t care. Note that there are several manufacturers who have addressed this issue but only one – the one I use – that is good; some after-market latches are every bit as bad as the original Kwikset latches they are meant to replace.

Durable Lock. By this I mean the mechanical part of the lock other than the cylinder and the latch. Kwikset knobs eventually break their springs and no longer right themselves. The latch itself contains a spring that helps a little towards righting the knob, but with the main spring broken it generally requires rotating the knob manually to get the keyway vertical. Since the knob has to be upright to be locked, people just get used to righting it manually before turning their key. Broken springs are inconvenient but they do not make the lock less secure nor cause the door to get stuck shut, so they are less of a concern than the systemic failure of Kwikset latches of the fact that cylinders can be pulled out of knobs.

Another problem that I have found in Kwikset knobs is that the inside rose does not spin freely. When mounted firmly on the door, the inside knob drags on the rose and does not right itself. Lazy locksmiths “fix” this problem by mounting the lock loose. When I buy a batch of Kwikset knobs, I stand at the counter of the locksmith supplier and take every one out of its package and spin the inside rose; if I’m buying eight or ten, I typically find one or two that drag and I make the locksmith supplier take them back.

Kwikset knobs get one star; their levers are slightly better (because they have a heavier spring) and get two stars. These problems are not systemic in Schlage or Defiant, though their knobs are not immortal either, and so I will give them both four stars.

2015 Edit: Defiant has recently made two improvements to their knobs:

   1)    The female parts that the machine bolts thread into now have plastic sleeves around them to aid in lining up the bolts when    installing the locks. This makes Defiant much easier to install than Kwikset, which has always been a bit tricky to get together,    especially in dim light.

   2)    Removing the cylinder used to require unlocking the knob and then rotating it until the pin appeared in the little window. Now it     is similar to Schlage in that one does not turn the knob but just turns the key to the unlocked position and then depresses the     pin.This makes it easier to remove the cylinder; in dim light it was sometimes necessary to remove a Defiant knob and bring it to a     lamp.

Neither of these improvements affects the security and reliability that this review is judging the locks by and so there is no change to the number of stars awarded in each category. But convenience of installation and rekeying is a good thing and is appreciated by locksmiths.

On large masterkey jobs, like a multi-building apartment complex, I have hired a laborer to run back and forth removing the cylinders and then reinstalling them after I have masterkeyed them; some laborers really cannot assemble a Kwikset knob or pull a Defiant knob cylinder fast enough to keep up with me. But these new Defiant improvements and the fact that Defiant offers generous quantity discounts – their “construction pack” at Home Depot with four locks sells for considerably less per lock than individual packages – makes Defiant the logical choice for large apartment complexes that ask for a new masterkey system but are also unhappy with the tarnish and wear on their existing Kwikset locks.

Conclusion. Defiant is not of ancient lineage like Kwikset and Schlage, but they have been around for several decades. In that time, Defiant’s quality standards have gone up and Schlage’s quality standards have gone down. In the meantime, Kwikset has known about but failed to respond to problems like people pulling the cylinders out of their knobs and the systemic failure of their latches.

There is no reason to buy a Kwikset knob; for an extra $5 you can get a lever that is both more secure and easier to operate, which is especially nice for older people with arthritic hands. But both their levers and their knobs use the same lousy latches. So Kwikset gets a big thumbs-down even on their levers and they have nobody to blame but themselves, having spent decades ignoring known problems.

What about Schlage and Defiant? Thirty years ago, to even ask this question would have gotten me laughed out of any locksmith shop in America. But times have changed. It is still true that Schlage is machined to closer tolerances than Defiant and thus more difficult to pick or bump open. But the difference is no longer vast. Schlage is resting on their laurels, harking back to a time when the difference really was vast. Also, Defiant has spool pins. Schlage’s Maximum Security deadbolt had spool pins, but it is now discontinued, probably because its bolt had the unpleasant habit of disassembling itself. The Maximum Security is not under review; we are only reviewing extant locks here and, for different reasons, both Schlage and Defiant are moderately difficult to pick or bump open.

Also, it is possible, though not easy, to quietly pull a Schlage knob or lever off, while pulling a Defiant knob or lever can only be accomplished with the complete destruction of the lock. So comparing the security of Schlage and Defiant is a bit like comparing apples and oranges; they have different weaknesses and strengths and so it depends on what technique is used and on independent circumstances, like how they are mounted on a door.

Bottom line: Schlage is the most secure; as well they should be at twice the price of Defiant. They are even more costly than that because they only come with two keys while Defiant comes with four keys and anybody with a family needs at least four keys. Frankly, calling a $45 set of Schlage locks that comes with two keys inexpensive is a bit of a stretch. Schlage is slightly more difficult to pick or bump open than Defiant, but by no means is it twice as difficult.

What if we reduce the price limit to $36? What if we are replacing the locks on one door and wish to be compatible with existing KW1 keys? Old timers will rend their cloths to hear me say this, but the $22 Defiant is a better lock than the $36 Kwikset. For the laborer who just wants to know which knob and deadbolt package to buy to secure his low-rent apartment, the answer is Defiant. With the money he saves he can later hire a local locksmith to modify his locks and still be within his $36 budget.

I believe that locksmiths who dispute my choice of Defiant over Kwikset are motivated by three factors that are inconsequential to the consumer:

  1. Locksmiths are prejudiced against the Taiwanese, who manufacture Defiant. It is true that Taiwan has foisted some junk on us, but they are getting better. Japan had the same reputation for shoddy workmanship in the 1950s and 1960s, but they got better, didn’t they? Today the Japanese put our domestic manufacturers to shame. Give the Taiwanese the same chance!
  2. There are Taiwanese manufacturers who sell knock offs of Defiant or Kwikset, or an odd mixture that looks like Defiant on the outside but has a ripped-off Kwikset design on the inside. These locks are junk and are easily distinguished by the fact that the manufacturer’s name does not appear on the lock. Reputable manufacturers have their name on the face of the latch or bolt; if this space is blank, don’t buy the lock! However, Taiwan is a big country and Defiant, who is at the top over there, should not be painted with the same brush as those who are at the bottom over there.
  3. Defiant locks are sold exclusively through hardware stores and most locksmiths only purchase wholesale at locksmith suppliers, so the idea of selling Defiant locks never enters their head. Also, even for those who consider buying from hardware stores, Defiant locks are sold in blister packs that are difficult to pack into a locksmith van. Kwikset locks sold at locksmith suppliers come in rectangular boxes that stack up easily.

If Defiant made the jump to selling through locksmith suppliers with their locks packaged in rectangular boxes, I see no reason why locksmiths would not choose them over Kwikset. Hint: Use the same box dimensions as Kwikset; locksmiths have organized the cabinets in their vans around these boxes and even a small change in dimensions might preclude full use of the available space. Schlage created a lot of enmity in the locksmith community when they made their deadbolt boxes half again as large as before. And they did this for no apparent reason; it is the same lock but with more air space around it.

Sneak Peak! In this column I have reviewed some inexpensive house locks that make no claim to being pick resistant or bump resistant. In the next two columns I will review upscale house locks and electronic deadbolts that do make this claim and I will find them wanting. Then I will discuss modifications that can be made to improve the security of inexpensive locks, beyond that of upscale locks costing several times more.

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