Introduction to Automotive Keymaking
So you've decided to look into making car keys for your customers but not sure exactly where to start? This introduction is meant to give you some guidance and tips. Whether you purchase your products from American Key Supply or not, this guide should help you figure out what you need and how to get it.
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If you're just getting into the business, it can be a very expensive and time consuming task to try and figure out which keys you should or should not stock. We've tried to make it easy for you by putting together some "Starter Packs" which are our recommendations for what you should be keeping in stock. If you click on the links below, you'll see the complete list of keys within each Starter Pack. Notice that some packs include very little of some keys and many more of the others. That's your clue to knowing which cars you're most likely to run into in the field.
MECHANICAL KEYS: These are all-metal keys with no chip in them. For older vehicles, these keys are all you need. For newer vehicles, locksmiths would typically cut one of these cheaper mechanical or "test" keys to test in the lock before cutting a more expensive transponder or remote head key.
- LARGE Starter Pack of 2315 Automotive Mechanical Keys: ($999) We estimate that this bundle will prepare you for about 95% of the cars you'll run into out there. This is appropriate for someone that wants to be as prepared as you can be. Is it worth an extra five hundred bucks to be prepared for that last 10%? That depends on your plans and your budget.
TRANSPONDER KEYS: Starting in the late 90's, most car manufacturers began adding transponder systems into their vehicles as an extra level of security. Now you can't just "hotwire" a car to bypass the mechanical security and drive away with it like they do in the movies. If you plan on being able to program these transponder (sometimes called "chip") keys, you'll need one or more of these starter packs.
- Starter Pack of 85 Transponder Keys: ($590) These are the transponder keys you need to keep in stock to be prepared for what comes. This bundle is updated frequently as car manufacturers release new keys every year.
- Starter Pack of 26 High Security Transponder Keys: ($199) If you're cutting high security keys you'll need this bundle.
- Complete Set of 15 GM Single-Sided VATS Keys: ($39.50) Technically, these are not transponder keys, but they are important chip keys to have for GM vehicles from the 90s. And besides, they're super inexpensive. These single-sided keys are for older vehicles, but are more popular than the double-sided version. You'll need both.
- Complete Set of 14 GM Double-Sided VATS Keys: ($36.75) Ditto
HPC Power Speedex Semi-Automatic Key Duplicator (9180MC): ($553.36) This is the least expensive quality duplicator we could find that supports duplication of larger remote head keys such as those made for Chryslers. Most duplicators don't have enough space between the 2 jaws to hold a key with a large head like remote head keys. If you plan to do *automotive* locksmithing, you should get a machine like this.
NOTE: If you are operating in a location with a lot of traffic and plan on doing A LOT of key duplicating all day long, such as in a busy locksmith shop, you should be looking at a different class of duplicator, usually over $1500. But for 98% of automotive locksmiths, this machine is perfect.
HPC The Original Blitz™ (1200CMB): ($1748.20) This manual key cutting machine is the industry standard for cutting standard edge-cut keys by code. It is not as expensive as a $5000 automated machine, but if you don't have money burning a hole in your pocket, the Blitz is the appropriate purchase. Note that if you plan on cutting high security keys, many locksmiths are just buying a high security key cutting machine that *also* cuts edge-cut keys, and you can avoid this expense altogether.
NOTE: By the way, "edge-cut" keys means NOT high security keys. And cutting keys by code means cutting them from scratch like you would do when no original exists to copy on a duplicator.
Laser Key Products 3D XTREME "S" High Security Key Machine: ($6500) For most locksmiths looking to get into the high security key business, the 3D Xtreme from Laser Key Products is by far the best value out there. The Ninja Laser key machine from Keyline is an awesome piece of machinery, but at $8200 (plus more for optional BMW & Mercedes jaws), it might not be worth the difference in price to many. Both machines are very functionally similar. They both are very quiet, very fast, reliable, look great, and cut almost every key you'll ever need, automotive, residential, and commercial. We love the Ninja Laser, but for purely economical reasons, we use and recommend the 3D Xtreme.
NOTE: The cutters used for high security keys do break. We find that ours breaks every 3-4 months, and you DO NOT want to get caught without spare. Please plan on always having a spare. The cutters for edge-cut keys last for years and years.
TIP: If you plan on ever cutting high security keys in the future, you should probably just get one of these high security machines now. You'll save yourself a couple thousand dollars from having to buy a Blitz, and then you're essentially getting one of those $5000 automated machines instead of having to use a manual key cutting machine. The machines are not getting cheaper, and you can just apply for leasing and spread your payments out over up to 5 years! That's a payment of as little as $151/month... or HALF a high security keymake in most areas.
FINDING YOUR KEY CUTS
If your customer lost all of their keys and you're not performing a simple key duplication, how are you going to find out what cuts to put onto the key blank? Traditional locksmith (sometimes called "real locksmithing") involves removing locks from the vehicle and many times disassembling and/or decoding the lock. Many times that's a 15-minute job, but sometimes that's a 2-hour job. With older vehicles, it even involved removing steering wheels. Thankfully, there are many new tools and methods available to the automotive locksmith to make key originations easy and quick. Remember, though, that traditional locksmithing is still an important skill to learn and practice if you want to support as many vehicle types as possible.
Key Codes: Many traditional locksmiths swear this method is cheating. They call locksmiths that use key codes "code smiths" and don't think highly of those that use codes. But now that codes are so easy to get from various key code brokers, so inexpensive, and save so much time, it's hard to ignore anymore. The way we look at it, if you or your employees are sitting around twiddling your thumbs, you should be doing it the traditional way and sharpening your skills. But if your day is a busy one and using key codes allows you to get 12 jobs done in a day instead of 4, then use them. Your competition is using them.
- NASTF: Once your volume is high enough, you should look into getting an account with NASTF to get codes yourself directly from the car manufacturers. It can be difficult and confusing, and in some ways more expensive, but if you're doing a lot of cars, it's worth it. If you're not comfortable with computers and the Internet, stay away from this.
Decoders: These tools are made to determine the cuts of the key without having to actually remove and disassemble the lock. There are so many of these, but here are a few of the most popular ones. Like most tools of value, these take a little practice to get used to and we recommend buying yourself some practice locks to play with before attempting to use them with a customer looking over your shoulder.
- Accu-Readers, EEZ Readers, and BTR Readers: All designed basically the same, these types of decoders are inserted into the lock and measure how far the wafers stick out into the keyway. They are fairly simple to use, but sometimes suffer from inconsistent readings. For instance, sometimes a 2 may look like a 1.5 or 2.5, leaving you to try and figure out what the truth is.
Lishi Pick/Decoders: These tools are relatively new in the field and work differently than the others. Most of these require that you pick the lock first so the plug can be turned, then pushing each wafer up one by one and tracking how far the wafer travels before hitting the housing. The bad: you must pick the lock first. The good: the readings you get when decoding the lock are fairly consistent and true.
TIP: Like residential/commercial locks, some automotive locks are easier to pick than others. Watch our Lishi 2-in-1 In-Depth Tutorial and take some time to practice. It doesn't take much practice to gain your confidence and become a pro. With a little practice, you'll learn to love Lishi tools and become eager to use them.
- Try-Out Keys: A relatively old method, try-out keys involve buying sets of pre-cut keys and trying each key one at a time until you find one or more that works in the lock. Many times you simply find a working key, duplicate it, and hand it to your customer. Although some locksmiths view try-out keys as a little prehistoric, they still work well, and there are some car types where there just aren't any other options, such as 5-cut or 10-cut Fords.
- Scoping: Some locks are especially vulnerable to the process of scoping, or peering into the keyway to view the wafers visually. For example, most Honda motorcycles have only 3 depths, #1 & #3 wafers are brass in color, #2 wafers are silver in color. Knowing the colors and knowing that a #3 is going to stick into the keyway considerably more than a #1, you can easily decode the lock with your eyeballs. Another very useful example is with most GM 6-cut locks where the ignition wafers actually have numbers stamped where you can see them easily using a scope. That just turned your 2 hour (for some) steering wheel removal or $45 key code purchase into a 2-minute job with no real variable cost.
Advanced Diagnostics MVP Pro w/ 35 TOKENS: ($3371.69) What we think is most important in life as an advanced automotive locksmith is being able to program as many cars as possible and turning away as few customers as possible. Simply stated, the MVP Pro from Advanced Diagnostics supports more cars than any other programmer out there. And when a car maker releases a new programming system, Advanced Diagnostics is consistently and almost always the first company out with support for it. The MVP Pro supports the new cars and sometimes just as importantly, all of the old stuff. If you want to be able to program everything possible, get the MVP Pro. In those rare cases where you really need to turn down the job, you can feel confident knowing that if you couldn't do it, chances are none of your competitors could have done it either. The MVP Pro isn't the cheapest programmer available, but it is cheap and well worth it. This is one case where you truly get what you pay for!
NOTE: Generally speaking, each time you successfully program a vehicle, the MVP Pro takes 1 token from you. There are a couple exceptions to that rule such as newer Nissans where the steering wheel must be unlocked, or a Chrysler where you need to pull the PIN code. Those will cost another token.
TIP #1: If you buy tokens 10 at a time ($400), they'll cost you $40 each. If you buy tokens 250 at a time ($3250), they'll cost you only $13 each. Obviously it's easier to come up with $400 at a time rather than $3250, but please do the math here. Even if you get the worst bank loan in the world, even if you think it'll take you 10 years to go through 250 tokens, you'd still be saving a bundle by buying them 250 at a time instead of 40 at a time. Apply for a loan with your bank or apply for leasing and spread it out over 5 years.
TIP #2: Every time you run out of tokens, please ask yourself, "how many cars am I programming each week?" If the answer is 4 or less, you should be buying tokens 250 at a time. If the answer is 5 or more, you would probably be saving money by paying $299 monthly or $3250 annually for an Unlimited Tokens Plan (UTP). Your goal should be to get your volume up high enough where you can get upgraded to UTP and stop thinking about how much tokens are costing you every time you program a car. And for those of you with employees, YOU NEED TO BE ON UNLIMITED TOKENS! Your employees are wasting tokens like crazy, trust me.
|Zed Full: ($3259 + $2200/yr) For advanced locksmiths that want to support the difficult vehicles such as VW, Audi, Volvo, Jaguar, and Land Rover, buy the Zed Full as your supplemental machine. It does not support anywhere near as many vehicles as the MVP Pro, but it does support a lot of vehicles that the MVP Pro doesn't know about, so it should be thought of as a complimentary programmer. The support on the machine is a lot less thorough and it's history is a lot shorter than a machine like the MVP Pro, so buyer beware. We hear it is a great machine, but make sure you keep reasonable expectations.|
|DMAX—The End-All Skim/Pin Code Reader & Key Programmer: ($1225.00) Do you program a lot of Chryslers? If you do, you should have this tool.|
|Reflashers: Some first generation transponder systems, like those found on many late 90's and early 2000's Toyotas, Lexus, Hondas, and Acuras, don't allow you to program keys using OBD2 diagnostic tools. The manufacturer will tell you to buy a new immobilizer unit, which can cost more than $1000! With a reflashing tool such as the KeyLogic ID Pro ($799) or LogiKey Penloader ($1099), locksmiths can make an old immobilizer new again, program the keys, and get their customers going on the same-day and for a fraction of the price. See our Guide to Reflashing for more information (coming soon).|
|KeyLogic US900 Advanced Cloning Machine: ($1495) Cloners aren't appropriate for everyone. The purpose of a cloner is to DUPLICATE transponder keys when a working key is present. A programmer like the MVP Pro can both duplicate keys and also originate keys when the original key has been lost. Please read our Guide to Cloning for more information.|
There are a few kinds of software that are important for every automotive locksmith to have.
- Key Code Conversion: When you get a key code from your key code broker or from the lock itself, for example, you still need to be able to convert that code to cuts. Instacode, Genericode, and Codes Online from Blackhawk are some of the most useful and most popular. As an added benefit, many of them offer extra features such as progressioning and even code card printing for your HPC Blitz.
- Fill Progressioning: Sometimes you know some of the cuts of your key, but not all. For example, if you have decoded the door which has spaces 2-8 for a 10-cut key, you can use progressioning to easily determine the depths for spaces 1, 9, and 10. You'll save a lot of time and a lot of wasted keys. We recommend using Fill Online from Blackhawk, a very effective and inexpensive solution.
- Key Blank Cross-Reference: There have been many key companies that have come and gone, and each of them have loved inventing their own unique part numbers for various keys, and fighting against their competition by not embracing a competitor's standard. For example, JMA assigns crazy complicated part numbers to a lot of their keys that makes no sense to anyone except JMA. Jet loves using part numbers that completely conflict with the EZ naming system used by Ilco. Programs such as KBX from Blackhawk show you all of the names a key used from all of those companies, most times with pictures. It also displays those keys next to many others that may use the same key blade but just have a different shaped head. When you run out of Toyota TR47 keys blanks, a good key blank cross-reference will reveal that the GM B80 has the same blade and can really save your day.