What Are Key Decoders And How Do They Work?

The number of possible key combinations is thousands upon thousands. Locks work because no two keys are exactly alike, and that’s what makes them work. To ensure that the key is unique, you must make randomized lock combinations.

Each key has a specific code that identifies its cut. Each key cut is assigned a number to indicate its depth. There are anywhere from three to eight or more cuts on the blade of a key, depending on the brand. Each one is at a different depth and is randomized. The key’s uniqueness comes from this process.

Let’s say you need to figure out what this code is. There are a few reasons why you might want to know this. Typically, you or your client need one or more keys for a lock, but you only have a broken key to refer to.

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The fragments of a key cannot be lined up on a key cutter to make a duplicate, but you can decode what remains. How do you determine a key’s code based only on the key or lock? Key decoders are used.

There are several types of key decoders available, depending on the type of lock you have. Some types require a key, while others only require a decoded lock. What is their mechanism? What are the steps involved in using a key decoder to figure out a lock or key’s code?

Key decoders come in the following types:

Key Decoders

1. Wafer decoders and pin tumblers

Key decoders are most commonly associated with pin tumbler locks, the most common type of lock. Most padlocks and front doors have these locks. A pin tumbler lock is what comes to mind when you think of locks.

The name wafer lock suggests that wafers are used instead of pins. They are commonly found on cars, desk drawers, and cheaper padlocks. Both lock types can be decoded with the same decoder.

With Spare Key

Keys are required for these key decoders. It’s also important to know what brand of lock you’re dealing with. Because of this, they cannot be used as picking tools. While some other decoders can pick or bypass a lock, no criminal or locksport enthusiast will benefit from these types of pin tumbler key decoders. The purpose of these is to make duplicate keys only.

In order to determine the brand, you will need to take the key. It is usually possible to see the brand somewhere. It’s usually written on the key head (but not always). A locksmith with experience can sometimes tell the brand by looking at the key’s shape.

A key decoder for the brand needs to be acquired once the brand has been determined. Decoding keys correctly requires the right decoder, since different brands build keys differently. You won’t get a duplicate key if the numbers are slightly off.

It resembles a rectangle with a sloping rectangular hole in the middle. Usually, there are numbers at different points in the slope, starting at 0 and going up to 7.

With the decoder, all you have to do is stick the key into the holes and see which numbered section each cut fits into to determine the depth. Each cut should be measured from the tip of the key to the head. In sequence, write down each number.

Your key’s code is the number you end up with. These decoders are pretty straightforward to use. Additionally, it requires the key, so it’s not helpful if you lose the key.

No Spare Key

With a tool like the Lishi decoder, all you need is the lock. Original keys are not required. 2-in-1 Lishi tools are lockpicking aids that double as decoders, hence their name. To decode a lock, you must first pick it. Remove your broken key from the lock first.

There is a pick and tensioner attached to this flat metal rectangle, as well as a chart on the side. When you use the pick, a little hook should line up with the chart numbers.

Line up the hook with each pin and see what number it drops to after picking the lock. That’s the code for your lock. With just the lock, you can make a key.

2. Disk Detainer Decoders

The disk detainer lock consists of rotatable disks that move when the key is inserted. A key mechanism instead of a dial makes these locks similar to dialable combination locks.

It is a bit more difficult to use disk detainer decoders. All of the bells and whistles are hard to figure out just by looking at them.

However, despite their complexity, they are still remarkably easy to use. Like a Lishi decoder, they can also be used to pick locks, in addition to decoding keys. 

As a whole, they’re a good tool choice for beginners. The devices look like metal cylinders with a key biting tip. A series of handles surrounds the cylinder.

There are some versions of these key decoders that have only one handle and a series of rotatable disks that operate similarly to the handles, although this is rare. These handles should be accompanied by numbers, usually numbered 1-4.

To decode a lock, you need to know the brand. There is no universal decoder tool. Key decoders are required for different brands.

Insert the decoder into the keyhole and turn all the knobs/handles as far as they will go to decode a disk detainer lock. Some will barely move at all, while most will go far. For unlocking the lock, you need the ones that barely move in order to apply tension pressure. To simulate turning a key, push on these.

Before you feel the remaining dials catch on something, they should have some wiggle room. Before hitting another catching point, you should find more wiggle room. Find the area that has the most wiggle room, and keep doing this. At some point, the wiggle room will dramatically increase.

Each dial needs to have the correct amount of wiggle room. When you do that, the lock should open, and the device should communicate the code to you. How would it accomplish that? Take a look at the dials now to find out what the answer is.

Do you remember the dial numbers? You have now arranged them in a specific order. Find the highest number written on the dials that did not turn. Either 4 or 3 should be used here. That’s the value of the dial. Draw a straight line between the numbers above and below (or use a straightedge). The other dials have the following values.

The values should be written in sequence. That’s the key’s code.

3. Tubular Decoders

“Tubular locks” are essentially pin tumbler locks with circular pins. What looks like an on/off symbol has tubes inserted into it.

To decode a tubular lock, you’ll need a key or a tubular lock pick. The cylindrical lock pick reshapes into the shape of the key, so it’s just as effective as a real key once you pick the lock.

There are two types of key decoders: sheets of plastic with bumps or regular non-tubular keys with bitting that measures the depth of cuts. There should be a number next to each of these bumps.

Decode a tubular lock by measuring the bitting against the decoder bumps and writing down the corresponding numbers. Start at the top and work your way around the key clockwise. That’s all there is to it. Key decoders of this type are not complex.

4. SmartKey Decoders

Kwikset SmartKey locks can be decoded with key decoders. “Smart locks” are electronic locks that open with a second device (such as a smartphone) instead of relying on a physical key. Smart locks can be defined in other ways, but regardless, these are not electronic smart locks.

With a Kwikset SmartKey lock, the owner can rekey the cylinder without using new pins or locksmith tools. They are hard to pick and fragile, making them a mixed bag in terms of quality. It can be very difficult to decode or unlock them if they break.

 For this type of lock, key decoders were developed specifically. The decoder consists essentially of a key-shaped camera. When you insert the key into the lock, a buffer takes a picture of the inside. Your mobile device receives this picture. In order to capture an accurate image, the buffer ensures the camera is just beneath each pin inside the lock.

Using a chart, you can determine the depth of each pin after getting the picture. The depth is numbered from front to back, and that is your code. It’s pretty straightforward.


There are different types of key decoders. You’ll need to take into account the brand of the lock you’re decoding and the type of lock you’re decoding. Key decoders are best used if you are well prepared.

Fortunately, all of these tools are relatively simple to use. The double-whammy of being mostly useless to burglars and incredibly useful to those who need them for legitimate reasons makes them a fantastic choice. 

Professional locksmiths know what kind of lock they’re dealing with, while thieves don’t. It’s great that there are easy and effective ways to decode a lock for making new keys.

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