The Restoration of Antique Lock and Key

Translated from German by Abha Vardhan (2019)


Locking systems emerged about 4800 years ago, at the beginning of industrialization around 1850. It is fascinating to find many locks and technology with the highest craftsmanship over the past few decades.

How The Locking System Started

In the beginning, as excavations indicated, there was a man-sized pit covered with a heavy stone slab. This was the first simple closure.

The next was an externally mounted push bar. This simple bolt has been used in almost every culture since the Neolithic Age up to the present day. The ultimate step was the development of locking systems in which a removable element, the key, was used to open the lock.

The Latch Bolt Lock - a Lock with a Key

This lock can be considered one of the oldest in the world. It is found in the Khorsabad palace near Nineveh. It was estimated to be around 4000 years old. This lock is considered the precursor to a pin tumbler lock. 

The oldest lock consists of a large wooden bolt that locks the door, which had a slot with numerous holes on its upper side. Over the centuries, all possible variants of the lock were created. You will also find the latch bolt lock with the anchor key.

Today, latch locks are used in some remote areas. The latch bolt lock created at the end of the 19th century served as a basic template for the Yale cylinder lock.

Development of the Lock Key System in The Roman Era

The Romans had close contacts in several areas; on the one hand with the Greeks and on the other with the Celts in the north, which led to the development of early iron lock and key system.

The Romans were willing to absorb and further improve their lock making techniques. Nearly all known lock and key systems had some connection with the Roman period.

Several types of locks were invented in this era, such as the latch bolt lock with sprung drop pins and locks with a rotary key. Particularly noteworthy are the Roman box locks with a wooden core and rotary key.

The Roman age launched several new types of improved locks; however, these locks were quite expensive, which made them a symbol of wealth and affluence. The Romans made small keys from costly metals such as gold, iron, silver, and bronze. These were at the time displayed as a mark of wealth because only some affluent people would have valuable personal safes with lock and key systems.

After the collapse of the Roman Empire, there was hardly any change in the creation of lock and key systems. Locksmiths who made locks and keys by hand were only employed by rich people who wanted more security for their precious valuables.

In order to avoid burglary, more secure locks were created so that they were not easily picked by anyone. The personal safe in which they stored valuables in those times was made from intricately carved wooden chests with a bulky lock system that was built on the lid.

What You Should Know About Restoration  

The serious restoration of old locks requires a lot of experience and interest to do it. The person who wants to work in this field must be a skilled all-rounder and they should be able to master the following: cleaning, preserving, brazing with pure copper or brass, and a little bit of forging.

There are two categories:

  • Restorers: Excellent craftsmen working for museums and doing collectors work.
  • Collectors: The philosophy of collecting divides this category into two parts. The first group of collectors is those who only superficially clean objects and possibly preserve them. Their aim is to preserve them as far as possible in the same state in which they were found so as to keep their cultural-historical state intact.

The second group of collectors is those who clean objects, conserve them and mechanically restore them. The first group of collectors does not need any advice. The second group, if they do not already have the experience, should follow certain rules of restoration. They must take the utmost care during restoration and make sure to maintain and improve the cultural-historical value of the object.

It is important that the functionality of the object is maintained or restored. Many people aim to regain the shine of an object but his approach often changes the appearance of the object and therefore fails in most cases.  The intention should be to restore the original charisma without losing its cultural-historical essence.

There are many possibilities and even more views on the subject of restoration. Specifically, almost every piece requires an object-related approach or technique. In the beginning, it is important to make a lot of significant decisions such as how much should be cleaned and whether parts are to be replaced or not. One should leave a lock unrestored if they are not sure how to restore it.

Things that must be considered during restorations are:

  • How much do I want to clean?
  • Which cleaning technique should I use?
  • Should I polish the parts?
  • Should I restore the functionality?
  • Are my repair techniques compatible with cultural-historical preservation or I am neglecting them?
  • What preservation should I apply?

The Cleaning Technique

Several types of a rotating brush can be used for the purpose of cleaning. Small fine, fleecy, quickly rotating wire brushes are used for cleaning. The cleaning is usually done manually and soft wire brushes, plastic brushes, abrasive and polishing fleece are used.

Occasionally, electrolysis was applied for cleaning old objects, however, because this method is not considered suitable for restoration, it has not been used often. When it is used carefully and gently, it delivers excellent results.

In order to polish smaller parts, rubber-like polishing inserts are used, which do not affect the surface drastically. It is worth noting that one should not use any acids or other chemical processes for de-rusting the object

The Preserving Technique

There is a special hot liquid antique wax mixed with some paraffin that is used for coating objects. You need to apply with a brush it while it is hot and wipe the extra off with kitchen paper. It is heated to about 60 to 100 ° C.

In a few cases, a nano-impregnation technique is used. It is not suggested to use paints for coating as it might not look good. Each object is different and requires a different restoration technique. In addition, every restorer swears by his own method. One important thing is that you can gently clean with soft steel brushes and preserve with them linseed oil or tannin.

In some cases, you make need to use the desalination technique. Let the object desalt for about 10 to 15 minutes and after that, apply the hot wax and paraffin mixture to preserve the object.

The Beauty of Antiques!

The restoration of antiques is an important process in which a piece of an object or an object undergoes several processes before gaining a significant place on the market. Throughout the restoration techniques that are used, the restorer makes sure to keep the basic essence of the object intact so that it does not lose its cultural and historical value.

Antique objects deteriorate over time and you can preserve them by finding out the cause of their deterioration and then determining ways in which to reduce and possibly eradicate such causes. Conservators are professionals who have in-depth knowledge about history, archaeology and chemistry and other similar areas of expertise.

Restoring an old item to make it look new could be as simple as just cleaning the dirt and grime which envelopes the great beauty of the old object, or it may mean a major overhaul to rebuild and replace certain parts of the object to make it look good and functional.

If the restorer is looking to regain the functionality of the object, then the person might want to do some more work other than just simply varnishing and cleaning the object. It is worth noting that the object undergoes several changes overtime and acquires other characteristics that are of utmost importance in an antique object.

It is important that you work on the antique object gently so as not to strip them of their original look. If you need to redo the surface, keep it as a last resort. Whenever you are doing any antique restoration, you must research thoroughly on the subject and learn more about the material of the antique object and how it can be cleaned for the best possible results. In some cases, you can just leave the antique as it is without doing any major overhaul as it may reduce its worth.

If you are not a skilled restorer, it is better to leave the work to expert professionals who are quite knowledgeable in this area and know how to better handle antique objects.

It is worth saving antique objects because they are valuable and they serve as reminders of the golden era.