How does a master key work?

A master key entering a door lock
A master key can open many different types of locks. Robin Smith / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Master keys use a pin-and-tumbler design, where a series of pins of varying lengths interact with a key to lock or unlock the mechanism. The correct key aligns these pins precisely at the shear line, allowing the cylinder to turn.
  • In systems designed for two keys, a master key and a change key, the addition of a master wafer or spacer between some of the pin pairs allows the master key to operate multiple locks within a group, while a change key can only operate a specific lock.
  • This system's versatility makes it ideal for apartment buildings, office complexes and hotels, where individual and master access needs coexist.

The super of our apartment building is always going into everyone's apartment when something needs to be fixed. There must be a hundred apartments, but he only carries one key around with him. How does he get into all those apartments with the same key?

Although locks come in all shapes and sizes, with many innovative design variations, most locks are based on fairly similar concepts. The most common lock design is the cylinder lock. In this design, the key turns a cylinder, or plug, which turns an attached cam. When the plug is turned one way, the cam pulls in on the bolt and the door can open. When the plug turns the other way, the cam releases the bolt and a spring snaps it into place so the door cannot open.


The key your "super" is using is called a master key. To understand how master keys work, you first have to have a basic idea of how locks and keys work.

Inside a cylinder lock, there is a sort of puzzle, which only the correct key can solve. The main variation in lock designs is the nature of this puzzle. One of the most common puzzles is the pin-and-tumbler design.

Check out the next page to learn more about this lock design.


Pin and Tumbler Locks

The shafts of a pin-and-tumbler lock contain several springs and tiny pins.

The main components in the pin-and-tumbler design are a series of small pins of varying length. The pins are divided up into pairs. Each pair rests in a shaft running through the central cylinder plug and into the housing around the plug. Springs at the top of the shafts keep the pin pairs in position in the plug.

When no key is inserted, the bottom pin in each pair is completely inside the plug, while the upper pin is halfway in the plug and halfway in the housing. The position of the upper pins keeps the plug from turning -- the pins bind the plug to the housing.


When you insert a key, the series of notches in the key push the pin pairs up to different levels. The incorrect key will push the pins so that most of the top pins are still partly in the plug and partly in the housing. The correct key will push each pin pair up just enough so that the point where the two pins come together lines up perfectly with the space where the cylinder and the housing come together -- this point is called the shear line.

The right combination of pins lines up perfectly with the notches in the key.

Some locks are designed to work with two different keys. The change key will open only that specific lock, while the master key will open that lock and several others in a group. In these locks, a few of the pin pairs are separated by a third pin. This third pin is called a master wafer or spacer.

When three pins are combined in a shaft, there are two ways to position the pins so they open the lock. The change key might raise the pins so that the shear line is just above the top of the master wafer, while the master key might raise the pins so the shear line is at the bottom of the master wafer. In both cases, there is a gap at the shear line and the key is able to turn.

In this lock design, the lowest pin is the same length in each lock in the group, but the master wafer varies in length. This lets the person with the master key access any lock in the group, while someone with a change key can open only his or her own lock.


Frequently Asked Questions

How does the master key system maintain security for individual locks?
The master key system maintains security by allowing each change key to open only a specific lock, while the master key, through a unique arrangement of pins and spacers, can access all locks within the group without compromising individual lock security.
What limitations exist with the master key system in terms of security?
While convenient, master key systems can pose a security risk if someone loses or duplicates the master key potentially giving access to all locks within the system to an unauthorized user.