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Antique Furniture Keys

Antique Furniture Keys
September 30, 2014 English Classics Team
protruding barrel bit keys

Keys are everywhere in our lives. More-so for some of us than others, of course. For example I have a key to my house, my car, and the office. My wife, on the other hand, has about two pounds of keys on her keyring, most of them I seriously doubt either of us know what they go to. I think she keeps them to add enough weight and bulk to her purse in case some wild animal escapes from the zoo and she needs to fend it off.

Keys are a big part of the antique furniture world. So much of the furniture made in years past has been fitted with locks. From giant bookcases to little tea caddies, each one requires a key. And if we accidentally buy an item with a locked drawer but no key, it can make for a long afternoon… Since we often do not give these important little aspects of our furniture much thought, I figured it would be neat to put together the knowledge we have acquired of them in our travels so far.

Various Types of Antique Furniture Keys

Our experience deals primarily with English antique furniture, so the keys we will outline below are the most common English keys. Newer furniture and antiques from other countries may differ.

barrel bit keys

Standard barrel bit keys.

These are your most standard antique furniture keys called barrel bit. They are so named due to the little “bit” on the end of the barrel that is used to push the flange out of the way inside the lock and actually turn the tumbler. The post is usually hollow in order to fit over a protruding pin inside the lock. As with any key the handle can be simple or elaborate and as decorative as the piece you are using them for.

protruding barrel bit keys

Protruding barrel bit keys

The second type of key you see here is the protruding barrel bit. Very similar to the barrel bit, but the barrel is not hollow. Instead it protrudes beyond the bit. The locks will have a hole inside that the protrusion fits into, rather than a pin it fits around. This type of key is more common for very old furniture (mid 19th century or earlier).

double bit barrel

Double bit barrel key

Finally we have the double bit barrel key. These are not as common as the previous two types. We see them used mostly in roll top desks. The double bits usually push open two sides of a latch simultaneously to open the lock.

Miscellaneous Tidbits

  • People used to keep their front doors open but their furniture locked.
  • Many locksmiths will not attempt to open locks on antique furniture for fear of damaging the piece. Your local furniture restorer is very likely to have a good antique furniture locksmith’s information.
  • Keys are usually made of brass or steel. Steel tends to make a stronger key but is usually less decorative.
  • Because they are not as complex as today, keys from one antique may very well work the lock on another.