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Padlock Maintenance

by Damien Andrews

It seems like every year we all have to lock up more and more things. And we need better locks – if we don't want to lose those things. Some of the things we value and want to keep come with locks built-in. That list would include such things as cars, motorcycles, ATVs, and boats. Other things we must put into something and then lock that something – such as a drill or saw in a toolbox. Kids have lockers at school, and if you belong to a health club or visit your local YMCA, you have a locker to secure your things. Such storage and security containers frequently require the use of a padlock.

Padlocks are great little devices. They do an excellent job of deterring would-be thieves. Of course, they won't stop those who have serious intentions and some skills, but most of the things regular folks lock-up are not the targets of serious, professional thieves. Most professional thieves, for example, will not break into a locker at the local YMCA to steal a racquetball racquet – nor will they break into your backyard storage shed to steal your lawnmower, blower and edger. It's just not profitable enough to take the risks.

Padlocks, like almost everything else, come in a broad range of quality levels and styles. Some require keys, some have dial combinations, and others have cylinder combinations. Some are made of solid brass for extended outdoor service. Some have hardened shackles, and some have guards that protect the shackles from being cut. No matter what the type or quality level of the padlock, they all require maintenance in order to provide the best service and the longest service life. With the cost of padlocks going higher every year, it becomes more and more worthwhile to properly service a padlock as opposed to replacing a one. Quite fortunately, it's relatively easy (and cheap) to properly service and fully maintain a padlock.

To properly service a padlock using this method, you'll need a small container that can be closed, some WD-40, an air compressor or canned air, and if the lock is in really bad condition, some emery cloth and/or fine steel wool. An old coffee can works great for the container.

Buy a gallon of WD-40 at your local hardware store and half fill the container with it. Lightly blow the padlock off, including the holes where the shackles go and the cylinder where the key fits (or tumblers are) to remove loose debris and dust. Now attach something like a piece of nylon string or thin wire to the shackle. Gently lower the lock into the container of WD-40 and put the lid on – being sure to leave the string or wire out of the can so you can easily retrieve the lock later. Gently agitate the can for a few seconds to allow the WD-40 to penetrate everywhere inside the lock's mechanism. Put the can on your workbench and go find out exactly where your wife wants that new picture hung. How long you'll leave the padlock inside the container and how often you will agitate it depends on the condition of the padlock when you started the maintenance process. If it was stiff and had visible rust and corrosion, you may well need to leave it in the container for a few days – agitating it 3-4 times a day. If the padlock was in relatively good repair, but dirty and the mechanisms were 'sticky,' then a few hours with two or three agitations is plenty.

When the padlock has been in the silicone for the appropriate amount of time, suspend it over the liquid so that it can fully drain. Since WD-40 has such low viscosity, this will only take a few minutes at most. Once the padlock no longer drains, remove it from the can and seal the can with its lid. You'll want to keep this can of WD-40 as it will service many locks before becoming too contaminated to use. You can also put other items into the can, as you deem fitting or necessary. Soak a rusty item in it, for example, and then use emery cloth and fine steel wool to remove all the rust and leave a nice polished finish.

If the shackle or padlock body has rust or corrosion, now's the time to remove it. It should come off easily now with either emery cloth or fine steel wool. If you do have to follow this step, then when you're done removing the corrosion and/or rust, suspend the padlock back in the WD-40 for 10-minutes or so, drain it, and cap the WD-40 can for later use.

Put on some goggles and use either an air compressor or a can of air to thoroughly blow out the lock's insides. Do this through the shackle holes, the key slot, or the open areas around the cylinders. If you have a padlock with a combination dial, rotate the dial while directing air under the edges of the dial on the padlock's face. Frequently, padlocks with dial combinations also have keyholes in the back – if so, shoot some air in. Work the shackles in and out while you perform this step. If you see lots of pieces (of rust or other debris) flying out of the lock while blowing it out, then suspend the lock in the WD-40 again for 30-minutes and repeat the draining and blowing steps. Finally, when the padlock's insides are cleared, wipe the outside off with a rag. There's no way to get all the WD-40 out of the lock, but we want some inside there anyway, so don’t try too hard to blow it all out.

The last step in our padlock maintenance procedure is lubrication. Of course the remnant WD-40 is already providing some lubrication, but we'll want more, and some additional protection for the metal. I like a lightweight, non-detergent oil. 3-1 Oil works great! Sewing machine oil is also good. I do not recommend the use of powdered graphite as lubrication for padlocks – as a rule. Powdered graphite is a superb lubricant for locks, but I've had some problems with it on outdoor padlocks, so I now don't recommend it. Do NOT over oil the padlock – a few drops is all you need, and you should let any excess drain off. Excess oil will hold dirt. Slide the key in and out or work the tumblers while lubricating. Also work the shackles in and out while lubricating.

Wipe off any excess oil from both the lock and the key and put the padlock back into service. Under normal conditions, this lock will not require service for a year. Under extreme conditions, it should be serviced again in six months.


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