Business owners and managers who secure their valuables or vending equipment with tubular locks may find it necessary to replace or duplicate a key in order to gain entry to their machines or cabinetry. Just as a master key may be used in an apartment building, a vending machine skeleton key, typically called a universal tubular key, can be used to open many of your locks and reduce the number of required keys.

However, "universal" does not mean that it will open every lock, so you'll need to understand how tubular keys operate and choose your course of action if you need a replacement key.

What Is a Universal Tubular Key?

A tubular key, sometimes also called a barrel key, has a cylindrical metal shaft with several indents of varying lengths cut on the end around its outer surface. The indentations match up with pins inside the lock, pushing them in and allowing the lock to turn and open. Tubular locks are most commonly found on ATMs, vending machines, jewelry cases, key cabinets, coin-operated washing machines and elevators. Some consider this type of lock to be more secure than other types, but if someone wanted to rob a vending machine, a lock-pick expert could manage it with some practice.

The term "universal" means that one key will work for several machines, allowing a service technician or operator to only carry one key rather than a full key ring. However, every universal tubular key will not work in every barrel lock, as the pin combinations vary with seven, eight or 10 pins.

Typically, locks delivered in one order or installed within one set of vending machines are keyed to work with a specific universal key that is assigned its own lock code. This maintains some level of security so that someone with access to one universal key cannot fraudulently access a competitor's machines.

Replace the Use of Vending Machine Key Codes

If you have lost a key for your vending machine or cabinet and if your equipment is fairly new and all the identifying numbers on the machine are legible, you might be able to order a replacement key directly from the manufacturer. Vending machine manufacturers will ask you for a model number and the vending machine key codes stamped on the surface of the lock. With this information, they can send you a replacement key.

Make Copies for Backup Use 

Save time and money by planning ahead and making additional copies of your universal tubular keys. Access to a working key will keep your operation running smoothly because having a spare key on hand will save on downtime. It might also be useful to have several keys available for each member of your staff who needs access to the machine or cabinet but works on different days or shifts.

Locksmiths who own a key cutter that makes universal tubular keys can easily copy your original key. The machine reads the grooves on the original and cuts the new keys on blanks following the same pattern. Copies may range anywhere from $7 to $15 per key.

Cut Your Own Keys 

If your business relies heavily on this type of key because you own a large number of vending machines or other equipment that utilizes a barrel lock, you might want to purchase your own tubular key cutter. However, the cost of these machines can range from $350 to over $1,500, so it is not likely to be a very cost-effective way to make your keys.

Typically, the best practice is to carefully guard your originals, make extra copies as a safeguard and know your lock and vending machine key codes in case you need to order replacements.