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Lock It Down: All About Mechanical Escape Room Locks

(Last Updated On: April 2, 2019)

DISCLAIMER: When installing mechanical locks in your escape room, be sure to follow all safety instructions and protocols. In addition, always know your local fire & building code laws with regards to using mechanical locks in a doorway or exit, among other things. For questions and clarifications, contact your local building authority.


If you are like me, nothing pulls you out of a game quicker than a big ol’ honkin’ maglock in a weird location. I understand why everyone uses them. They are (mostly) easy to install, affordable, and hold things secure. Well, I am here to answer that burning question about them: Why are 80lb maglock so much more expensive than 300lb maglocks… no, wait… not that question, tho that’s a good one.

The question is:

What other options are there other than the beloved electromagnetic lock?

Before I answer that tho’, let’s find out why you might not want or need to use a maglock in the first place. Sometimes when trying to create a unique puzzle, using a maglock is not feasible, either structurally or aesthetically. Recently the Test Subjects team was getting ready to install a puzzle that needed a box to be closed until a certain task was completed. Due to the nature of the box, there was no way to put a maglock into the design that would not have been obtrusive. Anywhere that would work would ruin the look of the prop and the best place for it was blocked due to something secret inside of the box. What did we do you ask? Keep reading and you’ll find out below.

Here is an example of improper maglock usage for you: We played an escape room which had a vampire theme and at the end, a stake dropped from a hiding place… with a big hunk of metal screwed to it. Forgetting for a moment why a vampire would have the way to kill him hidden in his house, what the hell was that giant steel chunk attached to it? It seems like lazy puzzle design but it could also be ignorance of a better way to accomplish the same effect. The way we would fix that is to have the maglock holding something closed and then when it opens it releases the stake, plate free.

So what other devices can keep the unwashed masses out of your precious puzzles until the time is right I hear you ask?

Allow me to lay out a few other options worth looking into:


File Cabinet Escape Room Locks

escape room locks

If you need to keep something that slides open closed up tight these are great. They are mainly used for drawers, file cabinets, and the like. (Amazon lockers use them so they are pretty solid) One thing to remember is that these are not like maglocks in that when power is lost it will turn off. These are what are called fail secure. Without power, they will not open. Thus, you don’t want to lock anything where someone could get stuck inside with one of these.

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Pros

  • Slim so they take up less space
  • Fail-secure so they are not constantly on
  • Affordable! You can Find them for $10-15

Cons

  • They only really work on sliding drawers. Not meant for hinged closures. (But can be used for certain kinds)
  • If they fail, you can’t easily get it open (if the mechanism is hidden)

Solenoids

escape room locks

The style of solenoid pictured above is also for locking up drawers but they are a bit more flexible and can be used in different ways. They do have a few downsides so make sure that when you use them you know their limitations. The smaller models don’t have the “oomf” to open if it has any amount of pressure on the latch. Also, when these engage, if they stay in their open position for too long they can get REALLY hot. It’s best to have a way to have them trigger and then reset themselves shortly after to prevent overheating or damage.

Don’t let me dissuade you from using them. When they work, they work well. As a matter of fact, we use four of them for a puzzle in our “backstage” room (see demo video below). You just need to be aware of when and how to use them. Larger solenoids have pulling power if they have weight placed against them but they tend to be a bit bulkier. Down below are two photos. One is for a box that had to be unlocked (which, in my opinion, is the best use for the cabinet style locks) and the other caused a lock to drop off when triggered using a large solenoid.

Pros

  • Great for keeping boxes closed
  • Easy to hook up and use
  • They Come in various sizes and different lengths (stroke)

Cons

  • If left on for too long they get INCREDIBLY hot
  • Certain types won’t open if any pressure is put against the bolt
  • Good ones can be bulky


Servos

escape room locks

This was my solution to our above box problem mentioned earlier in this article. I placed two on either side of the door with a notch cut into the servo arm and made a catch for it to grab onto. I will say that servos get a bad rap because they require some sort of controller to function properly. If you are not savvy with Arduino or other types of microcontrollers they can be a bit daunting. Well, I can help you with that so stick with me. There are lots of different types of servos. Standard, continuous rotation, digital, analog, plastic gear, metal gear, and many of those options mix and match across the board. They also come in varying sizes. Do some research and see which is best for your applications.

Another thing to consider: if you are using servos to hold something closed or going to have a lot of force put upon them you want to buy metal servo horns (the plastic arms that go on top) because people WILL break them.

If you just need a servo to just move from one place to another and back again without getting a microcontroller involved, get one of these servo triggers from Sparkfun. They are handy and easy to use. No programming required! I use them all the time when I am being lazy and don’t want to use a 555 timer.

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Wait, what’s a 555 timer? Check out this article to learn all about them.

Pros

  • Readily available
  • Have a good amount of torque
  • Can be used to create animations as well

Cons

  • Require some sort of controller
  • Can be hard to mount
  • So many options can be confusing at first

Drop Bolt

What the hell is a drop bolt you ask? It’s this weird device that I don’t see anyone talk about on the forums or… anywhere else really. I recently discovered them and they were the answer to a puzzle problem I was having (video below). Similar to a maglock, they are made to hold doors in place but in a different way. They are a strange hybrid of a deadbolt, solenoid, and maglock. The first thing you will find out is that it’s mounted into the top of a door frame. When power is cut to the lock the bolt is retracted up inside of the device. When the door closes and power is restored, it senses a magnet in the plate below it and it drops the bolt and resets itself (hence the name).

It sounds complicated but I feel these are more secure than maglocks. If a maglock is not mounted properly or the wrong strength is used, you can pop a door open with enough force and leverage. With these, you will rip the door frame out before opening the door (which is highly unlikely and at that point you are clearly playing a different game than everyone else). I encourage you to buy one and play around with it.

Pros

  • Can’t be pulled open like a maglock
  • Unique in the way they work

Cons

  • Similar to cabinet solenoids, too much pressure and the bolt won’t retract.
  • Larger footprint than the others

Conclusion

These devices I have shared with you are not the only options out there obviously. There is a myriad of odd locks and bolts and devices just waiting to be used in an escape room puzzle scenario. No matter what you use, it’s all about placement. Even if you put a maglock on a flap but only on one side and/or not in the middle, people can (and will) pry one side open and either break it or break into it. Make sure you are familiar with all of the toys in your toybox.

You’d be surprised at what you can accomplish when you refuse to ugly up a prop with a visible connection.


About the Author

Escape Room AutomationBizzaro has been seen on TV shows and creates props and magic for other performers.

He is the resident mad scientist at “Test Subjects” and creates many of the props and puzzles in his secret laboratory in Las Vegas. Want to see Bizzaro perform live in Vegas? Check out his performance schedule at www.bizzaro.ninja.


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