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Master Key System


Plain and simple, a master system works like any regular system, but it allows you to have different levels of access to each lock.

Wait – what’s a key system level, and how does this whole “master key system” idea work? First off, you need to understand how cylindrical locks work. A master system takes a standard pinning one step further and uses “master wafers” or “spacers” in each chamber. These wafers create an additional shear line that allows the master key to turn in all of the locks. This way, you can have different pinning combinations for different levels, but the extra shear line(s) can allow a number of different keys to work the lock.


There are four possible levels to a master key system.

  • Great Grand Master

  • Grand Master

  • Master

  • Sub-Master

You will always have a master and sub-master, but depending on how you want your system set up you may/may not have a grand or great grand master. To understand what these levels are, let’s look at an example.

Let’s start with a basic setup – a Master and Sub-Master system. Say your store has four main locks: the front door, receiving door, office door, and merchandise case. You want your manager to open all of the doors, your shift lead to open the front door, receiving door, and merchandise case, and your other employees to only open the merchandise case. You will need a master key system with two sub-masters under it. The master key would go to the manager, one sub-master would go to your shift leads, and the other sub-master would go to other employees.

Now let’s add in a Grand Master key. Your District Manager currently carries a key ring the size of a bowling ball and would love to lighten his load. Well, you are about to make his day. You can give him a Grand Master key that will open every door in all stores in his region.

Get excited – it’s time for the granddaddy of them all – the Great Grand Master. While your DM had a massive key ring, think about the size of the box it would take to contain keys to all of your stores. If (and that’s a big if) you wanted a key to open all of your stores, you could cut a great grand master key. Typically, these keys are owned by an officer of the company and are kept under tight lock and key. Many key system vendors (including us) don’t recommend ever cutting these keys.

Have a different setup in mind? No problem – the beauty of master key systems is that they are very flexible and can be set up however you need.


Obviously, the biggest benefit is the ability to have controlled access to certain openings with one key – no more bowling ball sized key rings. Need to add stores or additional openings to the system? No problem – again, these systems are very flexible.

You may wonder how rekeys work on master key systems. The only time you would need to rekey the entire store is if the master key was lost. In the example we just talked about, if a regular employee lost their key, you would only need to rekey the merchandise cases and hand out new keys on that sub-master level. Your manager and shift supervisor keys would still work.

Surprisingly, this doesn’t come with a bigger price tag. Some vendors may charge a setup fee, but after that you’ll pay the same price for keys and cores that you would on a standard system.


The biggest downside of master key systems is the risk you run if a key is lost or falls into the wrong hands. We once had to rekey an entire state because a disgruntled DM refused to return his grand master key – talk about an expensive oops.

The other potential downside is translating the benefits of the master key system throughout your organization. We find that sometimes the loss prevention managers and DMs grasp how the system works, but sometimes store managers don’t quite get it and try to order and carry more keys than necessary.

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