Accessing the vault of a locked 3 slot payphone

Published: Jan 5, 2014

Mike’s Vintage Payphone by Mike Davis In this article we are discussing ways to get into the lower compartment of a locked antique "three slot payphone". Very often these payphones are found locked and without keys. Opening the upper housing isn't a problem because there are only a few keys that are common to most models. The vault door lock is a different story. Every coin vault lock in every payphone has a key unique to it. When a phone is found that doesn't have a key for the vault lock either leave it as is or replace the lock. You will not be able to obtain a key for your lock. The old lock is removed in most cases by disassembling the phone . This isn't always easy, from my experience some are basically a piece of cake to do and others are near impossible. I still have some phones that I still haven’t been able to open up yet! I know of some other methods people use but am just mentioning the procedures that I have used with much success and which cause minimal damage.

If there is still a mounting plate such as for example a 174A attached to the phone or if there is still a steel coin receptacle on the inside it is much more difficult. Before you do anything take a small screwdriver and try turning the lock, there is always the possibility that someone in the past as already defeated it. If there is a mounting plate attached you will need to remove it first. By removing the upper housing from the phone you will be able to remove any bolts mounted through that area of the phone. If the phone has a security (Ace, cylinder type) lock look in the back of the phone directly behind it for a large flat faced slotted screw head. If there is one, unscrew it while removing the upper housing. If you see other similar large screw heads (security studs) on the back of the mounting plate remove them as well. Place the upper housing aside and remove any bolts that go from the inside of the phone through the backboard and into the mounting plate. All that should be left holding the mounting plate to the phone will be as many as 4 bolts that go through from the inside of the lower compartment into the backboard. You will be able to see the ends of the bolts when looking from behind, you will have to drill them out. Now the mounting plate has been separated from the telephone, place it aside.

On later Western Electric & Northern Electric payphones all seven bolts that attach the lower housing to the backboard of the phone are accessible from the outside (rear). Earlier models as well as AE and Gray payphones have 5 blots screwed in from the outside and 2 from the inside. On a Western Electric phone with the 7 screws on the outside you can remove them and then carefully lift and pivot the backboard away from the lower housing. Be careful there may be wires still connected between the backboard and the lower assembly. If there is no steel coin receptacle inside you can now unscrew the lock on the back of the door and remove the door.

On payphones with the 5 screws on the outside and 2 coming through from the inside first determine if there is a metal coin receptacle on the inside by looking into the holes in the backboard with a small flashlight or by sticking a screwdriver in. If there is no coin receptacle use a long thin screwdriver to remove the 4 lock mounting screws. Work through the 4 large holes in the backboard that the mounting bolts go through. You can insert the screwdriver while peering through and shining a small flashlight. Once all of the screws are removed from the lock stand the phone up, let the lock drop and remove the door.

Now, if your phone has the 2 bolts coming from the inside out and there is a steel coin receptacle on the inside you will have to remove the backboard first. This comes with different degrees of difficulty and not always success depending on things such as rust contamination , over tightened bolts are and how hard the steel is that the bolts are made of. What has to be done is the 2 bolts have to be backed off back into the phone. First I use a sharp punch and poke it into the end of the bolt and try to screw it in. This has worked for me a couple times when the bolts weren’t very tight. There are a couple other methods that I have used when the punch method doesn’t work. One is to use a rotary tool to cut a slot into the end of the bolt and then use a thin screwdriver to drive the bolt back into the phone. Another is to drill a small hole into the end of each of the bolts being very carefully to center it. Don’t drill all the way through the bolt, just a quarter inch or so. Next with a larger bit, still smaller than the diameter of the bolt and go very slow into the same hole, the bit should catch the bolt and slowly turn it clockwise, continue slowly and screw the bolt backward into the phone. Once the 2 bolts are backed into the phone remove the 5 screws accessible from the back and carefully pivot the backboard away from the lower housing. Be careful not to break any wires between the backboard and the lower housing. As I mentioned earlier depending on certain conditions these methods may or may not work, they are the best chance of getting into the phone without damaging it that I know of.

If you have a phone with a steel coin receptacle in it and once you have the backboard separated from the lower housing you will need to get the coin receptacle out in order to access the backside of the vault door! If the receptacle doesn’t have a lid on it you may be able to very carefully work it out through the back of the lower housing. If there is a lid there is no easy way it will come out. There are 2 possible ways to get it out now. One, which is usually what I choose to do is to cut and crush the box with a hammer and chisel, it is a lot of work but I get it out without damaging the phone. The other is to remove all the screws that hold the tray on the top of the lower housing (using a similar method to removing the 2 screws between the lower housing and the backboard that we discussed earlier). It is very difficult to do without damaging the tray. Then lift the tray while working the coin receptacle out of the lower housing. Once the coin receptacle is removed the lock can be unscrewed from the back of the vault door and the door can be removed.