The Telegraph Office

by Neal McEwen, K5RW

N7CFO's Advice for Beginning Key Collectors

by Lynn Burlingame, N7CFO

Copyright © 1999, Lynn Burlingame

To Telegraph Office Main Page

Lynn Burlingame, N7CFO is a veteran key collector and publisher of the "N7CFO Keyletter."  As such, he frequently receives letters from novice collectors like, "I am a new collector and don't have much of a collection and I have a lot to learn."  In his Keyletter #23, he addresses the beginners.  Many thanks to Lynn for sharing his sage advice with the Telegraph Office.

"Well guys, I am an old collector, and I too have a lot to learn!  Since we have a lot of newcomers, I will offer some free advice to them. I learned these things the hard way."

  • Document Your Collection -- If you have computer, use a database. If not, use 3 x 5 cards. At a minimum, assign a control number to each key, tag it in a manner that will not damage it, and list where you obtained it, the cost, the previous owner, the locations and a general description.

  • Pack Your Duplicates Carefully -- Sooner or later, you will have extra keys. Buy some bubble pack so you can properly wrap them. Number the boxes they go into and update your database with the locations. This may seem a little silly if you have only a few extra keys, but it will pay off later.

  • Build a Library and Keep it Organized -- Buy any books on telegraphy that you can get your hands on. You will be surprised at how often they turn up in book stores, garage sales and junk stores.

  • Make Fair Trades and Sales -- There are not all that many collectors out there, and your reputation is very important. No transaction is complete until both sides are completely happy! All sales or trades should be made with accurate descriptions and should be made on approval.

  • Shut Up and Pay the Price -- A veteran collector gave me this advice when I was a novice collector and of course I ignored it. I have a sad memory of a swap meet where a guy had a quite nice spark key for sale. I attempted to dicker him down and as a result, he refused to sell it to me at any price. Likewise, I have turned down some prime stuff over the years only to find out later that the asking price was a bargain. Live and learn!

  • Make Fair Purchases -- Sooner or later you will be handed an item by someone handling a silent key sale and asked what it is worth. This is a deadly situation which must be handled carefully. If you buy the item, dig deep and pay a fair price. If you are unable to, state what the fair price is and that you will make an offer below it. You are in deep 'kimchi' if you get a reputation as a cheat. Likewise, a reputation as an honest buyer will cause choice items to come your way. These will be sent by word of mouth referrals from people that have appreciated your honesty.



    I use the "ouch" system of appraisal in these circumstances. I examine the item and ask myself "would I buy this at an antique store at $10, $20?" I keep raising the price until I feel a good internal "ouch" at the price. When the "ouch" is accompanied with a perceptible wince, I have arrived at a fair price.

    Get rid of the wire wheel! -- I have seen more fine items destroyed with a wire wheel than by any other means.

  • Leave it Alone, Dammit! -- If you don't know what you are doing with a key, ask someone that does, or dig through the back issues of Keyletters for restoration tips. You can always work on it later, but you can seldom undo damage done through ill advised cleaning.

  • Dig Deep and Buy Those Expensive Gunsmith's Screwdrivers -- Trust me on this. I mentioned the screwdriver set sold by Brownells back in Keyletter #5. Their "Super-Set" currently costs $87.52, but I will promise you that the cost will seem trivial if you mess up a prime key when a screwdriver blade slips. Brownells address is 200 S. Front St., Montezuma, IA 50171-9989.

  • Buy Some "Screw-Grab" -- Again, trust me on this. See page 134 of Keyletter #13.

  • Do Some Research! -- Most old timers will tell you that the best fun that they have had was researching a key manufacturer. This doesn't take any particular skill. If you live in an area where a key manufacturer lived or made keys, do some snooping around. You can often locate former employees of the company, and the local newspaper archives or library generally has information. Don't forget the genealogical society - it is amazing what they can provide from their files.

  • For more information, visit the Telegraph Office home page

    Neal McEwen,