A spot of friendly breaking and entering.
May 15, 2009 12:35 AM   Subscribe

How do I retrieve a key/set of keys from a mail slot?

Some dear friends of mine went to Japan for their honeymoon. They'd wanted to give me their spare keys before they left, but we were never able to meet up for the exchange. I'd love to surprise them by filling their fridge up with tasty snacks for their return, but in order to do so, I obviously need to get into their house.

They dropped their keys through the mail slot hoping I'd be clever enough to figure out how to retrieve them. Obviously, I have failed them in this regard. The slot is in their garage wall; it has a sort of curved lip inside to catch mail (and keys).

How do I get the keys out? I have a strong ring magnet I was thinking of tying to a string, but when I tested that out on my own keys, only the little metal key ring was magnetic so there wasn't much for the magnet to hold onto. Would getting a stronger neodymium magnet work better? If so, where can I buy a ring shaped neodymium magnet in San Francisco? Also, now that I think about it, I don't know if it's a whole ring of keys or just the house key, and I can't really ask because they're incommunicado.

I was wondering about maybe a hook made of a coat hanger, but the tricky thing is, obviously, I can't see inside very well and I'd rather not knock the keys off with my fumbling.

Any other brilliant key retrieval ideas?
posted by mostlymartha to Grab Bag (18 answers total)
The classics...

Bubble gum on a stick.
Glob of superglue on a stick.
Glob of two-part epoxy mixed on a stick... and wait 10 mins.
posted by rokusan at 12:47 AM on May 15, 2009

Best answer: First you need to see what's going on in there. I'm having trouble picturing what's going on with the mail slot, but perhaps you could use a dental mirror or other small mirror to have a look see. If the opening is large enough you could slip the lens area of your digital camera in and take a picture.

If there is a key ring, a magnet will stick to it. It doesn't matter if the key ring is small as long as the magnet is strong enough and you are gentle with it. If you have a strong magnet already it should work for a small number of keys.

If there is no ring, a magnet won't do much for you since keys are made of brass. Get a parts grabber tool from an auto parts store or Harbor Freight. Depending on the shape of the area where the keys are, it might be easier to use than a magnet.
posted by yohko at 12:55 AM on May 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Barbecue tongs?
posted by pseudostrabismus at 1:21 AM on May 15, 2009

Fishing hooks on a line with just a little slack, tied to a rod that's waved side to side so the hooks drag along the floor; you might snag the ring this way. Paper clips bent into hook shapes could work.
posted by crapmatic at 1:58 AM on May 15, 2009

There is a tool mechanics use for situations like this. I don't know the name, but it is a long (18" - 24") flexible shaft (maybe 3/8" diameter) with a claw at one end and a button to actuate it on the other. Here we go, I found a link to one on Amazon.
posted by thekiltedwonder at 3:30 AM on May 15, 2009

Would getting a stronger neodymium magnet work better? If so, where can I buy a ring shaped neodymium magnet in San Francisco?

I think the magnet-on-a-string would be the best option; where I am, the easiest place to get powerful magnets is ordering online from a magnet merchant I found through Google; I spent about $10 and got some very powerful magnets for my trouble.
posted by Mike1024 at 4:49 AM on May 15, 2009

I'm not sure about the mail slot situation, but you might try asking neighbors or mutual friends if they have keys. I have keys to several of my friends' places, and vice versa.
posted by trip and a half at 5:32 AM on May 15, 2009

Have you tried other means of getting into the house?

1) Ask a neighbor or relative if they have a key

2) Look for a partially open window

3) Try all the doors and windows, maybe they forgot to lock one in the rush of leaving

4) Break a window and pay for a replacement

5) Call a locksmith, explain the situation, and see if they will pick the lock (this is probably not a good idea and probably wouldn't work anyway, but ....)

Failing all the above, a plumber might be a good source of long snaky tools and cameras, useful for getting small objects out of inconvenient places.

Good luck! I did something like this once, and filled the happy couple's bedroom with balloons. For some reason, they were not real thrilled with it all - I think they were so tired after the wedding and honeymoon that cleaning up was not on their list of fun things to do. But filling the fridge with food is a great plan!!!
posted by SuperSquirrel at 5:37 AM on May 15, 2009

You people are all enabling breaking and entering. Next up: OP wants to leave surprise for friends inside safety deposit box, needs to know how to make impression of key.

Perhaps you could email your friends, saying you want to know how to retrieve the key because you want to put a mailed package inside their garage?
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 6:33 AM on May 15, 2009

You people are all enabling breaking and entering

Yes, but he has permission to enter, and the vacationers told OP where the keys were.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 6:48 AM on May 15, 2009


I was kind of joking; it isn't B&E if he does have permission. But it's kind of like helping a stranger unlock a car . . . the line between someone who has just seen keys in a garage, and someone who is watching a house for a friend, is mighty thin over the Internets, and we are all engaged in a little hop of faith.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 7:19 AM on May 15, 2009

I want to second TheKiltedWonder's suggestion of the Flexible Claw Pick Up Tool. You stick it in the slot and press the button, which causes the claw to open. Fish it around, then let go of the button and the claw will close back up. It literally was made for situations like this.

You don't have to order it on line. Every decent-sized car parts store will have one, and for ten bucks, it's a steal. You'll find yourself using it all the time.
posted by Ian A.T. at 9:26 AM on May 15, 2009

borrow a little kid with small hands and long arms. seriously.
posted by Lylo at 10:34 AM on May 15, 2009

Two tools (that I own but don't know the names of) available from any bigger hardware store:

An extendable pointer with a strong magnet on the end. I think mechanics use it to fish screws out of engines. Also, it might work better if there's anything made of metal inside the door that might foul you up if the magnet is just on a string.

You can buy a small mirror that's on the end of a metal rod that mechanics use as well.
posted by bonobothegreat at 10:36 AM on May 15, 2009

Best answer: I've lost my mailbox key, so I do this every few days: drumstick (or other sturdy, thin stick) with a clump of quality duct tape attached to the end. Have also rescued a set of keys with this method.
posted by thegreatfleecircus at 11:31 AM on May 15, 2009

An old hard drive is a source for strong magnets, if you've got one you're willing to give up for the cause. But if the key isn't on a ring don't bother. As you found, only the ring will be attracted to a magnet.

You definitely need a mirror to see inside. Without that you're just fishing for something that will never bite a hook. Until you can see the key it's a pretty hopeless job.
posted by 6550 at 11:48 AM on May 15, 2009

Response by poster: Success! Thanks to my relatively small hands and already owned substitutes to the above mentioned tools (a length of dowel with a wad of Gorilla duct tape on the end, a small, pivoting makeup mirror, and a very bright LED book light on a long, flexible neck) the key was retrieved. It was on a ribbon, which ended up sticking to the tape very well.

The difficulty I didn't foresee was the large quantity of mail already resting in the bin behind the slot. You cannot imagine what fun it was to remove four grocery store junk mail catalogues one page at a time in order to even see the key without looking like the world's most incompetent cat burglar.

Food is in the fridge and flowers are on the table, and, as a bonus, we were able to bring in half a dozen wedding gifts from New Zealand that had been languishing on the porch. Thanks so much for helping us gift this gift to our great friends.
posted by mostlymartha at 11:27 PM on May 16, 2009

posted by trip and a half at 11:37 PM on May 16, 2009

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