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What are Cam Locks?

By B. Turner
Updated May 17, 2024
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Cam locks are a type of hardware used for locking drawers, cabinets and other furnishings. These locks consist of a base, which contains a keyhole, and a long tailpiece or tongue known as a cam. When a key is inserted into the base, the cam is rotated between 180 and 90 degrees. Depending on how the lock is installed, the cam will fit into the lock strike in one position, and will be free of the strike when moved to a different position. Cam locks are among the most simple, affordable and easy-to-install locking devices used today.

While cam locks are commonly associated with file cabinets and desks, they are also used for a variety of other applications. These locks are found in electrical panels, trophy cases and other types of display units. They can be used on mechanical access panels to prevent tampering, and are even found in some older types of windows. Some school lockers are also secured using cam locks.

Cam locks are available in many styles and finishes to suit the needs of various applications. Larger, sturdier cam locks are more secure, and can be used to larger pieces of furnishing or high security applications. Mini cam locks are used in small panels and other areas where space is at a premium. Standard steel or brass finishes are used for indoor applications, while weather-resistant materials like galvanized or stainless steel can be used outdoors.

These locks are operated using flat keys, rounded keys or even combination mechanisms. Flat keys are typically turned in the lock to rotate the cam, while tubular keys may need to be pressed or turned. Combination mechanisms allow users to operate the lock without the use of a key, and may be more convenient for applications like school lockers or some filing cabinets.

While these locks offer a number of advantages, there are also a number of potential drawbacks that must be considered. These locks are not typically as durable or secure as other types of locking devices, and may not be sufficient for high security applications. They are typically easy to break into by drilling or using other lock picking tools. Some high security cam locks are designed to resist drilling and picking, but are more expensive than standard units. Finally, it may be difficult to impossible to replace the keys on a cam lock if they are misplaced, or if additional keys are required.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By anon286430 — On Aug 21, 2012

On a school locker, the handle is part of the locker, not the lock. The cam lock in this case, when in the locked position has a lever that secures the handle mechanism, preventing the locker handle from being operated.

By stl156 — On Sep 19, 2011

Even though they might not be as secure as other locks, I think cam locks are a pretty convenient system.

If you are installing one yourself, they are easy to put in place. Once you have it working, it is enough to keep someone out of your desk who is just being nosey. Anyone who really wants through one of the locks will have to put a little bit of time into it.

By jmc88 — On Sep 19, 2011

@JimmyT - I think I know how the lockers would work. We used to have cam locks on a fireproof safe at a place where I used to work. You put in a three number combination, and then turned a handle and the safe would open. I assume the lockers would have to work the same way.

The article is right, though. Cam locks are definitely not the way you want to go if you want maximum security. We lost a key to one of our filing cabinets at work one time and had no other option than to break into it. All it took was a hammer and screwdriver and we were able to bend the lock out of place enough to manually undo the mechanism.

By JimmyT — On Sep 18, 2011

Interesting article. I never knew there was a special name for those kinds of locks. Another place I always see cams is a sliding door locks like on gun cases or at department store jewelry cases.

What I'm wondering is how a cam lock would be used on a school locker. All of the ones I have ever seen or used have a handle that you lift up on that opens the locker.

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