My Car Key Won’t Turn the Ignition – What Can I do?
Ignition cylinders are made out of wafers and those wafers bend, crack and break over time. There are usually some warning signs, but like most people, you’ve probably ignored them until it was too late.
If you’ve found this article and the key is sticking in the ignition, you’ve saved yourself some time and money! Get your car to a locksmith. They can repair the car’s ignition before it’s too late.
When your car key won’t turn in your ignition use these methods to free the ignition: jiggle the steering wheel and the car’s shifter, check if the battery is charged, try a spare key, spray silicon spray into the ignition, jiggle the key and/or tap the key slightly.
Details on these techniques, and why they work to get the ignition to turn, are below.
Why is my car key not turning and/or Why is my car key sticking?
What to try when my key is sticking in my ignition?
What to try when my key won’t turn in the ignition at all anymore?
How to remove the ignition when the key won’t turn?
Nearly everything in this article applies to car door lock cylinders as well. So if you are having these issues with your door locks, read on.
Why Won’t My Ignition Turn?
A Safety Feature of the Car is Preventing the Key from Turning
As cars become more electronic and complex, a slew of safety features have been installed that will prevent the ignition from turning. We’ll cover the most common ones below.
Your Wafers are Damaged
Unlike standard locks, ignitions are not made using round, cylindrical pins for the locking mechanism. Auto locks use a wafer based system. the wafer is typically split down the center to accommodate the key when it slides in.
Ignition wafers can be one piece or two pieces (a split wafer). A two piece wafer is very similar to that shown except it is split down the middle. Split wafers are susceptible to jamming in the cylinder. Over time either of the wafer styles can become damaged.
Our Tempe Locksmith technicians see this a lot because it’s a college town. Older cars and aggressive turning of the ignition lead to the wafers becoming damaged.
Pro Tip Automotive: If you are someone that carries around a large, heavy key ring, don’t. The weight of that key ring is constantly pulling on the wafers in the ignition as you drive, day after day, year after year. Lighten the key ring will extend the life of your ignition wafers.
Your Key is Worn
Another common reason an ignition will not turn is not due to the ignition at all. It is due to the key being worn out. It is the edges of the car key that get worn.
With every turn of the ignition the edges of the car key are under force to get the wafers to align correctly. Over time this thins out the edge and wears it down until one day it will no longer turn the ignition. New keys cut by code have sharp crisp edges, while old keys have soft, rounded edges.
Pro Tip Automotive: If you are down to one car key. Get a backup key made as soon as possible. No matter how expensive a backup key is, it will always cost more to an originate a key (make a key when no existing key is available) than to copy an existing key. When a spare key is not used often, it will not wear down so you will have a backup key.
What To Do When My Ignition Sticks
When your ignition is sticking one of the above issues is occurring but is not yet bad enough to prevent your key from turning the ignition. This is the time to visit your local locksmith and setup an appointment to test your keys and/or your ignition or door locks to have them repaired or replaced.
If you are mechanical enough to pull the ignition (or door lock) yourself, you will have two options. Buy and install a new ignition/lock or take the existing one(s) to a locksmith to have them repair it.
If you are buying new locks, we suggest taking those to a locksmith before installing. The locksmith can key them up to your current car keys. This is more convenient as you won’t have two different keys for the vehicle (one for the ignition and one for the car door for example).
Also, if you are replacing the ignition most new car keys have computer chips in them and need to be programmed to the car. Taking it to the locksmith first to pin up to your existing keys means avoiding additional car key and programming car key costs.
What To Try When My Ignition Stops Turning
Before calling a locksmith there are several things you can do when your ignition won’t turn anymore to see if you can get your ignition to turn.
The following things to try are in order from the best to try first, to the worse to try (may actually cause harm to the ignition). Do them in order.
Let’s start with the simple ones.
1. Wiggle the Steering Wheel
Many steering columns are designed to lock when the key is removed. The steering wheel can become stuck in position which in turn locks the ignition. Wiggle the steering wheel back and forth while gently turning the key to see if this solves the problem.
2. Check the Gear Shift
Some cars, with automatic transmissions, do not allow the key to turn the ignition if the car is not in park or neutral. Try jiggling the gear shift to ensure it is all the way into position and then try the key again.
3. Is the Battery Dead?
Believe it or not, some newer cars with more advanced ignition systems will not allow the key to turn the ignition if the car’s battery is dead. Check the cars battery with a volt meter or see if your car lights come on.
Now for the more complicated issues that are key and/or ignition related.
Pro Tip When You Get it to Turn: if you can get your ignition to turn using the following techniques, drive straight to a local locksmith to fix the underlying issue. Don’t skip this step and think the problem will go away or is solved. Consider yourself having dodged a bullet this time but get it fixed as soon as possible. The problem is not going away. It will only get worse and one day leave you stranded.
4. Try the Spare Key
If you have a backup key, try it. This is testing to see if your main key is worn beyond the point of being able to turn the ignition. When your spare key turns the ignition this is the best possible outcome. Take your car to a locksmith shop, and get a copy of that spare key made as soon as possible. This way you will again have a working spare key in case your main key wears out again or is lost.
5. Use a Silicon Based Spray in the Lock
If the spare key did not turn the ignition, or you did not have one you need to consider the ignition as the issue. Try squirting some silicon based lock lubricant into the ignition or door lock. Our favorite, and the only brand we use, is Triflow. You can get it on Amazon for a great price.
The Triflow will clean the wafers and get any dirt and debris out that may be causing a sticking ignition or preventing your key from turning. Do not use oil based products or graphite. Though these may solve the problem, oil based products will collect dirt and graphite will gunk up over time, so the problem will come back.
6. Jiggle the Key in the Ignition
If the lubricant hasn’t fixed the problem, you’ve now eliminated the key (or weren’t able to test another key) and you’ve cleaned and lubricated the ignition. The next step is to try and gently jiggle the key in the lock. If the lock wafers have minor damage or the split wafers have jammed, this may just free them enough to get the key to turn the ignition.
If you get the jammed ignition turned, go straight to a locksmith to get it pulled and repaired. Do not remove the key and take it back out. This may work only once.
7. Hit It
This is the last attempt method. Use it as a last resort only after trying all the previous methods. As a last resort you can’t possible get any more stranded so it is worth a try, but the above are a better choice to start with since they may work, and you won’t risk damaging your car locks in any way.
In this method insert the key most of the way into the ignition, maybe leaving the key out a 1/4 to 1/2 inch. Then with the blunt end of a screwdriver or with the handle of a hammer (not the hammer’s head) rap the key with medium force to slide the key into the ignition quickly.
In this method you are trying to free up any damaged or jammed wafers by considerable force. Similar to shaking the key but with much more of a jarring punch.
If you get the key to turn the jammed ignition, go straight to a locksmith to get it pulled and repaired. Do not remove the key and take it back out. It may work only once.
8. Hire a local automotive locksmith to come out and fix it
If all else fails and still your key won’t turn the ignition, it’s time to hire a locksmith. The main advantage to hiring an automotive locksmith to fix it is that a locksmith will come to your location to do the job and the car will not need to be towed to a mechanic or the dealer.
EBay has great prices on ignitions. You can buy it online and your local automotive locksmith will be able to key the new ignition up to your existing keys and install the ignition if you need the help.
Hopefully we’ve gotten your car back on the road and if needed you’re taking it to your local locksmith for a more permanent solution.
How to remove the ignition lock cylinder when the key won’t turn?
When you’ve tried all the above, and the key still won’t turn, there is only one thing left to do, drill out the ignition.
Most ignitions are what they call “turn and poke.” To remove them, you need to be able to turn them first. Usually this is done with a key, but if that key has stopped working, to turn the ignition the only thing you can do is drill it out.
Drilling out an ignition is NOT a do it yourself task! If you damage the components behind or around the ignition you could cause thousands of dollars in damage to your vehicle.
If nothing worked to get your ignition lock to turn, you want a mechanic or a locksmith out at your site to drill the ignition out, key up a new ignition lock to your existing keys, and then install the new ignition.
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