treasure hunting: keys

I’m so very excited to introduce Treasure Hunting, a new monthly column for DIY Wednesdays. If you’re like me, you can often be found browsing the aisles of thrift shops, scouring the tables at flea markets or haggling over prices at yard sales. Sometimes you inherit a random item unexpectedly, or perhaps you walk past give-away piles on the street and feel an involuntary cringe over the wasted possibilities. This column stems from those experiences and from a love of objects and their formal properties.

I’m not advocating aggressive hoarding habits by any means, but there are some seemingly mundane, disposable, obsolete objects in the world that are not entirely without merit. Treasure Hunting will take these objects and find a way to make them wonderful again, through their visual impact as a collection or their value as a new and improved functional or decorative item.

The first post is about old keys. The key is a pretty standard tool that we all own, but as a design object, it’s spectacular. The possibilities for using keys in interesting and beautiful ways are endless, so forgive the length of this initial post; they won’t all be this lengthy, I promise. I hope you enjoy the new column and stay tuned for all the treasures yet to come! — Kate

Image above: A collection of keys from JeepersKeepers

CLICK HERE for the full post on old keys after the jump!

Nothing combines form and function quite like a key. Their beautifully peculiar notches and curves are not just for decoration; the shapes are dictated by the maze of gates inside their corresponding door lock. Maybe if I studied locksmithing a bit, the process would be demystified but as it stands now, keys are magical. They certainly look magical. With a humble purpose, low price point and everyday availability, keys are an untapped resource for creating a captivating home display.

Images, from top: A key display from Llubav Choy Duerr’s living room, a collection of skeleton keys from Country Living

Hanging Composition
This style of loosely composed objects as wall décor seems so effortlessly chic to me. I love how it catches the eye, and then allows it to wander off the composition. The beauty is not only in the overall visual impact of the varied shapes and sizes. It’s also in the details you can only see close up, the intricacies and history behind each rusted or labeled key. Another benefit to this display is that you can add to it as time goes on, enriching it with an ongoing collection of pieces found here and there.

How to Get the Look

1. A successful composition can be loose and organically shaped, or rigid and linear. First, measure the size of the wall space you have.

2. Tape off the dimension on the floor so you can roughly plan out a composition to see if it works and to give you an idea of the spacing you need.

3. Begin hanging the keys on the wall using a hammer and small picture-hanging nails or brads. These will cause minimal damage and allow you to make a few adjustments without causing any eyesores in your wall.

4. If you have trouble finding varied sizes or shapes of keys, consider drawing silhouettes of keys onto decorative paper, fabric or wood veneer and add them into the mix. The combination of 2D and 3D objects can be quite striking if there is a common shape that keeps them unified.

Images clockwise from top left: Key art from CB2 (no longer available), Mamie Jane’s DIY key art, Ballard Designs (no longer available), Restoration Hardware

Framed Key Art
Sometimes quantity in a collection is unnecessary. I love the look of a single object or group of objects hovering in a frame. The focus given to a seemingly mundane object once it’s framed is mysterious and visually quite interesting. Placing a small collection of keys in to a framed wall piece is a quick and easy way to display the objects.

How to Get the Look

1. Find a frame or frames that will fit your key collection. If you want to have glass in the frame, you will need to use a shadow box or a frame deep enough to fit your keys. Paint or treat the frame if necessary.

2. Use a piece of cardboard, foam core or wood as the backing for your piece. Cut it to size, so it will fit perfectly within your frame.

3. Cover the backing with paper, linen or a fabric of your choice. Use spray adhesive to attach the paper or fabric to the backing.

4. Use small nails or tacks to hang the keys in place. If your keys are lightweight, you can choose to use a small dab of hot glue at the top of the back of the key to permanently set the keys in place. Remove any loose glue threads by blowing on them for a few seconds with a hairdryer.

5. Carefully place your keys in the frame and replace the backing or glass, and it’s ready to hang!

Images clockwise from left: necklace from November Rose Atelier, gift package by Oh, Hello Friend, porcelain keys available at Chatchada

Loose Keys
Keys are like little mysteries unto themselves, which is why they can be charming just on their own to give as present or wear as an accessory. You can personalize a plain key with paint, gold leaf, decoupage and other craft techniques, or you can simply use a beautiful antique key on its own — either way, keys are little treasures that make the perfect objet d’art.

How to Get the Look

1. You can fake the look of these beautiful cast porcelain keys by dipping real keys into plaster-of-Paris or thick white paint. First, bend a few paper clips open and hang them on a string to make drying hooks, and place a layer of newspaper or paper towel underneath the drying station.

2. Mix up the plaster-of-Paris or paint in a small bucket, ensuring you have enough liquid in the bucket to submerge the entire key. Give the key several coats, allowing it to dry between each coat. This will help achieve that thick, made-of-clay appearance.

3. Attach the key with a pretty ribbon to a gift, or string the key on a chain to create a lovely pendant.

Now that you’ve discovered several ways to use a collection of keys, it’s time to go hunting . . .

Where to Look
1. eBay — On any given day, there will be at least 50 auctions for antique or old keys happening on eBay. It’s probably your best resource for finding keys in a short time line, plus it allows you to compare many collections at once and pick the one you like best. Some great search terms are: antique key lot, old key lot, skeleton key lot, or just plain keys, old keys, antique keys, etc. People who label their items “antique” vs. “old” usually view the objects as more valuable and price them that way. I like to start with “old” because you find some undiscovered gems hiding in there sometimes.

2. Flea markets and yard sales — These can be hit or miss whenever you’re looking for something specific, but they will usually have the best deals. If you frequent the same flea markets and see the same vendors every time, you can mention that you’re in search of keys. Usually these vendors have the time and resources to do a lot more searching then you do. If you mention what you want and you’re willing to pay a little extra (within reason), this can be a great connection.

3. Etsy —The vintage selection on Etsy is much more selective and curated than that available on eBay. As a result, you’ll find far fewer items, but you can pretty much guarantee they will be quality specimens. However, this curatorial aspect coupled with the straight sale format (as opposed to eBay’s auction style) means higher costs. Etsy would be a good option for someone looking for one or two special items, and I would check here only if eBay and flea markets have failed to provide any treasures.

4. Hardware stores — If you are going for a more modern look or need a large mass of keys to complete your display, you should consider adding standard keys into the mix. Hardware stores often have tons of mistake keys that would normally go to the trash. If you plead the case for art, some of the managers might soften to you and let you have them instead. Anything for art!

You can use these resources to hunt for keys of all shapes, sizes and eras. Once you’re on the lookout, you’ll start to see them everywhere. While antique keys are a more valued find, don’t spend over a few dollars for a large antique key unless you’re determined to have it. Depending on the size, try to pay around 50 cents to a dollar per key, especially if you want to amass a large collection. Like I said, consider adding handmade paper keys into the mix, as well; be creative and experiment with what you have.

Happy hunting!

  1. Catherine says:

    I agree, there’s something very pleasing about the shape of keys. Not sure what it is but they work from a design point of view.

  2. currystrumpet says:

    Love this new column! I’ve just moved from a city where the thrifting scene was absolutely dead to one where it’s alive and kicking. I’m so excited to hit the flea markets and this column will be so useful in my new adventures :)

  3. betty berwanger says:

    Great article…I have a great skeleton key collection that I never plan to part with…just add to!

  4. last minute lynn says:

    I love keys and I know I am going to LOVE this new column! Many thanks for your ideas and for taking the time to share them! I can’t wait until next week!

  5. Patty says:

    One of my earliest treasures as a kid was a key. You inspire me to reach out to that child and play!

  6. Jackie says:

    I have been decorating my home with old skeleton keys for years. I love the vintage look they give to each room. I have even used them when creating art pieces. I suspect Treasure Hunting is going to be my favorite Column! Thanks for sharing the ideas!

  7. Gabrielle says:

    Well…up until reading this post I had a really amazing set of antique keys sitting in my Etsy shopping cart. They’d been there for about a week, but….let’s just say they’re on their way to my house now.

  8. Kate says:

    I love this new column! Treasure hunting at my local thrift and vintage shops is probably one of my top hobbies.

    My boyfriend’s father, a former prison director, has an amazing collection of all things prison related, including lots antique cell and gate keys. They’re about three times the size of regular skeleton keys and SO intricate and beautiful. I love the juxtaposition between their aesthetic beauty and their harsh function.

  9. I am really excited about this new weekly addition to Design Sponge. As a treasure hunter myself, I am looking forward to your posts and the inspiration I can take from them. There are so many things I love hunting for….I just know them when I see them.

  10. Tara says:

    Love this post! I have a collection of skeleton keys and have been meaning to showcase them in a shadowbox for months. Now I have lots more ideas and sources… thanks!

  11. Jenn says:

    I love this! I collect old keys – I even have a skeleton key tattooed on my arm. Definitely going to be trying out a few of these ideas. Thanks!

    (you can see my tattoo on my photo blog at

  12. boukates says:

    LOVE THIS! I’ve always had a thing for things old…especially keys.

  13. Jutta says:

    A wonderful idea! I have a little collection of antique keys, they from my father’s childhood home where nobody lives anymore. I never thought of hanging them on the wall like art.

    Looking forward to the next post :)

  14. mona says:

    AWESOME new column. Love it mucho!!

  15. This will be right up my alley! I’ve been seeing tons of jewelry, magnets, pins, etc.. made from old keys.

  16. Marsha Martin Goetz says:

    This catagory is just what I wanted to see, making Something out of Nothing! Thank you!

  17. Llubav says:

    WOW!! I love this new column!!!
    There’s nothing more exquisite than skeleton keys. There’s so much history behind each piece and it’s something you can find all over the world. I love seeing that my key collection made the posting -yay! My wall has about 190 keys and they’ve come from all over. 50 of them are from India. The rest are a combination of Virginia, Texas, France, West Virginia, and Egypt and some were gifts. This is whats also nice about having a passion for collecting because then friends and family want to add to your wall!! I also have keyholes –they are a great addition and some of them are very ornate. Grace and Kate I’m going to need this column more than once a week!

  18. Amanda Z. says:

    I have a beautiful, heavy 6 inch antique key which I use… as a keychain. I have two small groups of keys hooked to the big loop. It’s heavy as heck but so easy to find in my purse! And I tell people it’s the front door key to my chateau.

  19. Gail says:

    I LOVE old keys. I just started a new project that I HAVE to share: I’m making a KEY WINDCHIME! I cut and tied one end of 20 or so 9-12inch long pieces of fishing line to the top of 20 or so keys, drilled a whole in a thin piece of wood and tied the other end of the fishing line to the wood. The sounds of the keys clanging together is surprisingly heavenly! We even “hid” a house key in our windchime just in case we get locked out. So far, we’ve been lucky! This project is fun, easy, and cheap…and who DOESN’T like to up-cycle something instead of throwing it away!

  20. Gav says:

    Wow what a lovey site. I need some help if possible. I’ve just come across 2 bunches of amazing looking keys. All different sizes and shapes. They look old but need some help on dates and if there worth anything and how can I bring them back to life. I can e mail photos
    Thank you :)

  21. DIANA GROVE says:

    i absolutely love old keys be it a skeleton key or a flat key. the mystery behind them is magical,electrical and mysterious.Every key would tell a story. What I do to make them even more unique is on my facebook page called Didora Designs. I have about 250 keys all up. I think what this lady has done is beautiful. I f you want click on the link below and have a look at a diverse range of vintage keys.
    yours truly

  22. sarah says:

    Looking for a 200 year old key it fits my back door does any one know some one that can make a copy of the key its the only one i have. Been to my local hardware store couldn’t help me thanks for your help

  23. Hello Sarah.
    We have sevetal antique uncut key blanks that may work for you.
    Give us an email if your are still in need.

  24. Look at that collection of antique keys! Put together the whole look is really quite impressive! It will make quite a statement piece in a frame as well like you’ve done! All in all a very unique piece of décor.


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