Skip to main content

Lockout Stories - Seventeen Years as a Locksmith

American A700 Padlock

American A700 Padlock

Simple Entry

Locksmiths get people in when they are locked out. Hopefully the person hiring the locksmith belongs in the place they hired the locksmith to break into, but it is not always the case. My first choice was to see a picture ID identifying the person and matching the address of the property. However, for many legitimate reasons ID may not be available. For example, it may be locked inside the place. Or, they might have just moved to that location and not had their ID changed yet to match their address. In this case I would use their ID to verify their name, and then tell the person that once I had gotten them in they would produce a piece of mail, preferably a utility bill addressed to them at the address in question, or perhaps a lease. I let them know in advance that if they could not produce evidence that they belonged in the place I would call the police.

Even that didn't work every time. I picked a lock for one young man who promptly produced mail with his name on it corroborated by his identification once inside. Then his girlfriend showed up and was angry because she had kicked him out the week before. She threatened to call the police and implied that I was to blame, too.

"I think you should call the police," I said. "But as far as I'm concerned, you might as well arrest one of my screwdrivers."

When she asked me what I meant, I said, "I'm just your boyfriend's tool, here. He produced satisfactory identification and I let him in. If he does not belong here you should call the police. I will be happy to wait here for them to come."

She said that that would not be necessary. I gave her a business card, the boyfriend paid me and I left. In a few days she called me back and had me change her locks.

Lockouts are not a very good business. They are not conveniently scheduled, but happen at completely random times. The person who is locked out will sometimes call several locksmiths and hire the first one who shows up, leaving the others to waste their time. Locksmiths do not like this. More than once I arrived at a lockout to find two different competitors' trucks already there, and we agreed that we would all leave and leave the inconsiderate lockout victim stranded. While we were wasting our time on behalf of this lockout, we could have been doing our scheduled work instead and making real money.

There are a few disreputable locksmiths who specialize in lockouts. A person who is locked out after hours can expect to pay one of these sharks several hundred dollars to get them back in, and may end up with ruined hardware and a damaged door besides. Consumers need to be careful whom they hire. The police may have someone to recommend. Otherwise a neighborhood locksmith from a good neighborhood might be a wise choice. Unfortunately when you are locked out you are in many ways at the mercy of fate and the locksmith.

A locksmith might be disreputable if:

  • Their company vehicle is a pink Cadillac
  • They arrive dressed in formal attire
  • Their primary tool for gaining entry is a large pair of pliers

So have a good look at the company truck, the locksmith, and the locksmith's tools.

Perhaps you can go to a friend's house and see if there are any locksmith reviews online for your town, or ask your landlord, your neighbors or your friends to see if they can recommend a reputable locksmith.


Lockout Situations

Lockouts range from mundane to disturbing. Usually I was sent by a landlord or management company to break into an abandoned property and change the locks. Ho hum. But the occasional scantily clad college girl was always a favorite.

"I'm not wearing any underwear. How about we split the cost?"

I found it difficult to argue with a woman who was not wearing any underwear. I would still require her to produce identification once inside her home. People would often be annoyed when I required this from such an obviously honest person, but as they found their ID it usually dawned on them that this was a good thing. For one thing, it proved that I was reputable. After you watch someone break into your home with little if any damage or trouble, it's nice to know they are a reputable person.

On more than one occasion I was hired by neighbors or a landlord to gain entry to the residence of a person of advanced years who had not been seen for a period of time. Not knowing what one may find on the other side of a door makes it difficult to concentrate. The sight of a dead body stays with you a long time.


Range of Difficulty

Lockouts vary greatly in difficulty, though most are not difficult. That is why some disreputable locksmiths hire unskilled help to do them. Most of the time people are locked out by a key-in-lever or key-in-knob lock as shown at right. Often I would get through a lock like this using a technique called 'shimming', which can take a matter of seconds. If the lock is properly installed, this method is not usually usable, but since most of these locks are installed by contractors who choose not to read the directions or use an installation template, many of these locks are not properly installed and can be quickly opened by this method. If the customer was present while I shimmed their lock open in five seconds, they invariably wanted a discount but I did not give it to them because, as I explained to them, they were not paying for my time, they were paying me for the fact that I knew how to do this without hurting their lock and they didn't.

Some of the indigents and college kids hired by less reputable locksmiths use an adjustable pliers to simply wrench this kind of lock off the door. Then they sell the victim a new doorknob lock (worth maybe $30 at Home Depot) for several hundred dollars. If you are locked out and your locksmith pulls out a big pair of pliers, beware.

If the lock was properly installed and I could not shim it, I tried to pick it. I was a fair but not expert lock picker. I averaged around seventy percent with standard locks. This was a quick and easy entry, usually accomplished in less than ten minutes, but people were happy to pay for it because it seemed so magically skillful, and of course it was fun for me. If I could not pick the lock due to lack of skill or because the lock was pick resistant, I would use a power tool to destroy the cylinder. I kept a variety of replacement cylinders in my truck in order to replace those I was forced to destroy.

Lockouts that occurred because of lock malfunction could be either the easiest or the most difficult. When people told me their key would not turn, I asked, "Well, did you lubricate it?" Then I would sometimes lose a job when the person chose to go down to the hardware store and buy some silicone spray or other lock lubricant, or after hours to a convenience store to buy some lightweight general purpose lubricant, but other times the person would not be able to do this - take the case of the college girl with no underwear - and I would have to come out and spritz the lock for them. I rarely discounted for these service calls because I had given them fair warning and an option to avoid the expense.

At the opposite end of the difficulty spectrum there are certain deadbolts and New York police locks that malfunction or wear out in a certain way that they cannot be opened by key from the outside. In these cases it is useless to pick or otherwise attack the cylinder because the customer actually has the key, but although it still turns fine, it will not operate the lock. Such lockouts may require more than an hour of hard work removing the cylinder with power and hand tools without harming the door, so that the lock itself can be destroyed. Afterwards, of course, the entire lock must be replaced.

Unique Situations

I had a number of repeat lockout customers. Some people just lock themselves out all the time. I did what I could for them. I started a service in which I stored their keys for them for a fee of ten dollars and charged them the regular key duplication price for making them a set of keys during regular business hours or a reduced overtime service rate for driving into the city to make them a set of keys after hours.

One customer near my shop locked himself out on his roof deck as Hurricane Gloria was approaching. He lived in one of the 19th century townhouses down in Charles River Circle. His neighbors were James Taylor and the president of the Boston Company. Since he eschewed my key storage service, I had to ask a neighbor to let me in through their house and out through their roof door. Once on the roof, I crossed to his roof and was able to pick the lock as the storm clouds raced overhead and the darkening edge of the storm drew closer.

Divorce lockouts were a challenge. The soon-to-be ex-wife would call and say she was locked out, so I would go get her in. Then, of course, she would have me change the locks. Then the husband would call with the same request, but I refused to work both sides like that. I referred him to a competitor.

One divorce lockout defeated me. It turned out the husband had nailed the doors shut from the inside and rappelled down the side of the building from a fourth story window. I told the poor woman to call a contractor, because it was likely all her doors would have to be replaced.

Late one night I got a call. I had a system in which the customer could leave a message on my machine and then press a number to page me. The guy's voice on the voice mail said this:

"You gotta come. You gotta come quick. My girlfriend is handcuffed to the bed and her parents are comin' home any second!"

And as the father of two daughters I said to the guy, telepathically as I hung up the phone:

"Pal, you are gonna get exactly what you deserve."

Related Articles