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Monday January 15, 2007
Seeing a locksmith at work makes lock-picking seem like an easy task. But there is much more to the craft than meets the eye.
By MICHAEL CHEANG
After a few seconds of turning the tools this way and that, and a series of tiny clicks, the lock suddenly popped open, and the locksmith’s face broke into a broad grin.
“See, it’s not that hard! All you need is to ‘feel’ your way around the lock,” he said.
The way Low and his boss, Vincent Tan, talk about that mysterious “feel”, that is the instinctive way a locksmith “feels” his way around a lock while picking it, you’d think they were kung fu masters talking about his secret martial arts techniques.
“Whether you’ve picked the lock or not depends on how good your ‘feel’ is. It cannot be taught,” Tan said sagely, adding that the locksmith’s mood and emotions while picking a lock also play a big part in his success.
“When you pick a lock, your mind must always be focused and your heart must remain patient and quiet. If you’re in a bad mood, distracted, or too much in a hurry, then your ability to ‘feel’ the lock will be affected,” said Tan. Patience is the key word here, as it takes a lot of it to become a good locksmith.
“Understanding the theory (of lock-picking) is easy, but the practical part is difficult. Some people can learn in a few weeks, others in a few months, while others get frustrated when they can’t pick a lock, and just give up after a few days,” he said. “You may not have picked a particular lock before, but the principle is always the same. You just need to be patient enough to keep trying.”
Tan started out as a cobbler, before practically stumbling into locksmithing in 1986.
“My family background is in shoe repair, and I was initially only doing that. Then I realised that many customers were also asking me whether I could help them duplicate their car keys as well.
“So later I bought a key-cutting machine and started learning basic key-cutting skills and how to open locks. When I got stuck, I would ask other locksmiths, or learn from books,” he said, adding that most locksmiths start out that way as well.
Tan now owns a chain of 12 cobbler/locksmith shops called Minit Cobbler and Locksmith Training Centre, mostly situated in shopping malls, as well as the Locksmithing Training Centre in Petaling Jaya.
Each branch has at least two locksmiths in charge of in-store services.
“Here, we seldom get calls to open locks at houses – the locksmiths outside the city centre usually get more of those jobs,” said Ng Choo Seong, the locksmith at the KLCC branch. “Most of our locksmith business (in shopping malls) comes from helping people open their car doors. We usually get an average of three calls a day to open car doors.”
Tan also employs three other “outdoor” personnel, including Low, who are based in different locations, and travel all over the city to provide locksmithing services.
According to Low, who has also been a locksmith for 20 years now, most of the outdoor jobs he does usually consist of opening locks of cars and houses of people who have lost the keys, or installing new locks.
There is a minimum charge for such jobs.
“We charge RM50 as soon as we are required to step out, and then we adjust the price according to the job, and whether we need to install or replace anything,” explained Low. “Usually, we ask the client for all the details about what lock and what the job requires, and then quote our price even before we go there. We also take into account the commute to and from the job.”
Unlike many other locksmiths, Tan’s company does not provide 24-hour locksmith services, because he says it is not safe to go out at night for such jobs. The decision came about after one of his most memorable outdoor stints many years ago.
“I got a call around 10pm to open a car lock for someone who claimed to have lost his car keys. At the time, I was inexperienced, so I just went there, and started picking the lock without asking any questions,” he recalled.
After a few minutes, Tan suspected that something was wrong because the customer seemed to be standing further and further away from him as he worked.
“I’d never seen a customer (act) like that. They are usually very upset about the car, and they also tend to be very curious and are always watching me while I work,” he said.
“But in this case, the guy was watching me from almost two cars away, and that was when I suspected that he was up to no good. So I decided to just stop working and tell him that the lock could not be opened.”
While there have been cases of locksmiths using their skills for criminal activities, Tan admits that it is very hard to control such occurrences because, with the proper tools and resources, anyone who is patient enough can learn how to pick locks.
At the Locksmithing Training Centre, Tan only accepts students who are already lock-smiths, or are genuinely interested in becoming locksmiths, and not just any Tom, Dick or Harry who comes a-knocking on his door.
“I don’t accept walk-in students, even though I’ve had people calling up and asking if I can teach them how to pick locks,” he said, adding that he only conducts specialised lock-picking lessons for his own staff or experienced locksmiths who want to learn new skills.
“Some of them may not know how to open certain locks. With beginners, we start off by teaching them simple key-cutting first, so that they are familiar with the key and lock brands,” he said.
“Then, I give them a simple padlock, teach them the principle of lock-picking, and then let them try and catch the ‘feel’ of opening it.”
These days, it is easier to pick up the skill, thanks to the easy availability of tools and books in the market.
“In the past, everything was very basic. We had to learn how to pick the lock very slowly, and even make our own tools. Even now, with all the modern tools, a lot of the more old-fashioned locksmiths prefer to use their own homemade tools,” said Low, adding that Tan’s company sells lock-picking tools to genuine locksmiths only, and not to the general public.
Still, even with the proper tools it is very, very hard to be a good locksmith.
“Learning the basic skills is easy, but it is hard to become an expert. It takes a lot of patience and practice,” said Tan.
Also, it takes time for a good locksmith to build his reputation and earn customers’ trust. “It can usually take eight or nine years to build the customer’s trust in them. So the more established locksmiths that have been around for some time will normally be more trustworthy,” he said.
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