Lock pickers anonymous

Mark Stengel


Knitters, foodies and photographers typically have no issues when it comes to starting a group with other like-minded enthusiasts. When your hobby is technically against the law, however, finding compatible cohorts sometimes is a problem. This is the story of just one local man’s plight of pastime. No, he’s not a member of the Sacramento Dominoes Society or anything like that; he’s a lock picker. Mark Stengel, also known as “The Baron,” has the lowdown on locks.

So, I’ll just put it right out there: How does one fall into lock picking as a hobby? Why didn’t you just start a sewing circle or something?

Well, I guess it was a few years ago. I was working for a company and one day, on my lunch break, I discovered a drawer full of locks that were used for the doors of an apartment complex they maintained. Instead of going out to lunch with the guys, I just decided one afternoon to take the locks apart, because I was curious to see how they worked.

After a few lunch breaks, I learned how to rekey them and do things that most locksmiths would consider basic procedures. Well, you know how you see in the James Bond-type movies, a guy goes in and just opens a door with a paper clip or something? After seeing those, when I knew how locks worked on the inside, I just thought to myself, “That’s impossible. There’s no way that can be done!” and sure enough, after talking to a few people and watching some YouTube tutorials, I realized it couldn’t. So I kind of went from there.

You’ve made it clear to me you’re not into this for any kind of criminal activity, so what is it that intrigues you about locks?

Honestly, I’m into the art behind it. Most burglars are just trying to get in and out of houses as quickly as possible; if they were to see the methods I used, they probably wouldn’t be interested. Same with locksmiths; they’re just trying to get their job done to make the most money in the least amount of time, while I actually look at it sort of like a mechanical puzzle to be solved. I have one lock that I’ve spent about a month on alone.

So have you run into any legal problems?

Oh, sure. And I’ve had to do a lot of research into the laws in order to approach others on social networks and such in the best way possible without getting into any kind of trouble. There are laws in place that make it illegal to possess the tools to pick locks unless you’re a certified locksmith. And I understand why the laws are in place, but it certainly makes it difficult for people like me who are pursuing it just for the love of the craft. I’ve even talked to several locksmiths, who have been in the business for a number of years, [who’ve] talked me out of getting into the industry just because it isn’t very glamorous and full of extremely tedious work. I’m open to looking into the process of getting certified or whatever I need to do, whether it’s getting fingerprinted or a background check. I’ve never been arrested, I have no criminal history, and so I’ve really got nothing to hide.

Do you collect any locks?

Friends have given me some, and I also go out to Denio’s [auction and farmers’] market in Roseville pretty often. A lot of the people there have locks they’ve misplaced the keys to, so instead of keeping them to lie around, they’ll give them to me. There are also people there who have some pretty spectacular ones, but antique locks can get pretty expensive.

Has your skill comein handy at all for helping others?

Yeah, definitely! I’ve helped several people out, including my own mother and some friends who otherwise would have had to call a locksmith. I also have a friend who has an antique chest with an antique replication lock on it. She hasn’t been able to get into the chest for a long time since she’s misplaced the key, and because the lock is such a rare one, it would easily cost a great deal more for a locksmith to open. So, rather than destroy the lock, she asked me to help her out.

Have you met anyone in Sacramento that shares your interest in lock picking?

Not yet. But again, I’m not surprised, either. Most of the individuals I’ve met interested in the art have been on the Internet, simply because there’s so few of us and because there’s such little awareness of the activity as a form of entertainment. I’d consider myself lucky to find even one or two people that are interested in doing this as a hobby for the same reasons I am. Ideally, I’d love to find a group of people who are interested in locks to get together once a month over coffee or something and talk about the kinds of things they’re working on and share tips and techniques. However, most people aren’t interested, or they’re interested for the wrong reasons. I’ve had to turn some people away because I felt like they wanted to use lock picking in a harmful manner, and that’s defeating the entire purpose of what I enjoy doing.