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Locksmith knows keys to success

A few years ago, someone in the Gallatin Valley lost the combination to a very large and very locked gun safe.

This particular safe had its combination changed at some point in its history, making a call back to the factory for help pointless. The only hope of getting the thing open, short of TNT, was a locksmith.

Enter Joe Wagoner, a registered locksmith who now owns Mountain Locksmithing in Bozeman. Wagoner, who volunteers as a fireman when he’s not cracking safes, sat down in front of the gun safe and went to work.

“I had it open in 15 minutes,” Wagoner said with a hint of pride. “To me, that was like ‘whoo!’ It was a great rush.”

After the door swung open, Wagoner had to explain to a shocked safe owner that, yes, the safe was still, well, safe. Contrary to what you see in the movies, not many people can open a safe like that.

And it’s not always that easy for Wagoner, who has been a locksmith for 15 years. Closed safes are mysteries, he said. The manufacturer might have built in ball-bearings to thwart drills or installed a glass plate that, if broken, relocks the safe in four more places. On some jobs, Wagoner has spent up to six hours hunkered in front of a stubborn steel cabinet.

“Safes are very time-consuming, and if you mess up, it can cost you a lot,” he said. “I was on cloud nine that day because that just doesn’t happen all the time.”

Thankfully, safe calls only come in every couple months, Wagoner said. The rest of a locksmith’s job — making keys, unlocking car doors, fixing doorknobs, etc. — isn’t quite as labor- and time-intensive. For Wagoner and the other two locksmiths at his shop, the day starts at 8:30 a.m. and ends at 5 in the afternoon.

Except when it doesn’t. Sometimes, it’s a 7 a.m. call from someone locked out of a car or a 2 a.m. emergency re-key at a burglarized business.

“The days are just really long sometimes, but that’s just what happens when the call comes in,” said Wagoner, who has owned the shop with his wife for a year. “There’s no timing when an emergency happens, unfortunately.”

He keeps with the trade because locksmithing offers something different every day.

“There’s a challenge every day, whether it’s picking a simple lock or installing an electric access control or even opening the day-to-day cars we do,” he said.

The growth of electronic locks has been one challenge to keep up with, he said. Once rare and expensive, now they are turning up in cars, businesses and even homes.

They make things more secure, Wagoner said, and allow customers to fix a lot of the problems they used to have to call locksmiths for, like re-keying a lock or making it so a certain key doesn’t work anymore — no tiny springs, pins, screws or tumblers required.

But that doesn’t mean the traditional lock-and-key setup is on its way out.

“We have 100-year-old locks that we still get in here and make keys for, the old skeleton keys,” he said. “People thought those were out 50 years ago, but we’re still making keys for them.”

Wagoner and his crew not only have to be able to make skeleton keys but program a key card. It’s an ever-expanding field of knowledge that gets bolstered every six months by trade magazines explaining the next big thing in security technology.
The huge base of knowledge, the specific skills required and the patience make being a successful locksmith a rewarding experience, Wagoner said.

“Something as little as an old lock or as big as a safe that we get called out to drill open or figure out why it’s not working, to actually go out, figure it out and open it? Yeah, it’s great satisfaction,” he said. “You know that your training and all the stuff you’ve read about works and that you’re still on your toes.”

Michael Becker can be reached at