Who comes to the rescue when the locksmith locks himself out of his own house? For D.J. (Donald Joseph) Dabenigno, proprietor of Dabbs Locks in Medford, this embarrassing scenario happened one cold winter day when he absentmindedly locked the keys to his house inside his van, which was running in the driveway. “Fortunately, I had my picks in my pocket, so I picked the front door of my own house to get the spare key to the van,” said Dabenigno. “It was one of the worst experiences of my life, with the neighbors watching the locksmith getting locked out.”
More typically, of course, Dabenigno, a professional locksmith, is coming to the rescue of panicked homeowners who can’t open their doors, businesses that need a master key system, or clients who want an electronic lockset added to their property. “A common problem on the residential scene occurs in older homes with mortise locks that get hung-up. Someone will say to me, ‘ It still works, but I have to do A, B, C to get the door open.’ But you shouldn’t have to go through a series of steps to get it unlocked.”
In this traditional yet ever-evolving trade, Dabenigno, who was trained at the North Bennet Street School, worries about unscrupulous scammers posing as locksmiths who perform unnecessary work or charge exorbitant unlocking fees. With no locksmith licensing or registration required in the state, virtually anyone can set up shop. “Any Joe Smoe can pick up a screwdriver, hammer and chisel and show up at your front door, and create a big mess, then hand you a bill 10-12 times the original price quote. It’s an ever growing problem in the Commonwealth,” said Dabenigno, who recommends that consumers check for Massachusetts Locksmiths Association affiliation as well doing background research. “You almost have to be a detective when you hire a locksmith these days.”
Historically, locksmiths actually hand-produced the entire lock, crafting the screws and filing the metal. In the age of cheap mass production, the locksmith’s job often about rekeying existing locks or upgrading or replacing hardware, but Dabenigno still knows how to make a skeleton key by hand if needed. “People hear that I’m a locksmith and think I’m just cutting keys all day, but it’s much more than that,” said Dabenigno.
Q: Have you ever encountered any unsavory characters?
A: A year ago, I got a call from a local gentleman who claimed he was locked out of his house. He seemed very tense and jumpy on the phone. Something didn’t feel right, so I asked him more questions, then, called a police friend to double check and see if anything popped up on the computer. Sure enough, he was trying to pull a fast one. There was a restraining order against him and his wife had changed the locks.
Q: How did you get started in this profession?
A: I was working as a loss prevention officer for department store, and it was the same dull routine every day. I was ready for a change. As a locksmith, no two days are ever alike. I took nine months of courses and then briefly worked with another locksmith before opening my own business.
Q: What do you think of the lockpicking tournaments when competitors compete to pick open a lock?
A: I have mixed feelings about lock picking championships. They’re cool but to be that good at it, you need to be obsessed and practice all the time.
Q: So you’d be able to crack open a safe?
A: Yes, but it’s more in depth and technical than fidgeting for a moment and using a stethoscope like in the movies. There’s a lot of self-satisfaction when you manage to open a lock or pick a safe by using your skills rather than forcing it open. You need to be technically inclined, have good hand-eye coordination, and use problem solving techniques.