Make yourself familiar with any local licensing, bonding, and locksmithing laws in your area. Do that first.
As far as equipment for basic locksmith work goes, I’d have the following in my vehicle:
- inverter (duh)
- HPC Blitz. It’s a bit spendy for starting “small,” but with one of these puppies you’ll be much more versatile. You can cut keys, develop master key systems, expand into automotive work, make bump keys on the spot, decode keys, and much more. If you do your business right, you’ll get a larger variety of work, and make your money back on it right quick. Try buying a used one, they are low maintenance, and easy to keep in top condition.
- Basic automotive lockout kit. While we’re talking about expanding into automotive work, if you don’t want to buy a Blitz, at least get one of these. The cost to buy one is silly compared to how much work you can do with it.
- Last automotive thing: get a pair of Autosmart reference books. They’ll tell you everything you need to know for making keys for any kind of vehicle. Code programs on a laptop like Codesource (Comes with a brand-new Blitz,) and Genericode will make automotive work a breeze as well.
- Invest in a factory standard Schlage and standard Kiwkset pin kit from LAB. These two kits will pin up 90% of all the locks you’ll come across in residential work. For everything else, get a .003″ universal pin kit. You’ll find yourself cursing the universe if you get a .005″ one.
- Hand tools are a no-brainer, and are usually up to the individual for what exactly to get, but there’s a few good ones to have for our trade: Chisels (for making strike alignment adjustments), high-quality swiss files, dial calipers, deadblow mallet, security screw bit drivers, and allen wrenches to name just a few.
- Headlight, and magnifiers.
- For lockouts, have a selection of bump keys, a couple picks and tension wrenches, (You really don’t need more than 4 or 5, any more and you’re overcompensating. Promise.) and you should be good. There’s more specific tools for certain common brands of locksets, but you’ll collect those as you go. I also hang on to my old credit cards for loading knob latches open.
- For making keys from scratch, a locksmith’s otoscope is indispensable.
- Get a power drill, and invest in some high-quality bits. This will be used for installing locksets, making strike adjustments, drilling out high-security (or impossible-to-pick, they exist!) locks, safework when you get to it, and much more. If you get a cordless one, be sure to have at least 18v or higher, and you can eventually get a cordless circular saw (for cutting kryptonite U-locks, and much more,) of the same brand that will use the same battery. Useful.
- A Dremel. If you don’t have a dremel in your toolset, you’re doing it wrong. You can ignore everything I just said, but for the love of fuck get a Dremel. It’s your go-to, do-everything, metal-shaping, save-your-life-at-4AM best fucking friend. I can’t stress enough how much money and time I’ve saved by simply having a little creativity, a steady hand, and my trusty Dremel.
- Having an inventory of the most common keyblanks, locksets, deadbolts, and padlocks will save your butt, and provide solutions for your customers quickly.
- Grab a bench vice, too. Very handy for making repairs.
- Sharpie. Just trust me on this one.
When looking to buy cheap tools from low-quality manufacturers, I follow two rules: never buy anything cheap that cuts, and never skimp on anything that’s electric. Everything else can be cheap as shit. Go nuts.
Join ALOA and/or a local locksmiths association. If you’re in the pacific northwest, I recommend the PLA. Being a part of a locksmithing organization has the benefits of looking good to your customers, of course, but the major benefit is the educational opportunities through classes and a pool of friendlies to ask questions to. Never stop studying. Joining these groups will open doors that will put you above the rest of your competition. ALOA membership alone will give you access to a whole online repository of information, a library, and information on classes being held near you. It will pay off tenfold.
Get familiar with the locksmiths in your area, and try and establish a relationship with one or two. Let them know that you plan on starting a business, and are more than happy to give work that you’re not confident taking on to them in exchange for borrowing tools or blanks that you may need in a pinch. This can be hard, depending on the locksmith, and some will be outright rude. But there’s bound to be someone willing to be your colleague. When you leave town for a vacation or want to take a break for a couple days, these allies will be more than happy to cover your phone line while you recuperate, giving you a percentage of the profits, of course.
That said, DON’T do work that you’re not confident in your abilities to handle. You are dealing with people’s security, and you do not want to be liable for any breaches in people’s peace of mind. This will ruin you. Regardless, you will make mistakes. Just take it on the chin, don’t make excuses, and learn from it.
Always answer the phone. Call back missed calls. Be very aware of burning yourself out. If you’re a one-man operation, and you start getting more business, keep the energy up. Make yourself available 24/7 and keep in mind how much of a badass you are. Just “letting a call go here and there” can be a slippery slope. Be self-motivated. Don’t get trashed on nights that you’re expecting work.
One last thing, for customers that are super impressed with your work, encourage them to leave a good review on Google and other listing sites for you. A large majority of your customers will find you on the internet, and if you are the first hit with tons of good reviews when searching “locksmith in [subject hometown here],” you will have a huge upper-hand over locksmiths that have been in the business for 15 years, who rely on the yellow pages still. Put instructions for how to leave a review on the back of your business cards, or invoices, for the computer-illiterate.
Have fun, my friend. It’s a wonderful field, and you’ll meet lots of new people. Good luck!