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Lock and key: Hand-me-down lock sparks hobby and online group

Father to son hand-me-down lock sparks hobby, online group

Nevada City residents Robert Whittaker, left, and partner Sokhy Kak are pictured with part of their lock collection that includes nearly 1,000 locks.
Photo: Elias Funez

Robert Whittaker received an old Yale-brand lock from his father — a gift that led to a collection of historic padlocks and keys, and grew into an avocation beyond that of a mere hobbyist.

After designing a website for a local locksmith seven years ago, Whittaker’s initial interest evolved to an enthusiasm for lock picking.

“It’s kind of a mental puzzle, and they’re very challenging, for the sake of solving the puzzle that makes it a lot of fun for me,” said Whittaker. “I started out with tiny master locks, anything anybody would give to me. I learned a lot from online videos, and I like to do lock picking for friends who got locked out of their cars.”



Enthusiasm runs high among the locksport community, a term they use to differentiate themselves from locksmiths and nefarious offenders engaged in criminal enterprise. It gave rise to an international sport group, Locksport International, in July 2005, which solidified the term within the community.

The core of the philosophical belief of those involved in locksport is the conviction that they are responsible for full disclosure and are obligated to accept that anyone who picks locks does so on locks only he owns, or on other locks an individual obtains consent from another rightful owner.



“It has changed my perception of the way society secures things,” said Whittaker. “It’s amazing to see how the world respects the idea of a safeguard. Locks are really an agreement to respect secured property. It’s a specialty skill, but it’s really a bond among those in the community to respect others’ secure belongings.”

The Whittaker-Kak collection of locks bear the name of Yale, after Linus Yale Jr., who founded the company in 1868 in Stamford, Connecticut.
Photo: Grace Crain

Despite the mental stimulation, after a time it became a little monotonous, Whittaker said. It was then he transitioned into vintage lock collecting, collaborating with his long-time partner, Sokhy Kak, originally from Cambodia and a Nevada County resident for over a decade.

When his father passed along an older Yale lock, found mostly on the East Coast, Whittaker’s enthusiasm was renewed and diverted toward collecting and showing historic pieces. The partners decided to call themselves the Whittaker-Kak Yale collection.

“We co-own the locks, and we both enjoy and actively collect the pieces,” said Whittaker.

LOCK ON HISTORY

The Yale Company started just after the Civil War by Linus Yale Jr. and Henry R. Towne, who adapted the 10-tumbler system from the original Egyptian locks, which used a wood mechanism, into what most modern metal padlocks began to use.

“Yale had a bicentric dual custody lock needing two keys to open — a challenge to pick at the same time,” Whittaker said. “They’re just so rare, and very desirable in the locksport community … and hard to come by, yet a really desirable item. Also, there’s locks with storybook designs — a lion’s face engraving, it’s really neat. And there’s a Navy padlock with crossed cannons.”

A large and unique locking mechanism is shown by Robert Whittaker as part of the Whittaker-Kak lock collection.
Photo: Elias Funez

Whittaker started a Yale padlock collector’s group online a couple of years ago that has grown to over 500 members from all over the world. It is a place where people can inquire about lock collections and sell merchandise, usually Yale-related items.

For those new to collecting locks, Whittaker cautions about attempting to polish historic locks or keys, beyond removing surface debris.

“You want to preserve the historical look, because it will be apparent to a buyer it’s been modified,” he advised.

Many collectors enjoy showing their lock displays, the West Coast Lock Collectors Association states on its website. Founded in 1978, the association is an informal club for purposes of education, competition and sociability. Small collections frequently use a picture frame with a felt background. But for a growing collection the easiest way is to use a pegboard with locks mounted on hooks. Whittaker places his on a Plexiglass shelf with small plastic easels to display.

A display of unique keys accompanies the collection of locks acquired by Robert Whittaker and partner Sokhy Kak.
Photo: Elias Funez

“I like going to shows to meet collectors I’ve gotten to know online, and it’s a sure bond with others in such an obscure hobby,” said Whittaker. “I’ve met some with much more valuable collections (than mine), but I never met anyone with the variety of locks I have in my Yale collection,” he said. “eBay has made it easier to find what I’m looking for.”

Whittaker and Kak now have acquired about 1,000 Yale padlocks. And they have an additional 1,000 pieces of Yale-related items including adverts, memorabilia, catalogs and various rare keys from the U.S. Treasury, banks, prisons and railroads. And they have insured the locks with their renter’s policy, while taking a video once a year to document all items in the collection.

Although Whittaker has yet to make it down to the West Coast Lock Collectors Show, he expressed interest in possibly attending the fifth annual show this coming February in Hawthorne.

Whittaker emphasized there is an unspoken set of ethics among lock enthusiasts.

“The locksport community strives to be very respectful,” he added. “It’s a gentlemen’s agreement toward other people’s locks, and we do not use our professional skills in an unauthorized manner. Locksport is full of some really neat people and encompasses various historical industries of railroads, prisons and hotels.”

Yale locks of all shapes, sizes, and ages sit on display in the home of Robert Whittaker and Sokhy Kak.
Photo: Grace Crain

William Roller is a staff writer with The Union. He can be reached at wroller@theunion.com


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