May 26--You don't need a degree in clinical psychology to become a master locksmith, but it doesn't hurt.
Just ask Geno Kollar.
Now one of Charleston's top hardware preservationists, Kollar dabbled in locksmithing as a way to pay for his education, and he eventually worked in clinical psychology for 15 years.
Over time, his career arc bent back.
"With people, you never know where ... you're going," he says, "but when I step up from a lock, I know."
Kollar recently was honored with the Historic Charleston Foundation's Samuel Gaillard Stoney Conservation Craftsmanship Award, along with carpenter Hoyt Roberts.
There are not many master locksmiths -- those comfortable with specifying, obtaining and installing the hardware as well as carefully weighing whether historic locks can be restored and reused.
It's a specialty that has opened some interesting doors, literally: Kollar has worked on houses owned by Doris Day and Oprah Winfrey.
But he has spent most of his working life in Charleston, where he has restored the hardware on about 50 downtown homes, including some of the city's grandest properties.
His approach is always the same: Figure out what a door's function used to be; then find out how it will be used going forward and how it can work safely and reliably.
"It has to work correctly every day for 20 years," he says. "Otherwise, I don't feel like I'm doing my job."
The next step is figuring out the best hardware to use. Only then comes the final consideration: appearance.
While older, bulkier locks and skeleton keys may carry a certain cachet, Kollar knows people don't necessarily want to fool with them when their arms are full of grocery bags.
He studied to be an architectural hardware consultant but didn't think there would be enough job security, and he didn't want to spend his days in a little room poring over blueprints.
That led him into psychology, though he continued to install locks as a student because it was an easy way to make money. At one point, he worked as a commercial locksmith, often cutting hundreds of keys in a day.
Over time, as he learned more, his attitude toward the craft began to change.
"Before, I was rather mercenary about it," he says. "Now, I'm having fun with it."
In one large downtown property, he did it all, off and on, over about four years.
He reworked locks more than two centuries old and gave them a new coating of silver. He restored others that dated to the mid-20th century.
He replaced all the screws with oval-headed brass screws and reworked the locks themselves so that one key opens every lock on the property, while 20 other distinct keys unlock only certain combinations of gates and doors.
One of his greatest and fussiest challenges came with an outdoor latch, which had to be installed a certain way to satisfy the proportions of a large, historic gate.
It's exacting, delicate work.
"The best way to look at it is there's only one way it can go together. It's just like a rifle," he says. "I live within an eighth of an inch. My whole world is within 5 inches, but my tolerance is within an eighth of an inch."
Kollar can talk about the difference between older types of locks -- he can identify a Ball and Ball lock from the 1940s simply by the curve in its skeleton key -- but he is not hung up on certain brands or time periods.
"I don't really care. I lay it on the bench, and I look at the function and I know what I need to know," he says.
Restoring old locks poses a separate challenge. "You know what's the worst thing for hardware? Paint," he says. "Two things I always find in a lock body -- dead spiders and paint."
And he laments how much of today's hardware is made of mysterious metal that he doesn't expect to last as long.
"I've actually handed some locks back to people and said, 'I'm not putting this in. I'm not going to warranty it,' " he says.
Kollar says he is happy he hasn't had to advertise in 10 years and that his work is in demand, even if the demand sometimes carries unrealistic deadlines with it. He has adjusted to a working life in a historic city that relishes its past.
"Your work outlives your hands," he says. "Long after I'm gone, these locks will be working."
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.
Copyright 2013 - The Post and Courier, Charleston, S.C.