Lock Picking

The purpose of this page is to serve as a source of instruction and reference for those curious about, or new to, lock picking.

This page contains basic lock picking related descriptions, a selection of the general and technical lock picking instructions, and a refined set of links to quality lock picking content.  The page is broken into four main sections:

 

Lock Picking 101

We begin first with understand the target, or a simple enumeration of the most common types of locks, then we will delve into picking and picks.

Types of Locks

There are many different types of locks; pin tumbler, wafer, tubular, warded, disc, dimple, lever, magnetic, combination, electronic, etc., as such, each requires a different set of attack vectors and tools to compromise. Examples of what might be the three most common locks are shown below:

Pin Tubler

Pin tumbler no key.svg
By Original: GWirken; Derivative work: Pbroks13 - File:Cilinderslot gesloten.png, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Wafer TumblerDisc tumbler locked.png
By The original uploader was Wapcaplet at English Wikipedia. - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

A pin tumbler lock, as shown above, is a (padlock, deadbolt, etc.) lock where the key is used to push the driver pins (blue pins/cylinders in the pictures above) are towards the key, preventing the plug (yellow section in the pictures above) from rotating. Note that the pins are more complex in locks that accept master keys, or a key that opens a set of locks, to allow the plug to rotate with the user and master key.

A wafer lock, as shown above,  consist of a series of wafer tumblers (red in the picture) which are pushed down by springs. When the key is removed, the wafers fit into a groove in the lower part of the outer cylinder (green in the picture) preventing the plug (yellow in the picture) from rotating.

A tubular lock, as shown above, is a pin tumbler with a round keyway, or opening for the key, and the pins are located in front of the key (not on top).

warded lock uses a set of obstructions, or wards, to prevent the lock from opening unless the correct key is inserted. The key has notches or slots that correspond to the obstructions in the lock, allowing it to rotate freely inside the lock. Warded locks are considered low-security, due to the ease in which they can be opened via skeleton keys.

A disc lock is composed of slotted rotating detainer discs. A key rotates these discs to align the slots, allowing a sidebar to drop into the slots, thus allowing the lock to then be opened.  These generally have very tight tolerances and a relatively  large numbers of discs (when compared to the number of pins in pin tumbler locks) thus providing what many consider higher security.

A dimple lock (not shown) is essentially a pin tumbler lock where the pins are located on the side of the key (not on the top).

A lever tumbler lock uses a set of levers to prevent the lock's bolt from moving.  These are virtually obsolete and are often found in old lock implementations.

magnetic keyed lock utilizes a magnetic key, with one or more small magnets, oriented such that the North and South poles exert a push or pull on the lock's internal tumblers, thus releasing the lock.

A combination lock employs a sequence of symbols, usually numbers, to open the lock; the sequence may be entered using a single rotating dial or a set of several rotating discs.

An electronic lock is, as the name suggests, controlled electronically and use an actuator to toggle locked and unlocked states.

For the purposes of this introduction, we will limit our discussion to the pin tumbler lock, perhaps the most common lock in America. It is worth noting that, since tubular and dimple locks are pin tumblers, that the same principles will apply albeit with slightly different tools.

With a slightly better understanding of locks and how they work, we can now discuss the fist tool to go into the lock; the tension tool.

Tension Tools

Tension tools, or wrenches, are used to apply torque to the lock core, or plug, to keep pins from being pushed back down by springs after they are correctly set at the shear line.  Unfortunately, every lock, or bitting, will need a different amount of tension.  To further complicate the situation, some pins respond better to variable amounts of tension while attempting to set.  Just remember that the proper amount of torque, or tension, is just enough to prevent manipulated driver pins from blocking the core's rotation.  Too much tension and the driver pins will not move.  Too little tension and the driver pins will be pushed back into a blocking position by the spring.  Mastering tensioning is a critical aspect of lock picking that is sometimes overlooked or underdeveloped.

The design of the keyway (width, height, type of warding) often dictates how tension can be applied.  Pin tumbler locks, generally speaking, best respond to tensioning in one of two locations; the top of the keyway (TOK) and the bottom of keyway (BOK).  Typically, lock pickers have multiple tools, in varying sizes, to be able to tension at the TOK and the BOK.  The Lock Picking Resources section below has a list of vendors, and the Homemade Lock Picking Gear section has instructional tutorials on making both types of tension tools.

For excellent tension tutorials, we suggest watching the following YouTube videos:

Lock Picks

By definition, a lock pick is a tool or instrument (obviously other than the lock's key) used for the purpose of non-destructively manipulating tumblers in a lock or cylinder to the (un)locked position.

In theory, just about anything could be used as a lock pick; as it so happens, examples of zip ties and twigs are available online.  In practice, especially when targeting a "higher security" lock, a pick requires very specific attributes.  A good pick will need to be strong regardless of it's size; some pics will need to be very thin in both width (i.e., .012 of an inch) and height (i.e., less than .04 of an inch).  Brittleness is important for the life of the pick, if a pick is too brittle it will snap on initial or short term use.  Flexibility is important for the effectiveness of the pick; too flexible and the pins will not move.  Finally, the profile is important in how the pick will be used and what pins it can reached.

Although there are many different shapes, pin tumbler lock picks generally fall into one of two categories; raking and single pin picking (SPP) picks.  Note that there are virtually picks for every type of lock (wafer, tubular, etc.) and for purposes other than picking (i.e., broken key extraction), however, we will not dwell on those at this time.  It follows, that for each type of pick (or lock) there are one or more lock picking techniques.  At this time, we will limit our scope and primary focus on the raking and single pin picking lock picking techniques.  Similar to tension tools, the Lock Picking Resources section has a list of pick vendors, and the Homemade Lock Picking Gear section has instructional tutorials on making picks.

Raking

Raking is used to simultaneously manipulate some number of pins in the hope that a random permutation simulates the correct bitting thus opening the lock.  Disclaimer, in an effort to simplify the lock picking taxonomy, we are lumping Zipping, Kinetic, Rocking, and other techniques which utilize rake picks into what we are referring to as the raking category.  This is a great technique for beginners to use on lower security locks because it is easy to learn and provides quick results (did we mention instant gratification?).  Alas, there are several large disadvantages to raking; a very low success rate on high security locks, and a diminished control over lock manipulation and feel.  Despite the potentially large disadvantages, when encountering a new lock, try using a raking technique first; maybe you'll be lucky.

We recommend viewing the example raking animations at elvencraft.com's Raking Techniques page and watching the following YouTube tutorials to better understand raking pick techniques.

Single Pin Picking

The second major classification of lock picks (in our minds) are hooks, or picks used for single pin picking.  Another disclaimer; again, for the sake of simplicity, we are lumping all hooks, gem, offsets, diamonds, DeForests, etc. picks together and referring to their use as single pin picking.   Single pin picking is what most people think of when they hear the term "lock picking".  It is a targeted finesse technique, where the tumbler pins are selectively manipulated, one at a time, with the same goal to position the key and driver pins on either side of the shear line.  The essence of single pin picking can be summed up in the following algorithm:

  1. Apply torque to the (top or bottom of the) lock with the tension tool.
  2. Working front to back (or back to front) for each key pin:
    1. If the key pin is loose go to the next.
    2. If it is bound, slightly push it until the driver pin is above the shear line, then go to the next.
  3. Repeat step two until all pins are set.

Deceivingly simple to understand, single pin picking is surprisingly difficult to successfully emulate.  In effect, this is where lock picking stops being random and becomes an art.  The "pros" of single pin picking include; a better feel and deeper understanding of the lock, the ability to identify security pins, refined accuracy, and a higher success rate on security locks.  Unfortunately, as alluded to before, single pin picking is much more difficult to learn.  It is a slower process and thus requires more time (for beginners) to open locks, nor is it practical in rapid or high stress situations.

The following videos eloquently describe how to single pin pick:

Intro. to Advanced Picking

In this, the last sub-section of Lock Picking 101, we would like to reference some superb tutorials on topics we have yet to discuss, consider this a primer to the next lock picking installment from mpettersson.com:

 

Lock Picking Gear

This section, although still being updated, is where we provide information on, and reviews of, lock picking gear.

Locks

As with all things in life, new (lock picking) skills will slowly improve with practice over time.  To better learn, and to keep from becoming too depressed, we suggest an incremental approach to the locks new pickers attempt.  Please note that the following is only a suggestion; in some instances the bitting of a lock may increase or decrease the ease in which it will be picked open.  Our recommended list (below) will first provide a visual understand the internal workings of the lock, then incrementally increase the difficulty by adding a new variable at each step.

  1. (Optional) Clear acrylic lock - Acrylic locks are really only good to show what happens inside a lock, not for real practicing due to the acrylic being soft and the slop that accumulates over time.  If you have the option to receive one with a new lock picking set, it may be worth the extra dollar or two.
  2. Cutaway lock -  These locks have virtually the same benefits as the acrylic locks along will the feel and durability of a normal metal lock.  We have been very pleased with, and recommend, the Sparrows cut away locks. These locks can be repurposed later by rekeying with security pins.
  3. Master Lock #3 - This lock has four standard pins, a light spring, and open keyway.  They are very cheap and can quickly instill confidence in the new lock picker.  Note that the Master Lock #1 has the same core with a smaller body and that the #5 also has the same core but comes with a larger body.
  4. Master Lock #7 - These locks have four standard pins, a light spring, but a very small keyway.  These are also cheap and will teach finesse in a tight keyway.
  5. Master Lock 140 - 140s have one standard pin and three shallow spool pins.  Welcome to security pins (well, one security pin)!  These locks are cheap, the keyway is open and the spring is light.
  6. Brinks 40mm Brass Padlock - This lock has one standard pin and 3 deeper cut spool pins with an open keyway and a spring loaded core.  Note that many professionals suggest using lighter tension when attempting to pick security pins.
  7. ABUS 55/40 - This German (brand) lock has one standard pin and three spool pins.  It also has a spring loaded core but has a tiny keyway.
  8. Master Lock 570 - Now come the five pin locks; this one has one standard pin with four spool pins.  It has a slimmer keyway and has a dead core, or, a core that is not spring loaded (so there is no counter tensioning force).  This will force the new lock picker to take their tension skills up a notch.
  9. ABUS 64TI/50 - These locks have one standard pin and four spool pins.  They have a open Yale style keyway, slight warding, and a spring loaded core.  Note that the ABUS locks have much higher tolerances than Master Lock or Brinks locks.
  10. Commando Marine - These five pin locks, have "up to ten security pins", or serrated key pins and a mix of spool, serrated, and regular driver pins.   The serrated key pins will introduce a very different feel when picking.
  11. ABUS 80TI/50 - Up to six pins now, these locks have one standard pin and five spool pins.  The keyway is fairly open and the core is spring loaded.
  12. Master Lock Lockout Tagout - This lock has five spools and one serrated pin.  These have a tight keyway and are great practice locks.
  13. American Lock 1100 - This rekeyable lock has a mix of six spools and serrated pins.  They have a medium sized keyway and a dead core until picked (then spring loaded).

We have found that the padlocks above are easily found and competitively priced on Amazon.com.  While most big box stores offer locks, the selection is limited to a handful of locks that beginners will quickly master, and the prices are higher than that of online retailers.  Worthwhile sources of cheap or used locks are; lock picking forums, eBay, Craigslist, garage/estate sales, metal recycling/scrap yards, thrift stores, and second hand hardware stores (i.e., Habitat for Humanity ReStores).

We, here at mpettersson.com, have a limited assortment of locks and are unable to provide feedback beyond the positive recommendation of the locks above.  For a large selection of quality lock reviews, we suggest following the YouTube channels by Bosnianbill and the LockPickingLawyer; they reliably create consistently good content, much of which are lock reviews.

Picks

With the advent of globalization, for better or worse, cheap goods are easily and readily available (at least here in the U.S.).  In spite of the social connotations of globalization, lock pickers are spoiled for choice when looking for lock picks; from custom picks costing hundreds of dollars each to mass produced picks.  Our mix of primary use picks originate from SouthOrd, HPC, and Sparrows; all of which we recommend. Many of our less commonly used items (such as dimple picks, backup pick sets, specialty picks, and tensioners) come from foreign mass produced sources.

Locksmith Tools
  • Vacuum Vise
  • Calipers
  • Sand paper

Ancillary locksmith tools, or tools you may need in creating your own homemade locksmith tools, may include (but are not limited to) the following:

  • Jewelers/mini files
  • Screwdrivers
  • Rotary Tool (i.e., Dremel)
  • Hacksaw
  • Handheld belt sander
  • Eye, Ear, Lung, and Hand Protection

As first stated, this section is a continuing effort, so please check back frequently, to check for changes in our gear recommendations and reviews.

 

Homemade Lock Picking Gear

An overwhelmingly large number of lock sport enthusiast seem to participate in producing their own gear.  If you fall in that category, this section is for you; below are links to the more distinguished tutorials on fabricating lock picks, tension tools, security pins, and related gear.

Sourcing Materials

The first step in creating homemade lock picking gear is sourcing the materials to make it from.  Although many things can work, is important to find materials as close to the specifications as possible, to limit the amount of effort that goes into the task.  To this end we have composed a short list of common or easily obtainable items to help the new handyman/handywoman:

Tutorials

Helpful "how to" and DIY tutorials:

 

We have recently utilized the following YouTube tutorial by Lock Pickers United to create our own set of pinning tweezers.

Note that various pick profiles and templates are available for download at Pick-Template.pdf

 

Lock Picking Resources

The following links in each category are what we consider to be the most helpful, concise, and complete resource:

Terminology & Nomenclature
Forums
Tutorials & Reviews
Vendor Sites
  • HPC - Manufacturer - Cost effective, fairly good leather cases, picks usually need to be sanded and polished.
  • Southord - Manufacturer - Cost effective, picks might need a little sanding or polishing.
  • Sparrows Lock Picks - Manufacturer - Good cost to quality balance, tough synthetic cases, picks have satisfactory finish.
  • Peterson Locksmith Tools - Manufacturer - Higher quality and cost, nice leather cases.
  • Multipick - Manufacturer - German.  Expensive (by US standards), very nice cases, picks are laser engraved and finished well.
  • lockpicks.com - Reseller - Locksmith supplies.
  • PICKPALS - Reseller - Australian. Locksmith supplies.
  • American Key Supply - Reseller - Locksmith supplies.
  • LockPickShop - Reseller - Locksmith supplies.
  • Banggood - Reseller - Very cheap, slow shipping from China, quality varies, will need to sand and polish picks.
  • DHgate - Reseller - Very cheap, slow shipping from China, quality varies, will need to sand and polish picks.
  • AliExpress - Reseller - Very cheap, slow shipping from China, quality varies, will need to sand and polish picks.

 

For questions and comments, please contact us via the Contact page.