Picking locks is way more useful than you think. Trust me and just give me a few minutes to explain this rapidly growing, skilful craft.
Simple lock picking is a trade that anyone can learn. However, advanced lock picking is a craft that requires mechanical sensitivity, physical dexterity, visual concentration, patience and analytic thinking. If you strive to excel at lock picking, you will grow in many other ways.
There are a mountain of practical uses for lock picking; if you've ever accidentally locked your keys in your car, or forgotten your keys as you've closed your door, or lost the keys to a glass trophy case. You can't just brute force these things open!
Welcome, keep reading and learn how to gain access to locked portals through non-destructive means.
Let's say your office desk has a single locking mechanism holding your documents and credit cards inside. You've padlocked your luggage or bike somewhere, and you've left your keys with your partner who's gone on holiday.
You work in real estate or property management - and you always have to cut a replacement key because someone has always locked their keys inside their apartment? Or you don't want to break open a door just because a key has been misplaced?
This is where learning to pick locks comes in handy - a universal, extremely useful entry skill where you circumvent the normal locking method through your knowledge of the lock mechanism. And that's what we aim to teach you in this article. We have a more thorough, likely easier-to-understand, fully illustrated book available in our store here.
If you do a search today on lock picking, you'll see some of the following:
how to pick a lock with a hairpin
how to pick a lock with a paperclip
how to pick a lock with a pen
how to pick a lock without tools
how to pick a lock youtube
how to pick a lock with a card
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how to pick a lock with a knife
Personally - I wouldn't recommend trying to do this without the right tools. You'll likely damage the lock (or yourself in the process), and our expert tools are not that expensive. They're certainly more effective than a paperclip, hairpin, or pen...
To illustrate what happens when you use the incorrect lockpicking tools, check these instructions on how to pick a lock with a paper clip or two.
- Straighten a paper clip, leaving the loop on the other end, to act as a pick.
- Get another paper clip, and straighten one end. Bend this one end at a 90-degree angle to fashion a tension wrench.
- Insert the second paper clip’s bent end into the bottom part of the keyhole. Apply pressure to turn it to the direction when with a key.
- Insert the improvised pick in the upper part of the keyhole, and start picking at the lock.
Yes, I know you might be the type of person that tries to pry open a locker with a spoon, knife or fork - but really ... just wait the day or two for a package in the post, use the right tool and voila. Success without having harmed any cultery.
The repetition of practice, and exercises are important. The only way to learn how to recognize and exploit the defects in a lock is to keep doing it. This means practicing many times on the same lock as well as practicing on many different locks. Anyone can learn how to open desk and filing cabinet locks, but the ability to open most locks with confidence and speed is a skill that requires patience, and continuous practice.
There are many kinds of different locks. We have another guide on Types of Locks and How to Pick them as well. But first ...
How to Pick Locks - Single Pin Picking
How to Pick Locks, Generally Speaking...
Here’s a quick guide to picking pin tumbler locks:
Get a tension wrench, insert it in the bottom of the keyway, and apply pressure to move it in the direction of the key.
This L-shaped tool enables you to mimic the rotation of the key and provides the tension to open the lock with the lockpicking tools. There is such a thing as too much or too little pressure, so you need to figure out the correct amount of torque that won’t damage the lock or prolong the picking session.
Take a picking tool, and slip it at the top of the keyway.
The pick opens the lock as if the correct key were inserted. Picks come in many shapes and sizes, including hooks, rakes, and a whole lockpicking set. Use the right picking tools for practice and actual locked-out situations in your property.
With the wrench in place and the right amount of torque applied, move the pick inside the lock.
- You can utilize numerous methods to pick the lock, such as single-pin picking (SPP) and raking.
- SPP presents the slower albeit truer form of lockpicking as the picker locates, lifts, and sets one pin at a time. It requires time and awareness that one can derive from practice.
- Raking offers a fast way to open locks in seemingly unrefined movements. One of its most popular techniques is scrubbing, whereby one manipulates the pick to hit as many pins and lift them as if one were brushing one’s teeth.
- It’s common to combine SPP, usually the first method, with scrubbing and other raking techniques.
Continue picking until the lock opens.
The goal is to set all pins to unlock the tumbler lock. You know it’s a success when you hear a click, which is the sound of a pin when set, and turn using the tension wrench. Refer to the diagrams for the alignment of the pins.
There are a variety of locking strategies and mechanisms in the real world. Initially, in this particular guide, you will learn how to bypass the most common type - the Pin Cylinder - through a useful technique known as Single Pin Picking. You've likely seen this depicted in video games, and you will probably even recognise the style of lockpicks used.
If you're the hands on type - why not take a look at the boxed set we offer - our Lock Pick Set for Beginners. Receive it in a day or two, take the few minutes of accelerated learning with our pick set, tools and practice locks and you're left smarter and wiser and more dextrous with all future locks!
The first step to learning how to pick a lock is to understand how it works, and why the component parts can be exploited in the first place. This is something a lot of students don’t take the time to understand properly, because they don’t think it’s necessary. Pay attention to this section above all else and make sure you understand everything 100% before you even think about sticking those picks anywhere.
The basic pin tumbler lock where a key is inserted through the right hand side of the image looks pretty simple.
The components of the lock plug you can see are:
- Shell (grey) - the main body of the lock, in which the plug sits.
- Plug (yellow) - this is where the key goes. There is a cam or tailpiece attached to the back of the plug which, when rotated, is what actually throws the bolt or retracts the latch and opens the lock. The point where the plug and shell separate is called the shear line, and is indicated by a pair of green arrows.
- Pin chambers (white) - the series of chambers which are drilled through the shell and into the plug, which is where the pins live. Not a component as such, but the relation between the pins and their respective chambers is very important.
- Key pins (blue) - the pins which come into contact with the key. These are all different lengths and always sit inside the plug, below the shear line. Their lengths correspond to the cuts on the key. The deeper the cut, the longer the key pin and the less it needs to be lifted in order to shear.
- Driver pins (red) - The pins which, in the locked position, block the shear line and prevent the plug from turning. Typically these are all identical in length, although higher quality locks generally contain different lengths of drivers. This isn’t random, they’re longer or shorter depending on the length of their corresponding key pin. The purpose of which is to make the pin stacks equal lengths, in order to prevent decoding/overlifting attacks. Balanced drivers have no effect on picking.
- Springs (black) - to keep everything from rattling around.
To help you visualize it, here's 3D model of a similar lock with the key going in:
Notice how, in this 'locked' state, the middle bars under the springs at the top are not aligned at the shear?
Why is this important? Because you need to know what you are doing when you stick a bit of metal (the pick) into a lock to mimic the correct key. This misalignment essentially stops the plug (and key) from turning. It's locked.
The process of picking a lock is essentially taking advantage of machining imperfections to force-set the pins to this following state (as if the correct key had been inserted), illustrated below:
When we insert the correct key, the pin stacks will be lifted to their correct heights. The split between the key pins and drivers rests exactly at the shear line, and the plug is free to rotate.
The proper key lifts each pin pair until the gap between the key pin and the driver pin (as illustrated above) reaches the shear line. When all the pins are in this position, the plug (the more copper-like color metal above) can rotate and the lock can be opened.
That's how key and locks function together. Now for the harder part.
There are actually two parts to lock picking.
The first part is the lock picking tool that mimics the insertion of the correct key, pushing the pins upwards so the plug can rotate freely - and the second part is the tension tool / wrench that replicates the rotation of the key when turned. The art in lock picking is aided by the quality of the pick set you use. Maybe you can see now why a paperclip or pen isn't exactly the best option when you're trying to finesse a lock open.
Tolerances and the binding defect
As you can see, the key aligns all the pin stacks to their correct heights simultaneously. You’d think that without the key, this just can’t be done and you’d be right. While possible, the chances of doing so would be extremely slim. But we can manipulate the pins individually, and this is made possible thanks to tolerances. Even with all our technology, it’s near-impossible to make all the mass machined components exactly the same dimensions and this is what causes the binding defect.
When we apply a turning pressure to the plug, only one of the pins will be binding against the inside of its chamber. If everything was perfectly machined, then all of them would bind simultaneously, and picking with basic hand tools would be impossible. But in reality, this just isn’t the case.
The pin chambers are different diameters, they’re not perfectly circular, and they’re misaligned. The pins are all different as well, not identical in size or shape like you might think. The differences can’t be seen with the naked eye unless the lock is very poorly made, but these defects are all present in even the highest quality locks, and this is what makes picking possible.
Below is an exaggerated example. To keep the head scratching to a minimum, the pin chambers are all the same size and everything is the same shape, chambers are perfectly aligned etc. the only variable here is the diameter of the pins. It’s nowhere near this simple, but it’s the easiest way to explain:
In the above lock, if we were to apply tension in either direction, pin 2 (looking right to left, where the key enters) would bind first because it’s the biggest. It’s physically impossible for any of the others to bind at this point, anyone can understand this. Pin 2 is blocking the plug from rotating, but the rest aren’t making any contact with their chamber walls whatsoever. We would feel pin 2 binding, whereas the others would just spring up and down without any resistance. More on this shortly.
When we apply tension and lift this pin, once it reaches the shear line, three very important things will happen:
The rotation of the plug will cause the pins to shear.
The next binding pin will stop the plug from rotating any further. In this case, it will be pin 1 since it’s the next largest.
Most importantly, that slight rotation means the driver we just lifted is now resting on top of the plug. If you can’t picture what this looks like, here is an exaggerated example:
The driver stays trapped above the plug, on that little ledge just to the side of the chamber, and the key pin drops back down. Now the pin stack in chamber 1 is binding, we lift that stack until the pins shear, and this same process continues until the lock opens. In this example, the binding order would be 2-1-5-3-4. And once 4 sets, the plug would rotate freely and open the lock. The binding order is completely random by the way, so don’t go trying to pick every lock in this specific order. Even in 2 identical locks with the same key, the binding order will be completely different.
That covers the principles of binding and how pins stay set, so now you’ll be able to understand the mechanism you’re feeling out when you start to pick your first lock. Like I said, the tolerances are actually a mixed variety of imperfections working together and are much smaller than I’ve depicted - but generally speaking, the binding pin is pretty easy to identify.
Right, that's much of the basic theory out of the way.
Single Pin Picking - The Speed Bump method
Single pin picking is the art of manipulating the pins one by one, by exploiting the tolerances we looked at earlier. I recommend you start off with a short hook pick. And if you skipped straight to this section without getting to grips with the concept of binding and how the mechanism actually works, go back to the basics first.
This is a method you can use to find the optimal tension for any given lock - which is the most important step, and lays the groundwork to get it open with minimal frustration. I’ll also give you a complete rundown of what to do and what to feel for. I’m not the only person who does it this way, it’s not a groundbreaking new technique, I just haven’t seen anyone else explain it in real detail.
Just before we start, a word on tension. Everyone says you need barely any pressure on the wrench, which is true, but just because a lock will open with the bare minimum, it doesn’t mean you have to use that amount. There is actually a range of tension you can get away with, so I’ll be teaching you how to find that range. That way, you can choose the amount you’re most comfortable working with. In most cases, you really don’t need to go too low.
As a beginner, using the absolute minimum, you probably won’t have a clue what’s going on inside the lock because the feedback will be so subtle. That was my experience, anyway. Don’t get me wrong, I opened plenty of locks by applying a hair’s amount of tension and working the pins, but I couldn’t tell you the binding order or how high to lift any of the pins to save my life. I just felt a set here and there and after a while the lock opened, there was no real consistency. And now that I actually have developed the touch for minimal tension, ironically, I’ve found that it isn’t necessary. So this is why we will focus on the tension range, and not the lightest touch.
The technique I use is as follows:
1. Start with a “medium” amount of tension. I don’t mean half way between snapping the wrench and barely touching it. It’s still a light-ish amount, just not light-light. The easiest way to explain this is for you to put a standard (non-twistflex) tension wrench into a lock and hold it in your hand. Where your finger would push on the wrench, hold it just above one of the keys on your keyboard and push it down. Don’t actually tension the lock itself, it’s just there to keep the wrench from flipping around so you’re pushing on the flat part.
I want you to see how much it takes to just about hold it down and no more.
Now add a little more on top of that, we’ll be using this as your starting point.
I’m using a standard cheap keyboard so I don’t know if this is the best way to explain for everyone — it’s not an exact science. Remember this isn’t the amount you’ll be using to actually pick it, very few locks will require anywhere near this much. It’s just a starting point we’ll be working from in order to find the range.
2. Insert your pick right to the back of the plug, and drag it very slowly back towards you and across the pins. As you do this, push the pick gently against the pins so you can feel them springing a little. Don’t try to push them as deep as they’ll go or anything like that, just use very gentle pressure. Think of it like drawing a soft line on a page, just not with a pen that’s desperately low on ink. You should be able to feel a soft springiness to the pins as it rolls over each one.
What you’re looking for is a pin which feels more solid than the others. This is the binding pin, and the reason I call this the speed bump method is because when you hit it, it’s like the pick has hit a little bump. A lot of people push each pin individually to find
which one is binding, which you can do if you want. As long as you find it, that’s the main thing.
The more tension you apply, the more obvious the binding pin will be, but I wouldn’t recommend using anything heavier than what I described before. Honestly, the binding pin will stick out like a sore thumb under that amount so there’s really no need to start any higher.
If you can’t feel anything binding under that amount of tension, and assuming you’re not being dense and pushing against the warding, it’s usually because the binding pin is the one right at the back. Since it’s the first pin you’re in contact with, it just feels like part of the back of the lock, so if you can’t feel any binding, don’t jump the gun and start piling on more tension. Carefully get onto the back pin and see if it gives any resistance when you push on it. I guarantee if you can’t feel any binding, it’ll be the pin at the back you need to be focusing on. If you’re having a hard time feeling the back pin, roll gently from front to back over the pins instead until you get onto it.
If it’s definitely not the back pin, then you can try more tension. Some locks do take a fair amount. Anyway, when you’ve identified the first binding pin, move onto step 3.
Position the very tip of the pick on the middle of the pin which is binding. You might find it helpful to roll the pick back and forth over it a little to get the position just right. You don’t need to be exactly in the middle of the pin, but it’s good practice. Next you want to apply some pressure to the pin. Think about the amount it takes to push a non- binding pin all the way down and use that.
Slowly start to reduce the amount of tension you’re applying to the plug. The pin will start to move under the pres- sure of the pick at some point, so try your best to hold the pick pressure steady and concen- trate on the tension rather than pushing harder on the pin to get it to move. You’re already using quite a bit of pick pressure here, so concentrate on the tension until you feel the pin start to move a little.
When you do feel it this, you can hold the tension there for picking if you want, although this is more to set a bound- ary so you know how much is too much. You can push the pins into place from here without too much force, but there’ll be a fair bit of drag as the pins move. At this point you’re using max tension for that lock, and whereas you’re not at a ridiculous level, it’s still more than necessary.
From here it’s quite easy to find a balance between the pick pressure and tension. Just play around, making sure not to go over max. You want the pins to move easily, but at the same time you also want to feel the binding slightly as they move. It takes a while to really get the feel for what I’m talking about, but when you figure this out you’ll be working with the best of both worlds — great feedback, and without the grunt.
5. As you push the binding pin, when it comes to shear, you’ll feel it set one way or another and you can then move onto the next binding pin. Once you’ve set that first pin, you can hold the tension at the same amount, or increase slightly as you set each one if necessary. You might want to increase tension to find the next binding pin although you can hold it steady, doesn’t really matter.
How clear the sets feel depends on the lock. Some you’ll feel a very distinct click, both in the pick and wrench, and you’ll hear a nice click as well. In many locks, mostly older ones, the feedback is very dull and sometimes practically non-existent. You can feel the binding just fine, but as you actually push the pins into place, there’s only a very dull click as each pin sets or they’ll just come to a stop with no real indication of being set other than they’ve stopped moving.
You’d think that older would mean more worn, thus looser tolerances and nicer feedback — which is true, but when a lock is in use for a long period a time there’s a fair amount of dirt which builds up in there and it really kills those nice clicks you’re looking for. Most of the time it doesn’t cause any problems as long as you keep a mental note of the binding order.
The easiest way to learn is actually just to buy a set, and try it out!
Why not also buy our How to Pick Locks booklet - weighing in at 44 pages of colorful, glossy, simple advice and instructions with lots and lots of pictures!
It's a lot easier than you think if you just have a go!
If you would like to look through everything we recommend for all different levels, then click here instead for our Top 10 list of Lock Picks. We guarantee there's something for everyone.
Otherwise, you can always view all our Lock Pick Sets instead.