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Lockpicking Guide for Beginners

Lockpicking Guide for Beginners

Lockpicking can be a hobby, not just a pursuit for would-be robbers. Most importantly, it’s an essential service today. Imagine more than 20 million people in the US lose their car and house keys every year, creating a significant demand for lockpicking services from locksmiths.

In short, lockpicking is the act of manipulating a lock to open it without its original key. If you’re always misplacing or losing your keys, mastering this skill can be quite valuable. The key to learning this skill is understanding how locks and keys work. Expert lockpickers take less than a minute to open a lock.

So, if this is something you want to learn, keep on reading to understand lockpicking.

Legality of Lockpicking

Since lockpicking is commonly associated with burglary and robbery, it’s crucial to clear things up regarding its legality. Adhering to state and federal laws is always essential, but what are those laws?

There are four facets of lockpicking: buying a lock pick set, using one, owning one, and traveling with a lock pick kit.

For the most part, owning a lock pick set is not illegal in most US states. Still, the legality of lockpicking is still a tricky subject, and it mostly depends on an individual and how they intend to use the set.

When it’s Considered a Crime

Owning or using lockpicking tools becomes a crime when you use them illegally. The court must prove that you had an intent to commit a crime using the kit.

So, if your state requires the court to prove intent to commit a crime, the best protection is following all the existing laws on lockpicking. For example, if you have a criminal burglary record, then it’s easy for the court to prove intent to commit a crime when you own a lock pick set.

No Specific Laws

It’s also vital to note that there are states that have no specific laws on lockpicking. This includes Arkansas, West Virginia, Indiana, North Carolina, North Dakota, and Pennsylvania. Some states, such as North Carolina, have no specific laws, but locksmith services are regulated.

If your state doesn't have any specific laws, you’re generally safe when it comes to using, owning, and buying lock pick sets. You should, however, be cautious when traveling to another state with the set. Be sure to find out the laws of the state you’re visiting in advance.

States where Lockpicking Is Illegal

There are also states where lockpicking is illegal, particularly Ohio, Virginia, and Nevada. If you’re visiting any of these states, you might want to leave your kit at home.

While lockpicking is legal in Illinois, possessing bump keys is illegal. Also, in Mississippi, it’s legal to own lock pick sets, but concealment, even if kept in your pocket, is considered a crime.

Before buying, owning, or using a lock pick set, it’s vital to understand your state laws. States with laws have worded them differently, so you might need to seek help in understanding your specific state laws.

Different Types of Lockpicks

The world of lockpicking can be complicated, especially for a novice. If you want to learn this skill, it’s vital to understand the different kinds of lockpicks. You might want to start with those that are somewhat easy to use.

Lockpicking requires precision to successfully open a lock due to the small size of the keyhole. The pick needs to manipulate a single pin at a time without bumping anything else unintentionally.

Here are the common picks you should know:

  1. Hook Picks

    Hook picks are noticeable by their hook-shaped tip, and they’re usually ideal for single pin picking. In most cases, beginners will find hook picks easier to use than other lock pick tools. Hook picks come in different lengths and shapes, including gonzo, short, long, and gem hooks.

  2. Ball Picks

    These picks have a circle or half-circle tip, and they also have different names. For example, the full circle pick is also known as a snowman, aka double ball pick. It has a small header and a larger body.

    The problem with ball picks is that they’re less effective than diamond and hook pick types. They are mostly used to pick wafer locks.

  3. Diamond Picks

    A triangle-shaped tip characterizes diamond picks. You can also find full diamond picks, but half-diamond ones are more common. Small-sized half-diamond picks can also be used for single-pin picking.

  4. Rake Picks

    Unlike hook picks, rake picks aim at manipulating all of the pins of the lock at once. Their design is inspired by the common key bitting patterns. Beginners will find it challenging to use rake picks, but it gets easier the more your practice.

    They also come in different types, such as long, snake, and Bogota picks.


Bump Keys

If you want to pick pin-tumbler locks, you’ll need bump or bumping keys, also known as 999 keys. The technique of using these keys is known as lock bumping. Bump keys are special keys, which are cut to exploit the mechanics of pin-tumbler locks.

These keys are easy to make and acquire; it takes about five minutes to make one. When making a bump key, the aim is not to align it with the original key. Once the key is inserted in the keyway, it’s hit with a small hammer to manipulate the pins, thus opening the lock.

Lock bumping is effective in opening cylinder-type locks and has a success rate of 90 percent. The only problem with using bump keys is that they’re likely to permanently damage your lock due to the impact of striking the key.

Key Extractors

You also need to know about key extractors. At first glance, you’re likely to mistake them for diamond picks. As the name implies, key extractors are useful for removing or extracting broken keys stuck in a lock.

They come in different shapes, but the most common shapes are hooks and harpoons. In most cases of key extraction, the size of the extractor doesn’t really matter.

During the extraction process, you have to push the pins up as high as possible using the extractor. Then use a sharp prong to pull out the broken key.

Factors to Consider

As noted before, the success of lockpicking depends on several factors, particularly your understanding of locks and keys. So, if you want to get started in lockpicking, here is what you need to take into account:

Knowing How a Key Opens a Lock

Pin tumbler locks are used in almost 95 percent of the homes and businesses in the US. So, this section will cover how such locks work when opened.

The outer part of a lock has three main components: keyhole, plug, and hull. The keyhole is in the plug, while the hull surrounds the plug. So, when opening the lock, the key is inserted into the keyhole of the plug. Inside the keyhole, there are protrusions on the sides known as wards, which restricts the types of keys that can enter the keyhole and work with the plug.

Keep in mind that there are keys that can enter into the keyway of your lock, but can’t turn the plug to open the lock. When the right key is inserted, it usually turns the plug to open the lock. All pins within the lock must reach the sheer line for the lock to open successfully.

There are also other vital elements of a tumbler lock you need to know, including:

  • Springs - Springs work to push the pins down into the plug
  • Key pins - Key pins are the ones that make contact with the key.
  • Driver pins - These are the pins that make the lock stay locked, and they’re usually right above the key pins.

Force to Be Applied vs. Mechanical Skill

There are simple aspects of lockpicking that anyone can learn. When getting started in lockpicking, you will master the mechanical skill involved in this art. This involves maintaining a fixed position or fixed path using your hand independent of the amount of force you’re applying.

This process is usually known as bouncing the pick. The trick lies in your fingers or wrist, which acts as the source of pressure. Your focus is to move the tip of the pick, not its handle. You have to feel the pick bouncing up and down in the keyhole.

Keep in mind that this mechanical skill can only be mastered through practice. You have to use your fingers to get the information about the movement of the pick. Bear in mind that you have to learn how to apply fixed force regardless of your hand’s position.

As you continue practicing the skill, you’ll learn advanced lockpicking, which requires analytical thinking, visual concentration, mechanical sensitivity, and physical dexterity.

Visual Concentration

Reconstructive imagination of the lock is also vital in lockpicking. You have to use your senses to construct an image of what’s happening in the keyway. This lets you understand how the pins are responding to your manipulations.

As a beginner, it’s normal to use your eyes to ensure seamless coordination. Over time, you’ll learn how to use visual concentration to open just about any lock.

Analytical Thinking

Every lock is different, so how you pick a padlock is not the same way you’ll pick a deadbolt. Analytical thinking allows you to analyze the feedback from different locks during the process. This lets you determine the best approach for opening the lock.

While the pick is an essential tool in the process, the torque wrench is the one that opens the lock. It’s the torque that allows all the pins to reach the sheer line. The pick simply moves over the pins to provide you information about the specific lock you’re picking.

Kind of Lock

Another critical component of lockpicking is understanding the different locks, including padlocks, cam locks, lever handle locks, deadbolt, mortise locks, and knob locks.


Padlocks have a shackle that secures a door, cabinet, or safe, and they’re the only portable locks. Some use keys, while others use combination codes. There are also smart options that feature alarms and other digital features.

Most smart and combination padlocks don’t have keyways, so you can’t pick them. However, for keyed locks, you can pick them using the raking method alongside a tension wrench.

Knob Locks

These locks are common in residential homes, and they can be used on both internal and external doors. There are different door knobs, including push-button doorknob, turning door knob lock, and traditional door knob lock.

Doorknobs are easy to pick using a tension wrench and a hook pick, but you’ll have to reassemble them after opening the lock. It’s also possible to pick them using a hairpin or paperclip.

Mortise Locks

There are two types of mortise locks: curtained and non-curtained locks. While it’s possible to pick them, the process takes a bit of time. Non-curtained mortice locks can be picked using rake picks, hook picks, or pick guns. Key bumping can also help to unlock them.

With curtained locks, there is a little gadget known as a curtain that is added to the locks to prevent picking. Luckily, certain lock picks are designed explicitly for such locks.

Final Thoughts

You can start lockpicking as a hobby and slowly turn it into a full-time career. Many people lose their house, car, and mailbox keys and need help with opening their locks. As a locksmith, you can easily earn $18 an hour to offer such services.

Before you get started, take the time to understand your state laws on lockpicking, in addition to buying, using, and owning lock pick sets.

As a beginner, the pin tumbler lock is the best lock to start practicing your lockpicking skills. Once you can successfully pick this lock, you can transfer the skills to other locks. The hook and rake picks are ideal for beginners.


David Spira (24 September 2017) Key Extractors: The Plunger of Lockpicking Tools
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Dawn Hammon (May 03, 2010) How to Pick a Locked Door Knob
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Bryan Holt (June 1, 2020) How to Pick a Lock
The Manual

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Art of Locking

Lockpicking Guides: Types of Locks and How to Pick them

MIT Guide to Lock Picking

Ryan Brown (Mar 3, 2017) How to Pick a Lock: The Absolute Beginner’s Guide