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Lockpicking Guides: Types of Locks and How to Pick them

Here’s How to Pick a Lock and Pick the Set You Need

It’s the question I get asked the most “What lock pick do I need for this lock,” next to “How to pick a lock?” In this guide, I’m going to explain the necessary tools to pick a lock, so you understand precisely what lock picks work for which locks!

First of all, let’s look at the different lock types before learning how to pick them. While there are many locks, I think we should focus on the most popular, the type of locks you’re likely to encounter in the real world, and will probably recognise from having seen around. One of these locks may well be your first lock to pick.

Things can get a little bit complicated because we need to establish whether we’re talking about the locking mechanism, or the lock housing. For instance, the word ‘padlock’ refers to the housing of a lock mechanism, but padlocks can use many different locking mechanisms. In this guide we’re going to focus on the locking mechanism, the way the lock works inside, and more importantly, the picks you’ll need to pick a lock given its internal mechanism.

While there are many different types of specialist lock mechanisms, of the ones you’ll likely encounter in your everyday life, and moreover ones that can be picked with tools, there are five main types you can learn how to pick:

  1. Pin Cylinder locks

  2. Lever locks

  3. Wafer locks

  4. Warded locks

  5. Disc Detainer locks

To understand the distinction more clearly, let’s consider padlocks. You can get padlocks that use all five of these mechanisms. So, when I am asked “what picks do I need for a padlock?’ I need to know what type of padlock, meaning - what is the locking mechanism?

Let’s look at each of these locking mechanisms in detail. How to recognise them, how their configuration works (e.g., do they have pins, wafers, levers, or discs), and how to pick such locks to open them without the key.

 

PIN CYLINDER:

A Eurolock with a pin cylinder locking mechanism

Pin Cylinder Lock

The pin cylinder locking mechanism is probably the oldest of locking mechanisms. The Pyramids of ancient Egypt had wooden locks that most resemble pin cylinder locks. However, they were popularised by Linus Yale Jr., who drew on the Egyptian design and patented his pin cylinder in 1851. His locks were so successful many people today refer to pin cylinder locks simply as ‘Yale’ locks, due to the success of that brand. Pin Cylinders are the most widely used locks in use today.

The principle is simple. There’s a central core or ‘plug’ that needs to rotate to open the lock. The plug is prevented from turning by a series of pins, which obstruct the plug. The series of pins are in pairs. The top, or ‘driver pin’, and the bottom, or ‘key pin’. When the correct key is inserted, the split between the pairs of driver pins and key pins lines up along the edge of the plug where it meets the housing of the lock. This is called the ‘shear line’. Once this has happened, it allows the plug to turn and the lock is open. For lock pickers, we need to get the split in the pin pairs, or ‘stacks’ to line up along the shear line, get the plug to turn or rotate, and open the lock.

Pin cylinder lock with shear line opening illustratedA single pin cylinder whose pins (pairs that have a driver pin and a key pin each) meet at the shear line when the correct key is inserted

Since pin cylinders are the most popular locks, as we lock our front doors with them after all, there’s a wealth of tools and techniques we can use to pick them non-destructively without using the key.

What About Pin Tumbler Locks?

A pin tumbler lock refers to a mechanism that uses pins of different lengths to keep it locked unless the right key is inserted. The pin tumbler lock mechanism figures commonly in cylinder locks, also referred to as cylinder pin tumbler locks or pin-tumbler cylinder locks. Euro cylinders, as shown above, are an example of a pin tumbler lock.

Like the famous Yale lock, the pin tumbler lock has driver pins and key pins which have to be aligned in the shear line for the plug to turn and the door to open. You can refer to the above diagram to visualise the inner workings of a pin tumbler lock. 

As it is, the sets most people recognise as lock picks – long, flat pieces of steel with a variety of different lock picking tips – are designed mainly to pick pins in those cylinder locks. The two main techniques for how to pick a lock of this kind are:

  •         Single Pin Picking
  •         Raking

Single Pin Picking (SPP) is a method where each pin is picked individually, and is known among lock pickers as proper lock picking. You'll commonly see the entertaining Lockpicklawyer on YouTube single pin picking - in fact, we get many questions about learn to lockpick from customers who've seen his and our video selections! 

It’s a must to learn how to pick a lock using this technique if you want to consider yourself a lock picker or an expert who knows the pins by ear (feedback). With SPP, you learn to pick locks by paying close attention to the internal mechanism of the lock, from applying the correct turning pressure or tension to the binding of the pins. This awareness about the principles behind lock picking makes it more precise and thus reduces the likelihood of damaging the lock from erratic movements. It’s also the most effective technique for pin cylinders and will certainly give you the most success. However, it takes time to learn and lots of practice to master this quintessential form of lock picking.

Under this lock picking approach, you will need a hook pick to lift and set the pins, one after the other following the correct sequence or order. You will then use a tension wrench (also known as torsion wrench, torque wrench, tension tool, tension bar, tensioner, or turning tool) to apply pressure or torque to the plug while you pick the individual pins. 

By using the tension wrench, you aim to create a ledge between the plug and the housing called the ‘shear line,’ as it’s along this imaginary line that the pins sit, preventing the plug from turning. Imagine the shear line is a physical point where the plug (inner cylinder) ends and the housing (or cylinder itself) begins. 

Applying tension creates the ledge, which is a fraction of a millimetre wide. When pushed up, this enables the pins to sit. The pairs of driver pins and key pins must meet along the shear line, which happens to be the edge of the plug. Tension is a critical element in lock picking, which is why you have the wrench.

It takes practice to control and use the right amount of pressure when picking locks using the tension wrench or applicable turning tool. A rule of thumb is to avoid exerting too much pressure on the tension wrench when lifting pins because these pins can get stuck, fall below the shear line, and make this lock picking endeavour twice as difficult (you have to pick the pins one by one, after all).

In sum, this principle allows you to pick a lock pin by pin so you can turn the plug and open your door or padlock without the need for the right key. Many excellent books and guides exist that show you in detail how this is done.

Lock Picks for Single Pin Picking of Pin Cylinder Locks

A modern set of lock picks for pin cylinder locks

 

Raking is a method where you work all the pins simultaneously.

It’s a great technique for beginners learning how to pick the pins of their first lock, and with a little practice, it will reap rewards. While you can perform some raking techniques with most standard lock picks, there are now a wealth of ‘rakes’ available, designed especially for this technique. Most modern lock pick sets will have a couple of these specially designed rakes with a tension wrench or two to work on the driver pins and key pins to open the lock.

Like the SPP lock picking method, raking also uses a tension wrench to create a ledge, but rather than pick the pins individually, they are all raked together, until they’re all sitting on the ledge of the shear line, allowing the plug to turn. The tension wrench is essential for leveraging your picking tools to rake and open the lock. To use it, insert the tension wrench into the bottom of the keyway (BOK wrench), as this is a standard way of doing things. There is, however, a top of the keyway tension wrench (TOK wrench) that is growing in preference among lock pick enthusiasts.  

Top or Bottom Keyway for Tension Wrench?

All good lock pick sets have a variety of decent tension tools. Look out for both Top of Keyway tension tools (TOK), and Bottom of Keyway tension tools (BOK) – as having choices with tensioning really helps.

Aside from their form, choosing between the two types of tension wrenches is a matter of purpose, such as the shape of the keyhole, and preference, as some often start with the BOK and shift to TOK.

Top of Keyway Tension Wrenches

A set of Top of Keyway (TOK) tension tools.

 

Most lock pick manufacturers make excellent lock pick sets for Single Pin Picking and Raking, containing a wide range of picks, hooks, and rakes, as well as a suite of tension wrenches to suit all budgets and levels of commitment. Here are some examples of lock picking sets to get started into the sport of lock picking or refining one’s skills in picking a lock:

You can pick pin cylinder locks non-destructively using the following techniques:

 

LEVER LOCKS

Lever locks are usually the next progression for lock pickers due to their popularity and the challenge they provide. After pin cylinders, lever locks are the most widely used locks. They can be attributed to another Englishman, Robert Barron, who designed his ‘Double Lever Lock’ in 1778. Although Chubb seemed to win the market and the popularity of Chubb lever locks has led many people to call them ‘Chubb locks’.

Lever Locks - Another Type of Lock

The basic principle uses a series of levers which have cut-aways or ‘gates’ which need to be lifted to different heights to allow the bolt stump to move, and then unlock the door. When you insert the key and turn it, the different height cuts on the key will lift all the levers to the correct height, which aligns perfectly to provide a gap through which the bolt stump can move. One of the cuts on the key, the last one, is the bolt thrower, and as the key is turned, and the levers are raised, the bolt thrower simultaneously moves the bolt, and since the gates are correctly aligned, the bolt and stump can freely move, retracting into the housing and opening the lock.

 Lever Lock - Mortice

Inside of a Mortice Lever Lock

The principle is the same regardless of how many levers there are. It’s common to have two or three levers on locks inside a house, and five or more on the exterior door. Lever padlocks can also have a variety of levers, and the functioning and picking principle is the same.

Lever lock mechanisms are mainly found in domestic front doors, or in padlocks.

Simple lever locks can be picked with two pieces of wire, bent at right angles. One is used to apply pressure on the bolt, and the other is used to lift the levers. When you apply tension to the bolt using a tension wrench, you create a tiny ledge, much like the shear line in pin cylinder locks. Once the ledge is created, a fraction of a millimeter, the levers can be lifted until they sit on the ledge. However, things get more complicated when various security elements are added to the locking mechanism. For instance, some companies will use alternating high and low gates, which impedes lock picking. Five lever locks used on domestic properties (often called mortice locks) will often have a ‘curtain’ added, to prevent you from inserting two pieces of wire. To pick such locks we use ‘Curtain picks’, a special tool designed to allow you to get round the curtain, apply tension to the bolt stump, and then pick the levers individually. Lever locks without curtains can be picked with a tool called a ‘2 in 1 pick’ and these are available in different gauges, since the locks come in different gauges. 

Curtain Lock Pick by RB Locktools

RB Locktools Curtain Lock Pick

 

In short, if you want to learn how to pick lever locks, you’re either going to get lucky with a simple mechanism and some bent wires and an improvised tension wrench. However, be careful when you use objects at home, like a knife, bobby pin, or card credit as a pick or wrench because you may damage the object or the lock itself. 

Or, you’ll need a dedicated tool, designed for a specific gauge or gauges. Some examples of these lock pick sets are:

More advanced lever padlocks have specific tools designed to make the job of applying tension and lifting the levers simple.

  •         Chubb Battleship Pick
  •         Chubb Cruiser Pick
  •         ERA Big 6 Pick
  •         ERA Insurance Pick

 

WAFER LOCKS

Although nowhere near as popular as pin cylinder and lever locks, wafer locks are significant since they are used in literally millions of cars. Having said that, they do have other uses and you’ll probably encounter them in locks on drawers, lockers, and some padlocks too.

The first recorded instance of the wafer lock was the patent lodged by Philo Felter in 1868. Felter’s wafer lock was double bitted, meaning it had two sets of wafers, and the key was patterned on both edges.

The principle is quite similar to pin cylinders, in that springs are used to push obstructions into the housing of the lock which stops the plug from rotating. But instead of having pins, wafer locks use a series of flat single pieces of metal called wafers. You can get both single and double-sided wafer locks but to understand them we’ll start with the single-sided wafer lock, they type you’ll find on a locker.

Just three years after Felter’s design, Hiram S Shepardson invented the single-sided wafer lock, with just one set of wafers, which, being cheaper to produce and less prone to damage, was more successful in the commercial market.

 

Wafer Lock - the type typically found in a locker

A wafer lock typically found in a locker with the wafers protruding

The wafers are pushed by a spring right through the plug and protrude into the housing at the bottom of the lock. This stops the plug from turning and therefore the lock from opening. When the correct key is entered, the wafers are lifted, but not too much or they’ll push up into the housing, obstructing the plug and preventing it from turning, but just enough that the wafers are ‘floating’ in the middle of the plug. So, when you turn the key, the plug is free to turn, and the lock opens.

Being very similar in design to pin cylinder locks minus the key pins and driver pins, wafer locks can be picked using the same pick sets. Accordingly, you use a tension wrench to apply the required pressure, insert a pick, and pick the wafers one by one. The goal is to position the wafers so they are at the shear line to allow the plug to turn. Single Wafer Picking, you could say about this lock picking technique. It is also possible to rake wafer locks with some success.

There are also a few tools made specifically for wafer locks. They work by combining the tension wrench and the raking tool into the one pick. You insert the tool, apply pressure to create the ledge, and rake in and out, or jiggle up and down, left than right, etc. Take care that you apply only a slight amount of torque and refrain from using too much pressure through the wrench despite the jiggling and raking movements.

And for the more complicated wafer locks used in cars, there are very specialist picks, called ‘Lishi picks’ after the brand that produces them. Each pick is made for a particular make of wafer lock. The tool has a guide on the outside of the lock so you know where the picking tip is and when it’s on a wafer, then you continue to pick each wafer, by using the guide as you go. Inner Groove Picks use the warding in the lock as a guide of where to insert the tool, and like a rake, takes on all the wafers simultaneously, resting on the ledge as you apply turning pressure as you rake, and opening once all the wafers are ‘set’:

 

Lishi Pick - For Car Wafer Locks

Lishi pick for vehicle wafer locks

 

WARDED LOCKS

Although having been around since ancient Rome, warded locks are not widely used today. Most often, they’re used on historic properties and items, with the intention of maintaining the ‘old’ aesthetic. The reason for their scarcity is the lack of security they provide. A warded lock houses a very simple turning mechanism, that requires a key to turn. However, they are vulnerable to a relatively simple attack because they’re not actually locked, so to speak, and if you can get to the back of the lock, you can turn the mechanism and unlock it

 

Types of Locks - Warded Lock + Key mechanism example

To make this clear we can talk about the original ‘skeleton key’. While many other and newer tools have been called ‘skeleton keys’, the original was made for warded locks. The name comes from the way the key was stripped of its blade, leaving just a turning tool - the key is reduced to its ‘bare bones’.

 Types of locks - Warded Key (left) and bypass skeleton key (right)

Left: Warded key. Right: Warded Skeleton Key

 

It’s the metal barriers, or ‘wards’ in the lock that prevent you getting to the back of the lock. Unlike the other locks we’ve discussed, there is nothing obstructing the plug to stop it turning, such as pins or wafers, rather there are obstructions in place to prevent you getting to the turning mechanism. The correct key has been cut in such a way it can be inserted into the lock and turned without hitting these obstructions, the ‘wards’. However, the skeleton key exposed the security issue, because if you remove everything except the turner from the key, the wards provide no obstacle and the turner can easily reach the back of the lock, turn it and unlock the mechanism.

Many warded locks can be tackled with some bent wire, instead of tension wrench and picking tools for standard locks with pins or wafers. There’s a very simple and well-known lock pick set called ‘Warded Lock Picks’ which will deal with most warded locks in use, which tend to be padlocks:

 

DISC DETAINER LOCKS

Disc detainer locks were invented by Emil Henriksson in 1907, and manufactured a few years later under the Abloy brand, the company he founded. These locks use slotted rotating detainer discs. The correct key rotates these discs much like the tumblers you’ll see in high security safes, until all the slots are aligned, allowing a sidebar to drop into the slots and the lock is open.

Types of Locks: Disc Detainer Lock

Standard disc detainer lock

 

Since disc detainer locks do not use springs, like pin cylinder and wafer locks, they tend to be used in harsh conditions such as outside, where things like water, salt, or sand will not easily damage them.

Well-made disc detainer locks, which to this day tend to be manufactured by the Abloy brand are considered higher security than most locks. Although the many, many cheap copies tend to be quite easily picked, with inexpensive tools.

One can apply the principle of binding pins to that of discs in these copy disc detainer locks. You can use the usual lock picking tools for tumbler locks (pick and wrench) or use custom tools just to get a feel for what it’s like to pop open a simulated disc detainer lock.

So, how can you pick a lock from Abloy? For authentic disc detainer locks, you need sturdier or top-notch picks to bypass their high security; otherwise, the tools can become misshapen or bent.

 

That's it, primarily - you'll aim to be dealing with pin cylinders as they're the most common - but all the others are listed above! 

To recap what this guide has covered:

  • How to identify locking mechanisms in today’s most commonly used locks
  • How to pick a lock (by mechanism or properties)
  • How to pick pin cylinder locks
  • How to pick high-security or less common locks
  • What lock pick set to use for a particular type
  • How to create a ledge, position pins or wafers on the shear line
  • How to apply tension or pressure using the tension wrench 
  • What other lock picking tools to use, like an improvised or specially designed pick or tension wrench

We hope this helps. Let us know if you'd like any other information on how to pick a lock for the first time or familiarising yourself with the fundamentals of picking a lock. For those learning how to pick the more difficult or complicated padlocks, contact us for more information. We specialise in lock pick sets for beginners and professional lock pickers because we take lock picking seriously.

Are you ready to pick a lock? Here’s to happy lock picking days and picking your first lock!

Chris - LockpickWorld.com