It’s the question I get asked the most “What lock pick do I need for this lock?” In this guide I’m going to explain exactly that, so you understand exactly what picks are for what lock!
First of all, let’s look at the different lock types. 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 recognize from having seen around.
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 locking mechanism, the way the lock works inside, and more importantly, what picks you’ll need to pick it.
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:
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 recognize them, how they work, and what lock picks you’ll need to open them without the key.
A Eurolock with a pin cylinder locking mechanism
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, the were popularized by Linus Yale Jnr, 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 pins lines up along the edge of the plug where it meets the housing of the lock. This is called the ‘shearline’. 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 shearline to get the lock open.
Single Pin Cylinders - how keys work
Since pin cylinders are the most popular locks, we lock our front doors with them after all, there’s a wealth of tools and techniques we can use to open them non-destructively without using the key.
The sets most people recognize as lock picks – long, flat pieces of steel with a variety of different picking tips – are designed mainly to pick pin cylinders. The two main techniques are:
Single Pin Picking (SPP) is a method where each pin is picked individually, and is known among lock pickers as lock picking proper. It’s a must learn if you want to consider yourself a lock picker. 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.
The method is to apply tension, creating a ledge between the plug and the housing called the ‘shearline’ – it’s along this imaginary line that the pins sit, preventing the plug from turning. But applying tension creates a ledge – a fraction of a millimeter wide, which when pushed up, the pins can sit. It’s the principle that allows you to pick the lock pin by pin.
Raking is a method where you work all the pins simultaneously. It’s a great technique for beginners and with a little practice 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 pick sets will have a couple of specially designed rakes.
Raking also uses a tension tool to create a ledge, but rather than pick the pins individually, they are all raked together, until they’re all sitting on the ledge, allowing the plug to turn.
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.
Most lock pick manufacturers make excellent lock pick sets for Single Pin Picking and Raking, containing a wide range of picks and rakes, to suit all budgets and levels of commitments. Here’s some examples:
Pin cylinders can also be opened non-destructively using the following techniques:
Lever locks are usually the next progression for lock pickers due to the popularity of them 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’.
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. By inserting the key, and turning 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.
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 tension on the bolt, and the other is used to life the levers. When you apply tension to the bolt, you create a tiny ledge, much like the shearline 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 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.
RB Locktools Curtain Lock Pick
In short, for picking lever locks, you’re either going to get lucky with a simple mechanism and some bent wires, or you’ll need a dedicated tool, designed for a specific gauge or gauges. Some examples of these are:
More advanced lever padlocks have specific tools designed to make the job of applying tension and lifting the levers simple.
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 a pin pair, 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.
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 to the wafers are ‘floating’ in the middle of the plug and when the key is then turned, the plug is free to turn and open the lock.
Being very similar in design to pin cylinder locks, wafer locks can be picked using the same pick sets. Tension is applied, a pick is inserted and the wafers are picked one by one. Single Wafer Picking, you could say. It is also possible to rake wafer locks with some success.
There are also a few tools made specifically for wafer locks. The work by combining the tension tool and the raking tool into the one pick. You insert the tool, apply a slight amount of turning pressure to create the ledge, and rake in and out, or jiggle up and down, left than right, etc:
And for the more complicated wafer locks used in cars, there are very specialist picks, called ‘Lishi picks’ after the brand that produces them. With each pick 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 vehicle wafer 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.
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 all it’s blade, leaving just a turning tool - the key is reduced to its ‘bare bones’.
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.
While many warded locks can be tackled with some bent wire, there’s a very simple and well know set of picks called ‘Warded Lock Picks’ which will deal with most warded locks in use, which tend to be padlocks:
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 us 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.
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.
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! We hope this helps - let us know if you'd like any other information. Otherwise, happy picking!
Chris - Lockpickworld.com