How To Pick a Basic Lock

Created by rswaby on Sept. 12, 2013, 9 a.m. Last post by tinabajaj691 2 weeks, 6 days ago.

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At its essence, a lock is puzzle. While its answer may vary slightly, the route to puzzle-solving success has remained largely unchanged since the pin-tumbler lock's invention 4000 years ago in ancient Egypt. Manipulate the pieces in just the right way and the lock will yield.

Sure, a key is the easiest way in, but it's not the only one. Eric Michaud, the co-founder of Toool.us, the US chapter of the Open Organization of Lockpickers, which promotes greater public understanding how locks work and when they might not, walked us through the art of solving the lock's puzzle without a key.

What You Need

Lock: Any cheap, key-operated lock from the hardware store will do.

Tools: The basic path to success requires two instruments: a pick and a torque tool. Your basic pick will be a thin, pencil-length piece of metal that curves slightly upward at the end. The torque tool will be a flat piece of metal with the small end bent 90 degrees.

Understand the Puzzle

Before you can pick your way to the answer, you need to understand the puzzle and its pieces.

The two largest parts of a pin-tumbler lock are the body and the plug. They're also the elements of the lock that you can see. The body is the container, and the plug, which spans the length of the lock, is the cylindrical part that rotates when you turn the key.

If a lock were nothing but a body and a plug, any old key would open the lock. But that wouldn't make for a very secure system, would it? So lock makers decided to throw a perpendicular wrench in that turning mechanism by exploiting the intersection between the plug and the lock's body.

The metaphorical wrench is actually a line of stacked pins, each broken at different positions. When the correct key is inserted into the keyway, its grooves and peaks will push up the pins into a pattern that will allow the plug to rotate freely.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

To understand how the pins work, imagine two erasers, like the ones on the end of a pencil, stacked on top of each other. One eraser hangs into the keyway like an icicle, its top flush with the plug's outside edge. The other is stacked on top of the first, reaching up into the lock's body. Where they touch is also where the plug and the lock's body meet. If the erasers are aligned so they meet just at the shear line, the plug will rotate freely. But push the pair too far down into the lock, and the top eraser will straddle the two main structures, blocking the plug from turning and the lock from opening.

Why You Can Pick a Lock

Lining the pins up in a perfect row, as it turns out, is a bit of a manufacturing challenge. "The problem is that the drill bit will wobble so you get aberrations," explains Michaud. "You'd think that when you apply pressure, all the pins would hit at the same time, but they don't." Only one or maybe two pins at a time will take the brunt of the pressure.

If you don't know how many pieces are in the puzzle, it's hard to solve it effectively. To count the number of pins, insert the long end of the torque tool all the way into the lock and push up. As you slide the torque tool toward you slowly, the pins will spring free with a click. Count the clicks and you'll know how many pins you need to manipulate to open the lock.

Step 1: Get a Grip

Hold up your left hand like you're about to high-five someone. (Switch that if you're a lefty). Nestle the lock upside down between your thumb and forefinger so the key hole is facing you and the lock's bottom is flush with the back of your hand. Now rotate your hand down, fingers pointing toward you instead of toward the sky. The keyway should flip 180 degrees.

Step 2: Give It Torque

Insert the short end of the torque tool into the keyway and get it situated as low as possible. (You want to give yourself space to use the pick). The long end of the torque tool should extend toward your pointer finger. Rest your index finger on the long end of the tool, applying a slight amount of constant pressure. Michaud recommends just a few ounces, like that of a key-stroke. "If your finger is changing color, you're pressing too hard," says Michaud.

(Note on ergonomics: Locks can get heavy. Rookies will rest the weight of the lock on their wrists, but pros will advise otherwise. Either place your hand on your lap or on the cushion of the pinky side of your hand to ease the stress on your tendons.)

Step 3: Tease the Pins

Wiggling a paper clip around may work on the television, but be warned: it's a small screen lie.

Instead, hold the pick like you'd hold a chopstick or pencil with the curved end swooping upwards. Insert the curved end as low inside the lock as possible. Remember how many pins you counted inside the lock? Well you can't see them lined up in there, but you're going to start testing them. Pin by pin, work your way down the line, cupping each pin with the tip of the pick and lifting gently. You don't need to slam it to the ceiling; you just need to raise the stack to break at the sheer line.

If a pin is springy, skip it. The lock-picker's target is the binding pin. You'll know you're prodding the right one when the pin gives back a little resistance when you try to lift it.

That tension means that your torque tool, which is trying to spin the plug, is pressing the pin against the side of the lock. Lift the bottom pin up just enough and its accompanying top pin, called a driver pin, will break ever so slightly over the sheer line.

The lock will celebrate your small victory by shifting ever so slightly toward your torque tool.

Continue to move back and forth down the line, testing the pins for stiffness and spring. When each stiff pin's accompanying driver pin has cleared the sheer line—voila!—the lock should pop open.

Tools down! Now use that hand positioned for high-fives to actually give one.

  • I'd never actually read a tutorial on how to do this before. I'll have to give this a shot when I get home.

  • thank you for writing this! i've been wanting to do this for ages. i made a pick and wrench a couple days ago but didn't get the technique down, this helped a lot. now i can open a padlock and get two or three pins in a deadbolt!

  • If you ask me, this is really irresponsible journalism, yes this information is already on the internet but do you really need to repeat it.
    Lock picks are considered bugler tools and if you have them on your person or in your car there is a really good chance of going to jail.
    What do you want to do next give out drill points for safes...
  • @keeys: I think your accusation is a little unfair. If I wanted to get past a simple padlock for nefarious purposes, my 16" bolt-cutters fit nicely into a small bag and will get past any lock faster than even the best lockpicker. A stronger lock will yield in seconds to an angle-grinder, and I'm willing to bet that the bystander effect means I could go up to a bike stand, angle-grind a bike off, and walk away scot-free.

  • A pin tumbler lock on a padlock, works the same as on all residential locks and most commercial locks, in fact with a different tension tool you can open most car doors.


    This is good information to be spreading around, but I guess you can say locks are only to keep honest people honest...
  • @keeys said:

    A pin tumbler lock on a padlock, works the same as on all residential locks and most commercial locks, in fact with a different tension tool you can open most car doors

    I'm constantly amazed how common these types of locks seem to be around the world.

    Where I live (Finland) most locks are of the disc tumbler variety. (And even those are constantly being upgraded to more secure variations.)

    Here's an interesting series of articles about disc tumbler locks (the Abloy brand in particular) for anyone who's interested:

    Part 1, part 2, part 3 & part 4

  • They are teaching the science behind a lock via the art of puzzle solving (as they eloquently put it).

    Don't hate. As mentioned in other comments, there are easier modern ways to "solve" a lock.

    I must say, I can't wait to get my hands on some old pirate chests filled with treasure or a beating heart! :P

  • Personally, I usually just open up the console, click on the lock I'm going to pick and type "unlock". Works. Every. Time.

    :D

    I love these cool new types of articles.

  • Time to get some lockpicks

  • @keeys said:

    If you ask me, this is really irresponsible journalism, yes this information is already on the internet but do you really need to repeat it.
    Lock picks are considered bugler tools and if you have them on your person or in your car there is a really good chance of going to jail.
    What do you want to do next give out drill points for safes...

    The legality of possessing lockpicks varies from state to state. In many places the law requires you to show intent. Having a set at a coffee shop with friends = fine. Being down at a warehouse at 2AM could be a different story.

  • @keeys: There is a much higher percentage of people who use lockpicks for sport or as a hobby than people who use them to break into a building. I think you have a hollywood view of burglaries, as most burglars just break the door. One single loud noise isn't going to attract attention, someone crouching by a lock (not the same kind of lock being taught here I might add) is going to immediately arouse suspicion if seen.

  • @keeys: BOLT CUTTERS.

  • This isn't about how many more easier ways there are to open a lock then picking, it's about some information shouldn't be made more public then it already is.
  • @kallekilponen said:

    I'm constantly amazed how common these types of locks seem to be around the world.

    Where I live (Finland) most locks are of the disc tumbler variety. (And even those are constantly being upgraded to more secure variations.)

    Here's an interesting series of articles about disc tumbler locks (the Abloy brand in particular) for anyone who's interested:

    Part 1, part 2, part 3 & part 4

    Oh man, I kindof want one now. If for nothing else that the novelty of those keys (so pretty O.O)

  • @HeadNodShy: You can find your closest retailer here. (Or judging from your avatar, here.)

    Or it seems you can order one online if you'd like. Here's one example.

  • In current era, lockpicking in this way is primarily the domain of the locksmith and/or owner of the lock trying to open it without any damage done so they don't have to buy a new one.

    The reason more sophisticated mechanical locks are not necessarily in vogue is that there are more efficient and desirable ways to ensure security than the lock itself. Security cameras and alarm systems connected to 24/7 emergency response. Also, human security guards. And vaults. Safes. Etc.

    Actual real world thieves are very rarely the silent and discrete cat burglar type. Smash and grab is the usual routine for theft of physical objects. I think always will be. Good ol' run in with a stocking over the head, grab an armful, and WE OUT! is cheap, fast and, unfortunately and highly irritatingly (from law enforcement perspective) effective.

  • "Security is achieved through openness. Take things apart and play with them... exposing bad security is what protects us all."

    ~ Deviant Ollam, Introduction to Lockpicking and Physical Security. DEFCON 13, 2005.

  • As the author of "Locksmithing: From Apprentice To Master" by McGraw-Hill, (1995) I have to agree with the concerns of making this information available to the public. When I wrote my book,18-years ago, me and the Publisher had a conversation as to whether or not we should include instructions on lockpicking. The decision was that we had a moral obligation to keep such information out of the hands of the general public. The information, if needed, was readily available in trade publications for locksmith students. Plus, by describing the basics of how a lock cylinder operates, any reader can figure out how to pick a lock on their own.

    Why help them along?

    Would you find it deplorable if a doctor or a nurse wrote on the internet how to kill someone with a needle and a drug and get away with it? Secrets and information in professions should remain just that.

    Why anyone would want to go out and buy lockpicks and learn how to pick locks for fun is beyond me. Are you planning to lose your keys a lot?

  • A pair of bolt cutters or a tile cutting blade in a hacksaw is much faster for dispatching a pad lock. Door locks quickly submit to a punch and hammer. Ignition locks yield to a big screwdriver and wrench or sheet metal screw mounted in a dent puller. Some people are complaining about making this lock picking information available. Locks are designed to keep honest people honest. Criminals know locks are easy enough to defeat without resorting to the time consuming process of picking one.

  • @InsanePenguin: I work at a bike shop and one of our services is to cut bikelocks for owners who lose their bike keys. I've probably done it a dozen times in a crowded city area and I've never had one person ask me what I was doing or even say anything for that matter.

  • @all the people who say that this info should be kept secret:

    1. Lockpicking info hasn't been secret since at least before the internet started. I first got hold of a document explaining lockpicking in the late 80's from a dial up BBS.

    2. Security through obscurity is no security. If you're not sure, go ask the linux guys.

    3. State to state? A lot of internet users don't even live in the US, (we're not all still hitting others with clubs and pointing at fire while screaming and running away) and believe it or not we have our own laws that often differ from those in the US. Possession of lockpicking tools in most (if not all european countries) is not an offence (yet), but may implicate you in a crime if one happened nearby. Still, it's not the same thing.

  • Try a can of keyboard duster, turned upside down, sprayed into the lock then hit with a hammer.

  • If trying to get into your own home ALWAYS consult a professional. They can give guarantees if anything goes wrong and a qualifed engineer gives you confidence.

    Cam | Chubb Birmingham Locksmiths

  • to all you morons who are claiming this to be teaching people to be crooks ,you don't need to teach them ,they always were ,Ok .I guess you want to go through life not knowing how things work , Ok ,you are kidnaped and lock in a box under ground ,wow ,you start thinking ,why did I not read the how to pick a lock on tested suffer sucker

  • I have a set of lock picks, not only did this help, but it allowed me to brake into my best friends house, (even though I have a key) and I then scared him so bad, he not only fell out of bed, but rolled under his bed, and threw a tennis ball at me. But, I still can do that, and that was one year ago.

  • once you locked yourself out side of your car or house make sure no window is open before you trying any of that. just after that you can try and unlock your door. make sure not to damage the cylinder while you doing it. using a lock picks tools on someone else house is illegal just for you know. for more information you can look <a href="http://www.boltlocksmith.com/locksmith-in-bowie-md/">here</a>

  • http://www.boltlocksmith.com/locksmith-in-bowie-md

  • Very nice and short guide. Learning how to pick a lock will open your eyes to a very alarming fact. Security in terms of the lock is an illusion. That feeling of safety that we all get when we lock our homes at night very quickly dissipates as we realize that the lock we use to protect ourselves, and our possessions, means nothing to someone with a few minutes and set of picks. Ignorance may be bliss, but knowledge is power. Through learning how to pick a lock you will gain a truer perspective on both what security is and how you can better that security.

    If anyone is looking for a more extensive guide to this craft I found this post to be very good and fairly simple to understand. http://art-of-lockpicking.com/how-to-pick-a-lock-guide/

  • the locksmiths posted a good video demonstrating how to unpick a lock

    http://www.keys4ulocksmith.co.uk/how-to-unpick-a-lock/


  • Really good quick overview. I write a lot a bout lock picking at my blog http://pickeroflocks.com so I am super passionate about the subject. Great to see all the great engagement your post is getting and I love the show!!

    Cheers,

    James