How to pick a lock

How a Key Works

For the purpose of this guide, we will be looking at the most simple and commonly utilized lock today: the pin tumbler lock. This type of lock has been in use for over 6,000 years (yes, really!) and dates back to early Egypt. This type of mechanism can be found in over 90 percent of the locks used around the world, making it the most practical suitor for our bypass shenanigans. So, let’s take a look at how they work.

The basic pin tumbler lock has 6 essential components:

  • Housing: The housing contains the entirety of the lock’s functional components and is typically fixed into a door or padlock.
  • Plug: The plug is a cylinder where we can insert a key and, unlike the housing, can rotate once the correct key has been inserted.
  • Shear Line: The shear line (green) is the most important component when it comes to picking a lock. It can be defined as the physical gap between the housing and the plug.
  • Springs: The springs have the simple task of pushing the pins down into the plug.
  • Driver Pins: The driver pins (blue) are the reason that a lock can, and stays, locked. When the correct key is not in the plug, the driver pins typically sit halfway between the housing and the plug. This creates a bind that restricts the plug from fully rotating and in turn keeps the device locked.
  • Key Pins: When a key has been inserted into the plug, the key pins (red) make contact with the top of the key. Each key pin is cut to a different length that correlates directly with the pattern of the correct key. When this correct key is inserted, each key pin is pushed up flush with the shear line.
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Additionally, the driver pins are pushed out of the plug and also remain flush with the shear line. It is at this moment, when the gap between the key pins and the driver pins is exactly equal to that of the shear line, that we can turn the key and disengage the lock.

As we can see, the goal of lock picking is to manipulate the pins so they no longer restrict the plug from rotating, just as a key does. Now, let’s get down to some good old fashioned locksmithing.

Basic Lock Picking Tools

lock picking kit

You’ll need two tools: a lock pick and a torque wrench. The purpose of the lock pick is to push the pins to the shear line. There are of course a ton of different styles of picks that can be used and each of them utilize their own technique.

However, because this is a beginner’s guide, we will be looking at the quickest and easiest method of lock picking, aka raking. This method of picking requires a “rake” style lock pick. Out of all the different styles of rake picks, the most popular is the snake rake. These picks have an elongated, jagged end that can manipulate multiple pins at once, just as a key does.

In addition to the pick, there is also the very important little tool called the torque wrench. This “L” shaped wrench accomplishes two very important tasks. Firstly, it gives us the leverage we need to rotate the plug, just as the key does. Secondly, and more importantly, it provides the torque necessary to set and hold the pins at the shear line as we pick them. Without this torque, the pins would simply fall back into the plug and the lock would forever remain locked.

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Lock picking sets like this fully loaded one (which even includes a clear padlock for practice) can be easily purchased on Amazon. However, be certain to check your local laws because some may prohibit the possession of lock picks. If you live in the United States, check out this quick and dirty guide to lock picking laws. For the Macgyvers out there, basic pin tumber locks can be sucessfully picked using bobby pins as lock picks.

Picking Your First Lock in Six Steps

So now that we have a fundamental understanding of the pin tumbler lock and the tools required to pick them, let us finally learn what we came here to learn. These six simple steps will guide you in how to pick a lock.

  • Step 1: Insert the short end of your tension wrench into the bottom of the lock’s keyway. Using a finger, or two, apply extremely light pressure on the wrench in the direction that you would naturally turn the key (typically clockwise). Continue to hold this pressure on the wrench throughout the remainder of these steps. *Note that understanding exactly how much pressure to apply is what separates the novice from the master. Tension is single most important technique that can only be developed through practice.
  • Step 2: Still continuing to apply slight pressure on the wrench, take your rake pick and insert it into the keyway and push it all the way to the back of the lock.
  • Step 3: Next apply an upward pressure to the pins with the end of your rake and gently snap the pick out in a scrubbing motion. Be certain to bump all the pins on your way out.
  • Step 4: If a reasonable amount of tension has been applied, several pin will have set at the shear line and the lock’s plug will have slightly rotated. But take note that this rotation to the novice will likely be unnoticeable.
  • Step 5: Once again, insert your pick into the back of the lock and repeat the motion of scrubbing the pins. Repeat this process until all the pins have set. However, if after five or six scrubbings the lock doesn’t open, release the tension on the wrench and take care to listen for pins to drop. If you don’t hear any drop, it is a good indicator that you were applying too much pressure on the torque wrench. Start over by applying a different amount of pressure on the wrench and re-raking the pins.
  • Step 6: Once you have found an appropriate tension and set all the pins, the plug will give and allow you to fully rotate it with the torque wrench, just as if the correct key was used.
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Congratulations, you have successfully raked your first lock. Now, don’t go practicing these tips on houses in the neighborhood–that’s called breaking and entering. And that’s a misdemeanor.

Article updated March 8, 2016 with new pricing and products. 

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