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How to Pick a Lock - Guide

A warded lock

A warded lock

How locks work

When we talk about picking locks, tumbler pin locks (the most common type of deadbolt lock) immediately spring to mind. While it isn't crucial that you understand how they work in order to effectively use a lock pick, it can be very helpful to visualize and understand what's going on.

Additionally, having a knowledge of how locks work will make you look much smarter and honest about your pursuit of knowledge should you get caught picking the lock to your own door. You'll be much more convincing if you can explain that this is an educational project of yours or that you've learned how to do this because you're constantly locking yourself out of your room.

A modern lock employs a series of pins that vary in length. Each of these pins, if raised just enough (but not too far) will move out of the way and allow you to turn the key and unlock or lock the deadbolt. When you use a key, notice that you're not just turning the key. You're rotating the entire cylinder around the key. Your object when picking a lock is to lift all five pins to just the right height which will allow you to rotate that cylinder.

A set of lockpicking tools including two tension wrenches (on the left).

A set of lockpicking tools including two tension wrenches (on the left).

  • MIT Lockpicking Guide
    This is a long, excellent guide with a lot of diagrams about pin tumblers. It's got a very analytic approach and takes time making sure you understand how locks work.

Picking a lock

There are two essential tools when picking a lock. You've got one tool that turns the cylinder and a second tool that pushes the pins.

The cylinder-turner is called a torsion wrench or a torque wrench. It is L shaped like an allen wrench but at least one end will be flattened so that it can fit into the bottom of the keyhole easily. When you've put the torque wrench into the keyhole, the part sticking out acts as a lever. If you apply a very small amount of pressure to that lever while the pins are out of the way, it will turn the whole cylinder just like the key would. While picking the lock, you want to apply constant (tiny) pressure to the torque wrench. It might take you a few tries to get the feel for how much pressure to put on the lock but practice makes perfect.

The pin-pusher is called the pick. Picks come in a lot of shapes and sizes which each lend themselves to different lock designs, but you can pick a very large number of locks with the most basic tool. The important thing is that it has to be long enough to reach the back pin and thin enough to fit into the keyhole.

Lock picking takes advantage of the fact that physical reality is never as perfect as a diagram or concept. Diagrams will draw pins to show that they all line up perfectly, but the reality is that one pin will be a micrometer slimmer than the pin before it and a pikameter wider than the fourth pin, for example. Pins are rarely the same exact size. If you put just enough pressure on the torsion wrench, one pin will be blocking you (the widest pin) while the other four just wait a micron away.

With a pick, you can gently tap that one pin upward until it is exactly as high as it needs to go. Because you're applying pressure to the torque wrench, the pin will make a very soft click as it slides out of the way and the cylinder will rotate a tiny amount (often imperceivable). Now the next widest pin is blocking you and you can push it out of the way. You do this for each pin and you will find that all the pins are raised and the cylinder is turning at the gentle push of your torque wrench.

This is how it works in theory, and hook picks are great for pushing pins up individually. However, you can't always spend thirty minutes pushing up pins with minute finger movements. Some picks like diamond picks are designed for raking. Raking is when you drag the pick across all the pins back and forth and just sort of jostle them until they all get knocked up. It's the same as individually lifting them since only the next one ready to go will go up, except it can take far less time because it's more of a fluid motion.

how-to-pick-a-lock-guide
  • White Paper on Bumping
    This is a white paper, a document typically made to educate the public about shortcomings of a standard practice. It outlines many of the simple ways that our current security measures can be bypassed in a tone that is meant to inform and concern.
  • Follow-up article on Bumping
    This is a remarkable expose on exactly how easy, dangerous and prevalent key bumping is. It also expounds on exactly how vulnerable we are to it and includes a FAQ designed for the concerned home or business owner.

Bump Keys

Remember when I told you that tumbler locks have a line of pins in them? This is a simplifaction. They actually have a line of pin stacks. Each pin stack has a bottom pin and a top pin (a key pin and a driver pin, respectively). The key pins touch the key that is entered into the keyhole. The driver pins are being pushed down by weak springs.

Putting the correct key in the hole lifts each pin stack so that the divide between the driver and key pins is exactly where it needs to be for each pin and these are typically at the same level so that the top of all the key pins is the same and the bottom of each driver pin is the same.

Bump keys are basically filed down keys with minimal teeth. If a bump key fits in a lock, it touches the key pins but fails to lift them to the height where they all need to be. To use a bump key, you put the filed down key in almost all the way, insert a torque wrench and, while applying minimal pressure to the torque wrench, give the key a short, sharp thwack into the lock. The key moves forward and each tooth on the key will strike a key pin. The key pin will shoot upward and transfer its upward energy to the driver pin enough to push it against the spring. In that split second, the cylinder will turn because the key pins are really low but the driver pins are very high.

Masterlocks

Masterlocks are those small combination locks that tons of people use for their lockers. Here's some information and some videos that show how you can open them specifically.

Shim - You can make a shim out of a thin piece of metal or plastic (like if you cut a little piece of soda can metal. I'm not sure why they work, but you just wrap a thin sheet of metal around the inside of the lock and push it down firmly. I guess this is the same principle that allows you to credit card a non-dead bolt lock.

Refer to the YouTube videos for details on construction and use.

Cracking - There are ways to narrow down the possible number of combinations to your typical locker lock or materlock. This isn't perfect, but with a tiny bit of math you can crack a masterlock in 10 to 20 minutes. This is exceptionally useful if you find an old lock that you want to use since you can figure out the combination and not have to buy a new one.

  • How do combo locks work?
    This page gives a brief overview of how wheel packs work in single-dial combination locks to get the fence out of the way. It's a little more complicated than keyed locks.

Picking - I've never done it, but you can apparently pick a masterlock the same way you pick any tumbler pin lock since they've got a traditional keyhole.

  • How to use a slim jim
    You can buy study guides that detail how you can use a slim jim to avoid the typical pitfalls of inexperience which can render a door unopenable.

Car doors

Car doors used to be pretty simple. You could jimmy open a door lock with a slim jim or lockout tool and Triple A's people still drive around with them to let people back into their cars. But a lot of cardoors now include redundancies to prevent this easy access. A slim jim is really just a thin metal bar that reaches into the crack between your window and the car door and hooks the latch between the doorkey and the lock. It bypasses the whole pin system and goes straight to moving the deadbolt with lateral force.

Hoaxes

A lot of videos online show fraudulent keyless entry techniques. Never forget movie magic when looking for advice online. Also: people can just lie. Take the video that floated around the web showing how to open a car doorlock using only a tennis ball with a small puncture. This is totally impossible, but people will fall for anything if they think they've seen it with their own eyes.

  • Is it legal in my state?
    This is a page, with a map of the United States, that explains some of the specific statutory limitations to acquiring and possessing lock picks.
  • About UK lock pick law
    This site describes exactly what a bobby can do to you if he finds you "going equipped".

It really depends on where you are! Some countries have criminalized the mere possession of lock picking tools while other countries have no legislation at all. Many places rule that possession of lock picking tools must be paired with a proven intent to commit a crime before an arrest can be made or a robbery sentence passed.

The link to the right details the laws in each of the 50 states of the USA. It should be noted that carrying tools is criminalized in Washington DC law.

In the UK an officer with reasonable cause can find a citizen in offence of "going equipped". Some other EU countries have no laws governing these tools at all.

Many times, the law is busy catching up to current trends. For example, bump keys are still not criminalized in many of the places that have passed laws against carrying lock picking tools without locksmith licensing.

Where to go from here

  • The Joys of Picking Locks
    A Wall Street Journal article discussing lock picking and other forms of keyless entry as interesting hobbies rather than as criminal activities.
  • The Open Organization of Lockpickers
    TOOOL is a group of good lockpickers in the Netherlands who, like good hackers, try to share their knowledge of security weaknesses to help people adjust their behavior.
  • Lockpicking 101 Forum
    This is a big forum that's relatively up to date with lots of discussions about lockpicking. It's a good place for beginner advice or advanced, cutting edge conversations.

Comments

mike on May 14, 2013:

Thanks this helped my understanding very much. This site shows you how to do it with some paperclips. http://openalockeddoor.com/locked-out-of-house/

Likeidgiveyoumyname on March 30, 2012:

This article is good but it doesn't teach you HOW to really pick locks. I think it's a useful skill worth learning for sure, because if you're good enough you can break into vending machines.

Gary on January 30, 2012:

I've picked locks for years, and shown many a coworker how to do it(though all were too dense to grasp knowledge) this is a very simple yet rather informative article of the subject, giving me even a little new insight to the behind the scenes workings of why I can easily pick some locks and not others. Kudos, and if you can keep 'em coming.

p.s. the tennis ball farse: I think this method to THEORETICALLY work would involve freezing temps. and the ball to be wet to create that vacuum seal that is required to pull the pins inward for lockpicking success, none the less, this will fail with something like a 99.9% rate of failure,unless you or a friend happens to own a major POS.:) it is a nice thought but realistically un- pheasable.

Tom on December 15, 2011:

I'm here freezing my ass off trying to find ways to get into my house using the wi-fi from outside my house although this guide is good it requires too much preparation

Mozza80 on July 25, 2011:

Absolutely brill, love the page!! Although it is possible to open a car with a tennis ball, some but very few have an air powered central locking system and you are able to pressure it open

Preston on August 28, 2010:

Interesting article..

jazzy on July 30, 2010:

Mac don't you have anything better to do than talk to americans!you must have no life!!!!!!!!!!

That's just SAD!!!!!

jazzy on July 30, 2010:

how do you pick a lock.i went on like a billion websites but it just seems so hard.maybe im just PARANOID!

evian on June 27, 2010:

thanks for this guide, i don't want to be a locksmith, but being able to pick a lock is a good skill. oh and thanks for the good cover up-i got caught by the police yesterday when i tried to pick my house lock haha.

WeAreAnonymous on March 19, 2010:

Is it possible to pick locks without using certified 'lock picking tools'? Say a paper clip/girls hair accessory (called a kurby) and a homemade torque wrench?

Ryan OConnell (author) from California on January 18, 2009:

Depends on the lock, Sara. Most bathroom doors can be forced open or shimmied though.

HARRIS from Phoenix, Ariz on October 18, 2008:

Truly Said A must art to learn. But does it work from inside like when your stuck in a bathroom and without tools. If it does a noble recommendations for you! Great Hub

campbell on October 16, 2008:

well that was some useful lock pick info now i can put a stink bomb in someones locker lol jk

Trsmd from India on July 28, 2008:

very informative hubpage.. thanks..

BernieQuimpo from Philippines on June 27, 2008:

You're my kind of geek, mroconnell. Awesome hub. Now, to look for a lock to pick...

Steve Andrews from Lisbon, Portugal on June 12, 2008:

These skills could have come in handy in my past when I have had to break in. Nowadays I am just ultra careful not to lose my keys! lol Great hub!

Ryan OConnell (author) from California on May 10, 2008:

Amen to that. I've broken into my own belongings more times than I care to remember.

Woody Marx from Ontario, Canada on May 10, 2008:

Utterly fascinating! Everyone should know these things. You never know when you will have to 'break into your own house/car/etc.'

matt on April 30, 2008:

Good basic info for beginners. If andy newbs out there want to learn a bit more in depth, go to <a href=http://www.lockpickguide.com>lock pick guide.com</a>

beachbum_gabby on April 17, 2008:

hey cool~ maybe I can use this when my parents lock me up in my room because I'm grounded. ^___^ Vote you up, great hub.

surfchicky23 from New Zealand on April 17, 2008:

Yay now I can get out of jail!

Ryan OConnell (author) from California on April 16, 2008:

Thank you so much, Robie. There are some really cool graphic representations at the how stuff works page. I used to barely be able to pick my nose, and now I can handle a lot of locks. But I'm glad you can enjoy my scatterbrain even if our hobbies are different. I'm sure we line up somewhere along the what makes me laugh out loud line.

Roberta Kyle from Central New Jersey on April 16, 2008:

Ahhhhh Mroconnell--you are a man of many talents LOL. I have to admit that I am so mechanically challenged that I can't visualize the workings of a lock, but I see that you have organized the information beautifully, written it up well, and provided all the info a would-be lockpicker needs to embark on a new career. This is great. I love the way your mind works!

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