Introduction: How to Pick a Common Cylinder Lock

Picture of How to Pick a Common Cylinder Lock

All in the name of fun, you understand!

Never, ever pick a lock you rely on, and never ever pick a lock that you don't have the right to. And never try to pick them, either! This is because burglary is a crime, and also morally wrong.

Step 1: Find a Lock

Picture of Find a Lock

Get yourself a secondhand lock, or a cheap padlock.

You want a Yale style keyway. Avoid anything off a car or other vehicle, since they are generally wafer locks. If you are in the UK, avoid getting a lever lock, you want either a rim cylinder, or a euro cylinder.

To start off, get the cheapest and loosest, most rubbish lock you can. This will make your first attempts far more likely to work.

Suitable ones are shown below (but some of these are very hard to pick!)

The first is a System Vario A from EVVA. You don't want to start on this, but it shows the shape of a euro style lock cylinder. I'll be showing you one of these today.

The second is an ERA rim cylinder, a good starter lock, in it's cheapest form.

The third is my training lock board, which is simply 3 32mm holes with the three locks fitted, then put in a clamp. You don't need an Instructable for that.
The top one is a Yale X5, the second is a standard Yale, and the third is some 6 pin restricted section.

The fourth picture is so you know what a euro cylinder looks like, side on.

Step 2: Unsuitable Locks

Picture of Unsuitable Locks

Not suitable are the following:

The first is an ERA Fortress. This is a lever lock. (Americans only use these on high end safes. Many British doors have these fitted.)

The second is a Master combo padlock. It doesn't have a keyhole. But I'm sure you worked that out.

Step 3: Tools: Tension

Picture of Tools: Tension

You will need two things to pick a lock, a tension tool, and a pick. Both are vital.

A tension tool is easy to make. Just bend a bit of wire that fits in the keyhole. Nothing too big, as you need to reach the pins, and you need a pick to get in there at the same time. Make it long enough that you can hold it, too. You might be holding it for hours trying to open your lock, so no sharp edges.

There are various designs, but this is probably the most common style.

Step 4: Tools: Pick

Picture of Tools: Pick

You also need the actual pick, hopefully a good enough one that you end up with something a little like the below.

The top one is a jiggler, the next is a hook, then a King pick, then a snake, then a rough rake.

These were made from thin mild steel. Hacksaw blades are good for stock, other people use wiper blades, I used feeler gauges for these. Or just go with a couple of paperclips.

Step 5: Or for the Really Lazy...

There's an Instructable on making them already, from paperclips. And this one:

Step 6: Techie Bit About How a Lock Works

Picture of Techie Bit About How a Lock Works

Before you get too worried, this step is optional.

To pick a cylinder lock, you have to lift all the pins to the shearline at the same time. The key is designed to do this for you all at once, and to turn the plug (the bit you put the key in) at the same time. We don't have a key (well, we probably do, but we are learning lockpicking here, right? So pretend already!) so we have to move the bits against the springs one by one.

I'm too lazy to do a proper picture, so I'm going to do ASCII art.
Actually, that's too much like hard work, so here's a screen capture or four from a CAD file I did a few years ago...


A. hull
B. plug
C. keyway
C'. bottom of keyway
C. top of keyway
D. bottom pin
F. driver pin
F'. driver pin located within pin (on pin-in-pin systems)
FK. false key
H. spring
J. spring retention screw
L. key
P. pick
S. set pin (set to the shearline)

Note that the tension tool is not shown for clarity, and the first picture is the lock from the front. Go through them in order, and it should be fairly clear.

Step 7: Getting Started

Picture of Getting Started

Put your tension wrench in the lock. Some people put it at the top of the keyway, where the pins sit, but mostly they go at the bottom edge.

Apply a little tension. If the plug spins around, you opened the lock! It probably won't, though, not yet.

Make sure the wrench won't slip easily. You don't need much pressure on most locks. With padlocks you have to get past the shackle spring, and that makes them far more difficult, even if they aren't filled full of mushroom pins.

Step 8: Actual Picking

Picture of Actual Picking

There are two main ways to pick a lock. Both require tension from the tension tool, and a pick to move one or more pins to the shearline. The shearline is the place where the pins (normally two) sit to stop the plug in the middle of the lock from turning, and these pins have a tiny gap in them where they meet. Your goal is to line them all up. Fortunately for us, on a cheap lock this is easy, because the pin reaching the shearline correctly will cause noticable movement in the plug when the pin is lined up.

SPP, or Single Pin Picking, is a bit advanced in practise, but the theory is very simple.

Take a hook, apply a little tension, then gently push each pin with the hook. Find the pin that is binding the most, and push it down. When it reaches the shearline, let it go. If it was the right one, the pin will slide back, and catch at the shearline. Now go through again, and find the next binding pin. After you push all the binding pins down to the shearline, the lock will open. In practise, this is quite tricky, because you have to control your tension enough to stop the top pins coming all the way back, or not too much that they stick up too high. The only way to find this technique is to practise!

Raking is roughly the same, except you simply jiggle all the pins really quickly, and hope your tension control is good enough for the pins to fall and stick at the shearline. Once mastered, most cheap locks can be opened in a few minutes or less.

Step 9: Open!

Picture of Open!

By Grabthar's Hammer! You did it! The plug turned!

Now do it again. Think about what you did, and do it again.

Tips: If it isn't doing anything, and the pins won't move, you are using far too much tension. Ease off a bit. If nothing stays in place (and you can hear them coming back when you drop the tension right off) then you aren't using enough tension.

Now change locks.

You will find that some locks are easy, and others are so far beyond your skill level they might as well be welded. However, with practise (lots of practise) you will find that some of these locks that were impossible become easier, and the ones that used to take you 20 minutes wil take 2 minutes. Eventually, some locks will open in a few seconds.

When that lock is your front door, call a locksmith and get it upgraded!

To learn (much) more about locks and lockpicking, visit and say hi!


stasterisk (author)2007-08-07

Steak knives are good cheap lockpick blanks

_soapy_ (author)stasterisk2007-08-16

Not very cheap, and generally too thick. Far better is either a set of shims or feeler gauges, which come in a range of thicknesses. The other option is either the wires off of street sweepers, or, my favourite, the stainless steel strips out of old windscreen wipers. I'll perhaps do a 'Make a pick' Instructable later on.

bradwerd (author)_soapy_2007-09-20

hacksaw blades make good blanks.

_soapy_ (author)bradwerd2007-09-22

They are ok, but I find that they are too brittle, even if you don't let them overheat when grinding them down. Best to go for big arcing curves with them, otherwise you might well end up trying to fish the end out one of your locks! I recommend going for the £1 shop packs of blades, as the good ones will be "bi-metallic" which means the teeth will be hard, but the rest will be really soft and not much use to you, as it will just deform. You want the cheap ones that shatter, as they will be rigid enough for a good pick. Snap the foot long blade into either two or three bits and grind the teeth off, for your blanks.

Caleb Nehrbass (author)_soapy_2011-11-23

I made four with a hack saw blade. They work really well. When you are grinding them, you need to keep dipping them in a cup of water to fix overheating.

Vendigroth (author)_soapy_2007-11-13

I bought loads of hacksaw blades, and only use them for this. They're crap at sawing, all hte teeth shear off within the first few strokes.

_soapy_ (author)Vendigroth2007-12-08

Then they are pretty much perfect, then. :-)

Vendigroth (author)_soapy_2007-12-08

Yup! After a bit of instructable-following, i had a fairly good set of picks! (_)

sean_cats (author)Vendigroth2008-08-23

SO... you like half life??

Xenel (author)sean_cats2010-04-19

Really off topic but i love that game!

Redgerr (author)Xenel2010-07-08

yep it is, gman for the win?

nutsandbolts_64 (author)2011-01-29

I picked a really small lock before, I guess it was 3 or a 4-pin lock, I just lifted the front-most pin and tada! I went "WTF! WEAK LOCK WHO MADE THIS THING?!?!" In case you're wondering what lock, it was the lock to a CAI (computer-aided instruction) unit that we needed to close, but then the key got lost so my friend left me to my lock-picking doom, but it didn't turn out to be my doom in the first place. By the way, would a tempered piece of wire (say, from a paper clip?) work? It's the closest I have to a shaped hacksaw blade. I seriously need it since the 2nd floor door to my bedroom is somehow always closed (yes, a cylinder lock). Now I know...

BottomlessPizzaPit (author)2010-11-10

Your disclaimer sounds remarkably similar to a certain form...I smell L P 1 0 1.

VagsmaCutter (author)2010-10-06

This worked awesome! I was able to pick the very first two seargent and greenleaf padlocks that I tried, it was just like in the movies! But, when I tried to pick the one on the third shed the tension wrench thingy that I made broke and went inside the lock and when my dad got home he was mad as heck and started pacing back and forth (I think he keeps guns in there :-0). So to anybody thinking about trying this, unless you want to be grounded for two weeks with no computer and almost give your dad a heart attack DON'T use the windshield wiper blades to make the tension wrench thingy like I did. (I think they're allot cheaper in the US cuz when you bend em they don't flex they just stay bent). Anyway, this instructable taught me stuff I won't ever forget and I'm sure I'll use again someday. Even though it was my fault I give it 4 stars.

noahh (author)2009-11-02

I have what is probably a dumb question. when you say "Never, ever pick a lock you rely on" do you say this because it could break and ruin the lock, or does it just mean not to rely upon these as a substitute for keys? Thanks, Noahh.

girderland (author)noahh2009-11-30

You can't ruin a lock by picking it. You can only mess a lock up if you manage to break the pick or if something gets stuck in the lock whilst picking.
With "never pick a lock you rely on" is meant that you can't feel secure anymore if you manage to open your car or front door with a simple pick (and in less than 5 seconds, perhaps).

noahh (author)girderland2009-11-30

Ah, I see. Thanks for making that clear!

yankeee7 (author)2009-10-13

can you post templates somewhere or tell me where you got templates so that I can know the dimensions of the lockpicks?  I am trying to make my first lockpick set, any other advice?

girderland (author)2009-08-25

Great Job on the Instructable! You taught me lockpicking with it! After some additional research about "binding pins" and the purchase of a lockpicking set, I already managed to pick a heavy german Abus lock several times! However, I found 5 Abus locks in our garage, they're the same, they all have just one same key. Anyway, I managed to open one in 20 minutes, then 30, and finally 2. But I can only open that one of them. With the other ones, there is the problem that just 3 of 5 pins are binding and can be fixated. I always get stuck with 2 pins, raise the tension, but still no binding. what to do in this case?

minhocaloka (author)2009-05-28

WOW, totally useful!=D
tnx man!=D

splat32 (author)2009-03-09

you made these? they look like the pair i have from southord. cept my kit didnt come with a king or jiggler but it has like 12 other picks lol anyways. GREAT JOB MAKING THESE THINGS MAN

_soapy_ (author)splat322009-03-19

Thanks! These were actually made with a bench grinder and a bit of care, and a file. I started with feeler gauges, split them down into the thicknesses I wanted, and worked from there. Rough it out with a metal marking pen on the side, and grind the big areas away, plunge cooling into water every ten seconds or so, to keep things cool. Once the blanks are roughed out, either carry on, and dip more frequently, or swap to a hand file with the blank in a vice. Polish them up with a bit of wet and dry 600 grit, and work higher if you want to get a mirror finish. Don't try and force a stuck pin, drop your tension, or they may well snap. Most bought picks will bend first, but these tend to snap, like most homebrew picks.

splat32 (author)_soapy_2009-03-19

yeah, have em make a broken key extractor cause im guessing this instrucable is meant for "getting into your house when your locked out" but they key extractors help some

maple grover (author)2009-03-05

acctually, its alot easier to just use a modded hair pin thingie and some sort of tension wrench to open mild padlocks, i can open a yale in less than 2 seconds with them

_soapy_ (author)maple grover2009-03-19

Not to knock that, but certain locks with certain pinnings are trivial to open, while others of the exact same make and model are near impossible.

milamber (author)2009-02-18

templates to size top page works best (not mine)

jdeere12 (author)2008-12-30

what are those tension wrenches made out of?

_soapy_ (author)jdeere122009-01-05

Wiper blade insert. If you want some, go to a garage or find a car owner, and ask about the old wipers. Then you can strip the steel insert out with a knife and some pliers, depending on the type. The best type are the ones with the two thinner strips that don't need a knife. The bigger ones have a thick bit of steel that rusts and isn't much use. (author)2009-01-04

dont try with paperclips, the metals too flimsy

Thelonelysandwitch (author)2008-12-03

just use a 3/4 stick or a pineapple and a bag of water all taped to the lock.

romstar36 (author)2008-09-20

you can buy them for under $20 bucks online.

pickford78 (author)romstar362008-11-08

or make them instantly for nearly free. no shipping time or paypal/ credit card needed.

TippyStClair (author)2008-08-26

This is a great exercise for the brain! Thanx, and I like Galaxy Quest, too! :}

turner22 (author)2008-07-29

quick question...if i were to snatch some wiper inserts from a friends car, would it render the blades useless? btw, awesome instructable.

artists-garden (author)2008-07-29

For all those folks out there with all the questions, there is a lot to learn about picking locks and locksmithing in general. Like anything else it can get pretty involved, yet just about anything can be compromised with enough effort. I'm a "Certified Locksmith" myself, and in the short term, became frustrated with learning on my own. I proceeded with formal learning through the Foley-Belsaw Institute, and found that learning on my own was much easier after knowing the insides and outs. There are even books with the exact measurements for drilling through vaults to open them using the same instrument a doctor uses to look into your ear (and yes, for bank work, you will need specialty drill bits for the hardened steel). So for the serious folks, I'm sure Foley-Belsaw isn't the only place to start, and to get any where close to getting as good as _soapy_, you'll need some formal training thrown in there somewhere! Just remember, once you're known as a locksmith, you could also be known as a "potential suspect..." formal training or not!

Charles IV (author)2008-06-11

I have picked every lock I can find in my house including those really annoying really small locks and I think this is a great instructable. Although I think you only need a finger pick which you call a hook.

chalky (author)Charles IV2008-07-15

yes i aggree with you i have made just about every shape pick you could possibly think of but now all my pick set consists of is two slightly different shaped hooks and two tention wrenches made from wiper inserts and i have yet to find a lock i can not open!

_soapy_ (author)chalky2008-07-19

Ah, well, if you want some more, harder locks, I've got hundreds of them. Everything from a second to rake up to "unpickable by mortal hands". Try getting a few dimple locks. You can get the no-name ones for cheap, and go all the way up to the Multi-lock interactives (which aren't that hard once you know how) and then things like the Kaba Gemini, with (iirc) 10 active pins and 4 passive pins to beat before you get it open!

wrestler 103 (author)2008-07-12

Great part about finding the one pin binding. i was having a hard time with single picking, but it works and makes alot more sense now! 5 stars!

vchb2 (author)2008-07-11

Fascinating! Can't wait to try it. Thanks.

lynxboy (author)2007-09-08

Cool instructable :P I too am a lockpicker. My alias is Lynxboy. Whats yours?

howboutitbru (author)lynxboy2007-12-08

mine is beast

_soapy_ (author)howboutitbru2008-05-17

How does it get past the wardings? Even the smallest ferret would have trouble with more than 4 pins, too... In short, what kind of beast?

harryman (author)lynxboy2008-01-05

best way to go, is to use your old hack saw blades... or just buy the cheap ones. they are much better than SS or aluminum picks because they are more flexible and durable. just grind them into the desired shapes.

big john1 (author)harryman2008-02-10

wind shield blades are a hell of a lot better

_soapy_ (author)big john12008-05-17

Some of the best picks are made from wiper blade. Does anyone know the grade of steel used in them?

_soapy_ (author)harryman2008-03-28

See my comment lower down. Hacksaw blades seem great, until you snap one in a lock. They are too hard and brittle.

Aburame Shino (author)2008-05-15
Mm. I have a few questions.

  • What do you mean by "binding" pin?
  • When you says it falls back down, do you mean like smoothly, or what?

Just needed some clearing up there.
_soapy_ (author)Aburame Shino2008-05-16

The pin that sticks is the binding pin. As for how it falls back down, that's really something you have to feel for yourself. As you release the tension, the spring will keep pushing the pin downwards. At a certain point, the friction causing it to bind will drop lower than the force of the spring, and down (or up, depending on the lock) it will move. How it moves is what you are trying to determine to open the lock.

Aburame Shino (author)_soapy_2008-05-16

So the pin needs that little extra bit more of force is the binding pin? And I think I get what you mean. I'll find me an old lock of some sort to practice on.

About This Instructable




Bio: I love hacking things about and improving the design (or just bending it to my will!) I'm a locksmith, and I make a lot ... More »
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