Introduction: How to Pick a Common Cylinder Lock

About: 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 of my own tools. Those won't be published here, though! My first instructable is a …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

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!