How to Pick a Lock (Basics)





Introduction: How to Pick a Lock (Basics)

I show how pin-tumbler locks work and how they can be opened using lock picks. This is a fairly basic view about lock picking but I wanted to make it comprehensive to give people a good idea of the concepts. As well as a foundation for beginners in lock picking to get a better view of how a lock works and how it can be exploited. The pin-tumbler is a very common lock mechanism that uses pins of varying lengths to prevent the lock from opening without the correct key. Most locks around the home or office are simple pin-and-tumbler locks and can be relatively easy to open using a pick and a tension wrench.

While the process is simple and can be mastered with practice, picking such a lock requires a great deal of patience. It can be a hobby as well as a practical skill. Locksmiths define lock-picking as the manipulation of a lock's components to open a lock without a key. To understand lock picking you first have to know how locks and keys work. Most locks are based on fairly similar concepts but they do come in all shapes and sizes, with many design variations. As this is just to cover the basics I don’t go over security pins or more advanced techniques. This is for educational purposes only.

Lock picking is the art of unlocking a lock by analyzing and manipulating the components of the lock device without the original key. In addition, ideal lock picking should not damage the lock itself, allowing it to be re-keyed for later use, which is especially important with antique locks that would be impossible to replace if destructive entry methods were used. Although lock picking can be associated with criminal intent, it is an essential skill for a locksmith, and is often pursued by law abiding citizens as a useful skill to learn or simply a hobby. The move towards combination locks for high security items such as safes was intended to remove the weakest part of the lock: its keyhole.

Step 1: How a Lock Works:

A pin-tumbler is a cylinder based lock design that uses movable pins to prevent rotation of the plug. A key is used to properly elevate pins to allow the plug to rotate and the locking bolt to be retracted. Pin tumblers are a series of pin stacks pushed down by a spring. Each stack must be properly raised to allow pins to separate at the shear-line. Once all pin stacks are separated the plug can freely rotate and actuate the locking bolt to lock or unlock the lock. An incorrect key will not align all components correctly; rotation of the plug will be blocked at the shear-line.

- Key pins (bottom pins): The pins that are touched by the
key. Key pins are sized differently corresponding to the different depth cuts on the key. When the correct key is inserted, all key pins are aligned at the shear line, allowing the plug to rotate.

- Driver pins (top pins): The pins placed between the key pins and the springs. In their resting position, the driver pins block rotation of the plug. In more advanced pin-tumblers, driver pins may be sized inverse to the key pins to defend against decoding and attacks via comb picks.

- Springs: Springs placed above the pin stacks push pins down to their resting position, ensuring that pins cannot be trapped above the shear line while the plug is in the default position.

- Plug: The plug is the inner piece of the lock that rotates upon insertion and tension of the correct key. The plug is connected to the cam to actuate the bolt mechanism when rotated.

- Cylinder: The cylinder is the outer piece of the lock that houses the upper pin chambers and the plug. Driver pins and springs are trapped in the cylinder's pin chambers when the correct key is used and plug rotated.

- Cam: The cam is an extension connected to the back of the plug which actuates the bolt mechanism to lock or unlock the lock.

The diagrams and information on pin-tumbler locks:

Step 2: Tools

- Lock picks (Can be homemade or bought)

- Practice locks (That you own or have permission to open)

- Tension wrench (Can be homemade or bought)

I got the transparent lock from here:

How to make a Lock Pick:

Step 3: Watch the Video

(The video may not show up for mobile viewers)

Lock Picking a Master Lock No.3 and No.21:



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    93 Discussions

    We should just break down the door :D :P

    I can do it with one paper clip

    What about bumbing? Is not it easier?

    As an aside, we use GSA combination locks for file cabinets. We had a 5 drawer cabinet with a lock on each drawer. When the locks started feeling "stiff," had a "locksmith" come out to service them. They worked great at first, but within 6 months, they became so stiff, you couldn't open the drawers. It cost $500 per lock to get someone to break in without damaging contents. He simply drilled into each lock and released it. However, one lock was so gummed up, it wouldn't release and he had to cut the bolt.

    We now have electronic combination locks. They are about $1000. I don't know what you do if they fail. At least they won't gum up.

    How do you find a locksmith who knows what he is doing......

    I have found it extremely difficult to find a locksmith who could/would pick old ('60s) car locks. I own cars from 30s, 50s, and 60s. Often, you cannot find new locks and a used lock may be missing the key. Being able to pick an old lock can save a lot of money. I took a 1966 Mustang trunk lock to a locksmith. Even though the key code was readable, he wanted $50 to look at it and wouldn't guarantee he could make a new key. A friend, now dead, who was a locksmith, picked a lock for me in a few seconds. Where do you find these guys, today? You could spend hours visiting locksmiths trying to find someone who could pick these old locks. I believe my time is better spent learning how to pick them. And, for me, you're right. It's not something you can pickup in an instant. I started with just 2 pins in a S____ge.

    2 replies

    Unfortunately you are correct, most of the people I have met in my time that wanted to become a locksmith did not want to learn how to pick open locks because unless you want to preserve the lock there is no reason to do so. Drilling the sheer line takes about 20 seconds and works every time, they think "Why learn a skill that prevents me from selling a new lock? If I drill it, the customer gets in and the lock gets replaced, generally by a more expensive one that has anti-drill features." A locksmith today is not appreciated for bypassing the locks without damage. Also hardware stores have stolen the lock and safe business by selling really cheap versions that make people believe they are getting a deal. So, the locksmiths have to match the price of the hardware store, or only sell quality locks, when we sell quality locks, 80% of the populace believes the locksmith is cheating them when it is the hardware store that is reducing the quality of what people are willing to spend on locks. They think the $20 at the hardware store is the same lock they would pay $40 for at a locksmith, but in most cases that is not the case, a locksmith becomes legally responsible for selling a product that is inferior, so does the hardware store, but most people would never sue a hardware store but they would sue a locksmith that makes their home or business vulnerable.

    Locksmiths used to be the only place to go to get a key cut or a door lock rekeyed, or to have a safe installed and maintained, but today that doesn't happen. Electronic safe locks are the normal type now, even though the mechanical type are long lived, an S&G #3 type safe lock cost about $170 and lasts for thirty or forty years with proper maintenance, but now you can get an electric one for about the same price, but it only comes with a 90 day warranty and will likely stop working within five years. They are just as secure as a mechanical lock but the parts are designed to fail, again, you can't make money unless you are selling new products.

    So, keep buying your locks at a hardware store, where the hardware is manufactured in China, and designed to keep no-one out who wants in. Then when you simply have to pay the locksmith for his skills, he will have to charge you more for those skills that are not available through the hardware stores just so he can make a living. The old adage is still true, you get what you pay for.

    Don't pay a professional what they want to make you a key when you don't have one, if you have the code, generally it is cheaper to make a key off the code, but if the lock was ever re-keyed, which was very common on older autos, making a key by code is only guaranteed to produce the key for the code, making a key for the lock without a key and without damaging the lock is a different process than picking the lock. Picking the lock has no relationship to making a key, so just asking someone to pick a lock is often the wrong approach.

    The basic problem you describe is prevalent in many trades, carpentry is a good example. Because of automation and the pace of technology, it just doesn't pay to fix "stuff." I used to save old TVs because I could fix cheaper than buying new. Since flat panels came out, I've thrown away a number of perfectly good CRT televisions. I bought my first color TV, a 10" GE portable in 1968 for $180 when I was making $5000 a year. Even though the dollar is worth much less, today, look what you get for $180.

    Getting back to locks, I've found, I can re key the old car locks once I can turn the cylinder. I have re-keying kits for old autos and S--g. When my friend picked the lock for me, I was able to re-key it. So far, I haven't had to cut any keys. I've collected old keys and with an assortment of pins, I just key the lock to match the key I have.

    The one problem I ran into was the Mustang lock. I bought one on eBay cheap without a key. To see how it was put together, I drilled out the small pin holding the lock in the assembly. I discovered it was a straight pin held in place with a rubber o-ring. Normally, with the cylinder rotated, you could push the pin in far enough the release the cylinder. However, the pin was also removable if you could find a way to pull it. I used a very small drill to put a "notch" in the pin and used a sharp pick to lift it out.

    But the real problem was putting new pins in the cylinder. The pins in my Ford re-keying kit were too large to fit. I've come to believe Ford locks earlier than about 1965, used a smaller pin. Certainly, the Mustang did. I haven't been able to find any information about these pins and where to buy them, so I bought a couple of old locks, cheap, on eBay just for the pins. In addition, the kit I have includes top and bottom pins. The older locks I have seem to have the same size top pin.

    I have found Chinese repos for the Mustang, but for now, I'll stick with the used originals. Just wish I could find assorted pins instead of taking locks apart.


    1 year ago

    Thank you. I liked seeing how basic locks work. Whoever wants to write lines and lines more about it. Perhaps make another instruction set all on your own. Seems you some time here so thank you!

    Super, extra!!!

    In our next Issue following instructions: How get rid of housbang or wife!!


    1 year ago

    In order to carry on this activity, legally or otherwise, you hear one expression used over and over: "Check your local laws." A one-word question: How? (It's not as easy as it sounds). Try it.

    Another question for those who like moral debates: If you leave your house unlocked (or inadequately locked as this instructable suggests) and your house is robbed, who is responsible? Pretend you're an insurance agent and answer the question. The amount you get from your insurance company determines your level of responsibility. In most cases, the criminal is not even in the discussion.

    If you are serious about learning to pick locks, I suggest looking on youtube. There are number of 'training' videos on learning to pick locks, as well as selection/ crafting of tools. One channel devoted to lock picking I watch often is 'bosnianbill'. He has a series of videos designed to teach lock picking skills as well as links to manufacturers who make lock to aid in learning this skill.

    Bosnianbill also posts videos of him picking various locks sent to him from around the world from like minded people. He is very good at picking locks and knows his stuff.

    1 reply

    P.S.: Using a teaching aid like the clear plastic 'lock' in this article is NOT a very good way to learn the skill. Lock picking is all about learning to 'read' the lock from the way your fingers and hand 'feels' the feed-back from the lock you are picking. You will not learn much from a lock that allows you to see how the pins are sitting. Developing the ability to 'read' the feedback is the best way to learn.

    I kinda like the explosive method. With enough dynamite you can open any lock!

    As a locksmith of over forty years I can tell you that reading this information alone will not allow you to suddenly be able to pick a lock, just like the so called INSTRUCTABLE on opening disc tumbler padlocks, this information is strictly about locks that are cheap. Any lock worth having uses either different methods than put forward here or use pins that are specially designed which produce many false sheer lines, the more of this type of pins in the lock, the harder it is to pick. If you are concerned about this information being out there, call your local Locksmith and ask about pick-proof and un-pickable locks. WARNING locks that are pick-proof and un-pickable are expensive. You can buy a cheap lock at your local hardware store for under $80 for a lock that can be installed in Residential or Commercial doors (They are adjustable) and they can be picked as this article suggests, by a skilled person, they can also easily be opened by; kicking the door in, using a large hammer to knock the handle off and use a screwdriver to force the latch, or, even easier, use a portable drill and drill out the sheer line on the cylinder then use a screw driver to turn the cylinder, or use a gun and shoot the lock to pieces.

    If you want to secure something, say a computer that cost $1200 or more, or a Flat Screen TV that cost $3000, jewelry that cost tens of thousands of dollars, then don't put a cheap lock on your house door that can be opened easily with a large hammer in a few seconds, or with years of practice, picked open by a professional.

    M_____o produces a lock that is so nearly un-pickable that it has only been known to have occurred once. Ever! Their lock uses specialized pins that are slotted and have angled tip pins that have to be rotated to the exact angle which allows a sidebar to then push into the pins, and clear the sheer line for rotation, the lock handle and assembly are made from high strength steel and all vulnerable drill points are protected by hardened steel roll pins and ball bearings which break drill bits when attempting brute force methods of bypassing, of course, they cost a lot more than your average lock. Other lock companies also use side bars with other pins or wafers. These locks have a tolerance equivalence of 1/1000000 of an inch, where the locks that this article talks about have a tolerance of 2/1000 to 4/1000 of an inch. This is the difference that makes a lock easy or hard to open, the smaller the tolerance, the harder it is to keep each pin at the exact sheer point to allow turning. Also, locks wear with age, so if your lock are real old, the wrong key can be used to pick the lock open, simply by wiggling, this is most common on vehicles made in the last century as many of them use thin wafers instead of round pins.

    Kw___t locks used to use pins that were beveled for 15/1000 of an inch where the pins meet, this was to allow the keys to easily be inserted and used many hundreds of times without having to service the lock, but the down side was that it increased the picking tolerance to about 22/1000 of an inch, so they were one of the most pickable locks available, they have stopped making their locks that way, reducing the tolerance and increasing the security. The down side is that it is important to keep the locks clean and lubed as a small amount of dirt and grease can prevent easy opening.

    Sc____e was for a long time the leader in Commercial Grade locks in America, their tolerance was generally 1.5/1000 of an inch. making them hard to pick without a lot of practice, then they added an extra pin, making it an additional 20% harder to pick. But then in the late 90's they decided to compete with the cheaper made locks that flooded the market, so they produced their F lock, instead of trimming the pins, they shaved the top of the cylinder down providing about 15/1000 of an inch clearance, if the pins are that close to the sheer line, the cylinder turns, so if you bought a lock because of the great name they had built up, you were in effect buying a lock that was easier than the cheaper ones to pick open. When it comes to locks, you get what you pay for.

    So, if you want to secure yourself against people who will actually read this article, will spend the many hours required to learn how to pick most locks, regardless of the tolerances up to about 1/1000 of an inch, and then instead of using those skills to make a lot of money as a locksmith they decide thievery is the way to go, well you can rest assured they will not be able to pick your locks if you buy brands like Medico, Assa, Abloy, Best, Tubular, Duo-Key (Two Bladed Key), Mul-T-Lok (pin within pin technology) and of course the newest kids on the block, Electronic keys, near field communications locks, and Active Radio Card locks and so on. Swipe card locks are the Cheap versions and should be avoided unless securing the door against intrusion some other way. The electronic locks have a lot of vulnerabilities that mechanical locks do not, but we will have electronic locks that are as secure as the most complex mechanical locks, but they are very expensive, and unless you need to keep everyone out, and keep track of who enters the room and when, then mechanical locks are the more effective solution.

    Don't get upset with the person who wrote this article, and others like him, they are simply people with a little bit of knowledge, enough to be dangerous for sure, against the average person, but at heart they get a thrill by telling what is generally considered secret, these are not the kind of I would want as a friend or even acquaintance. The solution, don't be average, know that this person is simply exposing the vulnerabilities of what is common and cheap and in truth provides only the first step to those who would be thieves and crooks.

    From personal experience I can tell you that picking locks is only practical for one thing, bypassing a lock without damaging it or the door. There are many more methods of bypassing locks that are much easier, faster, more practical and less work if you want to be a thief.

    If you learn to pick a lock from this article, get a better lock, immediately. If this article leads you to be able to pick more than ten different brands of locks, seek out a job with your local locksmith, then you can learn how to open cars, safes, businesses, and how to install them all and most importantly how to secure homes and businesses with more than just locks and keys.

    2 replies

    While I find keywizard's article informative, I take issue with the stated tolerances, and suspect that nobody is producing home locks with tolerances closer than 0.0001 inch (a ten thousandth of an inch), rather than the 0.000001 inch tolerance given ( a millionth of an inch.) As a person who made parts fit in tolerances measured both in ten-thousandths of an inch and in millionths of an inch, I can attest to the differences in cost of manufacturing. I do recall, however, that, starting about 1937, hydraulic lifters for Cadillac V8 engines were manufactured that used gauges that read to the nearest 0.00005 inch, or 50 millionths of an inch. You can buy balls and pins that are matched or round to single digit millionths of an inch, but I suspect they never end up used in these locks, even the more expensive of them.

    Another comment on some of the cheap locks:

    Older Master locks that used symmetric keys at one time only used the extreme end to actuate the lock, and the other toothed sections were merely present as gates to prevent the key from turning. Therefore, the mischievous boy who wanted to lock gates open merely filed off all except the last extreme portion of the key to allow it to be turned in those locks. There were several sizes, so one key of each size was required. Some other locks could be blown open with merely a small amount of flash powder poured into the key hole. The blown-open lock was apparently not damage, but merely opened, for they could be locked back on the gate merely by closing again.

    Some combination locks require a good sensitive feel and just the right tension to discover the numbers when rotating the knob. I've opened several this way when I had forgotten the combo of the long unused lock.

    " These locks have a tolerance equivalence of 1/1000000 of an inch, " means that with the different anti-pick features of; the sidebar, grooved pins, the required rotation of each pin and whether the pin is cut forward, center, back and left, right, straight together produce an effect that would be equivalent to trying to manipulate standard lock pins to 1/ one millionth of an inch. I have installed these locks on homes, but to be sure only in the most expensive homes in Las Vegas, one home I installed these locks on had 26 outside doors in all counting a back house for his mother-in-law. Each lock cost $250 and each cylinder was an additional $80, each deadbolt required two cylinders, each key costs $18 each because of their controlled status and specialized equipment required to produce them. These keys cannot be duplicated they must each be originated because of their unique angled cut patterns. The doors were also nothing like what you would find in your average neighborhood.

    I was tempted earlier in life to send $20 to the comic book adds for "lock smithing" just to understand the principles. Thanks, you saved me $20!

    You are a very good communicator/teacher. Excellent video with helpful 'props'. Thanks. Best wishes from New Zealand


    1 year ago

    Nice job here on your 'able! I really like the fancy see-through lock and diagrams. One thing I think you are missing here is some disclaimer. This would help protect you and the site. Who knows when you'll hear of some idiot getting into an accident cause he was trying to pick a lock while driving home.