How To Pick a Lock: The Beginner's Guide
Updated: 1 day ago
This might be the first time I've had to slap a disclaimer on a how-to guide. But it's an important one. Because learning how to pick a lock comes with quite a bit of responsibility. So before we start, I just want to make sure everyone is clear that this guide is for hobby purposes only. Don't go picking locks you aren't supposed to, OK?
Now that we've got that out of the way, let's talk about how to pick a lock!
Sure, lock picking is an essential skill for anyone looking to increase their security, but it's also a fun puzzle. And if you are looking for an always challenging puzzle, this is a solid hobby for you.
In this guide, we will walk you through the basics of how to pick a lock, including the tools you need, how locks and lock picking sets work, and provide some tips to help you get started.
In This Guide:
While it may seem daunting at first, with a little practice, anyone can learn how to pick a lock. So let's get started!
Tools you'll need to learn how to pick a lock:
If you want to mirror our tutorial, or are looking for pieces to complete your lock picking kit, we've laid out the exact items that we used below. If you are looking to level up, we've also included lock picking sets that we would recommend following this section.
Lock picking tools can get super expensive, and since this article is for beginners, we are only sharing right-priced tools for the beginner.
Lock picking tools we used
We designed our kit to be fun, almost like a gift for someone who likes puzzles, which is why we have the lock picking kit and a dictionary safe. The dictionary is certainly optional, but it's a cool thing to have around anyways.
And when we used to sell kits, this was one of the most purchased hobby kits we sold.
Lock picking kit - from Amazon.
Dictionary safe - from Amazon
Best lock picking set for beginners
This is a solid value for beginners trying to get into the lock pick hobby. At the time of writing this, the kit was around $40.
We think it's a solid value because you get around 20 tools, including 14 picks/hooks/rakes, and a set of tension wrenches.
What we like most about this set though is that it has 3 different types of clear locks. Basically meaning that you have 3 puzzles to practice on. I would consider this a step up from the lock picking kit that we used, but still suited for beginners.
You've got your tools, right? Great. Now let's get down to brass tacks and hit the lock pick 101.
What is lock picking?
Lock picking is the skill/art of opening a lock without the key. It is useful to know how to pick a lock because it can come in handy in many situations.
If you're me, you may need to pick a lock to get into your own home if you lose your keys. Or you may need to pick a lock to get into someone else's home or office in an emergency.
The history of locks
The lock has been around for millennia. The first device was discovered in the ruins of Nineveh and inspired locks in Ancient Egypt that were built out of wood.
But the modern lock and key as we know it today are credited to Linus Yale Sr. - who invented the pin tumbler lock in 1848.
This type of lock is still in use today and is the most common type of lock that you will encounter.
Lock picking in pop culture
Lock picking has been around for centuries, but it's only recently that it has become popularized in pop culture to the point where people are learning it recreationally.
Shows like "Breaking Bad" and "Sherlock", video games like the Fallout series, and of course every film that involves cracking a safe, have brought the skill to the mainstream. And now more people than ever are interested in learning how to pick a lock.
While lock picking can be a fun puzzle, it's also an essential skill for anyone looking to increase their security. Because at the end of the day, locks are only as good as the people who know how to pick them.
Is lock picking a hobby or skill?
Whether lock picking is a hobby or skill is up to interpretation. Some people may learn how to pick locks as a hobby, while others may see it as more of a skill that they can use in an emergency.
Who's to say it can't be both though? I know that I enjoy tinkering around with my lock picking kit, but if I was locked out of my home, I would use my skills to get inside.
Ever heard of locksport?
It's most likely accepted that picking a lock is inherently a skill, but for any doubters of it being a hobby, I would like to introduce you to lock sport.
Locksport is a recreational activity that involves picking locks as a hobby.
It is a way for people to learn about locks and how they work, and to practice their lock-picking skills.
Locksport enthusiasts often compete in challenges and competitions to see who can pick a lock the fastest or with the fewest mistakes.
And some people are damn good - check this out.
If locksport seems cool, then let's get on with this how-to, otherwise, you'll never be able to compete. Here are the essential tools you will need.
Basic lock picking tools needed
A set can contain some variety, but each tool has a unique purpose. While some of these lock picking tools can be used outside of lock picking, they are all designed specifically for lock picking.
At a minimum, you will encounter a tension wrench and a pick.
The most common tool in a lock picking set is the tension wrench, which is used to apply torque to the lock. The tension wrench is inserted into the lock and used to hold the plug in place while the pick is inserted.
Some tension wrenches are designed to fit into specific locks, while others are more universal.
Some of the most common types of tension wrenches include:
Straight tension wrench - The most basic type, the straight tension wrench is a simple L-shaped piece of metal. It is inserted into the bottom of the keyway and used to apply torque to the plug.
Offset tension wrench - An offset version is similar to a straight one, but with a slight offset in the L-shape. This offset allows for more precision when applying torque to the plug.
Twist tension wrench - A twist tension wrench is similar to a straight one, but with a twist in the handle. This allows for more torque to be applied to the plug.
Double-sided tension wrench - This aptly named tool has functionality on each side of the handle.
The next most common tool is the pick, including hooks/rakes, which is used to manipulate all the pins inside the lock. There are so many varieties, each built to solve a unique challenge.
Small hook - A small hook is designed to lift the pins up one at a time.
Large hook - Same concept as small hook, but gives a larger reach and is ideal for a larger tumbler lock.
Single ball - The ball pick is used in locks that have a disc or wafer, which can be moved regardless of its direction.
Double ball - Same concept as a single ball - grab this tool when the single ball isn't doing the trick
Small half diamond - The small half diamond pick is used for picking up pins with little variation. If you have big lengths, then go ahead and use the hook!
Rakes are a type of pick - and they are primarily used to hack your way to a picked lock quicker. In the image above, it is the second from the left. No guarantees obviously, but these are what we use when we need to move quickly or just find the lock too challenging.
Snake (C rake) - The rakes are the best hook for when you want to get more than one pin in a line. They generate even movement and can be jiggled or picked with heavy tension, allowing them to put up some resistance so that your bait doesn't just fly away!
Snake (W rake) - The same idea as the C rake, but just even more jagged edges applied.
Alright, we have a baseline on the tools - to use a lock picking set effectively though, you need to have a good understanding of how locks work.
So, how do locks work?
When I first started learning to pick locks, this gif was very helpful in wrapping my mind around how a lock works, especially as it relates to a key.
But there are far more nuances to it than just this, and that's all thanks to how many types of locks there are.
Different types of locks
So many types of locks out there - but these are a few that you encounter daily.
Pin cylinder locks - The most common type of lock, these use pins of varying lengths to ensure that the correct key is being used. (This is the type of lock this tutorial focuses on.)
Lever locks - Lever locks are less common than pin cylinder locks, but you may encounter them in some older buildings. Lever locks use a series of levers that must be raised to the correct height for the plug to turn.
Wafer locks - Wafer locks are similar to pin cylinder locks, but use wafers instead of pins. Wafers are flat discs that must be aligned in the correct position for the plug to turn.
How the key works
The shape of a key is dictated by the shape of all the pins in the lock. To open a lock, all you need to do is insert a key that has the same shape as the pins. I know, crazy, right? (That's sarcasm)
When the lock corresponding to that key is turned, the plug (which contains the pins) will rotate. This in turn will allow the driver pins to fall into the shear line and align with the keyway, which allows the plug to be rotated and the lock to be opened
It’s a little harder than just sticking every pin halfway up though. The same way a key has different heights along with it, the pins have their break at different heights.
When picking a lock you are essentially guessing the height of each pin until it clicks into place as shown below.
How the lock opens and closes
The above section covers how a lock is opened with the correct key, but how does the lock close? That’s where the spring comes in.
As you can see in the gif below, when the plug is rotated, the driver pins fall into the shear line and align with the keyway. This allows the plug to rotate.
When the plug is rotated, the cam on the back of the plug pushes on the tailpiece, which in turn pushes on the latch bolt and opens the door.
Security features of locks
To make lock picking more difficult, locksmiths have come up with a variety of security features that can be added to locks.
Some of these features include:
Pins with spools or serrated pins
With a little practice, you can learn how to pick any type of lock, no matter how complex the security features may be.
We're ready - Here's how to pick a lock
1. Choosing the right lock to pick
When you’re picking a lock, you want to make sure that you have the right tools for the job, but if you are a beginner who is just trying to learn how to pick a lock, you'll want to choose the easiest option.
If you are using the transparent lock we used, that's great. It's an easy practice tool to get a feel for the pins. It allows you visually understand what the pins are doing, but the key will be learning how to feel what they are doing.
It’s best to start simple; I would recommend pin tumbler locks. These are the most common type of locks, and they can be found on everything from doors to cabinets to safes. Such as the dictionary safe that we used.
Pin tumbler locks have two main parts: the plug and the keyway.
The plug is the part of the lock that you insert the key into, and the keyway is where you insert the tension wrench and pick.
2. Grab your tension wrench and pick set
Remember, your tension wrenches are the L-shaped tools that you’ll use to apply pressure to the lock, while the pick set is used to manipulate the pins inside the lock.
I recommend using the rake (wave-shaped pick pictured above) if you are using a basic pin tumbler lock. It's not the cleanest way to do this, but it's easy for a simple lock.
3. Start by inserting the tension wrench
Once you have your tools, insert the tension wrench into the lock and apply pressure. Be cautious to not apply too much pressure - there's a fine line in the proper amount.
The goal is to keep the pins in place while you use the pick to move them up and down.
4. Gently insert the pick
With the tension wrench in place, gently insert the pick into the keyway and feel around for the pins. The reason for this is that you want to avoid pushing the pins too hard because this can cause them to get stuck.
5. Start moving the pins up and down
Once you’ve found the first pin, use the pick to move it up and down.
I prefer to do a technique called “scraping the pins," which means that you don’t try to push or pull the pins, but rather you use the pick to lightly scrape them. This is best applied to a rake.
That way you will get 1 or 2 right off the bat without having to work too hard. When you get a pin you will feel a very small click, which means it’s stuck - which is good.
I’ve found that I get the best results when I start at the back pin and work my way forward.
Make sure you continue to apply pressure the whole time though so the pin does not fall back down!
6. Repeat with the remaining pins
Once you’ve found the first pin, use the pick to move on to the next one. That is, move further away from yourself since the first pin is closest to you.
Repeat this process until all of the pins are in the correct position - aka clicked in place.
7. Turning the tension wrench
Once you have all of the pins in place, the torque from the tension wrench on the cylinder will spin it open, and voila! You’ve officially picked a lock!
If you're using the clear lock or any sort of lock that you can see what's going on, try it with your eyes closed at a certain point.
Once you get that, move on to padlocks you have lying around the house, bedroom doors or the locked dictionary we sent.
With a little practice, you’ll be able to pick a lock like a pro. Below are some tips and reminders to keep top of mind.
Common mistakes made when picking a lock
Applying the right amount of pressure
When you are first starting, it is important to apply the right amount of pressure. If you apply too much pressure, you can push the pins out of place and make it difficult to open the lock.
A light touch is key when manipulating the pins - but also still making sure some pressure is present. I know, it's a delicate dance between too much or too light pressure, but that's what practice is for.
Not using a tension wrench
This can also cause the pins to move out of place and make it difficult to open the lock. The tension wrench is key (no pun intended) in applying the right amount of pressure to the plug while you are picking the pins.
Picking the wrong lock
If you’re a beginner, it’s best to start with a simple pin tumbler lock as we talked about earlier. These are the most common type of locks, and they can be found on everything from doors to cabinets to safes.
Once you’ve mastered the basics, you can move on to more advanced locks. If you are really struggling with your lock, make sure you are not doing some advanced lock.
Not having the right tools
You’ll need a tension wrench and pick set to pick a lock. Yes, I know, nothing crazy here, but it's tough to fake it with anything else.
You might be able to get by with a paperclip or bobby pin in a pinch, but only for the most basic of basic locks. For the most part, you'll want to use the proper tools.
Not following the instructions
Make sure you insert the tension wrench into the lock and apply pressure before you use the pick to manipulate the pins. If you do not do this in the right order, it will be very difficult to open the lock - or impossible.
If you are interested in other ways to pick locks (like a bump key or paperclip) here are a couple of videos I found super interesting and fun to try. Enjoy!!
The more locks you can get the more natural it will feel… Let us know if you have any specific questions about the tools or methods we’ve talked about in the comments below. As always, thanks for trying a new hobby with us. If you want to stay up to date with our latest how-tos, be sure to join our newsletter.