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Primer: How To Pick A Lock

Before computers became so ubiquitous and hackers omnipresent cultural figures, the ultimate in criminal cool was the burglar. A burglar was someone who could look at a building and see more than just four walls and a roof. For them, a window was a doorway, your common gutter an escape route. Burglars were regarded as more than just outlaws, but ones with a kind of twisted architectural imagination. Virtuosic, almost. And their instrument of choice? The lock pick.

The reality of burglarizing and the methods by which it is done, of course, deviates sharply from the popular imagination. Criminals who break into homes and buildings rarely pick locks. Instead, they choose cruder, faster methods like sawing through ceilings, hammering down doors, or even hiding in a broom closet past closing. And while the crime isn’t inherently violent, it is far from victimless. Breaking into a home or business can leave its inhabitants emotionally scarred and on-edge for years afterwards. It is hard to justify romanticizing a crime that enacts such a toll.

Lock picking, however, is far from confined to this harmful albeit creative type of criminal activity. Learning how to pick locks on your own time not only provides a real mechanical challenge rivaling that of even the most complex puzzles, but it gives one a better sense of how the tools and technology we rely on to protect us actually function. A growing community has cropped up that takes the time to teach others about how to pick locks, and set forward etiquette on how exactly to go about practicing the craft. HiConsumption was lucky enough to get in touch with a few members of the locksport world and have them take us through the most basic steps of how to pick a lock.

Starting Out

Basics On How To Pick A Lock

To get an idea of how to pick a lock, we sat down with Shawn Sheikhzadeh. As a System Administrator & Security Researcher, founder of TOOOL New Jersey & Central NJ InfoSec, Shawn is constantly steeped in the world of security both on and offline. Here is how he walked us through the basics.

The Gear You Need

So the tools you’ll get in any lock picking set break down into three simple pieces; a tensioner, a pick, and a lock.

Tensioner: The tool that holds down on the lock’s core, allowing you to insert a pick into the lock.

Pick: A pick is used to find the pins and gently raise them up until they klick into place above the sheer line of the lock. You can get both a pick and a tensioner in the best kit for beginners, the SouthOrd PXS-14.

Practice Lock: You don’t want to practice on locks that you use regularly, so it helps to get yourself a lock you don’t rely on to fiddle with.

  1. Grab your tools: “In your lockpick kit, there will be multiple types of tools. You will have the picks, which are similar in length to a pencil, with various shapes on the end. You will also have flat pieces of metal in various “L” shape configurations.

    The tension tools (sometimes referred to as turning tools) will be inserted into the bottom of the lock. The tension tool is responsible for turning the ‘core’ of the lock. The core is the part of the lock that turns when you have the correct key inserted. As we do not have the key, we need a tool to turn it for us.

    Remember, our goal here is to act like the key of the lock. When you insert a key into a lock, if you have the right key, all of the pins (what we call key pins) will lift up to what we call the shear line. This will cause the lock to open. As we are using tools, we will be lifting pins inside of the lock so that the lock will open. There are multiple pins (sometimes 5 with a max of 7) that you have to set each pin to set before the lock will open.”

  2. Things are getting tense: “Once you have a comfortable grip on the lock & the tension tool is inserted correctly, you will need to determine which direction you need to place tension. This will vary on the lock that you are picking & can vary if the lock is a door, padlock, or other mechanism. If the lock is a door & the tension tool is sitting on the right side of the lock, you will want to put tension in the direction that will force the bolt in the lock to retract back into the door.

    If the bolt is on the left, sticking into the door, you will want the tension tool on the right & will want to be putting pressure down on the tension tool from the top. Alternatively, you can have the tension tool on the left & apply pressure from the bottom, but this may be awkward for some.”

  3. Pick your pick: “At this point, you will need to pick the appropriate lockpick that you will want to use. Different picks are used in different ways.

    The pins that you are lifting are the same pins that your key pushes up on when you insert the right key in the lock. Hook picks are useful for picking pins individually, one by one.

    The next three tools are tools you will want to use if you want to rapidly ”rake” the lock. This form of lockpicking forces you to set multiple pins. You do this by inserting the tool & going back & forth rapidly, similar to using a tooth brush.”

  4. Open sesame: “Now insert your tension tool in the bottom of the lock & insert your hook picks. You should be able to lift the hook slightly & feel a pin with some spring pressure pushing back down. If you do not feel this, make sure you are applying adequate tension. You may need to move to the back of the lock before you feel a pin “pressing back down” on your pick. Once you find this pin, you will continue to push up, until you do not feel it pressing down anymore. You may notice at the ‘core’ of the lock where you have the tension tool will rotate very very slightly – this is good. As you pick more pins, eventually, the lock will open.”

  5. Practice, practice, practice: “If you’ve followed all of the steps & have a strong understanding of what is going on, your lock should be open with some patience. If you feel you are struggling, you may need to acquire a lock that has fewer pins. Most padlocks have three to four pins. Most residential door locks have 5 pins. Lastly, if you feel that everything is right but you are making no progress, try lubricating your lock with some graphite.”

Photo: Dennis van Zuijlekom

Is it legal?

Picking Locks Won't Get You Locked Up

Given its more common associations – it isn’t unreasonable to wonder whether or not lock picking will get you in trouble with the state. We asked Shawn to run us through what, if any, legal pitfalls there are to getting your own lock picking set. Here is what he had to say.

Ground Rules To Remember:

1. Do not pick someone else’s lock.
2. Do not pick locks which you rely on.
3. Do not pick locks which you have not been given express permission to pick.

“The common misconception of lockpicking is that, it is illegal, that you’ll go to jail for possessing lockpicks or, that lockpicking is complex or difficult. None of these could be further from the truth. First, the act of sitting & picking a lock at a table isn’t illegal. Second, you won’t go to jail for merely possessing lock picks…

The snap judgement that people may have of those of us that picks locks, is that we’re criminals, up to no good, or generally shady individuals. Some of the most upstanding friends that I have pick locks and enjoy doing so to relieve stress or, for motivation: many of us send or receive locks to each other to be picked on camera for personal improvement in our skills.”

Become A Lock-Picking Expert

If you’re looking to do a bit more than just dip your toes into the water, take a look through the official CIA Lock Picking Field Operative Training Manual found here.