Lock Picking 101: How to Pick Locks

The big secret about lock picking is that it is simple and only requires practice to develop the feel. There are many different styles of locks, but once you have a basic understanding of how locks work, you can learn to pick almost any type of lock. 


1. Why learn lockpicking?

2. How a tumbler lock works

3. Picking a lock

4. Scrubbing a lock

5. Next steps

Why learn lock picking?

You have just driven four hours to a remote cabin with plans for a fun weekend get-away. As you approach the door you have that sinking feeling as you remember that you left the key at home. You were so distracted and excited with all the preparations that you forgot the key sitting on the counter.

You turn to see the disappointment in your companion’s eyes as they realize this is going to be a long night.

You tell them, “Don’t worry, I got this.”

You turn around, take out your picks and tension wrench, and go to work. Within minutes, the door swings open. And you get the look! That look that says, you saved the weekend.

Lock picking is a lot of fun, challenging, and very satisfying. There is a certain edge to it that makes it very cool as well. It is a great life skill that can come in handy when you are locked out of your house or property. It’s also very fulfilling when you can handle a situation without calling anyone. No fees required, just deal with the situation at hand and move on.

The term “locksport” has been adopted as a means of distinguishing between hobby/sport lockpicking (i.e. locksport) and what locksmiths do. Locksport is becoming more popular around the world and there are many clubs bringing enthusiasts together. It is where folks gather and compete against each other for speed. And of course, never use this knowledge to pick a lock you do not own or have express permission to pick.

You don’t want to have to learn how to pick jail locks!

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How a tumbler lock works

A tumbler lock is made up of a shell which holds a plug. There are holes drilled at 90 degrees to the plug. These holes hold pins and springs that prevent the plug (i.e. lock cylinder) from turning unless all the lock pins are lined up in a specific way.

Parts of a tumbler lock

When the key is inserted, it raises the varying lengths of pins so they are all in a line and the lock cylinder can rotate and activate the lock.


Lock terminology:

Pin Stack - A spring, driver pin, and key pin combination.  The lock shown above has five pin stacks. 

Bible - The area that holds the pin stacks is called the bible. 

Shear Line – The line where the plug meets the shell.  The lock is in an unlocked position when the driver pins are above the shear line and the key pins are below the shear line.  In figures 2 and 3, the shear line is the interface between the yellow and green.


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Picking a lock

Lock picking exploits the fact that there are always mechanical tolerances in locks which allows them to be picked. When the plug is tensioned as shown below (see below), all the pins will not be loaded evenly.  The trick is to find which pins are loaded first by lifting them with a pick and feeling the resistance of the pin (see below).  Once the top of the key pin reaches the shear line, the plug will rotate slightly and set the driver pin.  This is called setting the pin

When one pin sets another pin stack will load.  Repeat this procedure for as many pin stacks as there are.  Once all the pins are lined up with the shear line (i.e. all the pins are set), the lock opens.


Lock picking illustration

Parts of a lock

The art of picking is in how much rotational tension to apply to the plug (to load the pin stacks) and how much force to use when pushing up the pins (to set them).  The feel can only be developed with practice.  Beginners tend to apply too much tension.  Try different tensions until you begin to feel the right amount that is required. 

Applying tension to cylinder

If there is too much tension applied, it will be difficult to feel the small rotation of the plug as the bottom of the driver pin breaks above the shear line.  The pin stack can be pushed too far, becoming over set – meaning the key pin is up past the shear line. 

With too little tension, the driver pins will fall back down after being set properly.  Just keep practicing, and you will get it.  The clear locks provided are great tools to help you develop the correct feel because you can see the set of the pins.  This is single pin picking.

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Scrubbing a lock

Single pin picking is fairly slow.  Sometimes you will want to pick much faster.  There is a method referred to as scrubbing or raking.  In this method, you tension the plug the same as with the single pin method.  However, instead of individually finding each pin as it binds, you scrub or rake the pins with a scrubbing tool (see below).

Scrubbing a lock


As you rake across, all the pin stacks will successively raise to the shear line and the driver pins catch on the plug lip as the plug rotates slightly.

Gradually increase torque as you begin scrubbing.  Learn the feel as the pins set.  The pins have a sequence of setting depending on how the pin holes line up with the centerline of the plug – it will probably not be in sequential order.  This is simply a function of the manufacturing and accuracy of the lock.

You should be holding the picks lightly. The small motions and corrections will come from your fingers and wrists; instead of from your elbows or shoulders, since you don’t have as much feedback from the larger joints. Which fingers you use is a matter of personal choice.  Some people use two fingers as a pivot with the other fingers providing the pressure.  Another way is like holding a pencil.  In this method, your wrist will provide the pressure.  Your shoulder and elbow will be used to move the pick in and out of the lock but not for pressure.  Whatever method you use, just be consistent.

One way to develop the feel of a set pin is to scrub over an open lock where the key pins are free to move.  Try to feel the pins rattle as you move over them.  If a pin stack appears to be set but does not rattle, then it is a false set.

Scrubbing can be very quick and is definitely worth mastering.  There is nothing like walking up to a lock, breaking out your tools and your through in less than 30 seconds. 

Start out by placing the practice locks in a vise or clamped to a table.  Once you are proficient in picking, you can start to pick while holding the lock in your hand.


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Next Steps

Once you have mastered the locks in a beginner set, you can branch into other types of locks. Maybe even get involved in locksport! Find new friends while gathering to compete with other like-minded individuals. And of course, there are many great books, instructional videos, and other resources on the web.

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