How to Pick a Lock In a Pickle

lock

Face it–almost everyone has or will have to deal with being locked out at some point in their life. Whether it’s your car, home, workplace, or another location, an invaluable skill to have is the knowledge of how to pick a lock. A full toolkit of prepping know-how is never complete without lock picking techniques.

For the sake of full exposure, it’s important to remember that lock picking is an illegal act under most circumstances. This article isn’t meant to arm you with the tools to break into properties or to commit crimes. We believe that lock picking is a universal skill that everyone should know to survive disaster situations or emergencies. With that, let’s get started!

Common Lockpicking Learning Methods

Without a doubt, the most common way that people encounter lock picking today is through the media. Films especially have profited off capturing a romantic image of the “ingenious lock picking thief” who can crack any code. Sorry to say that lockpicking isn’t so glamorous as it might seem in movies like Heat, Thief, or The Italian Job.

Yet, there are several real-world entry points to the world of lock picking which are easy to “pick” up. The first step to learning how to pick a lock is to start slow and develop your skills.

Watch Online Videos

If you’re a visual learner, then there’s no better way to learn lock picking than with video. Youtuber, LockPickingLawyer, is a good first choice. He is an advanced lock picker, but he takes the time to explain every motion and action he’s performing. Plus, you get to see thousands of different types of locks on his channel.

We also recommend the HelpfulLockPicker and Bosnianbill for different perspectives.

Books

The next method for learning how to pick a lock is reading. There are hundreds of lock picking manuals available on the internet today. Books offer the advantage of letting you read and observe diagrams at your own pace. Plus, the detail level in manuals is often way more advanced than what you’ll find on video.

Check out Working the Flame and the online authority LockPickWorld for all the books and pamphlets you need to crack any lock from a single spring to much more complex models.

Buy Used Locks For Practice

Once you’ve picked up some pointers from reading or watching background info on lock picking, it’s time to get your hands involved. Like any sport or outdoor skill, lock picking is a physical activity. It takes years of hand-eye-ear coordination to perfect the art of lock picking.

We recommend buying a stock of used locks online. eBay is the best outlet to find cheap locks and locksets to try your picking skills on. LearnLockPicking.com also has a cool learning kit that allows you to practice picking with increasing difficulty as you grow and learn

How to Pick a Lock

Before we move on to our step-by-step guide on how to pick a lock, we want to reiterate our warning:

This guide is not meant to inform or educate anyone on the practice of illegal lock picking. We aim to provide a skillset to people interested in learning how to pick a lock for emergency scenarios. Historically, it has proven valuable to know the basics of lock picking in crises and in conditions where people need emergency exit or entry.

Now, with that precaution out of the way, let’s start discussing how to pick a lock.

The first tip to remember is: be patient. Lock picking can be surprisingly easy to accomplish if you stay calm and remain nimble with your fingers in high-stress situations. Patience is key.

Next, keep in mind that no one has ever learned how to pick locks on day one. The Hollywood myth that some people are just “born” to crack safes or open car doors is just that–a myth. Take your time with the guide. Surround yourself with videos and books. Soon enough you’ll be in the top 95th percentile of people who can pick locks with repeated success.

Step One: The Layout of a Pin Tumbler Lock

First off, there are dozens of types of locks in the world. In fact, there are so many that you can’t reasonably expect one type in any situation except perhaps bike locks or simple room safes. With that said, we’re only focusing on the most common lock in this guide: a pin tumbler lock.

Pin tumblers work with a simple design. Essentially, the lock is shaped like a cylinder. The key opening or “plug” is facing you and a series of metal pins lowering along the shaft where the key enters.

Each pin drops down a set distance into the cylinder. The function of the key is to match the irregular pattern of pins and release the lock once it orients the pins correctly.

The name for the irregular pattern that the pins make is the “shear line.” Your aim when picking the lock is to replicate the shear line with your picks and unlock the lock that way.

The lock pick’s task is to raise each pin to the shear line so that the plug in the cylinder disengages from the lock. At that point, you will be able to freely turn the plug and unlock the system.

Pin tumblers are relatively old-fashioned technology. Everything works manually. However, the shear line in each lock is unique. Not only do the pins follow a unique rising and falling pattern, but the line of pins themselves can be slightly out of line. Lock manufacturing is not a perfect science. All the variables in pin and shear line design add up to quite a challenge.

The sign of a good lockpick is the ability to adapt to variations in the pins and shear line.

pick a lock
Photo by Ariel on Unsplash

Step Two: Understand Pin Stack Variations

After you understand how the pins drop into the plug, it’s time to talk about the second variable: the pin stack.

(It can be useful to imagine yourself looking at the lock from the side, as if you were looking at the key from the same side at this point.)

If the shear line is a kind of line graph shape from the side-angle view of the lock plug, this next angle is the above view. Imagine you’re looking at the line of pins from the top of the lock. Most ordinary pin tumblers comprise six pins in the cylinder. Yet, the holes into which the pins drop are rarely in line.

Mass-produced locks have been an immense help to people worldwide to secure their property, but no lock is truly identical to its model on the factory floor. Each of the six pins is ever so slightly out of line. To compensate, the lock picker must not only insert the picks to match with the depth of the pins, but they must also wiggle the locks side to side to match the pinholes.

Step Three: How to Bind the Pins

Now we understand the up-down movement and the side-side movement at the heart of lock picking. The goal is to align the pins to the shear line as well as locating each pinhole.

One of the six pins will be more out of true than the others. This pin is called the “binding pin.” The binding pin is the lock’s last defense against keyless entry. You’ll have to find the binding pin before attempting to turn the lock free.

Before putting your pick in the lock, you’ll need to exert slight pressure on the plug. You can accomplish this with a tension wrench (usually just a piece of steel in lock picking kits.)

With a small bit of turning pressure on the lock from the wrench, it’s time to insert the pick.

Slowly raise the pick in the plug until you feel the resistance of the springs in each pinhole. Keep tapping the pick on each pin until you find the one with the most resistance. This is the binding pin. Attempt to lift the binding pin while measuring your wrench pressure in step.

Step Four: Listen as You Raise the Binding Pin

Once you’ve located the binding pin and modulated pressure (very slight pressure) with your wrench, begin to lift it. If you’ve successfully selected the binding pin, you’ll hear the smallest of clicks and a slight rotation of the plug once it’s met the shear line.

At this point, congratulations! You’ve picked your first binding pin. The sound you heard was the binding pin slightly disengaging from the cylinder. It’s key to keep even pressure with the wrench or else the binding pin could fall back into the cylinder.

Now it’s only a matter of picking the rest of the pins. Move the pick along the row of pins until you find the next binding pin. Just like the first binding pin, the next one will offer the second-most resistance.

Continue applying your wrench pressure as you search for the remaining binding pins in the correct order. Always keep your ears open for the slight (but satisfying) click that indicates you’ve removed a pin from the cylinder. Once you’ve picked the final pin, twist the plug with your wrench. You’ve unlocked your first pin tumbler!

Summary

It’s hard to exaggerate the sense of contentment that follows from picking your first lock. Lockpicking is an essential skill in today’s world which, unfortunately, doesn’t get widespread attention. Learning how to pick a lock can improve outdoor skills, disaster preparedness, and a host of crisis awareness abilities.

We hope our primer on how to pick a lock can provide you with a beginner’s course on this vital skill. Be sure to share it with friends and families. The more people know about the value of lockpicking, the more we can all be prepared for an uncertain future.

Related post: How To Safely Open A Can Without A Can Opener