How to Pick a Lock: The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide

I’m going to go way out on a limb and say that you want to learn how to pick a lock?

I’m psychic, right?

At one point or another, everyone has wanted — or needed — to learn how to pick a lock, but few ever pursue that desire.

You are different. You are here ready to learn this remarkable skill and, believe it or not, it’s way easier than you think! Lock picking is simple and very addicting, with over a million lock picking enthusiasts around the world — no joke — all seeking that fresh challenge a new lock provides!

But again, you are here ready to learn, so let’s not dilly dally and get into the topic at hand. This lock picking guide will instill within you a deep foundation of how locks work and how you can begin to defeat them!

However, to pick a lock, you must first understand how a lock works, so we’ll start there and then get on to the fun stuff!

Other Awesome Lock Picking Guides!:

The Simplest Lock

Imagine for a moment that you have two pieces of paper, one sitting on top of the other.

Now with very little effort, you could take that top piece and slide it along the top of the bottom piece and it would move freely with very little resistance.

However, if you took a pencil and stuck it through both pieces of paper, they would become bound to each other and would no longer be able to move independently of one another. Essentially, they would become “locked” to each other.

Example of a lock in its most simple form.

This little paper model, as demonstrated above, is the simplest example of how most locks function.

But let’s dive a little deeper and take a closer look at what is truly occurring. Obviously, the two pieces of paper are bound to each other because there is a pencil crammed through both of them.

However, what is also true, and more important to note, is that we have also obstructed the space between them — that is the line that separates the two pieces of paper. This line is what we refer to as the shear line and is the absolute foundation of how all locks work and, as we will soon see, the key to defeating them!

The moment that we remove that obstruction — the pencil — from the shear line, the two pieces of paper will once again be able to move freely.

But lock’s aren’t flat and they sure as hell aren’t made from paper and pencils, so let’s change a few things and add a few more components to this simple lock and see what we get.

The Pin Tumbler Lock

There are a ton of different types of locks roaming the world today – from the tubular locks that you find on vending machines to combination locks securing safes. But of all these different types of locks, only one is king, the pin tumbler lock!

The pin tumbler lock is an extremely simple design that makes up over 90% of the locks used throughout the world.

Additionally, if you can learn to pick a pin tumbler lock, you can essentially transfer that skill to any other type of lock in one way or another!

These two reasons alone make the pin tumbler the best type of lock to begin your lock picking journey! With that, let’s dive a little deeper into how the pin tumbler lock works!

These locks are made up of 6 primary components that we effect while picking. Let’s quickly go over each of them!

1. The Cylinder

The cylinder of the lock is nothing more than a little container that “houses” the rest of the components. This part is typically what slides into a door or padlock. If you jump back to our simple paper lock above, the cylinder of the pin tumbler lock is the top piece of paper if it were wrapped around the rest of the lock.

The cylinder creates the upper limit of the shear line and can also be referred to as the shell, housing, or body of the lock.

2. The Plug

The plug is the bottom piece of paper from our simple lock. However, rather than shearing across a flat surface like in our simple lock, the plug is a cylinder that rotates freely within the housing, creating a rotational shear line. The front of the plug is also where the key is inserted and on the back is either a cam or tailpiece which retracts the latch and opens the lock when rotated.

The plug creates the bottom limit of the shear line!

3. The Shear Line

The shear line is nothing more than the gap between the housing and the plug. Just like in the simple lock above, it is the conceptual line in which the plug rotates in the housing. If this line is obstructed in any way, the plug and housing will become “locked” to each other – thus, the plug will not turn.

Only when the shear line has been cleared of any obstructions will the plug once again be able to rotate freely. The shear line is one of the most important concepts to understand when it comes to lock picking!

4. Key Pins

In the pin tumbler lock, there are typically two types of pins. The key pins are the lower set and have the task of reading the “cuts” of the key. This is done by using a variety of different length pins and then cutting a key that matches those pin lengths.

If you look at any key, you will notice that there are high spots and low spots. These spots are what we call “cuts,” and in a moment, we will see the role they play in how the lock works!

5. Driver Pins

The driver pins are the upper set of pins whose job is to obstruct the shear line. They are basically the pencil from our simple lock above! Unlike the key pins, the driver pins are usually all the same length.

6. The Springs

Last up is the springs and they have two jobs. Their first job is to force everything down into the plug and keep the driver pins at the shear line when there is no key in the lock. Their second job is to push the key pins against the key, which helps read the cuts.

Without the springs, the pins could get stuck anywhere in the pin chamber, which could make using a key impossible.

Alright, now that you understand the core components of the pin tumbler, let’s take a look at how everything works together to make a fully functioning lock!

The following animation illustrates the pin tumbler lock in action!

As you can see, when the key is shoved into the plug, it pushes upward on the key pins. Because the biting of the key and the lengths of the key pins have been cut to match, the key pins will rise flush with the shear line causing the driver pins to exit the plug fully.

When the gap between the key pins and the driver pins is precisely that of the shear line, the key can rotate the plug to disengage the lock.

In short, the key has removed all obstructions — the pins — from the shear line!

By understanding this process, we can begin to see what we have to accomplish to pick a lock.

In essence, lock picking is simply the act of mimicking the key by manipulating the pins to the same state they would be at if the correct key were inserted.

But how do we do that? How can we hope to keep four or five pins from obstructing the shear line without the constant pressure of the key? How do we keep them from falling back into the plug?

The answer is pretty cool!

Why We Can Pick Locks

No matter how hard you try, you can never create two things exactly the same. In some way, there will always be something different between them — perfection is impossible!

This also applies to the manufacturing of locks and their components. No two locks, pins, nor springs are the same. They will always vary in some way from each other and their original design. However, because of this variance, things will never fit together perfectly and there will always be some degree of slop between components.

But it is this slop that gives us the ability to pick locks and when it comes to the pin tumbler lock, the imperfect drilling of the pin chambers is what makes lock picking truly possible!

During the production of the plug, the pin chambers are drilled down an imaginary centerline so that they are lined up perfectly with each other.

But remember, nothing can be done perfectly and as a result, these pin chambers are drilled slightly off-center and are misaligned from one another.

But how do misaligned holes help us pick locks?

There is a concept that we lock pickers call “binding.” Imagine sticking a screwdriver into the keyway of a lock and trying and rotate the plug like it was a key. But because the driver pins are still at the shear line they will stop the rotation of the plug and in the process become bound between the housing and the plug. This is binding.

However, because of inaccurate drilling, some pins will bind before others. The furthest pin off-center in the direction of rotation will be the first pin to bind and stop the rotation of the plug. This pin that is the first to bind is what we call “the binding pin.”

Key Takeaway: Because perfection is impossible, the pin chambers on the plug are drilled off-center. This creates a binding defect when the plug is rotated. Because there is a binding defect, one pin will bind before the rest and with more force. This pin is called the binding pin.

If you have to, read through this section once more and be absolutely certain that you understand the concept of the binding pin. As you’ll see in a moment the binding pin is the literal key to lock picking!

Before we jump into the actual process of picking a lock, let’s cover the essentials of lock picking tools!

Lock Picking Tools 101

Lock picking tools are often one of the most confusing and daunting parts about getting started in this awesome craft. With so many different types of lock picks and random-looking gizmos, choosing your first set of lock picking tools can be a real pain in the ass — but it doesn’t have to be.

The truth is, you don’t need very many tools to get started or progress at lock picking. Even advanced pickers only use a few different picks — even if they own hundreds of tools to choose from.

When it comes to picking the pin tumbler lock, there are only three different types of tools:

  1. Hooks
  2. Rakes
  3. Tensioning Tools

Every tool out there falls under one of these three categories. So let’s briefly cover each and look at a good beginner set that has everything you need to get a running start at lock picking!

1. Hooks

Hooks are narrow and pointy types of lock picks that are very pinpoint and precise within the lock. This precision makes them ideal weapons for single pin picking where you are required to locate and manipulate one pin at a time.

There are a variety of different styles of hooks that range from different lengths to different shapes. However, all perform the same task of manipulating individual pins one at a time.

The absolute best hook to start with is the standard short hook as shown above!

2. Rakes

Rakes are basically the opposite of the hook. They are typically erratic looking and are designed with a ton of humps and bumps that helps them manipulate as many pins as possible in the shortest amount of time. This makes them ideal for raking where you rapidly and randomly pull them across the pins with the goal of setting multiple pins at once.

Just like the hook, there is a wide variety of rakes. However, all perform the same task of manipulating multiple pins at the same time.

The absolute best rake to start with as a beginner is the Bogota as shown above!

3. Tensioning Tools

Funny enough the most important lock picking tool is one very few non-pickers know about.

It’s called a tensioning tool!

The tensioning tool is used to apply torque to the plug and bind the pins. Without this tool, lock picking is impossible.

There are several different styles of tensioning tools that all perform the task of applying “tension” to the lock’s plug. However, the absolute best type to start with is called the “straight tension wrench” as shown above. I highly recommend grabbing several different sizes for different sized locks and keyways!

Best Beginner Lock Pick Set

If you are looking for your first lock picking set, my recommendation is the GSP Ghost Set over at Art of Lock Picking!

It provides you with an excellent selection of lock picks and tensioning tools — all of which are in surgical grade 420 stainless steel. The lock picks also include plastic molded handles that will keep the picks from digging into your fingers.

If the GSP Ghost set doesn’t tickle your pickle, I would highly suggest looking for a set that has a similar setup!

Before we move on I do wish to note that it’s far better to own a few high-quality lock picks than it is to own a bunch of crappy ones. Buy quality and stay far away from Amazon lock picks! You can get a quality set of pick for cheaper from manufacturers like Peterson, Sparrows, or SouthOrd that will serve you far better!

Getting Started With Tension

It’s finally time to learn how to use your first tool — the tension wrench!

This little guy does two very important things:

  1. Firstly, it gives you the leverage you need to rotate the plug and create a binding pin. Remember, the binding pin is the key to lock picking.
  2. Secondly, it holds the pins that you lift with your pick above the shear line — much like the key!

Here is how it works!

You begin by placing the tension wrench into the bottom of the keyway and applying a very light degree of force in the direction that the key would turn to disengage the lock — typically clockwise.

Also, by light force, I mean something similar to the amount of force that it takes to press a key on your keyboard. It’s that light.

This light degree of force — or tension — is typically enough to create a binding pin. This is where you learn the importance of the binding pin!

If you take a pick and lift that binding pin to the shear line — or the height that the correct key would lift it to — the bind will break and the plug will continue to rotate ever so slightly until it binds on another pin — the next binding pin.

However, something really cool also happens!

Because the plug slightly rotates when the driver pin passes the shear line, there is a small ledge that is produced by the plug that the driver pin can set on. This is called “setting a pin” and as a result, the driver pin stays above the shear line and out of the plug!

To help fully understand setting a pin, check out the animation below!

Lock picking is simply the act of creating binding pins and setting them at the shear line. It really is as simple as that!

So now that we fully understand the purpose of the binding pin and what we are trying to accomplish within the lock, we can finally start cramming our picks into some keyways and learn once and for all how to pick a lock!

Introduction to Single Pin Picking

Alright, now that all the conceptual crap is out of the way, we can finally take a crack at actually picking a lock with our first style of lock picking — single pin picking!

Single pin picking, or SPP for short, is the style of lock picking in which you locate and set one pin at a time and is considered the purest form of lock picking.

While SPP is not always the quickest method of bypassing a lock, it is the most reliable and most skillful. If you truly wish to get good at lock picking, focusing on single pin picking is the quickest route to developing your lock picking skills.

With that, let’s learn single pin picking!

Step 1: Use Tension to Create the First Binding Pin

Remember, to set pins at the shear line and successfully pick a lock, you have to apply a light rotational force to the plug and create your first binding pin

To do so, start by inserting the short end of your tension wrench into the bottom of the keyway and applying very light tension to the plug. Be certain to maintain this force on your tension wrench throughout the entire process of picking the lock.

Step 2: Locate the First Binding Pin

Now that you have created your first binding pin, you have to find it! But how?

Because the binding pin will have more “binding” force on it than the other pins, the binding pin will be stiffer and harder to lift than the other non-binding pins. So basically, you are just looking for a pin that is not loose!

Insert your hook type pick all the way into the lock and locate the rearmost pin. Very gently begin to lift each pin and gauge how it feels.

Continue to probe each pin until you find the pin that doesn’t feel like the others and is more difficult to move.

Step 3: Lift and Set the First Binding Pin

Now that you have found the first binding pin, you have to set it!

Gently lift the binding pin until you feel a slight rotation on the plug or hear an audible click. Either of these two indicators typically indicates a successfully set driver pin!

Step 4: Locate and Set the Second Binding Pin

You have located and set your first binding pin, but now the lock is binding on a new pin.

Repeat the same steps of gently lifting each pin until you once again locate another pin that feels stiff and difficult to move. As before, gently continue to lift that pin until you feel a slight rotation on the plug or hear an audible click.

Step 5: Repeat the Process of Locating and Setting Binding Pins

Continue the process of locating binding pins and lifting them to the shear line. Once every pin has been set, there will no longer be any obstruction to the shear line the plug will fully rotate and the lock will open!

You have just picked your first lock!

Note: If you can no longer find a binding pin, you have likely overset or underset a pin. Release the tension to let the pins drop and restart the process over again. If you still can’t find a binding pin, try applying slightly more force to the plug!

Introduction to Raking

Up next is our second style of lock picking — raking!

Raking is a very volatile and radical style of picking whose goal is to bump as many pins to the shear line as possible in the quickest amount of time.

While it can be a lot of fun and is a very quick method of bypassing many basic locks, it will only get you so far and can become almost worthless when you start getting into locks with additional security features such as sidebars and security pins.

There are several different types of raking. The method we are going to cover is called scrubbing and is basically the same motion as brushing our teeth!

Step 1: Apply Tension to Create a Binding Pin

The first step is once again creating a binding pin.

Insert the short end of your tension wrench into the bottom of the keyway and apply a very light force to the plug!

Step 2: Insert Lock Pick and Scrub the Pins

Next, insert your rake all the way to the rear of the lock and gently lift upward so that your pick slightly lifts the pins.

With a decent amount of speed begin to scrub the pins as if you are scrubbing the top of your teeth with your toothbrush. Change the angle, the height, and the speed of your pick as you rake

If the lock doesn’t open with 10 seconds, release tension to reset the lock begin again. It’s very common to have to reset the lock several times before you successfully rake a lock.

Continue to scrub the pins until the plug fully rotates and the lock opens!

If you still can’t manage to rake your lock, try to apply slightly heavier or lighter tension. Raking is truly more about applying the right tension than it is about lock pick control!

Important Note: Be careful with your tension with raking. While you can get away with heavier tension during single pin picking, too much tension while raking can result in a broken pick.

To Conclude

I hope this guide successfully helped you learn how to pick a lock and revealed to you that lock picking is not as difficult as it may first seem.

That lock picking is nothing more than taking advantage of manufacturing defects and mimicking the function of the key!

I hope you see that getting started in the awesome craft doesn’t require a ton of tools. A high-quality lock pick set with a few good picks and tensioning tools is all you need to start slaying locks and progress at this amazing hobby.

Lock picking can be a very rewarding skill and I truly hope you pursue it beyond this simple guide.

If you liked this article, be sure to share it with your friends and if you have any questions or comments, be sure to leave those below!

Dabble on Pickers!

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