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The TRUTH about Skeleton Keys.

Posted by Chris Dangerfield on

Let's do this.

I get more requests for information about the legendary 'Skeleton Keys' than anything else. Google logs 'Skeleton Keys' as one of the most popular lock picking products regularly searched for. Say 'lock picking' to anyone and most people will be aware of 'Skeleton Keys', and although they know the concept, they'll have little or no idea of what they are. In truth, it's not that simple (it never is, right?) So, I decided it's time to set the record straight, and once and for all explain - as best I can - the truth about Skeleton Keys.

A long, long time ago, in the days of very simple warded locks, all you needed to open them was to bypass the wards, engage the cam at the end of the barrel and turn; the lock would then open. The reason this worked is because those locks were already unlocked, so to speak, and the wards merely provided an obstruction. A Skeleton Key was known as such since it had been ground down to the bare bones. This diagram shows you the right key for the lock, and the skeleton key made out of that key. And although a modern lock, the principle is much the same.

A key for a warded lock, and an identical key, ground down to its 'bare bones'

If you look at the following diagram you’ll see how warded locks work, and how making a skeleton key in the above manner would allow the key to go straight through to the back of the lock and turn the cam. Unlike other locks (with the exception of thumb-turn eurolocks, which are terribly bad security for this reason) the lock isn’t actually locked. There’s nothing stopping the barrel turning if you can get to the back of the lock.

A warded lock. See how the removal of the wards allows the key to get to the back of the lock and engage the cam.

Other locks, thankfully, don’t have this ridiculous vulnerability, and therefore are not open to be exploited in this manner. Lever locks, pin cylinders, disc detainers and others, contain some sort of design where the turning of the lock is blocked, and so the cam won’t turn unless the obstructions are removed, a process that requires a key with the correct combination of depths cut into it. A pin cylinder for example moves the series of split-pin stacks so as to line up the split along the edge of the barrel (the shearline) allowing it to turn (see diagram below). A lever (mortice) lock has a series of gates which prevent the stump from moving. The stump is connected to the bolt. If the stump can’t move, the bolt can’t move. The gates all have a little gap in them, all in different places. The key with the correct combination of depths will align all of these gaps, allowing the stump, and therefore the bolt to move, thus opening the lock. Tubular and dimple locks are really just slight variants on pin-cylinder locks. A dimple lock has the key turned 90 degrees, and a tubular lock has the series of pins in a circle – neither of which add much security, rather just a bit of novelty, which the market always appreciates.

The split between the pins needs to run along where the cylinder meets the housing. Then the cylinder can turn.

The bottom line is – there are no such things as skeleton keys for these locks. You cannot grind a key down to the bare bones, bypass the gates or pins and turn the cam, it simply isn’t possible. All day every day we receive emails asking for skeleton keys, and research, experience and speaking to people has shown us, what people really want, is a key – or any tool – that will open a many locks of the same type. Thankfully, such tools do exist, and although not strictly 'Skeleton Keys', the result is the same. Master the technique and you have access to many locks of the same type with the one tool or key.

Here’s a brief description of a series of such tools, many of which we supply. They are differentiated from picks and rakes since they do not require a separate tension tool. If you want more information - and frequently a video - click on the links and see them in our shop.

Bump Keys (See in shop)

Bump keys in one form or another have been around for decades. In fact, a patent for a bump key like tool with a spring-like feature was lodged way back in 1928 by a H R Simpson. However it wasn’t until the early 2000’s that the ‘bump pattern’ was perfected (by me), the tip shortened, the shoulder removed, and a dampener added. These developments are what caused the 'Bump Key Explosion' to happen as they really grew in effectiveness and - with the help of a paranoid, media fear-mongering campaign -  popularity.


I took off the shoulder and a bit of the tip, then added some dampeners. This turned an OKish lock picking tool into one that can open a lock in seconds. Most locksmiths today will have a selection in their arsenal.

In as much as a bump key will open many locks of the same type (if the profile of the key fits the keyway) we can bracket these under 'Skeleton Keys'. The key is struck with a bump hammer or improvised device such as a screwdriver, and the special zig-zag pattern on the key transmits the energy through the bottom pins, causing the top pins to jump. The key is turned right at the point of striking, meaning if successful, the pins will clear the shearline, allowing the plug to turn, and the lock to open. I made my name in the lock picking world with bump keys, and a well-made one can open around 80% of the locks the original blank was designed for. No lock picking tool is 100%, so those numbers are great. Being a proficient lock picker is about having a repertoire of tools, so if one doesn't work, another might. Even a cheap and simple lock might withstand an electric pick gun, but might be vulnerable to a Bump Key. That's just how it goes.

H.R. Simpsons 1928 patent illustration. The curved piece on the outside of the lock was replaced decades later (by me!) with a dampener, made possible by the removing of the shoulder from the key (which I did!)

Tubular Picks (See in Shop)

As I said before, a tubular lock is much like a pin cylinder that’s been rolled into a circle. However, in doing so it allows the lock picker access to all the pins simultaneously. Therefore all it took was someone to design a tool that works all the pins at once and the tubular pick was born. In my opinion the SouthOrd ones are unbeatable, and they make them for both 7 and 8 pin tubular locks, as well as a 10 pin version after working with us around 6 years ago. A tubular pick works by having a range of flat needles around a circular tube, a collar can then be adjusted to change how much 'give' exists in the needles. The resistance from the pins causes the needles to adjust in depth, essentially telling the pick what heights it needs to open the lock. Once the tension on the collar is correct – discovered from trial and error – the lock opens. In over 10 years of using these picks I have never seen one fail unless the lock is somehow damaged. Not a key, but it certainly fulfills the desire for a tool that opens all locks of a particular type.

The end of a tubular pick showing the flattened needles. The hollow circular post fits into a groove in the lock allowing the barrel to turn once the pins have been picked.

Rake Keys (See in Shop)

Rake Keys are perhaps most similar to what people assume a skeleton key is. The untrained eye could easily confuse them for a normal key although they have special patterns cut onto them which have been researched and tested to provide the most success opening locks. Named rake keys after the ‘Rake’ lock picking tool, but different since they do not require a tension wrench. While the key is moved in and out of the lock, it is also occasionally turned slightly, causing a tiny ledge to form along the shearline. Any pins that have been lifted to the ‘correct’ height will then sit on that ledge. Once all the pins are on the ledge, the lock is free to open. A great tool for beginners since the grooves on the key make sure the tool is inserted at the right height to correctly ‘pick’ the lock.

Rake Keys in both 3 and 5 ‘peak’ configurations and cut in 6 depths

Master keys (See in Shop

There are two types of Master Key. One, which is concerned with groups of locks that require both an individual key for each lock and another single key for all of them, such as for a hotel or a locker room. And Master Keys where the locks are the same wherever they appear meaning the same key will always open them. The former doesn’t count as a skeleton key type tool, whereas the latter could be said to. A good example of such a master key is the FB Keys – or Fire Brigade keys – used to lock communal doors and road blocks, and used by firemen who need access in emergencies. There are other Master Keys which I suggest you see in the shop for more information.

A set of Fire Brigade Keys

Jigglers (See in Shop)

Apart from offering all manner of double entendres, Jigglers have established themselves as a must-have for locksmiths the world over. Like a cross between a rake and a tension tool, Jigglers are a single item technique that are great for beginners and professionals alike. This is mainly due to their ease of use. The Jiggler is inserted into the lock and, well, ‘jiggled’ about!

A set of Auto-Jigglers for vehicles with wafer locks

The most well-known of Jigglers are the mini, medium, and auto Jigglers. So most wafer locks (such as desks, cabinets, postal boxes, etc) right through to the older style car locks (‘auto’ here means vehicle) have a Jiggler for the job!

Just as we'd all assumed only wafer locks could be jiggled, lock picking giants, SouthOrd developed the first pin-cylinder Jigglers a few years ago and it took the lock picking world by storm. A short video released by a SouthOrd employee of the Jigglers making easy work of three locks piqued the interest of lock pickers everywhere and soon everyone had a set. In fact, I’d say out of all the tools in this article, the SouthOrd Pin-Cylinder Jigglers are the most likely contender for a tool that represents what most people would consider a Skeleton Key.

The ‘must-have’ SouthOrd 13 piece Pin Cylinder Jigglers

You insert the key into any pin-cylinder lock it will fit (which is, happily, the majority) and jiggle (the key, not you). Jiggling takes many forms, the key can go in and out of the lock, like a rake, it can make use of the small amount of vertical space in a lock and be moved up and down, and it can be ‘vibrated’, (or as one prominent lock picking blogger put it ‘held onto as if I’d had far too much coffee’). Predictably, it’s a combination of all these movements that gives the best results, and I have to say they’re amazing. Since there’s no tension tool, you must also remember to apply a small amount of turning pressure, allowing the pins (or wafers) to set. As I've said before, everyone already knows how to use Jigglers, since we've all had worn locks before and had to give the correct key a wiggle and a jiggle to get it working.The pin-cylinder Jigglers are one of my all time favourite lock picking tools. A must have. In fact, SouthOrd can’t produce enough of these. We’re constantly upping our orders and continually having to wait. If you want some and they’re not in stock, click the ‘Email When Available’ tab on the product page to ensure you’re notified when they’re back in stock

Try-out keys (See in Shop)

Try-out keys are one of the oldest of the skeleton key type tools, although probably due to the age of lever locks than anything else. They’ve been around for centuries in one form or another. Try out keys work on the principle that there are many ‘typical’ key patterns for lever locks. When the lock is 2 or 3 levers, the possibilities are even less. Add to this the fact these locks wear with age and the tolerances reduced, try-out keys are a pretty good bet.

A typical set of 2 lever Try-Out keys.

Although distinct from a Jiggler, it’s not uncommon to give a try out key a little jiggle here, a wobble there. A small amount of movement might turn a slightly low cut into the desired height. Old and worn locks can be exploited in this way. Coming in sets of usually between 10 and 20 it makes sense to have a set or two. Although it’s rare for people to secure their homes with anything less than a 5 lever lock, many internal doors have 2 and 3 lever locks and to be able to open these without drilling can save valuable time and hassle. Although a quantity of Try-Out keys is required to up the odds in your favour, I think these still count as Skeleton Keys since one key will have the ability to open many locks in its group.


With the different types of locks in use today it’s not surprising there’s a multitude of contenders for the ‘Skeleton Key’ label.  As technology progresses and locks develop – from iris-activated locks, fingerprint locks, even locks you open with your phone - I’m confident lock picking innovations will continue alongside these developments, continuing to both confuse the issue of what is a Skeleton Key, whilst offering us more and more interesting items to pursue this wonderful art of ours.

One day – in the distant future – I see someone remove a capsule from their pocket and pour dust into a lock. That dust, or more of a grey-sludge, is a million tiny nano robots, each programmed to pick the lock from the inside. Or, who knows, maybe in the future we’ll live forever, and people will have forgotten all about skeletons altogether. In the meantime, if you’re ever asked about Skeleton Keys, you can say ‘Yes, they do exist. Sort of'.

A Nano-Bot working on a red blood cell, a 1000 of these would make great lock pickers. I’ll let you know when they’re in stock!

See all of these ^^ products in our shop:







 You might also find interesting: The Top FIVE lock picks for beginners.

Chris Dangerfield

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