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How to Pick a Lock - The Order of Attack

Posted by Chris Dangerfield on

How to Pick a Lock

Hello Lock Pickers.

One of the first things I say to any newcomers to this incredible skill is the way to ensure a successful lock picking is to have a repertoire of tools and techniques. The simple truth is some locks won't respond to some techniques, so approaching a lock with one technique or even one tool isn't the wisest way to go.

This is really what separates a professional from an amateur. If you hire a professional to get you and your family into your house on a rainy night in December, you want to know they can get the job done - that they can pick the lock and get you in.

And I mean 'how to pick a lock'. Any fool can come along, drill your lock and charge you for the time, the drilling, AND the replacement lock.

A professional in this context arrives with all manner of tools and techniques and answers his phone and agrees to come over knowing, with almost 100% certainty - that they can get you in. Yes, drilling and replacement must remain an option, once all others have been exhausted, but a locksmith with a sense of professionalism will try the other techniques first, will try and get you in without replacing the lock, and your keys.

So what are the techniques used when approaching a lock, and in what order do I attempt them? Whether on a job or just because I love taking on a lock - and defeating it - this is my order of attack...


Checking and Cleaning.

Before picking any lock I make sure it's pickable. The last thing I want to do is waste minutes - or hours - attempting to pick a lock that cannot be picked. This doesn't mean it can't be opened, I just want to know if my NDE techniques are going to be relevant here and the lock is in decent health.

I have found all manner of things stuck in a lock: Q-Tips, lolly-sticks, scalpel blades, matchsticks, broken keys, bits of Allen keys - I could go on. If you can stick it in a lock and snap it off, chances are me - or someone else - has found it in a lock somewhere.

Any foreign bodies such as these need to be removed and usually can be with the use of a mini-knife, a broken key extractor tool, even a hook pick. Although the broken key extractor tools seem to be the best as they have barbs, serrations, all the things you need to depress the pins, get a purchase on the object, and yank it out.


Peterson's finest Broken Key Extractor set - all you'll need to remove all manner of foreign objects, and broken keys, from the lock before you engage in picking it.


After that it's worth some lubrication. Remember - you don't know what state the lock is in so some form of lube is a good idea. People use WD40 - and while this will give you a temporary lubrication, in the long run it will attract gunk and dust and jam up the lock. Personally I like to use a carburetor cleaner. Gumout is amazing, will even deal with adhesives and chewing gum (yep, had to dig that out of a few locks) and I suggest you keep a bottle of it, or similar, in your tool box.


Gumout carburetor cleaner - I've fond nothing better for lock cleaning.


Dry powder graphite is a great lube - although I prefer to reserve this for a complete lock strip down, clean and lube situation. Applying graphite powder to a lock that may have already had WD40 or some other gummy, greasy product could cause more problems.


Functionality Check

Once the lock is clean and I know to the best of my knowledge there's nothing in there to obstruct my work, I like to make sure everything is fully functional. Skipping this part might mean missing a dud spring or a damaged pin. Even something simple like the plug being jammed could mean hours wasted and a lot of frustration. Remember - Frustration is the enemy of lock picking. It makes you tense, it clouds your thinking, it makes you rush, it removes your ability to detect the subtle changes and movements required for successful lock picking. Avoid frustration with adequate planning.

So I like to check functionality. First of all is the plug 'lose' and able to move. This is simple, I insert a tension tool and just move the plug the fractions of a millimeter it will let me either way. you'll soon know if it's jammed as it won't budge. At which point you'll have to consider if there's something else stuck in the lock, or a fault you cannot deal with using picks. If it's good and you're happy. Move on.

Then check and count your pins. This is a simply procedure and you can use any lock pick you're comfortable with such as a hook, a half diamond, etc. Simply move it to the back of the lock, engage the last pin and then slowly drag it forward, making sure all the pins are present and correctly springing as you pull the pick out. Each pin should move easily enough you can hear each one spring back into place as you move onto the next. 


First Technique - Lock Raking.

Anyone who knows me or the tools I make will know I am crazy into raking. I wrote a 5000 word document about raking that we give away with our Polaris Rakes. 5000 words is a lot when many people will tell you raking is moving the rake in and out of the lock. It is, for sure, but there's a lot more to it that that, and knowing those advanced techniques is what makes raking such an effective technique.


So first up, raking. I will grab my favorite rakes (which are my Polaris Rakes), insert a tension tool and get busy.I will give myself a couple of minutes or so raking, depending on the success I am having, which I can hear by the amount of pins falling back into place every time I reset the tension tool, and moving through the rakes in my set. If I have no joy then, it's time to move on.


Second Technique - Lock Jiggling.

A near relative of raking, jiggling inhabits much the same world as raking, and if it wasn't for my SouthOrd Cylinder Jigglers I wouldn't bother Jiggling after raking. However, this set changed the rules and with such a high success rate - and since you can move through the 13pc set in about a minute, it's worth a go. I would also use the rocking technique with the jigglers, using a see-saw like motion in the lock while moving the tool slowly in and out of the lock.

We're basically trying to open the lock as quickly as possible and with as little hassle as possible, so for me, a set like the SouthOrd cylinder Jigglers - being so effective - are always worth a pop.


Third Technique - a cup of tea and some Lock Dragging

Like I said, frustration is the enemy of lock picking, so at this point, I'll take a breath, grab a cup of tea, and get back to it. Dragging is also known as 'zipping' and some people would call it raking. But to me it's a separate technique, heavy of kinetics.

I put a tension tool in the lock, insert a pick (a half diamond or snowman are my faves) apply tension and then drag the pick out, over the pins, maintaining tension. I'll give this four or five goes. Dragging is frighteningly effective, and you'll soon find what pick works best for you. However, different locks, different pin types as well as the age of the lock, wear, tolerances etc can make different picks more appropriate. As I previously said, the half diamond or the various 'snowman' picks are my favourites - mainly because they can deal with most pin states - especially the snowman types due to its circular shape, which doesn't get caught up in stubborn pins.

Variations of the 'snowman' and other 'round' pick types - particularly good for dragging as they're a bit more forgiving with tricky pins.


Forth technique - Electric Pick Gun

While I have a selection of Manual Lock Picking Guns I tend to use them as back up for when I have forgotten to charge my Electric pick guns. Some would say I should have gone in at the start with my EPG since they are so effective. I am lucky enough to own a Multipick Kronos - quite simply the best electric lock picking gun ever invented (really, it's a dream), and it's very successful. However, EPGs are quite aggressive, we've all seen bits of brass flying out of the lock even on the first pull of the trigger. 


Now if I am picking for pleasure an EPG is out of the question, and if you're on a lockout, EPGs have their issues. They can be quite noisy and attract attention. Ask any locksmith how many times they've been surrounded in neighbors watching you, and an Electric Pick Gun is an impressive bit of kit. But also they run the risk of damaging the lock - and although rare - I want to avoid that risk, however slight, by using the other techniques I have outlined above. If my EPG doesn't open the lock after a couple of minutes, I put it away and move on.


Fifth Technique - Lock Bumping.

If I have bump keys to fit I will try them now. Bumping is this far down the list for the same reasons as the Electric Pick Gun. It;s aggressive and it's noisy - much noisier than the EPG even. I will use a Brockhage Flexi Plus Bump Hammer - the more flexible out of the two, I will use Dampeners, a technique I invented, used the world over and give it a few bumps. Thirty or so with each key that fits. No joy, time to move on.


Out of all the techniques to scare the customer, bumping is the winner. Putting a key in the lock, giving it a couple of raps and opening it can be quite frightening for the home owner. And rightly so. There's something of the legendary Skeleton Key about it and it's quick and obviously simple. While other techniques seem to use specialist tools, and clearly specialist techniques, bumping uses a key  - something everyone has. So it's understandable it brings with it a certain amount of mythology.


Sixth Technique - Single Pin Picking.

Considered by most as the king of all techniques. And I will agree, it's awesome. With just a wrench, a decent hook, and a lot of practice, you can open literally millions of locks.

The downside of course is time. Single Pin Picking can take time. And as you sit down to pick a lock with this technique, you don't know how long it's going to take. it could be minutes, it could go on...and on...and on.

So while Single Pin Picking opens the most locks it's also the slowest out of all the above techniques, which is why I left it til last. But if that's what it takes, I'll sit down with my Praxis Dual Gauge picks and set about opening the lock - pin by pin. 'Lock picking proper' as many people say!


You should - as a lock picker - without doubt learn how to Single Pin Pick. While many, many locks are going to open somewhere down the line using all the tools and techniques above, learning to Single Pin Pick, and practicing so you are more than competent could mean the difference between definitely picking a lock, and perhaps picking a lock. 

Being able to Single Pin Pick well is  what makes you an expert lock picker, someone who can approach a lock and know - after all the tools, tricks and techniques have been exhausted, can sit down, and deal with each pin on an individual level, dealing with the lock in small, bite-sized and manageable pieces. And once you've done that with them all - the lock opens. Lovely.

Happy picking

Chris Dangerfield

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