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The Absolute Beginner's Guide: How to Pick Locks

Posted by Chris Dangerfield on

The Absolute Beginner's Guide to Learning How to Pick Locks


Because I desperately needed to unlock my parents old number-dial phone to continue prank calling people, I picked my first lock aged seven. I realised the little scraper from a set of nail-clippers fitted the lock that prevented the dial from turning, and with a bit of wiggling and jiggling, it opened. I'd picked a lock and I was hooked. 

More than forty years later and I'm still at it; lock picking, not prank calling. It has given me decades of pleasure, knowledge, transferable skills, a job, frustration, friends, and probably most importantly in these increasingly atomized times, a community. 


lock picking expert


So, if you know absolutely nothing about lock picking, or just about nothing, but want to know - this is the blog for you: The Absolute Beginner's Guide to Learning How to Pick Locks.

What this isn't, is a blog going into how to actually pick locks. That'll come further down the line for you. This is so you know what you're doing when looking at pages and pages of lock picking tools in online shops and not really having a clue what's best for you, and what would make the most sense to buy.

This is the biggest mistake of beginners, they spend money on items that are either totally useless for their level, or totally useless for the locks they want to pick. Either way, when something is totally useless, it's totally useless! We don't want you to waste time and money like this. We're lock pickers here and we're passionate about it. 

And if you need any more advice, just ask us here at Lock Pick World, we're always happy to help, whatever level you're at, and whatever your question - please don't be afraid to ask. We were all beginners once. So, get ready to unlock the secrets and discover the thrill of picking locks for fun, also known as, 'LockSport'.



Lock picking has experienced a significant surge as a "sport" in recent years, largely due to the widespread availability of tools and techniques facilitated by the internet. As a young teenager, I used to stare at a set of picks through the window of a shop they wouldn't even let me into because of my age.The thought of those five or six shiny steel items potentially giving me the power to open locks I didn't have the keys for seemed so exciting.I knew my nail clipper pick wasn't going to open anything else (I tried, all the time), but the proper tools, yikes!

As soon as a friend got me online in the late 1990s and I found a set of picks, I ordered them; a set of jigglers weirdly, a technique I'd 'discovered' with the telephone lock. And after some success with those I got my first proper lock pick set. Three picks, a rake, and one tension tool. And I don't think a week's gone by since when I haven't picked a lock.

The internet facilitated the availability of lock picking tools and advice on how to use them. Specialty stores like ours, which is nearly in its twentieth year, provided easy and friendly access to a wide range of high-quality Lock Picks, Electric Pick Guns, Bump Keys, Jigglers, Tension wrenches, Skeleton Keys, Practice Locks, and a host of other training aids and advice on how to make them all work. As a result, the barrier to entry for newcomers was significantly lowered, leading to a surge in interest and participation.

And here we are!


Let's start with the basics: Types of Locks.

When we receive inquiries about learning lock picking, it's essential to understand that there are various lock types. These locks may serve the same purpose of securing property, but their mechanisms differ. This distinction influences the lock picking tools and techniques required to effectively pick them.

Most lock pickers start with pin cylinders though. They're the most popular locks in the world, and most of the basic principles that you'll end up adapting to pick other locks are usually learned on pin cylinders. 


Let's have a look at some of the locks that are out there, and learn a little bit about them:

  1. Pin Cylinder Locks: The most common type of lock, featuring a cylinder with double pin stacks of varying lengths. These double pin stacks prevent the 'core' of the cylinder from turning. Inserting the correct key lifts the pins to different heights, so the split in the pin-stacks is correctly aligned so the core can turn, opening the lock.

  2. Disc Detainer Locks: These locks use rotating discs with slots or indentations that must align at specific points to open the lock.

  3. Lever Locks: Lever locks use a set of levers that must be lifted to specific heights by the correct key, allowing the bolt to move and the lock to open. Considered quite an advanced type of lock picking but there are simple one-lever locks that aren't too tricky. And not so simple five-lever, curtain protected ones.

  4. Warded Locks: Warded locks are relatively simple, consisting of obstructions (wards) that prevent keys without the correct shape from turning, providing a basic level of security. Often frighteningly simple to bypass and still used all over the place. The oldest type of lock that goes back to Egyptian times, possibly further.

  5. Tubular Locks: Tubular locks feature a cylindrical keyway with pins arranged in a circular pattern, commonly found in vending machines, bicycle locks, and some locks for residential doors. A type of pin cylinder, essentially, but in a circle rather than a straight line.

  6. Combination Locks: Combination locks require entering a specific sequence of numbers or symbols to align internal mechanisms and open the lock, commonly used on safes, lockers, and padlocks. Digital combination locks use electronic components, but these can sometimes be easily bypassed.

  7. Wafer Locks: Wafer locks use flat wafers instead of pins, which must align at specific heights to open the lock, probably most often found in vehicle locks.


Please note that these descriptions are concise summaries, and each lock type may have additional variations and features. There's also other types of locks and a host of security features aimed to prevent both destructive and non-destructive entry. For instance security pins such as Spool Pins or Serrated pins make picking pin cylinders more challenging. False gates hamper lever lock picking. This is just a basic list to familiarize you with the more popular types of locks.

You might be asking, "Why hasn't he mentioned padlocks?". A padlock is not a type of lock, it's more a type of housing. You can get padlocks that are pin cylinders, wafer, disc-detainer, lever, and so on. Do not confuse the type of lock with the type of locking mechanism.

So, to begin your journey, start with pin cylinders. Once you know your way around a pin cylinder you'll be well prepared to move on from there should you wish. For pin cylinder lock picking you'll need some picks. 

There's two basic types of pick - a 'Pick' and a 'Rake'. Although you can use some picks for raking, let's keep it simple for now and stick with Picks and Rakes.

Raking is a good technique for beginners as it's relatively easy to learn and you'll be opening locks very quickly, which is always good for morale. But to move on and learn 'lock picking proper' you'll need Picks. Lock Picking Proper is where you pick each pin individually, and for that reason is known as SINGLE PIN PICKING, or 'SPP' for short. 

Most pick sets will contain a selection of Picks and Rakes, as well as some tension tools, but we'll deal with those in a minute. for now, here's the most popular picks and rakes of the day.


NOTE: A classic mistake is to think each pick is for different locks or have a different function in the lock. They don't, it doesn't really work like that. You're picking pins and you'll find different shapes and designs of picks suit both you and the lock you're picking at that time. This is something you will learn with time and practice.


So, when you open your first pick set and twenty picks and rakes fall out, don't think they all have a different function. They're just picks and rakes and their subtle differences will become clear in time. For instance I'm often asked 'What is a half-diamond pick for?' or, 'What is a hook pick for?' and the answer both times is....for picking locks! It just depends on what lock you're working on, what problem needs solving (such as a very deep cut pin next to a shallow pin) and therefore what pick is most suited to that job. There's all sorts of factors that dictate what will be the best pick for the job, but they don't have specific, different jobs. As I said, personal preference will also dictate what pick you might choose to attack a certain lock.

A pick (or rake) is made of three basic parts, the handle, the shaft/stem, and the tip. There are of course sometimes variations to these words, but it becomes quite clear which part is which very quickly.

lock pick parts


 Here's a list of what I'd expect in a basic but decent, beginner lock pick set:

  1. Hooks: A common lock pick with a curved tip. These typically come with different lengths, depths, and thicknesses of hook at the picking tip
  2. Half Diamond Pick: A versatile pick with a half-diamond-shaped tip. 
  3. Deforest Diamond: A Half-Diamond pick with an angled stem for reaching where a standard half-diamond can't.
  4. City Rake: A rake where a fair amount of the stem looks like a city skyline. Used exclusively for raking.
  5. Bogota/B-Rake/Triple-peak Rake: Named after the mountain ranges in Bogota, Columbia, where Raimundo, who invented this superb rake is from. Only used for raking.
  6. Tension Wrenches: A tool used to apply rotational pressure on the lock's core. Without this aspect, there would be no lock picking. Often long, thin 'L' shaped pieces of metal, frequently with a twist in the shaft. We'll look into tension wrenches (also called tension tools, or simply 'tensioners') now...



A tension tool is essential in lock picking. It plays a crucial role in creating the necessary tension or rotational force required to manipulate the lock's internal components.

The tension tool is typically a thin, flat piece of metal, often resembling an L-shape or a "Z." One end of the tool is inserted into the keyway, engaging with the lock's core, while the other end provides a handle for the lock picker to apply pressure. The tool is carefully positioned to exert slight rotational pressure on the lock's core (sometimes called  the 'plug).


A selection of Bottom of Keyway (BOK) tension tools (that's the top three) and Top of Keyway tension tools (TOK) which are the two at the bottom.


Tension tools come in many forms although there's really only three basics types:

1 - Bottom of Keyway (BOK) Where the tool is inserted into the bottom of the lock's keyway.

2 - Top of Keyway (TOK) Where the tool is inserted into the top of the lock's keyway.

3 - Circular Tension Tool. These are not as commonly used as BOK and TOK wrenches, although are preferred by a lot of people for using Electric Pick Guns due to the kinetic nature of those tools.


The Basics of Locks

To begin our journey into lock picking, it's essential to understand the basic components and mechanics of locks. A typical pin cylinder lock consists of several crucial elements, including the keyway, pins, springs, and the core. The keyway is the opening where the key is inserted, while the core houses the pins and springs. As the key is inserted, the pins align at the shear line, allowing the core to turn and unlock the lock. Understanding these components will provide a solid foundation for further exploration.


Pin Cylinders have the row of pins in stacks of two pins. The pins that make contact with the key (and your picks) are called the KEY PINS and the other pin in each stack is called the DRIVER PIN as the spring 'drives' this pin onto the key pin. The driver pins prevent the core (sometimes called 'plug') of the lock from turning by sitting along the line that divides the core from the housing. The correct key will lift both the key pins and driver pins to the right height so the split in the pin stacks between the key pins and the driver pins is now perfectly aligned with the divide between the core and the housing. We call this imaginary line, the SHEARLINE.


lock picking diagram of pin cylinder


To practice lock picking effectively, you'll need a few essential tools. These tools include lock picks, tension wrenches, and a practice lock. Lock picks come in various shapes and sizes, each designed to manipulate the pins within the lock. Tension wrenches, on the other hand, apply slight rotational force to the core.

Finally, a practice lock allows you to hone your skills without the risk of damaging a working lock. Acquiring the right tools is an important step towards becoming proficient in lock picking.

Some people prefer to avoid practice or 'training' locks, but in twenty years of teaching lock picking I'm yet to find a better way to show how a lock works and how lock picking is possible.

A Repinnable and Cut-Away training lock. This lock can be repinned for different 'Biting', meaning the arrangement of different heights of pins to create a different challenge each time. Not only can you repin this lock, you can see how the key works, and also how the pins respond to your pick when learning how to pick locks.


Now that we understand the fundamentals and have the necessary tools, it's time to dive into the practical aspects of lock picking. The two primary techniques used by lock pickers are single-pin picking and raking. Single-pin picking involves manipulating each pin individually until they align at the shear line, allowing the lock to be turned.

This is where the tension tool comes in. If we're single pin picking or raking, why don't the pins just fall back into place when we pick them? Good question! When we insert a tension tool, we put a small amount of turning pressure on the core, which moves the core a fraction of a millimeter, creating a tiny ledge. When single pin picking, the aim is to get the driver pin to sit on this ledge, once all the driver pins are sitting on this ledge, the lock will open - because we're still applying tension to the tension tool.

It's much the same with raking. But instead of picking each pin individually, we rake them all at the same time, and in time, sometimes seconds, sometimes minutes, each driver pin will end up resting on the ledge, and the core will turn due to pressure on the tension tool. 

Dangerfield Serenity. A perfect beginner's set comprising of a decent selection of state-of-the-art lock picks, rakes, and both top and bottom of the keyway tension tools. Many beginner's sets try to impress with quantity, but usually at the cost of quality. This set will see you on your lock picking journey for a long while, it has everything you need.

Lock picking is an intriguing and rewarding skill that combines precision, patience, and problem-solving. This beginner's guide has provided a glimpse into the world of lock picking, offering foundational knowledge of tools and techniques. As with any skill, becoming proficient in lock picking requires practice, dedication, and a genuine interest in the craft. 

So, embrace the challenge, sharpen your skills, and unlock the captivating world of lock picking for fun.

READ NEXT: The perfect next blog for you is THE BINDING PIN PRINCIPLE

Chris Dangerfield

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