How do I start picking locks?

Hey folks,

I run a lot of lockpicking villages and such, and have a pretty big collection of locks, picks, and knowledge. A ton of people ask me how to get started, and unfortunately I don't think there are any particularly good walkthroughs of how to get the basic stuff needed to start. Since Peterson just announced their winter sale, and I've had several requests to recommend lockpicking-based Christmas gifts, I figured this would be a good time to post some info!

Lots of the advice I see is around clear (acrylic) locks and progressive locks. I'm gonna be slightly controversial here by saying: clear and progressive locks are almost universally bad for learning or training - they're badly made, unrealistic, have cheap parts, etc. They're great for learning how locks work, but not for any serious practice.

In this post, I will talk about a few things: what are the first picks you should get, what are some good locks to practice on, and what are good resources to use for learning?

If there's interest in these concepts, I may do some other posts about physical security, such as which tools you need for bypassing various types of locks. Let me know!

Picks

There are lots of brands of picks to choose from, or you can make your own. With such a plethora of choices, it's actually hard to go all that wrong, but I'll recommend two brands in particular. If any other brands want a mention and have affiliate links, let me know (just kidding - I don't want to make anything off this :) )

Picks to AVOID

The first thing I'll say is: I strongly advise against getting the cheap "all in one" kit from Amazon. There are a bunch of super cheap kits you can pick up from relatively unknown brands and sellers. They're cheap, but you get what you pay for - those picks are pretty much worthless. I've been picking consistently for years, and I can barely fit the cheap picks into a lock!

At a minimum, invest in a few tools or a kit from a well known company. So let's see who those are!

Beginner / moderately priced - Sparrows

Sparrows and Southord are both great for moderately priced and good quality picks. It's hard to go wrong with their starter kits and popular picks, but I will list individual picks that are the most useful to avoid buying unnecessary stuff. Few casual pickers need broken key removers, double-side picks, or other things that inevitably come in sets!

I'm specifically listing Sparrows here since they have more selection. But if you want to find the equivalent from Southord, you'll do fine. If you buy everything from the list below, it'll run you about USD$40, and you'll have everything you need.

I obviously can't promise that links throughout this document will work forever, so as often as possible I also give names that you can search. Feel free to email me if links stop working - ron at skullsecurity (dot net).

One thing to mention about Sparrows: they sell two variations of all picks: handles and no handles. This is a bit of a trade-off - you certainly get a better feel for what you're doing with no handles. But, if you have sweaty hands like I do, handles are mandatory. I can't hold a metal pick, period. The best compromise for handles that don't get slippery but where you can still feel everything is Peterson's, but those are more expensive. They'll be mentioned below.

Rakes

Rakes are the simpler tools to learn and use. With a rake, you jiggle the pins until the lock opens. Easy to learn and not much skill required, but it won't work on "good" locks. I'd suggest picking up these if you want to learn how to rake (they run ~USD$4.00 each) - though you don't need to know how to rake to learn how to single-pin pick:

Hooks

If you want to get a better feel for locks, you'll need to pick up a hook or two. Hooks let you feel individual pins, including security pins. I know folks who'll teach this first, since you learn locks better. You don't ever have to learn how to rake, really, you can just jump to single-pin picking with a hook.

I'd suggest pick up both of these (short is more important than steep) - they'll run you about $5 each:

Tension tools

The last thing you'll need is a tension tool (or turning tool (or tension wrench (or...))). While a hook or rake lets you manipulate pins, a tension tool will put turning pressure on a lock to ensure pins actually set.

There are two major types: bottom of the keyway and top of the keyway. This is a huge tradeoff in technique. Bottom of the keyways are by far the easiest technique, and probably the only (reasonable) tensioning technique for raking. But top of the keyway, while harder to learn, frees up a lot of space in the lock, which is better for more difficult locks. Almost all good pickers use top of the keyway - it's worth it to learn.

That being said, here is one option for each! I'd suggest picking up both, but the bottom of the keyway set is a big cheaper (~USD$6.50) than the top of the keyway set (~USD$9.50).

Carrying Cases

Sparrows also sells a variety of carrying cases, which, of course, come down to personal taste. You can also use a ziploc(tm) bag, if you want. I personally use the Comp Case for my stuff, which is ~USD$12.50. A simpler case is called the Tuxedo Case, which will run you ~USD$8.00.

Advanced - Peterson

Advanced / more expensive - Peterson

If you're willing to spend more money for better quality, I suggest Peterson picks. You'll likely spend ~twice as much, but you'll get much better quality. These are what I use.

From now until January 3, 2020 they are having a 15% off sale, so it might be worthwhile to check them out. You just have to type a long code from a blurry image into the discount box. :)

I'm also not gonna list cases here - the Sparrows are the nicest, in my opinion, but you can check out Petersons for yourself. Also, the 0.018" form factor is perfect for shimming the Disecu dial lock (for when that linked review gets taken down, this is the product). I even made a video!

Rakes

As with Sparrows, I'll start by listing rakes that I'd recommend - these are the same rakes as the Sparrows above, but have different names. These will run you ~USD$8.00. I'm listing the 0.018" versions of these, since it's my favourite. You can also get 0.015" (which is super thin and fragile, but good for narrow keyways), or 0.025" (which is thicker and can handle a lot more abuse, but also much more clumsy). A complete kit might have all three, but that's a bit extreme.

Hooks

Unlike Sparrows, I'm going to list four hooks here. Peterson sells a couple types of hook that Sparrows doesn't, and I actually use those almost exclusively now - the Gem and Hooked Diamond specifically. These hooks will all run you about $8 each. These are 0.018" - I'd also suggest getting a 0.015" set for ultra-thin keyways if you're serious. I have both, but not the 0.025".

  • Peterson Gem 0.018" - this is honestly my favourite tool, and I use it for 95%+ of all locks I open
  • Hooked Diamond 0.018" - this is my second favourite tool, and use it for the last 5% of locks. It's a weird tool, but I felt like my skills significantly upgraded the moment I started using it!
  • Hook 7 0.018" - a good versatile hook, but I find it realllly hard to use (it slips off pins really easily). I have one in my kit but rarely use it, unless I need something to set really high in the lock (which is unusual).
  • Hook 1 0.018" - a shallower hook. I don't really use this, but it's a good addition to a kit

Tension Tools

Like before, I'll list both top- and bottom of the keyway tools. I suggest top, if you're using Peterson picks already. It's worth learning. But if you're raking, you'll want some bottom of the keyway. It's hard enough to go wrong with bottom of the keyway tools that you can just get cheaper ones at Sparrows and be totally fine.

Locks

I should first note that within the category of "pin-tumbler" locks, which is all I'll be covering here, there is an expansive array of difficulty, from locks that can be opened by a beginner with a few seconds of practice, to ones that can take an expert hours.

What makes a lock easy or hard are a few factors: how precisely the mechanism is machined, how much room you have for your pick inside the lock (the warding and also the overall size), how many pins, how many security pins, the pattern of pins (like a low pin between two high ones), and the strength of the various springs. Below, I try to call out why a lock is easier or harder. Some of that is also personal - I'd much rather deal with security pins than a tight keyway.

For that reason, you want to make sure you start out with easily pickable locks then, as you get a feel for what makes a lock easier or harder (for you or in general), to expand to new ones. I personally have a collection of over 200 locks, and have a pretty good sense of how I'd order every one of them from easiest to hardest.

The locks I outline below are chosen based on my experience running lots and lots of lockpicking villages and workshops. It's the perfect starting series! I'd recommend getting several of each lock type below, and picking each of them several times, before moving on to the next "level"!

Locks - what NOT to get

I mentioned earlier that it's best to avoid clear and progressive locks beyond learning how locks work mechanically. I'll expand on that a bit.

Clear / acrylic locks are made really, really badly. If you've ever seen a pile of acrylic bits at a lockpicking village, it's probably the remnants of a lock that fell apart in somebody's hand. In addition to being weakly made, they use exceedingly generous pins and pinning. I can pick a 6-pin acrylic lock with my eyes closed and minimal effort - way easier than even the easiest real lock. That means you aren't going to learn anything good. Conversely, I also have a couple acrylic locks that have wound up in near-unpickable situations - the core is jammed or a pin is jammed or something, I don't even know, but I need to bend my tension tool almost in half to get any pins to set.

Likewise, several companies sell progressive cylinders. While those can be good for getting some easy victories and getting a feel for tension, they also have several problems: they're painful to hold, they use obnoxious keyways (the TOOOL ones use a tight Yale keyway that I still struggle with!), and they aren't the form factor of most locks you'll actually pick. I assume this is all for expense reasons - progressively pinned locks in a common padlock form factor would be much nicer, but nobody makes those.

A few more things to avoid:

  • Expensive or "good" locks - you don't want to struggle (at least at first!) with a high security lock
  • Cheap or "crappy" locks - you can get these awful unbranded locks at gas stations that feel like they're full of sand. They grind and barely open with a key. Sometimes not even that. Stick to locks with a trusted brandname, at least
  • Tiny locks - the ones for luggage, for example, have absolutely no space to get your tools in. Don't struggle with those (at first)

In general, anything you can find at the local Walmart/Target/etc will be perfect. Look for brands like Master and Brink's, and for locks that are under $10/each.

Locks - what TO get

With all that aside, I really would recommend buying one or two acrylic locks for the purposes of understanding how locks work, and avoiding progressives altogether. Once you get a feel for how to turn and set pins in an acrylic lock, stick it on the shelf as a conversation piece (or teaching tool!) and move on to some padlocks.

What kind of padlocks, you're wondering? Let's find out!

When picking out padlocks to learn picking on, you generally want a couple of each type with different keys (and, preferably, from different manufacturing batches - which means at a minimum, not bought as a set). Why? A big part of picking is getting a feel for an individual lock. Sometimes pins set from the front to back, or back to front, or they're cut high, or low, or loose, or tight, or whatever. Due to manufacturing tolerances, especially on cheap locks, they're all special and unique. Something something snowflake. You'll want to get good at a few examples of each lock before you can really say you've mastered it.

Here are the simplest locks that I recommend, in the order you should learn them:

  • One clear acrylic lock - for understanding the mechanism
  • A few (3-4+) Master 141d (~USD$7.00 each) - they're the easiest lock to open, they're the worst made, they are exceedingly generous with how much tension is needed, it's really easy to fit in a pick, and they're cheap. Get lots of these, and get pro at opening them! I personally own at least 20 in different fun colours :)
  • A couple (2-3) Master 3D (~USD$8.00 each) - these are locks you see everywhere! The style, which you'll undoubtedly recognize from cheap locks everywhere, is called "laminated locks". These are inexpensive and super easy to pick, but are also hardy - many other laminated locks that you can find at the gas station or 7-11 will just rust or fall apart on you. The only security feature they have that is missing from the 141d is a tighter keyway.
  • A couple (2-3) Master 140d (~USD $7.00 each) - you'll also see these everywhere, if you start looking! The style of these is generally just called "brass-bodied locks", or just "brass". These are starting to get a little trickier, since they have what are called "security pins" or "spool pins". But those pins are made badly enough that 9 locks out of 10 you won't even notice them. Still, a good and gentle introduction to slightly more technical locks!
  • A couple Brinks 40mm brass (~USD $16.00 for a pack of two, I can't find singles on Amazon) - if you don't use my link, make sure you get the 40mm style - the 50mm ones have an extra pin! You can do those later :) These are a slightly harder version of Master 140ds - they are built to tighter tolerances, and have more obvious spool pins.
  • A couple Brink's Laminated (~USD $14.00 each) - these will have the deepest and more obvious spool pins you'll find on an easier lock! If you can master these, you can start working on harder locks with security pins. These are my favourite for teaching how to deal with spools!

A word of warning: because every lock is different, you'll occasionally get a really hard version of some. If you have 3-4 of the same lock and can't pick one of them, you might have just gotten a particularly bad one. Put it on your shed and grab a new one! :)

If you are able to open all of those, look for 50mm versions of the brass locks - they're comparable, but have 5 pins instead of 4. It took me a long time before I could reliably open a 50mm brass padlock from Master, so you should have lots to work on.

Once you can do all of those, you can start looking for locks in your local hardware store. Brink's and Master both make a great range of easy, medium, and difficult locks!

Learning resources

Since this is more of a text than a video format, I don't want to dedicate much space to describing how to actually pick. I will, however, give some links to resources that I find helpful.

You're gonna laugh, but I learned how to pick from a 1991 whitepaper and, much later, the Visual Guide to Lockpicking.

These days, it's actually not super easy for me to give resources, because in all honesty I learn pretty much everything from folks at conferences or lockpick meetups or whatever. If you're able to make it to in-person events, definitely do that - check meetup.com for local lockpicking meetups, see if TOOOL or other groups have a local chapter, stuff like that. Also bring your picks (and perhaps locks) to conferences you attend, whether they're the big ones (like Defcon) or small ones (like BSides, The Long Con (that's just self promotion), etc.).

If you aren't able to learn in person, then YouTube is probably your best bet. LockPickingLawyer and Bosnianbill have great channels that cover a wide range of locks and how to open them in a variety of ways.

The guides and books I mentioned above are probably still apt, as well. The best thing I can say if you're new to picking is: be gentle! It takes a lot less turning tension than you'd think to pick a lock. Almost every beginner does it badly.

FAQ

What direction does [lock] turn?

Almost every lock is clockwise (with the exception of door locks, which can go either direction). If you have a key, it goes in the same direction as the key.

What are the "rules" of the sport/hobby?

While there aren't specific RULES rules, since it's not typically formal or competitive, the golden rule is: don't pick a lock that's in use or that isn't yours. While it's reallllly unlikely, picking a lock can jam or weaken it. Last thing you want is to ruin somebody's lock!

Does shackle length, weather shrouds, shackle armour, etc. matter?

No, not for picking - other than sometimes getting in the way so you can't insert tools properly, they have identical internal mechanisms

What types of locks exist?

The most common locks, by far, are pin-tumbler locks. They're the ones in your door, on your shed, etc. You can recognize them by the familiar shape and key. The only type of lock that's similar is a wafer lock, which is probably on your filing cabinet and car door. They're effectively the same for picking (though it's easier to rake a wafer lock), they just work a bit differently.

Some other locks you'll see around are:

  • Warded - there's no core to turn like in a pin-tumbler; instead, there's a lever on the inside that you need to move. This is a very common example.
  • Tubular - round locks that you see on drink machines, among other things
  • Disk detainer - the best I can describe these is that they have notched keys. Like this. You'll probably recognize them from bike locks, most commonly

These all require special tools, which is beyond the scope of this post.

What's the difference between padlocks and door locks?

The mechanism in both locks - provided they're pin-tumbler style - is roughly the same. There are some small differences, such as size, the direction you pick, how they're mounted, and that door locks don't automatically spring back to "locked". So you might want to add some dead bolts to your collection!

All in all, though, if you learn to pick on padlocks, you'll know how to pick doors - the only difference is how they're mounted.

What are the laws related to this?

Laws vary by country and state. They're legal in most of Canada and the US, but definitely look up local laws. Especially if you aren't in those countries.

Can I fly with picks?

Yes! TSA specifically ALLOWS picks in both checked and carried-on bags!

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