Many people believe that lockpicking is a cryptic skill only prodigies can master. Every heist movie seems to have a nerdy lockpicking specialist who’s brought in to open the vault, and he usually requires specific conditions to work his wizardry — he might even close his eyes or listen to Mozart. “This concept of opening locks through magic feel is bullsh*t. It’s not that esoteric,” said the instructor of a recent private lockpicking workshop I attended. This instructor, who I’ll call John, didn’t want any time in the spotlight, but he was happy to pass along the knowledge he has accumulated while studying under well-known mentors such as Deviant Ollam. Rather than a mystical art, John showed us that lockpicking is a repeatable science that can be learned by anyone with enough practice.
Above: Some of the locks and tools John brought for us to practice with. Don’t get stuck in the comfort zone of easy locks and basic tools — keep trying new challenges.
The lockpicking workshop consisted of two full days of hands-on drills. Each student had the opportunity to start with basic locks and techniques and work up to more challenging obstacles. After studying the components of a pin tumbler lock, we learned how to disassemble and reassemble practice locks, examining the guts firsthand. Next, we discussed tools. John recommends starting with a set of six 0.025-inch-thick picks: short hook, medium hook, half diamond, spoon curve, and quad and quint wave rakes. These should be paired with six turners/tension wrenches: three sizes designed for use at the top of the keyway, and three for the bottom of the keyway. That’s all you need to get started. Buy a quality set and skip the 99-piece kits that have a bunch of items you’ll never need.
Lockpicking requires patience and finesse. Tools should be held delicately like a pencil or chopstick, not in a clenched fist. It may be useful to hold one finger of your picking hand against the face of the lock; this provides more precise control over depth as you move from one pin to the next. Begin picking while applying heavy tension, and slowly back off. This will help you find the binding order of the pins. The first pin that feels “sticky” under tension is the first you need to set. If you’re struggling, a Lishi tool (look it up) is an extremely useful device that can help you check binding order in a methodical manner.
Once we got comfortable with single-pin skills, we explored some faster but potentially less reliable methods. These included raking (repeated in/out motions with wave rakes), zipping (a quick back-to-front pulling motion with a half diamond), and bumping (repeatedly tapping in a jagged bump key while applying tension). I had never tried bump keys before, so I was surprised how quickly I got the hang of them.
We tested ourselves on progressive practice locks, starting with 3-pin setups that practically opened themselves and moving up to 5- and 6-pin setups. We also practiced with real padlocks, such as cheap MasterLocks (ridiculously easy) and Brinks 4-pin locks. The latter was our first introduction to security pins, since it included one spool pin that made setting a little more difficult by inducing a false set. Schlage and Kwikset door locks and deadbolts were also provided on wood stands, forcing us to work our picking techniques from new angles.
Above: The DIY short hook and tension wrench I made from scrap metal. Making your own tools teaches you what qualities to look for (or avoid) in off-the-shelf tools.
By the end of the two-day workshop, I walked away feeling much more confident in my single-pin skills as well as my ability to deal with multiple security pins and odd picking positions. For our overnight homework assignment, I even made my own pick and tension tool from hardware store items (a stainless steel slide rule and a hacksaw blade). They worked well enough to become permanent additions to my covert entry kit, along with some new “super bump keys” from RedTeamTools.com.
I’m thankful to John for sharing his time and knowledge with us, and even though I can’t refer you to him directly, I’d encourage you to go watch some Deviant Ollam videos and push the limits of your lockpicking comfort zone. Whether you’re helping a locked-out neighbor get back into their house or opening a padlock after its keys were misplaced, you don’t have to be a magician to benefit from this useful skill.