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How To Pick A Lock - The Ultimate Guide to Learning Lock Picking

How to Pick a Lock: The Ultimate Guide

Are you ready to learn how to pick a lock?

Is that a yes?

Good because this beginner's guide has helped thousands learn the art of lock picking and it will help you too!

Picking locks is not rocket science and with a little knowledge, practice, and a decent set of lock picking tools, you’ll learn how to pick a lock very quickly. That I promise.

As you will come to see, locks are extremely stupid creatures that put up little defense against anyone trying to pick them.

With that, let's get started!

Introduction to Lock Picking

So what is lock picking?

Lock picking is a non-destructive way to bypass a lock without using a key. This can be done through a variety of different ways lock picking techniques, such as single pin picking and raking; however, each technique has the same goal in mind—to mimic the action of the key.

But in order to mimic a key, we must understand how a key works in a lock. This is done by first understanding how the locking mechanism itself works.

There are many different types of locks utilized today, but all are based on fairly simple concepts—remember, locks are stupid creatures. For the purpose of this guide, we will be focusing on the most basic and commonly used lock, the pin tumbler lock.

The pin tumbler makes up about 90% of locks used today and is what you will find on about every deadbolt, door lock, and padlock. They are extremely simple in their design and essentially 6,000-year-old technology.

Is Lock Picking Easy?

It is also often thought that learning how to pick a lock requires some Zen-like focus. That you must sit quietly in some candlelit room for hours upon hours to find any success at picking a lock.

But, in fact, it is quite the opposite.

Lock picking is easy to learn and apply, and in a short amount of time, you can learn all the basic lock picking concepts and techniques. While some locks are more difficult to pick than others, a fundamental understanding of lock picking can help you pick the majority of the locks used today.

How a Pin Tumbler Lock Works

To master the art of lock picking, we need to fully understand the vocabulary and components of the pin tumbler lock.

With this knowledge, we will truly understand how a lock works and how it can be manipulated with lock picks!

Parts of a Lock

The pin tumbler lock is made up of 6 primary components.

Let's quickly go over each of them!

The Cylinder

The cylinder of the lock is nothing more than a little container that “houses” the rest of the components. This part is typically what slides into a door or padlock.

The cylinder creates the upper limit of the shear line and can also be referred to as the shell, housing, or body of the lock.

The Cylinder of a Pin Tumbler Lock

The Plug

The Plug of a Pin Tumbler Lock - Lock Picking Theory

The plug is a cylinder that rotates freely within the housing, creating a rotational shear line.

The front of the plug is also where the key is inserted and on the back is either a cam or tailpiece which retracts the latch and opens the lock when rotated. The plug creates the bottom limit of the shear line!

The Shear Line

The shear line is nothing more than the gap between the cylinder and the plug. It is the conceptual line in which the plug rotates in the housing. If this line is obstructed in any way, the plug and cylinder will become “locked” to each other and the plug will not turn. 

Only when the shear line has been cleared of any obstructions will the plug once again be able to rotate freely. The shear line is one of the most important concepts to understand when it comes to lock picking!

The Shear Line of a Pin Tumbler Lock

Key Pins

The Key Pins of a Pin Tumbler Lock

In the pin tumbler lock, there are typically two types of pins. The key pins are the lower set and have the task of reading the cuts of the key. This is done by using a variety of different length pins and then cutting a key that matches those lengths.

If you look at any key, you will notice that there are high spots and low spots. These spots are what we call “cuts,” and in a moment, we will see the role they play in how the lock works!

Driver Pins

The driver pins are the upper set of pins whose job is to obstruct the shear line.

They are basically the pencil from our simple lock above! Unlike the key pins, the driver pins are usually all the same length.

The Driver Pins of a Pin Tumbler Lock

The Springs

The Springs of a Pin Tumbler Lock

Last up is the springs and they have two jobs. Their first job is to force everything down into the plug and keep the driver pins at the shear line when there is no key in the lock. Their second job is to push the key pins against the key, which helps read the cuts.

Without the springs, the pins could get stuck anywhere in the pin chamber, which could make using a key impossible.

Alright, now that you understand the core components of the pin tumbler, let’s take a look at how everything works together to make a fully functioning lock!

The following animation illustrates the pin tumbler lock in action!

How a Key Works - Lock Picking Theory

As you can see, when the key is shoved into the plug, it pushes upward on the key pins. Because the biting of the key and the lengths of the key pins have been cut to match, the key pins will rise flush with the shear line causing the driver pins to exit the plug fully.

When the gap between the key pins and the driver pins is precisely that of the shear line, the key can rotate the plug to disengage the lock.

In short, the key has removed all obstructions—the pins—from the shear line!

By understanding this process, we can begin to see what we have to accomplish to pick a lock.

In essence, lock picking is simply the act of mimicking the key by manipulating the pins to the same state they would be at if the correct key were inserted.

But how do we do that? How can we hope to keep four or five pins from obstructing the shear line without the constant pressure of the key? How do we keep them from falling back into the plug?

The answer is pretty cool!

Why Can Locks Be Picked

Nothing is perfect. Nothing can be produced without its flaws or some variation from its ideal design. Everything is designed with tolerance in mind.

No two locks, pins, nor springs are the same. They will always vary in some way from each other and their original design.

It is because of these flaws in production that we are able to manipulate and bypass locks.

During the production of the plug, the key pin chambers are drilled down an imaginary centerline so that they are lined up perfectly with each other. But again nothing is perfect. Each hole drilled has some variation from both the true center-line and from each other hole.

The quality of the lock greatly depends upon the quality and care that is put into drilling these holes. Cheaper locks will generally have a greater variation between holes than higher-quality locks.

In any case, this variation can be as slight as a thousandth of an inch. However, it’s because of this tiny distortion that we gain our ability to pick locks.

A Lock's Plug in a Perfect World

Perfectly produced lock plug. All chamber holes run perfectly down the centerline of the plug

An Example of a Real World Plug

An exaggerated example of a real lock plug. All chamber holes vary in distance from the true center-line of the plug.

But how do misaligned holes help us pick locks?

There is a concept that we lock pickers call "binding." Imagine sticking a screwdriver into the keyway of a lock and trying and rotate the plug like it was a key. But because the driver pins are still at the shear line they will stop the rotation of the plug and in the process become bound between the housing and the plug. This is binding.

However, because of inaccurate drilling, some pins will bind before others. The furthest pin off-center in the direction of rotation will be the first pin to bind and stop the rotation of the plug. This pin that is the first to bind is what we call "the binding pin."

An Example of How the First Binding Pin Binds

Key Takeaway: Because perfection is impossible, the pin chambers on the plug are drilled off-center. This creates a binding defect when the plug is rotated. Because there is a binding defect, one pin will bind before the rest and with more force. This pin is called the binding pin.

If you have to, read through this section once more and be absolutely certain that you understand the concept of the binding pin, and maybe check out our dedicated article on binding order. As you'll see in a moment the binding pin is the literal key to lock picking!

With an understanding of these two basic concepts, we can, at last, begin to take our first practical steps in learning to pick a door lock or any lock for that matter.

Lock Picking Tools 101

Lock picking tools are often one of the most confusing and daunting parts of getting started in this awesome craft.

But the truth is, you don't need very many tools to get started or progress at lock picking. Even advanced pickers only use a few different picks—even if they own hundreds of tools to choose from.

When it comes to picking the pin tumbler lock, there are only three different types of tools:

  1. Hooks
  2. Rakes
  3. The Tension Wrench

Let's briefly cover each and look at a good beginner set that has everything you need to get a running start at lock picking!

1. Hooks

Hooks are narrow and pointy types of lock picks that are very pinpoint and precise within the lock. This precision makes them ideal weapons for single pin picking where you are required to locate and manipulate one pin at a time.

Peterson GSP Hook 1 - Black HandlePeterson GSP Hook 1 - Black Handle Lock Pick

There are a variety of different styles of hooks that range from different lengths to different shapes. However, all perform the same task of manipulating individual pins one at a time.

The absolute best hook to start with is the standard short hook as shown above!

2. Rakes

Rakes are basically the opposite of the hook. They are typically erratic looking and are designed with a ton of humps and bumps that helps them manipulate as many pins as possible in the shortest amount of time. This makes them ideal for raking where you rapidly and randomly pull them across the pins with the goal of setting multiple pins at once.

Peterson GSP Bogie 2 - Black Handle Lock Pick

Just like the hook, there is a wide variety of rakes. However, all perform the same task of manipulating multiple pins at the same time.

The absolute best rake to start with as a beginner is the Bogota as shown above!

3. Tensioning Tools

Funny enough the most important lock picking tool is one very few non-lock pickers know about.

It's called the tension wrench or turning tool!

The tensioning tool is used to apply torque to the plug and bind the pins. Without this tool, picking a lock is impossible.

Introduction to the tension wrench - how to use the tension wrench

Beginner Lock Pick Set

If you are looking for your first lock picking set, my recommendation is the GSP Ghost Pick Set.

Peterson GSP Ghost Lock Pick Set - Best Lock Pick SetIt provides you with an excellent selection of lock picks and tensioning tools—all of which are in surgical grade 420 stainless steel. The lock picks also include plastic molded handles that will keep the picks from digging into your fingers.

If the GSP Ghost lock pick set doesn't tickle your pickle, I would highly suggest looking for a set that has a similar setup!

Before we move on I do wish to note that it's far better to own a few high-quality lock picks than it is to own a bunch of crappy ones. Buy quality and stay far away from Amazon lock picking sets!

See Also: Where To Buy Lock Picks: Ultimate Buyer's Guide

If the lock you are trying to pick has a wide-open keyway, you can easily get away using bobby pins or paperclips.

For those techniques, consider checking out the following guides!

You now have your lock picking tools, it's time to get down and dirty!

Using the Tension Wrench

It's finally time to learn how to use your first tool—the tension wrench!

This little guy does two very important things:

  1. Firstly, it gives you the leverage you need to rotate the plug and create a binding pin. Remember, the binding pin is the key to lock picking.
  2. Secondly, it holds the pins that you lift with your pick above the shear line—much like the key!

Here is how it works!

You begin by placing the tension wrench into the bottom of the keyway and applying a very light degree of force in the direction that the key would turn to disengage the lock—typically clockwise.

Also, by light force, I mean something similar to the amount of force that it takes to press a key on your keyboard. It's that light.

Applying Tension to a lock

This light degree of force—or tension—is typically enough to create a binding pin. This is where you learn the importance of the binding pin!

See Also: Light vs. Heavy Tension: Benefits & Best Uses

If you take a pick and lift that binding pin to the shear line—or the height that the correct key would lift it to—the bind will break and the plug will continue to rotate ever so slightly until it binds on another pin—the next binding pin.

However, something really cool also happens!

Because the plug slightly rotates when the driver pin passes the shear line, there is a small ledge that is produced by the plug that the driver pin can set on. This is called "setting a pin" and as a result, the driver pin stays above the shear line and out of the plug!

To help fully understand setting a pin, check out the animation below!

We pick a standard pin by applying tension and pushing it to the shear line. Once at the shear line, the plug will rotate and the pin will set on top of the plug

So now that we know what we are trying to accomplish inside the lock, let’s get down to it. Take your tension wrench and insert the shorter end into the lower part of the keyhole.

While not always necessary, we sometimes need to determine in which direction the lock opens. To accomplish this apply pressure to the tension wrench clockwise and then counterclockwise. The plug should turn slightly both ways before it stops.

As you rotate the plug both ways, focus on how the tension wrench feels as it stops. If it feels stiff and has little give, this is likely the wrong direction of rotation. Whereas the right direction of rotation will feel mushy and give a little more. Something else to keep in mind is some cheaper locks will open in whichever way you rotate the plug, such as the majority of padlocks.

Once we are aware of which way the plug turns we can begin to put tension on the wrench in that direction.

The amount of tension we exert is key to successfully picking the lock. If we exert too much pressure the pins will bind below the shear line. If we don’t use enough tension the pins will simply fall back into the plug. Developing this feel for the tension wrench is the primary skill involved in picking a lock.

See Also: The Tension Wrench - Everything You Need to Know

A general rule of thumb when using the tension wrench is to use one finger and start with the slightest touch, increasing pressure as you find it necessary. As we apply slight tension to the plug, the binding pin will begin to bind. The next step is to find this pin and push it above the shear line.

With that, let's finally move on and learn our first lock picking technique.

How to Pick a Lock with Single Pin Picking

So now that we know all this mumbo jumbo we can finally address the task at hand, picking a lock. While there are multiple basic lock picking techniques that you can use to pick a lock, we are first going to look at the method called single pin picking — also known as SPP.

Using this technique, we bump each individual pin up one at a time using a hook-type lock pick.

While single pin picking locks is not the fastest nor easiest technique, it is the best in regards to learning how to pick a padlock or door lock as it gives us a better understanding of exactly what is going on inside a lock.

Obtaining this understanding can be the difference between the mediocre and the master.

With that being said, let’s give it a shot.

Step 1: Apply Tension to Create the First Binding Pin

Remember, to set pins at the shear line and successfully pick a lock, you have to apply light rotational pressure to the plug and create your first binding pin

To do so, start by inserting the short end of your tension wrench into the bottom of the keyway and applying very light tension to the plug. Be certain to maintain this pressure on your tension wrench throughout the entire process of picking the lock.

Step 2: Locate the First Binding Pin

Now that you have created your first binding pin, you have to find it! But how?

Because the binding pin will have more "binding" force on it than the other pins, the binding pin will be stiffer and harder to lift than the other non-binding pins. So basically, you are just looking for a pin that is not loose!

Insert your hook type pick into the keyway and push it all the way to the back of the lock until you locate the rearmost pin. Very gently begin to raise each pin and gauge how it feels.

Continue to probe each pin until you find the pin that doesn't feel like the others and is more difficult to move.

Locate the binding pin

Step 3: Lift and Set the First Binding Pin

Now that you have found the first binding pin, you have to set it!

Gently lift the binding pin until you feel a slight rotation on the plug or hear an audible click. Either of these two indicators typically indicates a successfully set driver pin!

Step 4: Locate and Set the Second Binding Pin

You have located and set your first binding pin, but now the lock is binding on a new pin.

Repeat the same steps of gently lifting each pin until you once again locate another pin that feels stiff and difficult to move. As before, gently continue to raise that pin until you feel a slight rotation on the plug or hear an audible click.

Step 5: Repeat the Process of Locating and Setting Binding Pins

Continue the process of locating binding pins and lifting them to the shear line. Once every pin has been set, there will no longer be any obstruction to the shear line the plug will fully rotate and the lock will open!

You have just picked your first lock!

Lock Picking - Single Pin Picking

Note: If you can no longer find a binding pin, you have likely overset or underset a pin. Release the tension to let the pins drop and restart the process over again. If you still can't find a binding pin, try applying slightly more force to the plug!

Additionally, check out our guide to honing your single pin picking skills.

How to Pick a Lock with Raking

One of the easiest ways to pick a lock is called raking.

Raking is a very volatile and radical style of picking whose goal is to bump as many pins to the shear line as possible in the quickest amount of time.

While it can be a lot of fun and is a very quick method of bypassing many basic locks, it will only get you so far and can become almost worthless when you start getting into locks with additional security features such as sidebars and security pins.

There are several different types of raking. The method we are going to cover is called scrubbing and is basically the same motion as brushing our teeth!

Step 1: Apply Tension to Create a Binding Pin

The first step is once again creating a binding pin.

Insert the short end of your tension wrench into the bottom of the keyway and apply a very light turning pressure to the plug!

Step 2: Insert Lock Pick and Scrub the Pins

Next, insert your rake into the keyway and push it all the way to the back of the lock and gently lift upward so that your pick slightly raises the pins.

With a decent amount of speed begin to scrub the pins as if you are scrubbing the top of your teeth with your toothbrush. Change the angle, the height, and the speed of your pick as you rake

If the lock doesn't open within 10 seconds, release tension to reset the lock begin again. It's very common to have to reset the lock several times before you successfully rake a lock.

Continue to scrub the pins until the plug fully rotates and the lock opens!

If you still can't manage to rake your lock, try to apply slightly heavier or lighter tension. Raking is truly more about applying the right tension than it is about lock pick control!

Lock Picking With A Bogota Rake

Important Note: Be careful with your tension with raking. While you can get away with heavier tension during single pin picking, too much tension while raking can result in a broken pick.

The Legality of Lock Picking

The greatest deterrent of those interested in lock picking is not the skill itself, but its legality. In the eyes of society, lock picking has an extremely negative bias attached to it.

It is because of this bias that many people believe that owning lock picks must be unlawful. But in truth, owning and utilizing a set of lock picks is legal in most states and countries, so long as you have permission from the owner of the lock.

For those living in the United States, here is an interactive map containing current lock picking laws. Hover over your state to check the legality of possessing lock picks and click to read relevant law excerpts.

Also, be sure to check out our awesome new article that goes in more depth about the legality of lock picking. It's not too long and is totally worth the read. Knowing your laws is the best way to protect yourself against an unfortunate situation with the law! Stay safe!


Please Note: This chart is specific to lock pick possession. Also, note that we are not lawyers and do not offer legal advice. We do our best to represent the current laws on this chart and keep it updated, however, do not guarantee its accuracy.

Wrapping It Up!

I hope this article successfully helped you learn how to pick a lock and revealed to you that lock picking is not as difficult as it may first seem.

That lock picking is nothing more than taking advantage of manufacturing defects and mimicking the function of the key!

I hope you see that getting started in the awesome craft doesn't require a ton of tools. A high-quality lock pick set with a few good picks and tensioning tools is all you need to start slaying locks and progress at this amazing hobby.

Lock picking can be a very rewarding skill and I truly hope you pursue it beyond this simple guide. Be sure to check out our Academy for many more guides and articles like this one!

If you liked this guide, be sure to share it with your friends and if you have any questions or comments, be sure to leave those below!

Happy Picking!

Best Beginner Set!

GSP Ghost Lock Pick Set

Peterson GSP Ghost Lock Pick Set - Best Lock Pick Set
  • "I own several sets of lock picks including Sparrows and SouthOrd and while I love those sets nothing truly compares to these picks.The handles are an absolute luxury that I will never again be able to go without!"
    Nick R.
  • "I think this set is worth every penny. I don’t have a single complaint and have yet to come across a lock that I cannot tackle with the lock picks provided."
    Christopher B.
  • "Art of Lock Picking has truly been a great help in learning lock picking. I ran across their lock picking guide, bought these picks per recommendation of that guide and have opened everything I have stuck my picks in so far. Can’t wait to see what I am picking in a few months!"
    Harith J.
Check out the ghost set
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