Lock Picks: Shop Now!
My Account
Art of Lock Picking - Learn The Craft of Lock Picking!

Lock Picking Tension Wrenchs and Turning Tools

It is said that lock picking is 90% how you use your tension wrenches and turning tools and 10% everything else.

I agree.

With the exception of practice, tensioning is the single most important aspect of lock picking, yet it is the most overlooked and undervalued. Without the feedback tensioning provides, we are but lost souls, forever probing the dark depths of the lock looking for any sign of life, yet finding none.

The purpose of the guide below is to fully educate you on every possible aspect of lock picking turning tools so that you are 100% certain that you are buying the right tools for you.

We'll begin by covering the basics of tension wrenches, including their purpose, the different types available, and the situations in which various types are ideal. Then we’ll jump into some buying tips, recommendations on which types to start with, and guidance on using tension effectively to improve your lock picking skills.

By the end of this guide, you’ll know more about tension wrenches than a caffeinated squirrel knows about burying acorns.

What Are Tension Tools?

For we lock pickers, feedback—that is, the vibrations, clicks, and friction that we feel while picking—is our 6th sense. It is our mind's eye painting a picture of what is occurring within the lock as we poke and prod with our picks.

Feedback is everything and is what speaks to us as pickers. The lock wants to be picked, and it is telling us how to do it—we just have to learn how to listen.

Tension provides us pickers with more feedback than all other aspects of lock picking combined. The ability to listen and interpret this feedback is the difference between novice and masterful picking.

What Are Tension Tools For?

A tension tool is used to apply a controlled turning pressure to the lock's plug while picking its pins. The tension allows the picker to set pins in place, preventing them from being pushed back down by the lock's springs. The bread and butter of any lock pick kit, tension tools come in various styles, sizes, and lengths.

Why Do I Need a Tension Tool?

Using a tension tool is crucial to the success of lock picking, as it constitutes a significant part of the proper technique. In fact, it is often said that lock picking is 90% about tensioning and 10% about everything else. Without a tension tool, it would be nearly impossible to set the pins correctly and successfully pick a lock.

Main Types of Tension Tools

Turning tools are essential, and understanding their types and applications is crucial for their effective use. Tension wrenches come in various sizes, shapes, and materials to suit different lock types and user preferences.

Some common designs include:

  • Tension Wrench
  • TOK Turning Tools (Prybar)
  • Feather Touch Tension Tool
  • Dual Prong
  • Circular Tension Tools

Among these tools, the Tension Wrench and TOK Prybar stand out as the most popular, useful, and vital tools to have in your toolkit.

Let’s dive into these two primary tension tools and learn how they work, and in which situations they are best.

The Tension Wrench

The tension wrench is a very simple creature that is typically nothing more than a flat strip of steel that has been bent to a 90-degree angle and consists of both a short and long end.

The shorter end is typically long enough to enter at least halfway into the length of the keyway. This is the section of our wrench that will act similarly to the blade of the key and turn the plug.

The longer end will act as a lever that we pickers will use to apply force to the plug.
Introduction to the tension wrench - how to use the tension wrench
The tension wrench is designed and intended to be used at the bottom of the keyway (BOK) and is the ideal tool for picking a lock in your hand.

It is by far the most common turning tool found today and is the bread and butter of any good lock pick set.

There are tons of variations of the tension wrench from its style, size, and length. Lets look at these different variations.

The Three Types of Tension Wrenches

So we now have a solid understanding of the pros and cons of the tension wrench, but what about their characteristics?

Why are there several different types of tension wrenches and what is the difference between their slight variations?

Before we tackle the nitty-gritty details, let’s start by breaking the tension wrench up into three different types:

  1. The Straight Wrench
  2. The Twisty Wrench
  3. The Double-Ended Wrench

1. The Straight Tension Wrench

First up is the straight tension wrench! This little guy is nothing more than a flat piece of steel with a 90-degree bend applied to a single end.

The Straight Tension Wrench

Now to fully understand the purpose and power of the straight wrench, it is absolutely critical that we understand three things:

  1. Our turning tools provide us with more feedback---vibrations---than any other factor in lock picking.
  2. We as pickers want to do everything in our power to use a turning tool that will provide us with the most feedback possible.
  3. The turning tool that will provide us with the most feedback possible will be one that is the thickest and stiffest.

This third point is where the straight tension wrench shines brightest!

Because the straight wrench is a straight piece of metal it will not flex and will remain rigid while you apply torque to it, thus providing you with a maximum degree of feedback!

I understand that it can be kinda hard to put this into context without something to compare it to. So let's take a look at a tool that is the exact opposite of the straight tension wrench.

Something that is thin, floppy, and springy -- the twisty wrench!

2. The Twisty Wrench

You may recognize these tensioning tools that have a 90-degree twist down the shaft. They are very popular and common in many lock picking sets.

The Twisty Tension Wrench

While these twisted wrenches have their benefits — which we'll touch on in a moment –, they are absolutely the worst wrench you could use to develop your skills. The reason being is that the twist acts as a spring and dampens the vibrations moving through the wrench.

To better illustrate this, think of the springs and shocks used in the suspension system of a car. If you were to hit a pothole, the springs will absorb and dampen the vibrations you feel as a driver. However, if you were to take out the springs and drive over that same pothole… well, let’s just say you as a driver would know you hit it.

Remember that when it comes to picking, feedback is everything. We want to feel every pothole, speed bump, and potential crack in the road as we metaphorically drive our lock picks up and down the pins of a lock.

So if the straight (non-twisty) tension wrench provides us with better feedback, why then would we ever use a twisty wrench?

Well, it can provide us with a pretty cool advantage that I like to call variable tension.

Because these wrenches have the ability to flex, the amount of tension being applied to the core can be controlled by us — the picker — AND, in some small degree, by the lock.

Depending on how we affect the lock with our pick, variable tension allows the core of the plug to more easily fight back – or what we call counter-rotate – and balance the forces on the lock. This is can be extremely helpful in situations like raking where the ability for the pins to slightly control the tension is way more important than feeling feedback.

Another slight benefit is that the twisty wrench can be more comfortable to use because your finger is resting on the flat side of the wrench rather than the edge.

3. The Double-Ended Wrench

Last up is the double-ended tension wrench.

This little guy is really nothing more than two straight tension wrenches packed up into one tool.

The Double-Ended Tension Wrench

Naturally, this 2-in-1 tool can give us the advantage of carrying fewer tension wrenches and can really cut down on the bulk of our everyday carry lock pick sets.

However, this benefit typically comes with a catch.

Because they are made out of a single piece of metal, both sides are typically the same thickness and width -- making them identical in size. As you can see in the image above, the only difference between each side is usually the length.

So really the only question that remains is, "why is there a short end and a long end?"

Let's explore that next!

Longer vs. Shorter Tension Wrenches

If you pick up any set of tension wrenches, you'll likely notice that the tip that goes into the keyway will come in a variety of different lengths.

There is no better contrast to this variety than with the double-ended tension wrench as seen above.

So what is the purpose of longer and shorter wrenches and when should we utilize each?

Shorter Tension Wrenches

When using a tension wrench, you want to take up as little room in the keyway as possible. This also includes how far into the keyway your tension wrench reaches.

In most locks, you don't want your tension wrench to reach more than halfway into the keyway.

This is because the rearmost pins in the lock require the most leverage to lift.

The Tension Wrench - Leverage Behind Wrench

If you take up too much room in the rear of the keyway with the tension wrench, you may not have the leverage you need to fully lift and set a pin.

This is the sole purpose of shorter tension wrenches. To give you just enough metal to tension the lock, but little enough to still be able to maneuver your pick in the rear of the lock!

Longer Tension Wrenches

Master Lock 911 - Recessed KeywaySo if we ideally want to take up as little room in the keyway as possible, why would we ever need a longer tension wrench?

The reality is, there are quite a few locks that have some very strange features, including recessed keyways or something extruding from the face of the lock that would block our tension wrench.

In a nutshell, some locks need a tension wrench with a longer reach to appropriately and successfully tension them.

The Master Lock 911 is a great example of a lock that has both a recessed keyway and obstacles that extrude from the face of the lock.

While not radical, some shorter tension wrenches may not have the reach.

A good rule of thumb:

  • Short Wrenches: The keyway and lock features are flush with the face of the lock.
  • Long Wrenches:  Recessed keyways or any obstructing features extruding from the face of the lock.

That will about do it for length. Now let's tackle our final two characteristics -- thickness and width!

Wrench Thickness & Width

Every lock is different in a variety of ways -- including its keyway.

Some locks have small keyways and some have big. Some locks are tight with tons of warding, while others are wide and open.

The point is, there are a TON of keyways with different shapes and sizes. As a result, we need different sized tension wrenches.

When it comes to the size of the tension wrench that you use, it truly is a Goldilocks type of story.

If you use a wrench that is too small, you risk wedging it in the bottom of the keyway and binding the core.

If you use a wrench that is too big you may not have any room left to use your pick.

However, if you use one that is just right, it will tension the lock without binding the core, AND you’ll have room to insert and maneuver your pick!

We’re not going to touch on how to select a specific size for a particular keyway in this article. We’ll cover that in another one soon, however, to polish this guide off let's quickly cover the typical measurements of most retail wrenches.

Most tension wrenches fall between .020" and .030" thick.

Additionally, there are typically three widths of wrench:

  • Thin: 0.1“ or 1.5mm
  • Medium: 0.11“ or 2.75mm
  • Thick: 0.13“ or 3.5mm

This being stated, there are many other widths available, but in general, most manufacturers offer some variation of a thin, medium, and thick wrench.

Top of Keyway Prybars (TOK)

Top of Keyway (TOK) tensioners are designed to be placed at the top part of the keyway, providing tension and control while working with high-security and tight keyways. Prybars are a common type of TOK tensioner with a flat, rigid shaft and a square end for insertion into the keyway. These tools are especially useful when picking locks with tight keyways or security pins, as they allow for very precise control of the tension applied to the lock.

How to Choose the Right Lock Picking Tension Tools

Choosing the right lock picking tension tools is crucial for successful lock picking. In this section, we will discuss the factors to consider when selecting tension tools and provide some recommendations for quality tools.

Factors to Consider

Here are some aspects to consider when choosing your lock picking tension tools:

  • Type of lock: Different locks require different tension tools. Familiarize yourself with the lock types, such as pin tumbler or wafer locks, to choose the appropriate tension tool. 
  • Size and shape: Tension wrenches come in various sizes, lengths, and styles. The right size and shape is crucial for effective lock picking.
  • Bottom or Top of Keyway (BOK and TOK): The tension wrench is commonly used at the bottom of the keyway (BOK), but some lock pickers prefer top of the keyway tension wrenches (TOK). 

Recommended Tools

Here are some recommended lock picking tension tools for various situations:

Standard BOK Tension WrenchThe standard bottom of the keyway wrench is excellent for picking locks in your hands and is widely used by lock pickers. 
Variable-Length BOK Tension WrenchesThese tension wrenches come in different lengths, allowing you to choose the correct size for various lock types and keyways.
TOK Tension WrenchA top of the keyway tension wrench provides more control and is growing in preference among lock pick enthusiasts. 

Remember that practice and experience are crucial for effectively using lock picking tension tools. Select a set that caters to your skill level and the types of locks you plan to tackle. With the right tools, proper technique, and patience, you'll be well on your way to becoming a proficient lock picker.

Tension Technique Basics

In this section, we'll discuss the basic techniques of using tension tools in lock picking, covering the application of light tension, heavy tension, and finding the correct tension for each lock.

Applying Light Tension

Light tension is often applied when the lock picker is first starting to pick a lock. The goal is to gently manipulate the pins while avoiding overpressure that can lead to pin damage or lock freezing. To apply light tension, hold the tension tool with a gentle grip, applying minimal pressure to the wrench. This will allow you to feel the subtle movements of the pins, and can be helpful in locks that are more sensitive to tension.

Applying Heavy Tension

Heavy tension is sometimes necessary for more stubborn locks, and it's important not to be gentle with every lock you pick. To apply heavy tension, you'll need to apply more pressure to the wrench while picking. This level of force is often useful when dealing with locks that have stronger spring mechanisms or when attempting to bypass security features. Be cautious when applying heavy tension, as too much force can cause damage to both the lock and the picker's tools.

Finding the Correct Tension

Using the right amount of tension is an important aspect of successful lock picking. Each lock is unique, and finding the ideal tension can be a matter of trial and error. 

Here are some pointers to help you determine the correct tension for a given lock:

  1. Start with light tension and gradually increase as needed.
  2. Pay attention to the feedback from the pins and adjust tension accordingly.
  3. Practice with a variety of locks to develop your muscle memory and tension control.
  4. Don't be afraid to change tension if what you're doing is not working.

Mastering tension technique is essential for lock picking proficiency, and by following the tips in this section, you'll be well on your way to unlocking a wide range of locks

Alternatives to Tension Tools

Let's discuss some alternative options for tension tools when it comes to lock picking. We will be covering DIY and makeshift options as well as common household items that can be used as tension tools.

DIY and Makeshift Options

For those who want to create their own tension tools, there are several materials and methods that can be utilized. Here are a few DIY options:

  • Saw blades, which can be cut and bent into the desired shape
  • Coat hangers, which can easily be bent and manipulated
  • Wiper inserts and bike spokes for crafting more durable tension tools

When creating your own tension tools, it's important to ensure that the material you use is both strong and flexible enough to apply the necessary tension.

Common Household Items That Can Be Used as Tension Tools

There are many everyday items that can be repurposed as tension tools in a pinch. Some of these include:

  • Flathead screwdrivers can be used in a similar manner to tension wrenches
  • Allen wrenches, which can be modified by filing down the short end to fit the lock
  • Paper clips, which can be bent into the appropriate shape for applying tension
  • Underwire from bras, which can be straightened and bent into a tension tool

Though these alternatives may not be as effective as specifically designed tension tools, they could potentially work in certain situations when a dedicated tension tool is not available.

Why Buy Art of Lock Picking Tension Tools

Lock picking tension tools are essential in lock picking, and their quality and durability are crucial. A well-constructed tension tool is often made from high-quality steel or other durable materials, which ensures it lasts longer and performs optimally.

Here at Art of Lock Picking we only sell tension tools made in the U.S. for quality and durability assurance. Opting for a tension tool of superior quality and design contributes to an effective and efficient lock picking process.

Frequently Asked Questions

In this section, we will address some common questions related to lock picking tension tools.

Do you need a tension wrench to pick a lock?

Yes, a tension wrench is an essential tool for picking a lock, particularly pin tumbler locks, which are the most common type of locks used in house doors. The tension wrench is used to apply torque to the lock while the picker works on setting the pins. Without a tension wrench, it would be challenging to successfully pick the lock using conventional lock picking methods.