Lock picking is a skill that can be learned in a few minutes. Mastering that skill takes much longer. There are many small lessons to learn as you progress from beginning lock picker to master. Here are the 5 most common mistakes beginning lock pickers make and how to overcome them. If you’re brand new to lock picking and need a basic instruction guide, you can find one here.
Tip # 1: You’re Doing It Too Hard
Really, you’re using too much force on that tension wrench. It’s normal, everybody does it the first time. You really, really want that lock to turn so you are almost certainly applying too much force to that tension wrench. The problem is that too much force causes the pins to bind. It’s hard to lift a pin that’s being pinched and if you do lift a pin, that pin tends to get pinched and will stay wherever you push it – not necessarily where it belongs.
How do you know the right amount of force to apply? That’s easy. Open the lock with the key and pay careful attention to how hard you have to turn the key. It’s a surprisingly light amount of force, isn’t it? Some locks may be spring loaded and may require a slightly heavier hand, but most locks turn almost effortlessly. So, how much turning force do you need? A tiny, tiny bit more than you used to turn the key.
Tip #2 – You’re Still Doing It Too Hard
Okay, you have the turning force figured out but now you’re pounding away on the pins with your lock pick. You lift, pry, and jamb those pins into submission. But that’s not how a key works. As you gently insert a key, the pins ride ever-so-gently up and down on the cut ridges of the key’s cut edge – until each pin comes to a gentle rest at its proper height.
And, as that key slides into the lock, that key is lifting all of the pins at the same time. You only need to lift one pin at a time with your lock pick. Since you’re doing less work than that key was doing, you’re lifting force can be less than the force needed to insert the key.
Way back before you knew about Tip #1 above, your heavy-handed turning force was making it difficult to lift the pins. But now that you have your tension wrench under control, you can start lifting the lock pins very, very gently. We’ve all bent a pick or two. But if you’re bending picks, you’re doing it wrong – very wrong.
Tip #3 – It’s Okay to Cheat a Little
You’re probably familiar with the two most common lock picking techniques: raking and single pin picking (SPP). Both are fine but neither is perfect.
When you rake a lock, you slide a jagged pick in and out of the lock. As the pick slides under the pins, it raises and lowers each pin. If you rake quickly (still remembering Tip #2 and being gentle), you can sort of (gently) bang the pins around until each pin has found the shear line and the lock turns. But not all locks will yield to raking. After raking a lock for a few seconds, you may have 2, 3, or 4 pins set at the shear line and the lock is almost picked. But the remaining pin or two may not be set. Raking will often get you close but not close enough.
Lock picking purists want you to Single Pin Pick every lock. SPP does ensure that every pin has gotten individual attention and it’s the only way to get the feel for what’s happening when you pick a lock. Where raking fails, SPP often works. What’s wrong with SPP? Nothing – except that it can be a very slow way to pick a lock.
So…cheat a little. Rake the lock for a few seconds to set several of the pins at the shear line and then switch to SPP to beat the remaining pins.
Tip #4 – Try to Hear a Pin Drop
You’ve been fighting with a particular lock for a long time. When you release the turning force on your tension wrench, you hear the lock pins drop. You know that pins are being set at the shear line because you can hear them when they are released. But, the lock still won’t open. You’re counting the dropping pins as you slowly let off pressure. With the lock to your ear, you slowly lighten the turning force and you hear 1 click…2 clicks…3 clicks…4 clicks…5 clicks. It’s a 5 pin lock so that’s all the pins there are. How is it possible that all 5 pins were at the shear line but the lock wouldn’t open?
Just because 5 pins are floating – raised in their chambers – doesn’t mean they are all at the shear line. Sometimes pins get pinched and will stay up in the air. Sometimes a pin gets stuck in a position that is higher than the shear line. No amount of lifting with a lock pick is going to fix this since the pin is already lifted too far. This is much more likely to happen if you have a heavy hand and are violating Tip #1 but it can happen at other times too.
The fix? Lighten your turning force until you start to hear pins drop. If one pin is bound above the shear line, you can often let that pin drop back into its normal position by slowly, and slightly reducing the turning force until you hear a single pin drop. If you’re careful (and lucky) you can let the single over-lifted pin drop without losing the other pins that are at the shear line. After you’ve heard that one pin drop – start picking again.
Tip #5 – Lubrication is Key (no pun intended)
You want the lock pins to stay in the picked position when they reach the shear line. You do not want pins staying in the raised position because they are pinched. Friction is your enemy. Friction allows pins to become pinched. We already talked about using a light touch to reduce the tendency of pins to bind. The other secret to reducing friction is lubrication.
Lock aficionados and locksmiths will tell you not to use any type of oil to lubricate a lock. Oil attracts dirt and dust. Oil mixed with dirt becomes thick, gummy, sludge in a lock cylinder and makes it hard for pins to slide freely. Dry lubricants, such as powdered graphite, are recommended for locks. But, it’s your choice whether to use a dry lubricant or to recklessly throw caution to the wind and squirt a little WD-40 into your lock. Either way, you will find that locks pick easier with a little lubrication.