Lockpicking – Beyond the Basics – Lockpicking

Finally, part 4 of my series, on lockpicking tips and tricks. This article will actually cover lockpicking itself! as ever, you can read the previous article on tensioning tricks here.


So, my first piece of advice is on orientation. I like to orient my locks with the pins being pulled down into the keyway by gravity wherever possible. This has a number of benefits;

  • Weak or Damaged Springs – If the lock contains weak or damaged springs, then you can still pick the lock this way up.
  • Missing Springs – If it’s a challenge lock or something someone else gutted, and there’s a chance they just forgot to add a spring, (or did so intentionally!) then you can still pick the lock this way up.
  • Gravity Pins – These are the cheapest trick in the challenge lock book. They’re pins without springs, that are correctly positioned by gravity alone. In most challenge locks that include them, however, they’ll be defeated by picking the lock this way up, should you have the misfortune to encounter them.
  • Overset Pins – This allows you to easily identify overset pins, and recover from them more easily. I cover this later on*
  • The Magical First Pin – This one is going to make me sound like I’ve lost all my marbles, but it lets the first pin in the lock speak to you. I’ll explain that below!


The Magical First Pin:

The first pin is magical, because it’s the only pin you can really see in most pin tumbler locks. Lockpicking is very much a tactile endevour, since you can’t glean much information about a lock from visual inspection alone – except for from the first pin.

Firstly, the first pin can give some indication of how high it needs to be set. In most pin tumblers, if there’s a very short first keypin, this will be visible if you look closely. You also might be able to see if the keypins have any serrations or spooling.

Secondly, it’s easy to visually check the state of the first pin. Those states are:

  1. Springy – Which means the pin hasn’t yet been set, and isn’t the next one in the binding order
  2. Solid – Which means the pin hasn’t yet been set, but is the next one in the binding order
  3. Loose – Which means the pin has been correctly set, or may not be correctly set if the lock uses serrated driver pins, or if you haven’t actually pushed the pin far enough to set it yet.
  4. Overset – Which means the pin has been overset. This is easy to detect if the pin is not springy or loose, and didn’t become loose after trying to set it.

If you’re able to see the first pin, you’ll have a much easier time working out which state it’s in, because you can visually move it, and check with your eyes against what you’re feeling. This can provide a vital reference point for how the different states feel when you’re tackling an unfamiliar lock.


Developing Feel:

My second piece of advice is about developing feel for a new lock. Especially a lock that’s above your current skill level and is challenging you. I’ll warn you – this is definitely on the slow and patient scale of my tricks and tips.

I advise setting the lock up in a vise to hold it perfectly stationary. You want a piece of paper and a pencil on hand, or other method of taking notes. Rather than trying to pick the lock all in one go, you’re aiming to slowly derive the binding order one pin at a time, until you know the whole binding order. Then, you can hopefully pick the whole lock in one go. Start by applying tension, and looking for the first binding pin. When you think you’ve found it, make a note, and then release tension. Then repeat this process again and again, until you’re sure you know the first binding pin. Then, set that pin, and look for the second binding pin. Again, make a note, and reset the lock. Then, set the pin you know, and find the second one again, and so on and so forth.

This is tediously slow, but it will allow you to make progress against a lock that is otherwise beyond your ability. Once you’ve worked it out and picked the lock, you need to avoid picking that lock again for a long long time (or as long as it takes you to forget all the stuff you painstakingly worked out about this lock). Otherwise you run into the issue of quality of practice I mention in my article on locks.

Over time, you should hopefully get better and better at this, and faster and faster – to the point where you can do this all in your head, ideally. You won’t need to check that you’re right as often either – you’ll just be able to know given your experience. If you can master this, you’ll be one of the better lockpickers out there in the world (and rest assured, I’m not even close myself. More practice required!).


Recovering more efficiently from an overset:

My third tip concerns recovering from an overset. This happens to all of us regardless of skill level, and the traditional advice is that at this stage, you should just release tension, and start over. I’m going to recommend a more efficient method to add to your skillset.

The first step is identifying an overset, for which I’ll list a handful of strong indicators:

  • A keypin doesn’t fall down after setting it*
  • The pin you just tried to set didn’t click or give rotation on the plug in the right direction
  • You lost rotation in the right direction
  • You lost a false set
  • A pin you were 99% sure you set correctly is now springy
  • Nothing appears to be binding, but you’ve got good tension
  • you drop a lot of other pins after trying to set a pin

Once you’re confident you’ve overset a pin, instead of fully releasing tension, release tension gradually. Your aim is to drop just a single pin, before reapplying tension. This will often release the overset pin, because the overset pin is nearly always under the most spring pressure. If you regain your false set or the core rotates a little in the right direction, then you know you definitely succeeded.


Manipulating dimple locks:

So, I have to admit for this final piece of advice that I don’t have a ridiculous amount of experience with dimple locks. That said, I do have the following handy piece of advice – choose a flag which rotates in the same direction that you’re tensioning (if you have the luxury of choosing). My reason for saying this is that if you get a false set on your dimple lock, your pick can catch on the warding. If this happens and your flag rotates in the opposite direction to your tensioner, then you’re going to think you’re getting counter-rotation, when really you’re just counter-rotating the core with your pick. This can only result in disappointment. If your flag pick rotates in the same direction, then you don’t run the risk of this happening.

On the other hand, this also gives you the option to manually counter-rotate the core with a flag which turns in the opposite direction to your tensioner, instead of needing to actually use your tensioner to counter-rotate.*


And that brings me to the end of this series, at least for now! I hope you’ve learned a few tips and tricks to help improve your picking ability. Thanks for reading through them! Let me know what you think, and as ever, feedback is very much appreciated.


*Parts of this article marked with an asterisk are suggestions added by the incredible legendofthesamurai from the Lockpickers United Discord server, and I am greatly indebted to them for their input.

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