Lockpicking – Beyond the Basics – Locks

Continuing onto part 2 of the series, I’ll be covering locks, where to get them, what to look for, and my advice on disassembling and reassembling locks. You can read part 1, about lockpicks, here.

 

Locks:

Quality of Practice:

When it comes to picking practice, basically everyone starts with only a handful of locks. Most of these will be easy locks to pick, so after a little while, you’ll have picked the few locks you own. There is a temptation to pick these locks over and over, and to get faster or more consistent at doing it. Most people that tell themselves that this is making them a better lockpicker, when actually, that might not be the case.

There’s a trap when it comes to practicing lockpicking, and it’s built into the nature of locksport itself. You’re learning to pick a particular lock, or set of locks, faster and more consistently, but not locks in general. It’s kind of like solving a Rubik’s cube from the same starting position over and over. This results in low quality practice, which is inefficient, and it’ll take you much longer to reach the same level of skill as someone who avoids this trap.

Sourcing Locks:

The trick is to practice against a large number of locks. Unfortunately, this can be a little difficult (It’s also another reason, harking back to last week’s post, to buy a tier 1 pickset when you’re starting out, and use the money you save to buy more locks). Here is a list of the most common places people look to source their locks:

  1. Ebay, Amazon, SecuritySnobs, etc.
  2. Hardware shops
  3. Locksmith’s shops

These are all viable sources for locks, but they’re all pretty expensive. You’ll be shelling out a lot of money pretty quickly. £20 would get you maybe 4 or 5 different, new locks. But there are other options which are more budget-friendly;

1. Locksmith’s shops

Yup, I’m listing them again! On the first list, I’m thinking of cases where you walk in, pick a brand new lock off the shelf, and buy it. However, there’s a much more cost effective option. In the UK, scrap metal prices are really low. This is relevant, because a locksmith shop, which specifically works with locks (as opposed to a cobbler’s) will have a lot of locks which they have to scrap. Lots of these are perfectly good for practicing your lockpicking on, and since prices for mixed brass scrap are currently sitting at less than £3 per kg, you should be able to get a lot of locks for relatively cheap. You should be able to get 6 or 7 kg of locks for £20. In my experience, when I’ve been buying something else at the same time, I’ve gotten the locks for free.

If you want to try this, then I recommend being open about being a hobby lockpicker, and that you’re looking for locks to practice on. Ask if, since you don’t need keys, they have anything appropriate they can give you? It won’t be pretty. It’ll probably be grimy and heavily worn. But it’s very, very cheap.

2. Mobile Locksmiths

Same deal as above – if you can get friendly with a local mobile locksmith (one who works out of a van, and not a shop), then you might get lucky and they might save some locks for you.

3. Trading

Another super-cheap option is to trade the locks you do have, for other locks with others in the locksport hobby. There are lots of potential places to look, but I’ll list just 3 here:

Most of the time, you’ll only need to pay postage, but try to make sure the person you’re trading with is reputable, and not just going to run off with your locks.

4. Job Lots on Ebay

If the other options aren’t for you, then this is also a good option. Searching Ebay for things like “locksmith practice” and “locks job lot” will turn up plenty of possible options.

5. Desperate Options

Finally, you can try facilities management at the place where you study/work, car boot sales, and sales at locksmithing conventions. These are all a great deal more work, and will probably not yield as good results most of the time, but I think it’d be a mistake not to list them, as you can strike gold.

Disassembly and Reassembly:

Next, I thought I’d share some tips and tricks for disassembling and reassembling locks. These tips refer to cylinder disassembly.

Disassembly is useful if you’re dealing with something new, something very high security, removing master wafers, repinning, progressively pinning the lock or building challenge locks. Either you’ll learn more about the lock, or you’ll be able to modify it.

Tools:

As a bare minimum, you need a way to remove the circlip. DO NOT use your lockpicks for this task. They are not the right tool for the job, and you’re going to wreck them. The easiest option by far is buying a specific tool set for this, and for the cost to effort and time ratio, I think it’s probably worth it. Alternatively, you can buy a single tool which fits into a Stanley knife body instead of the blade. Plug followers can be replaced with AA batteries, rolled up paper, or – my personal favourite – sanded down dowel offcut. I went to a local hardware store with a lock cylinder, and compared a few dowel options, then asked for offcuts in that diameter. This is a really cheap option, and you can sand them to fit relatively easily. There are also versions you can 3D print, or again, kits will include them. Cylinder shims are also nice to have, and you can either buy them for a lot more than they’re worth, or look for barcode labels on certain kinds of pharmacy and beauty products. These labels will be slightly raised off the surface of whatever they’re attached to, and will contain a handful of super-thin strips of metal perfect for use as cylinder shims (Please note, these are not the same as padlock shims. The two are not interchangeable).

Gutting:

If you’re not already experienced, then I’d advise making sure you’re gutting the lock on a clear surface, *after* you’ve run the vacuum, or you’ll be spending a lot of time on your hands and knees, looking for missing pins and springs. If you want to avoid that problem with a particularly complex lock, then you can gut the lock inside a freezer bag, which will then catch all of the parts.

I recommend gutting with the bible facing nearly vertical, maybe offset by 5 or 10 degrees. There are 2 reasons for this. Firstly, this means that you’ll be pulling the core out with all the pins facing upwards, and so they won’t drop out. Secondly, on some particularly cheaply made locks, the manufacturers skeletonise the cores, which saves on brass. However, on some of the worst made ones, the slots they cut in the core are the same or slightly greater width than the diameter of the pins, and so the pins can get trapped in these skeletonised cores. You can recover from this (see below), but avoiding it is easier.

The Basic Process:

  1. Remove circlip
  2. Insert and turn the key 5 to 10 degrees. (You don’t strictly need the key to gut most locks, but I’m going to walk through the process with the assumption that you’ve got one, as it makes a lot of things easier)
  3. Align follower with the back of the core, and then smoothly push the core out using the follower.
  4. Drop the pins out of the core, keeping a close eye on which wafers and pins came from which chambers
  5. Drop the pins and springs out of the housing.
  6. Using the key you want to make the lock up to, insert the key into the core, and insert the keypins and wafers required to get a clear shearline (This ensures that the key you have will open the lock, even if you make other mistakes)
  7. Remove the key from the core slowly, so as not to eject the pins in the core, and then add any remaining master wafers (If you’re not a bench locksmith, this’ll be a rare step)
  8. Pin up the housing, dropping a spring and then a driver into each chamber. use the follower as you go to keep the pins and springs you’ve already inserted captive.
  9. Align the core with the follower, and smoothly push the follower out using the core. Make sure the core is turned at a slight angle if you’re not using the key for this, to avoid it locking up (The last pin chamber in the core will align with the first chamber in the housing, and then they’ll lock together like that. Most of the time, the penultimate pin in the core will stop the correct key from entering too, just to make things more difficult)
  10. Holding the core in the housing, turn the core back to the rest position, and pull out the key
  11. Attach a new circlip (although, in locksport, it’s ok to reuse them)

The Tricky Method Without a Follower:

If you’ve removed the circlip, then there’s also a way of pinning locks up using only a hook. Yup, no follower needed. That said, I don’t recommend this method if you do have a follower to hand, since it’s much faster and easier with a follower. In this case, you still need to get the circlip off somehow.

Once it’s off, the trick is to use the core the same way you would a follower. This means that you’re going to need to do some juggling, though. The core needs to stay with the pin chambers pointing up, or you’re going to spill the keypins out. It’s also critical to keep it from being aligned with the pin chambers in the housing, to prevent the lock from being locked in a weird position with the core half out of the housing. You slide the core out slowly, revealing the rearmost pin chamber in the housing, which you empty first. Then, you progress towards the front of the lock, until you’ve emptied all the driver pins out. Finally, you can empty the core. This also works in reverse, but it’s very, very fiddly. A good challenge for those of you dreaming of becoming bench locksmiths (Along with the other two key skills, untangling springs, and spotting lock parts on the floor, possibly in a sea of other pins, springs, etc)!

A few Miscellaneous Tips:

Finally, I’ll share how to untangle springs, avoid shredding springs, and recover from trapped pins.

  • To untangle springs most efficiently, raise a bunch of tangled springs a little ways above a surface (7cm-10cm, for those of you who like precision), and drop them. They’re very efficient at untangling themselves!
  • Trapped springs occur when the total length of a keypin and it’s driver pin don’t reach the shearline at rest. This means that when there’s no key inserted, a little bit of the chamber spring pokes into the core in that chamber. While this isn’t an issue for the operation of the key, it’ll be hell if you’re picking the lock. TL;DR: Springs don’t really block rotation. What will happen is that the core will turn maybe as far as 45 degrees, and then it’ll give you an increasing amount of resistance the further you turn, with a telltale “grindy” feeling. The only option if you encounter this is to force the core out of the lock, shearing the spring. It’s not pretty, and it’s not fun. You’ll need to sand the core smooth again, and ideally the housing, since the spring will probably gouge both of them. You can avoid this by checking the total heights of the keypin + driver pin using the core. Just put the two pins in their chamber (without the key in the core), and check that their height goes above the shearline.
  • Finally, trapped pins. This happens sometimes when there are severely skeletonised cores, or some locks are just very easy to do this to, like the Mul-T-Lock Interactive. In these cases, you need a solid way to grip the lock and a solid but softer surface to knock the lock against. You want to knock the lock in line with the spring you need to move in order to succeed. I recommend a solid rubber mat, or a chopping board. Hold the lock firmly, align it correctly, and bash it up and down until the trapped pin is released (this normally results in pins and springs going everywhere, so make sure the floor is clean beforehand!)

Conclusion:

And so, finally, that concludes my tips on locks! Hopefully you’ll find these of use. Feel free to add anything I might have missed in the comments below. Next week I’ll be posting about tension, and all the little tips and tricks I know regarding that. Thanks for reading!

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