The following is a collection of various tips and tricks which I’ve collected or discovered over the past 6 or so years. These are various bits and bobs which I wish I’d known earlier, or that someone else had told me. Hopefully it’ll help some of you advance your lockpicking beyond the basics!
Who are these tips aimed at?
This isn’t aimed at complete beginners. This is aimed at those who have picked at least a handful of locks, and have gained some experience tackling spools, tight keyways, and difficult bittings. There’s nothing wrong with being a beginner of course, but I think there have been plenty of useful articles and documents written aimed at beginners, and relatively few aimed at helping those who are now beyond the basics.
Since this is quite lengthy, I’ve broken it up into sections, which will be posted as seperate blog entries. I’ve split my advice into the following sections: Lockpicks, Locks, Tensioning and finally Picking. Hopefully that will make this a bit easier to digest, and make it easier to reference and point people to in the future.
To start things off, I wanted to take a look at which rough tiers lockpicking tools fall into, and what each of the advantages and tradeoffs of those categories are;
Tier 1 – Cheap Picksets:
These are typically produced from low-quality metals in China, resulting in long shipping times. In order to compensate for the reduced strength of the metals used, the picks are made thicker, which makes them harder to move in tighter keyways. This does have the added benefit of effectively making the keyways you’re working on tighter. How is that a benefit? Well, most people don’t have to deal with very tight keyways when they start out, which means they don’t need to learn how to work in the tight space until they’re forced to. If you’re forced to work that way at the start, then you can’t be lazy, and you’ll have a greater appreciation for the true potential of thinner picks when you acquire some. Also, you’ll not have to worry about destroying an expensive lockpick when you’re learning the limits of your picks.
On the other hand, a lot of these kits include picks most people don’t find useful, and the picks would nearly always benefit from a little sanding and polishing to get the most out of them.
These are the picks I recommend for beginners and those starting out, because they’re not expensive, and with patience and persistence they can pop open the majority of pin tumbler locks. They aren’t the best quality, but in my opinion, skill goes a lot further than pick quality.
Tier 2 – “Professional” Picksets:
These are sets normally manufactured in the US, Canada and Europe, and are the most common ones used by professionals and locksport enthusiasts. Notable brands in this category include Law Lock Tools (UK), Sparrows (Canada), Peterson (US), SouthOrd (US), Multipick (Germany), and MadBob (UK) – Although, at time of writing, MadBob is no longer producing lockpicks.
They’re made from steels which allow the picks to be made more thinly, while not compromising too much on strength. This makes them more useful in very tight keyways, and I find that they have much better rake designs than found in tier 1. Unfortunately, most of these kits also come with a lot of filler picks, which increase the price of the kit, without adding much value. Finally, most of these picks don’t come with plastic handles, and so can be hard on your hands if you use them a lot.
Tier 3 – Handmade Lockpicks:
These are picks which are made by hand, normally by other locksport enthusiasts. Each pick is therefore unique, and they’re often actually, physically beautiful. They tend to have an unparalleled finish, and are a step above what can be created in a mass production environment. If you’re getting one made, then generally you can specify the design, so if you like a particular profile of an existing pick but you want it in a better steel, or all the picks you’ve used just don’t get something quite perfect, then this is the way to go. They also look great for your locksport Youtube channel!
Of course, there are caveats. They’re not going to be cheap, considering it’ll take multiple hours from start to finish for each single pick. You won’t be getting them quickly, and if you damage it, then you’re going to have to wait quite a while to replace it – if you’re lucky enough to get it replaced at all!
Tier 4 – Specialised 2-in-1 Tools:
These are the tools generally used by only the spooks and safe technicians. They’re made to fit a specific model of lock, and generally can’t be used against other locks. They’re incredibly expensive due to the required research and development, and complex parts which need to be machined. Furthermore, they often feel totally different to other types of lockpicks.
On the bright side, they will make picking the lock in question as easy as possible, with markings on the tool so you know exactly which pin/slider/disc/wafer/whatever you’re on, and the position it’s been moved to. This in turn provides the possibility to decode the lock as you work, so that you would know which key to cut to fit the lock afterwards.
Effective Pickset Building:
I see plenty of people asking about upgrading their picks, especially if they only have a tier 1 pickset. My advice is to tailor how you build your pickset to your budget and goals, but I have a few pieces of universal advice:
Firstly, keep what works, and throw out the rest. In my opinion, there’s a bit of tool snobbery around quality of materials and manufacturers. Honestly, I still have a GOSO hook in my kit 6 years after I first got it, because I still open locks with it. It’s gotten some decent usage, and I’m not too gentle with it either, but it’s not broken on me yet. I find it’s got a great design, and I have a lot of success with it. For what it’s worth, I’ve also seen lock tool makers, locksmiths, safe technicians and other enthusiasts whose skills far outstrip my own wielding the likes of GOSO and SecurePro. I hope that’ll convince you to keep whatever tools have been working for you up until now!
Secondly, build a pickset which caters to the locks you want to open. If that’s just normal pin tumblers, then don’t bother with a ball or snowman pick (unless you’re somehow getting pin tumblers open with them?!). Only want to practice single pin picking? Then don’t bother with rakes. If you want to get low quality locks open as fast as possible, then definitely add some rakes. Etc, etc. Don’t just get one of every pick “just because”. Give it some serious, considered thought.
Thirdly, you generally want more tension tools than lockpicks. Lockpicks will give you different ways you can attack the lock only once you’ve got the lock under tension. So, get as many tension options as you can fit and make use of. Try to include at least one bottom of the keyway (BoK) and one top of the keyway (ToK) tension option and remember that the key difference in your tension tools should probably be thickness.
Fourthly, edge vs face tension tools. Tensioners have the least flex in them when you press against the thin edge of them, and so you get the most direct control and feedback this way. The tradeoff is that it can be really uncomfortable if you’re picking for any prolonged period of time. By contrast, most people find pressing on the flat face of a tensioner (like the ones with a twist in them, or the ToK prybar designs) is the most comfortable option, and they’re happy to have a little flex in their tension tools. Both types work, this isn’t a case of one being better than the other. I have some of each design, depending on what I’m working on, how long my picking session has taken, and my mood.
Finally, building a kit doesn’t need to cost a fortune, nor contain lots of picks. I’d advise building a minimal lockpicking kit to save money. At absolute minimum, I’d recommend a tensioner with a long end and a short end, so that you can use it as a bottom or top of the keyway tensioner, a short hook, and a long hook.
I know I’m going to probably get flak for this, but I’d recommend a small half diamond, since it can work well as a rake on wafer locks if you don’t have a ball or snowman pick, has a straight back for resetting locks which jam when rotated 180 degrees, can be used to manipulate sliders in a pinch, and can double as a really rubbish dimple pick if needed. It does none of these things better than a dedicated pick or tool, but it has the potential to do any of these tasks, so it’s something to consider if you’re trying to keep a kit truly minimal.
As for rakes, I would suggest as a minimum a triple peaked rake and a city rake. These are the only two rakes I regularly use, and so the only ones I feel I can recommend. The city rake is remarkably effective against locks with poor bittings, and the triple peak is good against locks with slightly better bittings.
If you’re dealing with dimple locks, then you need a left and a right flag as a minimum, and I’ll get to why in a later post. Also, a dimple rake if it works for you.
If you already have a tier 1 pickset, then my advice is to buy the individual picks you’re interested in if you want to save money without compromising on quality. Of course, this is a minimal pickset. If you have the funds or inclination, then by all means expand beyond this!
And so that brings me to the end of this first post on tools. I hope this was helpful, and if I missed anything significant out, then drop a comment below. Next week, I’ll be posting about sourcing locks, Thanks for reading!