Making your own tools – Part 3

Welcome to Part 3: making your own lever lock picks

The other great material for making your own picks is actually the key itself. Whether a blank or a pre-cut key – often, for high security locks, the one that came with the lock, as those blanks tend to be very hard to get – these already fit the lock, though perhaps a bit too well. Wait – are you having deja vu? You must have read Part 2 on dimple picks already. Don’t worry, using the cut down key blank is such a great idea that it has been done before, more than once. This time, for lever locks.

The late, great Chris Belcher led the way in much of lever lock picking, with his incredible Reversible Pocket Curtain Pick and other innovations, and his brilliant “Picks on a shoestring” idea was one of them. He realised that not all locksmiths would want to invest in expensive tools for specific locks, and with lever locks this is more true than cylinders – a simple J hook will defeat 95% of pin tumbler designs, after all, but a lever lock needs a tensioner that fits the curtain or the driving notch. A curtain pick can be made to fit the 5g (gauge) lock, but that won’t fit a 6g or 7g lock, let alone the tiny 8g. It might well work on a 5.5g, but will be too a loose fit in a 4g. (Lock, gun and wire gauge numbers run “backwards” – smaller numbers are bigger) Oh, and it won’t work on a non-curtained lock! And the driving pin for a non-curtained pick will just be in the way on a curtained one, especially from the right. And that driving pin might need to be a few millimetres longer or shorter…

What, then, for the hobby picker? Dropping over £100 on a tool to pick lever locks is generally out of the question, and, worse, they are often very type specific. But, what else was, perhaps, too specific?

Chris’ idea was to modify the key blank into a picking tool. A fancy tensioner, true enough, but that, with a bit of skill, can enable you, the sport picker, to defeat locks that otherwise would be too expensive to attack. The idea is to remove the majority of the key that interacts with the actual levers, and make some room for a picking wire. And, if we are clever with the material left behind, we can, perhaps, set the tensioner to lift the levers to the lowest allowed lift for a genuine key, which, on some locks, will mean that some of the levers will already be lifted to the exact correct position. Only picking 3 of 5 levers massively reduces the difficulty!

So, onwards. First, the non-curtained lock. You will need a key that fits, preferably a working one, or a blank; a hacksaw, and a set of files. You’ll be better off with a large flat file and a large hacksaw. A set of grips or, better, a bench vice, is also pretty much essential! Or, you can get away with 2 pairs of locking pliers or mole grips, and a flat file.

The crudest way is to open the lock, remove the levers, and determine the V for the bolt throw. Now, insert your key, and turn it. It should smoothly retract the bolt. If it jams, file a bit off the top until it engages and turns smoothly. Make certain it throws the bolt all the way open and closed – too short will also not work.

Next, you need to mark the thickness of the bolt on the key. You can do this using a scribe, a pen or whatever, or measure it and transfer it using callipers. Now hacksaw or file away the part that doesn’t interact with the bolt. You will want to remove it completely.

Side note: If the donor key is one with a weld, rather than solid, you probably want to move the bit you are leaving intact “further back” so you keep as much weld as possible. Just don’t do this on a key with a collar!

This will leave you with a key that still operates your lock. Now, replace the first lever and re-check that your tensioner clears it. If not, tweak accordingly. You’ll have to lift that lever to the correct lift with your finger, but other than that, it should operate smoothly. Congratulations, you made a tensioner. Now you just need a picking wire, and to reassemble the lock.

If you want to get really clever, you can find the lowest possible lift allowed for your lock, and keep enough of the blade of the key so that it lifts, or rather “pre-lifts” all the levers to the correct height. On some locks, this means you won’t need to touch some of the levers as they will already be set. It doesn’t always work, but the fewer allowed lifts, and the more locking levers, the more likely it is to help.

The compound bend

For a curtained lock, you will likely need that compound, or double, bend I mentioned in Part 2. This is because you need to be able to lift the lever straight up, so you don’t bind the other levers either side, but also you need to clear the edge of the curtain, and still move back and forth under the pack. And the curtain is literally designed to prevent that.

Now, we can use a hammer to square that wire bend as well as possible, either in your little hole drilled “anvil”, on a vice, or tightly gripped in a set of decent pliers. For the next step, we swap to holding, very tightly, the bend we just made.

A picture of the master at work, from “Picks on a Shoestring” by Chris Belcher

This is then bent sharply either “downwards” or “upwards”, per the photo from Chris’ original work, and again hammered to as square as possible.

Next, grab your file. No, not your nice Swiss 4 cut, a decent sized flat one. File the tip to a nice flat, and shape as shown below. You want a flat to hit the levers with, an if the wire is fat or the levers thin, you’ll need to file the sides off too, so the wire can move just one lever at a time.

finished pick wires for curtain locks showing compound bends and filing of tip
Finished pick wires for curtain locks showing compound bends and filing of tip

These two wires are differently handed, one for locks facing left, one for locks facing right. The one on the left has a far greater lift available to it, and so is suitable for the newer British Standard lever locks, while the shorter one works on those that need less lift. The shorter wire is, of course, less springy, so gives better feedback, and is less prone to “firing” the lever upwards when overcoming a bind or anti-pick.

For handles, you can simply bend the other end of the wire to suit, follow some of the ideas in Parts 1 and 2, perhaps a “paddle” design a bit like the radiator key picture. Chris’ commercial tools usually had a flat disc system that clamped onto the wire, but that would require machine tools you might not have. Get creative! And, if you’ve got a 3D printer, you could make a clamping two part handle, and then make the wire double ended, just like the original and best design, the Reversible Pocket Curtain Pick.

There’s plenty of online tutorials on how to make a lock pick, so you can take a look at those, or drop into the Discord, or, if you’re reading this in the future, you can read the next post, about who knows what! If you haven’t, you could read Part 1 or Part 2, or one of our other exciting posts on actually picking locks! Part 4 might well be about making disc detainer picks. Part 5 is about lever tensioners, with photos.

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