Thursday, November 2, 2017


This year I started a new hobby : the gentle art of lock picking. Let me tell you a bit about it!

What drew me to this? I honestly don't know. Really. I think one day I happened across a youtube video of either the Lock Picking Lawyer or Bosnian Bill, and thought it looked like fun. The more I watched, the more I wanted to try it myself. I can't help but notice that I seem to like hobbies that are on the fringe of social acceptability - like folding (pocket) knives for instance. Anyway, when I tell people that I like lock picking, they are usually somewhat suspicious of this - and assume that I'm going to do something bad like rob a bank. That is not my intention, of course, I simply like the challenge of a lock - knowing if I can get into it or not. You don't know until you try. The first one you open is a magical moment, it feels amazing, you can't quite believe you did it. Can you do it again? This is how a hobby is born.

Speaking of opening locks, here are the locks I own at the moment, and I have been able to open all pictured here at least once. Some of them have been very hard, and I mark those with a "H" for hard, or even a tally of how many times I have managed to open them. Note the Lockwood Assa Abloy at the front, I'm proud to have opened that one.

And here is a picture of all the locks I own that I have NOT been able to open (at the moment!) and the tools I typically use to do the job.

That's right - just one lock I can not open out of around 20 or so, another Lockwood Assa Abloy (but with a different key). This little bastard has been tripping me up for literally hours. I can get a "false set", but then just when it should open it doesn't. It has special spool shaped pins inside designed to do this, I'm aware of this. It can be frustrating, but it is also exactly what I need - a challenge still there to keep me going.

So, this is something you discover quite quickly once you get into lock picking - a lot of locks are easy to pick. Like, less than 30 seconds easy once you get the hang of it. I have found a few locks that I can actually open simply by putting the pick in and raking once or pushing a single pin. A further discovery is that it does not matter what size or shape the outer lock case actually is, it is the quality of the lock barrel that counts. If I was trying to open the lock with a crowbar or hammer, the lock size might count, but with a pick it doesn't. In terms of comfort in the hand while picking, a 40 or 50mm lock is ideal. Your hand may cramp up holding anything smaller, and the smallest locks in the picture above quite painful to work on after a few minutes.

You need two simple tools to pick a lock. A way to turn the lock, and a way to push the pins down. The turning force is done with a tension wrench, which you put in the top or bottom of the keyway and twist in the same direction as the key would turn. Once there is tension on the lock, then you stick the pick in to push down the pins, carefully, until the lock turns fully and you get it to open. You need the tension as it stops the pins from falling back down.

Lockpicking is a reasonably cheap hobby. A set of generic tension wrenches and picks might set you back $30 - $50 to start off. Most people have a few padlocks around the home too, but they are also in hardware stores for cheap, and the cheaper ones are a good place to start as the tend to be easy to pick. While waiting for my picks to arrive I actually bent a paperclip and a pen pocket clip, and used them to open a lock. You can make your own picks and wrenches out of thin steel you might have too - old windscreen wiper blades are known to be a good source for this. I had one lock with an unusual keyway where the wrenches kept slipping out, so I bent my own to fit this lock.

I purchased first a very cheap kit on ebay, as a low-cost entry into the whole game. It also included a clear perspex lock, which although very easy to pick it is good for simply understanding how the pins work. The cheap kit included a whole bunch of weird and wonderful picks , but the one I end up using the most is pictured above, and it is a simple shallow hook. The tension wrenches in this kit were very basic and frustrating to use as they often slipped out. The picks were also a bit thick, roughly finished and got stuck in the lock sometimes. I have yet to break a pick, but I believe that often happens, particularly to new players who use too much force.

Once I got used to this pick set, I fairly quickly realized I wanted something better. The brand Sparrows is one I would recommend, both for tension wrenches and picks. The tension wrenches have small teeth on them to stop them slipping out. The picks sometimes come raw steel, and are a bit uncomfortable to hold without some handle to pad it, but they are thin and strong. Southword is another good brand, although I don't actually own any. I also got a second cheap set on eBay, and it is actually pretty good to use, that's the orange handled one in the picture above. If you are in Australia, a decent example of small set with just a few picks you will actually use is this one, or on eBay, something like this one. If I had my time again I would probably skip straight to one of these two sets. Less is more.

There are several lock types, and I exclusively pick locks with standard keys. I don't do dimple pins, or anything exotic, just a normal padlock. I do "single pin picking" rather than using rakes or other shaped picks that open many locks quite effectively but in my opinion, with a lot less skill needed. Single pin picking is where it is at. If you want to do these other lock types though, then you may need different styles of tension wrenches or picks.

You may wonder which brands of padlocks are good, and which are bad? In terms of how easy they are to pick, it does vary slightly even within a single lock model due to the differences in the key cut. However, the easiest brands I have found so far are Masters and Syneco. The two harder brands I have encountered are Abus and Lockwood, both of which I think are decent enough to lock up something of value and expect it to hold off a quick pick attempt.

What more is there to say on this? I guess that I'm always on the lookout now for locks to try and pick. Of course, I see them around but I won't pick any lock without permission, and mostly I buy them. If this has made you interested in the "sport" of lockpicking, I say go for it - it is not really expensive so give it a try, it's fun! As Bosnian Bill says, "Stay safe, stay legal!". On that note, in Australia, possession of lock picks is legal as long as you are not involved with any crime. Other countries may have different rules though, and rules change, so check out the story where you live first. 

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