On June 23, I went to an introductory lockpicking class, The Art of Lockpicking, hosted by Atlas Obscura and taught by Jeremiah Jensen.
It was held at the Lighthouse Writers’ Race Street location, which I’d never been to before. It’s a charming location aswamp in parking issues, so I was late getting there. Fortunately, although most of the people there were not writers, it was still like herding cats, and they didn’t start without me. (Whew!) I want to say there were about sixty people, but that’s just a guesstimate.
Each of us received a lockpicking kit, a pen case big enough to hold the lockpicks (sneaky), and a clear practice lock, so you can see all the little pieces inside the lock. And a piece of fine-grit sandpaper. More on that in a bit.
The class started with a lot of rustling, scraping, and cursing as people tried to figure out how to use their lockpicking sets unaided. Some of the people were actually able to open their locks! I found out later that some lockpicking enthusiasts had attended, though, so I suspect that a) they were able to open their very easy practice locks, and b) they were teaching other people as they went.
As for myself, I resisted the urge. I was late, it was time for the class to start, and if I started working on the lock I would either break something or not be able to pay attention to what was going on until I got it figured out. Counterproductive.
Eventually we started. The teacher was a tall man with a beard, tattoos, and a swirl of green hair on top of his head, named Jeremiah Jensen. He had got his start with a practice set in high school that he never used–or, rather, he had dug out the practice set once he had started working at the lock station at Home Depot.
Here are the ethics of lockpicking, somewhat paraphrased:
- Never open a lock without express owner permission. It’s easy to break a lock. HEY IT’S EASY TO BREAK A LOCK MAYBE DON’T DO YOUR FRONT DOOR ‘KAY?
- Never help people who want to use your lockpicking skills in a criminal manner.
- Be mindful of laws about lockpicking equipment. It’s legal to have it in Colorado, but that’s not always the case.
Locksport is the art of lockpicking as a competitive sport. The r/lockpicking subreddit is an excellent resource, including its own wiki. (As with all things reddit, Read The F@#$%^& Manual before asking questions.) Masterlocks are cheap and a good place to start, although you may be disappointed with how easily it is defeated.
The most famed year in lockpicking history was 1851.
It was London, and the Great Exhibition had just started up. A sophisticated, unpickable lock had been created by Jeremiah Chubb. Not only was it a damnably hard lock to pick, but if one nudged it just a bit too hard, the tumblers would jam in place. A second key was required to unjam the lock, turning it the opposite direction as the key that would unlock the lock. (This second key wouldn’t unlock the lock, just unjam the tumblers.)
An American gentleman named A.C. Hobbs picked this lock in about 25 minutes…as a warmup to a second lock, the famed Joseph Bramah safety lock, which had proved unpickable for about 60 years.
Hobbs picked it in 14 days, at the Great Exhibition.
Every lock since then has been crafted in the knowledge that cannot provide perfect security.
There’s always something. (Here’s a link to an article about Hobbs’s challenge.)
We were then given a tour of the lockpicking set. There were several tension bars, basically thin, l-shaped sheets of metal sturdy enough to turn the machinery inside the lock, but delicate enough to help transmit the vibrations inside the lock, to aid in sensing where everything is when you’re not working on a clear plastic lock.
Inside that clear plastic lock is a plug, or the turney bit where the key rests. Resting inside the plug in the most inconvenient way possible are several pins held in place by small springs. The pins are in two parts, with half of the pin above the plug, and half of the pin inside the plug. If the pins are lined up exactly with all pins half above and half inside the plug, then the plug can be turned.
A key lines those pins up in their proper and convenient location. With a little luck, a lockpicker can line the pins up manually. The pins aren’t perfect, see, so you can nudge them into place one at a time, and, if you’re putting the most delicate amount of pressure on the tension bar, they’ll kind of stick in place.
The actual lockpicks come in several flavors. Every lock (even two locks of the same brand and model) has its own personality; likewise, every lockpicker has their own personality. So there is no “perfect lockpick,” only the right lockpick for that lock at that time, used by that person.
Our lockpick sets came with “hooks,” which looked as described, in which one pin at a time could be nudged in place. They also came with “rakes,” which look like tiny key sections with triangle-shaped teeth that can be raked across the pins so that more than one pin nudges into place at a time. There were some other tools, too, like a tiny set of tweezers for repairing and resetting pins after you’ve pulled a lock completely apart, and a fish-hook-shaped one that was for digging out busted pieces of key or lockpick.
“All right,” the teacher said. “Now let’s work on opening our locks.”
Step 1: Insert the tension bar into the practice lock. The plug in a pin lock turns clockwise only! I’m left-handed, so this caused me issues at first, since the way I was holding it gave a counter-clockwise turn. Delicately insert the short piece of the tension bar into the keyhole. Turn it clockwise (lockwise?). Gently. GENTLY. You will almost certainly turn it too hard at first.
Step 2. Insert one of the rakes, preferably one with two or three top triangles. If you feel resistance to doing so, it’s because you’re turning the tension bar too damn hard. What did I just tell you? Don’t turn it so hard!
Step 3. Move the rake back and forth so you can see the pins moving around in the practice lock.
- If the pins aren’t moving at all, then you’re not touching the pins with the rake.
- If the pins rise and fall, you are turning the tension bar the wrong way.
- If the pins rise but do not fall, great!
- If the pins rise so that you can see both pins, they’re up too far. Release the tension bar and go “damn it!” as the pins drop back down. You have to be patient about this. Do not become so annoyed by this that you put too much tension on the tension bar. Tension is not the answer here.
- What did I tell you about that tension bar?!?
- When the space between the two pins lines up with the plug on all the pins, victory! You should feel the lock kind of give in your hand. Increase the tension on the tension bar (finally), and the plug should turn inside the lock.
- Congratulations! You just spent like 45 minutes opening your first lock!
- Now do it again!
- Optional: If your pick is sticking on the pins, you can give the pick a bit of a rub with the old sandpaper to smooth the points out juuuust a smidge.
Seriously, once I had the clockwise thing figured out, it only took about ten minutes. (Your mileage may vary.) But I wouldn’t expect to be able to pick up a practice lock and magically all better it in ten seconds. There’s a real “feel” to it that you can’t know before you know it, which is annoying to try to explain. (When I came home that night, I tried to explain it to Lee and Ray and failed miserably.) It takes time and intelligent trial and error.
The set we had was fairly cheap; a good site for quality premade lockpicks is Sparrow. You can make your own tension bars from the metal strip on a windshield wiper and probably should. You can also cut your own lockpicks using a template and a Dremel.
Some other notes:
- Zipping is a lockpicking technique where you use a diamond (one point) rake by sticking it all the way in and pulling it out in a steady motion across the pins.
- Rocking is a lockpicking technique where you use a city rake (it looks like a toothy skyline) to gently rock against the pins until the magic happens.
- Single pin picking is where you use a hook to nudge one pin at a time, for more fussy locks, such as ones that have a…
- A security pin, which is a pin specially build to jam into place if you screw around with it too much, causing you to have to constantly start over. There are other tricks to annoy you on more sophisticated locks as well.
- If it’s not a pin lock with one side of uneven teeth on the key, then it’s probably either harder or impossible to pick with a standard lockpicking set, and you’ll need more tools. See the r/lockpicking subreddit.
- The Victorian type locks are lever locks, and require different tools and techniques.
- You can get a lot of vintage and uncommon locks at ReStore (locally, the Highlands Ranch one is especially good).
- Check YouTube for helpful videos.
- Hacker conventions almost always have a locksport alley, because people who love security…love all types of security.
- Your new recommended reading list is A Burglar’s Guide to the City by Geoff Manaugh, and The Complete Book of Locks and Locksmithing by Bill Phillips.
I didn’t have any spare locks to practice on until Saturday this week, when I picked some up at a flea market. I have yet to dig into them with the lockpicking set–my first non-clear locks–so I don’t exactly feel like a “real” lockpicker yet. And it really makes me want to find out how to pick Victorian locks of the cheaper sort, the lever locks. But I haven’t dug into that yet, either.
I feel somewhat changed overall, though. Knowing that I can learn how to pick a lock quickly (well…) makes me realize that there are a ton of people out there who a) can do this, and b) will just break down or pry open doors and windows. It’s happened to me before; someone broke into our house in 2015 as we were moving. A prybar to the door with the real estate agent’s lockbox on it, and they instantly achieved free rent + everything we still had in the shed in the back.
Security is an illusion. “Locks are to keep honest people honest,” as Mr. Jensen kept saying.
True. It feels weird to be on the other side of that equation now, though.