Lock Picks Overview

Jan. 8, 2010
When there is no key available, picking is a non-destructive method for providing access. Once a lock has been picked, the tumblers can be read in order to originate a key if all keys were no longer available. The lock can be disassembled and serviced or rekeyed.

Lock picking is the art of unlocking a lock mechanism by manipulating the tumblers/levers using specialized equipment without inflicting damage to the components. Most locks equipped with levers, pin tumblers, wafer tumblers and disc/disk tumblers can be picked. Most warded locks can be picked. Picking the different types of locks and levers or tumblers require different tools and techniques.

Picking tumbler-equipped locks using standardized methods is only possible because these key operated mechanical locks are not manufactured to exact dimensions. For example, locks’ components are not manufactured within one millionth of an inch. If locks were manufactured to exact dimensions, the cost of each lock would be astronomical, making it impractical, if not impossible for most persons to own.

If a lock were manufactured to exact dimensions, each pin or wafer tumbler would align exactly at the similar height positions against the pin chamber’s walls. If all of the tumblers similarly align, then no one tumbler can be manipulated since all the tumblers and their pin chambers are identical. No one tumbler will have greater resistance when the plug/cylinder is rotated. When one tumbler is raised to the shear line, the plug/cylinder will not rotate slightly to keep the tumbler in the picked position.

To keep prices within reason, every lock is manufactured within a given set of tolerances. These plus and minus values are within the lock manufacturer’s specified production’ dimensions. In addition to machine tolerances, there are tolerances in the materials from which the locks are manufactured. For example, die cast locks have built in tolerances depending upon their exact composition and the methods/times of production.

Locksmiths pick locks for several reasons. There is no key available and picking is a non-destructive method for providing access. Once a lock has been picked, the tumblers can be read in order to originate a key if all keys were no longer available. The lock can be disassembled and serviced or rekeyed.

Lock picking a pin tumbler lock mechanism requires two tools; a picking instrument and a turning tool commonly called a torque or tension wrench. A picking instrument is designed to manipulate the tumbler to be in position of the shear line. Picking instruments are manufactured of spring steel or stainless steel.

The turning tool is used to rotate the lock mechanism’s plug/cylinder to determine tumbler resistance and to keep the picked tumblers in position enabling the plug to rotate once all of the tumblers have been picked. Turning tools can be manufactured of spring steel or stainless steel.

There are a number of different types and styles of picking instruments and turning tools. For conventional pin tumbler locks, picks and rakes are used. A pick is designed to lift one tumbler at a time. Some of the more common picks are the half-diamond, the hook and the half ball. To accommodate problems that result from a shallow pin directly behind a deep pin, pick manufacturers have developed modified picks with bent shafts in order to be able to get into position to pick the obstructed shallow pins. Some manufacturers have produced smaller bladed picks as alternative for narrow and paracentric keyways. Some picking instruments are available double ended as well as single ended.

A rake is designed to lift more than one pin tumbler at a time. There are rakes designed to manipulate two tumblers at a time, up to seven or more tumblers at a time. Most rakes do not have common names. The method of raking the tumblers in a lock is commonly to use a figure eight pattern, lifting and lowering all of the tumblers at differing times. By having turning pressure, when the tumblers align at the shear line, the plug/cylinder will turn by default.

Note: There are electronic and mechanical rakes. These include pick guns and electronic picks.

Many years ago, locksmiths would manufacture their own picks out of clock spring steel. This type of steel would keep it shape permitting the blade portion of the pick to be made relatively thin with small tips. These relatively small dimension picking instruments would be able to operate within the keyway of most locks.

Picking instrument shapes have evolved over the years. The most common are the half-diamond and the hook. However, the exact shape of each varies by each pick manufacturer.

In addition to the blade shape varying, having a handle or the type of material and shape of the handle varies by lock pick manufacturer. There are lock pick manufacturers that have molded plastic handles, riveted metal handles, rubberized removable sleeves and there are even picking instrument available with custom wood handles.

Some of the early lock picks were built into wood handles to provide more comfortable handling. Over time, a number of manufacturers began producing lock picks and turning tools. Early commercial picks were available with riveted, chrome plated handles. Then came the rubber-dip removable handles and eventually the ergonomic design handles.

Most turning tools are shaped like a letter “L”, with the portion entering the keyway the shorter leg. The turning tool is used to apply rotational (torsion) force to the plug/cylinder of a lock when picking. In addition, the tension wrench is used to turn the plug/cylinder once the tumblers have been picked in order to unlock or operate the lock.

Turning tools come in many different widths, lengths, thicknesses and shapes. Turning tools are available in different widths to conform to the keyway of the lock being picked. For example, Kwikset and Weiser locks have a wider keyway, whereas Schlage and Sargent locks have a narrower keyway. Since the purpose of the turning tool is to exert torsion force onto the plug or cylinder, the tool must be wide enough to bind and not freely rotate within the keyway. The proper width turning tool can make picking a lock easier. Too wide of a turning tool can restrict a portion of the keyway, preventing the picking instrument the optimal access.

In addition, varying width turning tools are available in different thicknesses. There are thin, flexible turning tools of varying lengths. There are thick, rigid turning tools that do not flex and any movement is transmitted to the lock picker’s fingers. I prefer to make my own turning tools from hex wrenches. I grind the side or the top and bottom so the tip is either vertical or horizontal to accommodate the amount of space surrounding the lock. Hex wrenches can be purchased in varying lengths and thicknesses. Cheap hex wrenches are easier to grind down to size.

There are numerous turning tool shapes standard single, double sided, coiled, tweezers type, “U” shaped and those not described in this sentence turning tools.

The best picking instrument and turning tool is the one that you are the most successful with when picking locks. It is important to become competent with one or two picks and turning tools. Having a number of different rakes is important alternative if the lock will not pick. Try each of the rakes; maybe one will unlock the lock.

There are double sided picks for picking double throw wafer tumbler equipped locks. These include the early Schlage “A” or “W” style wafer locks. There are specialized picks available for picking Chicago double throw wafer locks.

Picking a tubular lock requires either two separate tools or a dedicated tubular pick. Specific application tubular picks incorporate the two procedures required for picking, manipulating the tumblers with individual feelers to accommodate different length pins. The second, exerting turning pressure in order to bind and pick each of the pin tumblers.

Tubular picks are available in a variety of configurations. Most of the variations are for the keyway diameter, the number of pin tumblers and their location within the tubular lock. For example, there are seven pin tumbler tubular locks. There are seven pin left offset and right offset tubular locks. There are eight pin tubular locks. There are tubular locks that have “pin-within- a- pin” with even more tumblers. There are large, standard and small diameter tubular locks. For size information, look at tubular key blanks in a key blank catalog. There are tubular locks that are located beneath a shroud. The tubular pick must have a long, narrow shank to accommodate this type of guard.

Picking a tubular lock requires positioning the feelers so the pin tumblers align at the shear line. Most tubular picks are equipped with a steel or stainless steel barrel and spring steel feelers.

When attempting to pick automotive locks, depending upon the lock mechanism used by the vehicle manufacturer, conventional picks and turning tools may or may not work. For example, an early Ford equipped with pin tumbler locks can be picked using conventional picks. Ford vehicles equipped with the ten-cut or eight-cut wafer locks can be picked using conventional picks.

However, sidewinder type wafer tumbler locks generally pick much easier using specialized picking tools.

Specific application automotive picks include the high security two track and four track, external and internal wafer lock mechanisms. Instead of the key resting on the top or bottom ledge within the window of each wafer, the two and four track wafer tumblers have a tab that is used to move the wafer tumbler up or down to a specific depth of cut in the blade of the key. When the key is fully inserted, all of the tumblers align within the body of the plug, permitting rotation.

When picking, each wafer tumbler is moved by the pick to the appropriate depth of cut. The turning tool binds the tumblers in order to be picked. After all of the wafer tumblers are picked, the turning tool rotates the plug to unlock or operate the locking mechanism.

Important: It is not practical to pick all automotive locks. Some locks have thin wafers that can be damaged if too much pressure is exerted. Some vehicles have split tumblers that can move out of position when using different picking systems.

For example, Lexus locks equipped with split tumblers can have a problem when picked. The tumblers move out of position and must be returned to position in order to operate. For the Lexus vehicles it is probably better to obtain the code number and originate a key. The code number is stamped onto the housing of the passenger door lock. If no passenger door lock, the code will be on the driver’s door lock.

Most vehicle picks are designed for specific code series and lock applications such as the door or door and trunk locks. For example, one high security pick is designed for Audi, Porsche and Volkswagen high security locks. The Goso VW/Audi/Porsche pick is manufactured in China. This pick is designed for the high security lock mechanism in the following vehicles:

1998-on Volkswagen Beetle

1998-on Volkswagen Passat

1998-on Volkswagen Cabrio

1999-on Volkswagen Jetta

1999-on Volkswagen Golf/GTI

2004-on Volkswagen Touareg

2006-on Volkswagen EOS

1998-on Porsche Boxster

2003-on Porsche Cayenne

2003-on Cayman

1998-on Porsche 911

1997-on Audi A3

1997-on Audi A4/S4

1997-on Audi A6/S6

1997-on Audi A8/S8

2009 Audi Q5

2006-on Audi Q7

2000-on Audi TT

In addition, there is a Goso pick for BMW 2-Track pick equipped vehicles. Goso picks are sold through some locksmith distributors.

Another type of high security vehicle lock pick is the “High Security Flip Pick” manufactured by Lockmasters, Inc. The Flip Pick is a picking system developed specifically for high security locks manufactured by Huf. Although these locks are manufactured in several different keyways and applications, they all share a unique feature that enables this picking tool to work.

Because of spring tension on the door lock cylinders, these locks cannot be easily picked into the “unlocked” position, but they can be picked into the locked position. Once the lock has been picked, the plug spinner is used to “Flip” the lock to the unlocked position.

For each application there is a specific set-up tool that is essentially a key blank cut to a specific depth. The set-up tool is inserted into the lock to lift all of the tumblers to or above the shear line. Turning force is then applied to bind the tumblers that are above the shear line, and the set-up tool is removed. By gently varying the turning force by “jiggling” the turning tool, the tumblers that are trapped above the shear line will drop down to the shear line and allow the lock to turn. After the turning tool has been removed the plug spinner is then used to flip the lock to the unlocked position.

Set up tools are available for the following lock systems:

BMW 4-Track

BMW 2-Track

Mercedes 2-Track

VW, Audi, Porsche 2-track locks made 1997 – 2003

Volvo 2-Track (limited applications, but includes Volvo “Big Rig”)

Saab 2-Track (Limited application for one specific keyway)