Lever Locks and Learning

July 14, 2022
Locksmiths benefit even when exposed to unfamiliar locks and practices.

“Luck is for the underprepared.”

That was a key takeaway from the most recent edition of Locksmiths United, led by Wayne Winton of Tri-County Locksmith Services, located in Glenwood Springs, Colorado.

The other: Lever tumbler safe locks are pickable.

Pressing the Lever

What’s a lever tumbler safe lock? It’s a locking method used on safes in the United Kingdom in which levers, or small plates that have a cutout center, hold the bolt in place until a key moves the levers to a position that allows the bolt to slide through a catching mechanism from one part of the cutout to the other.

Typical UK safe locks have five to nine levers and might include so-called false gates. False gates are areas on the lever that are meant to deter lockpicking in that they might allow a post to move partially through the lever but not far enough to retract the bolt.

Lever locks are considered to be a more secure method than the pin tumbler locks used in North America, Winton said.

That doesn’t mean such a lock can’t be defeated without drilling, however. Jason Jones, the safes engineer at Key Elements Locksmiths in Colchester, England, demonstrated several methods for picking lever locks, including those that have false gates — typically within minutes.

“In theory, any lever or pin tumbler lock is unpickable,” Jones said. “It’s because of mechanical imperfections that you can pick it.” The imperfections are due to manufacturing tolerances, either in the slight misalignment of the post, the lever stack or both. By using the right tools, it’s possible to exploit those imperfections and pick the lock.

“Any handyman can show up with drills and tools to defeat the container, but if you can bring a fancy pick and open it, you look professional,” Jones said.

How he does it: Jones inserts one of several self-manufactured picks into the keyhole of a lock. While applying slight pressure, or tension, to the post, he uses a moveable part on the pick to tap the individual levers lightly to find those that bind and then gently move them away from the post one by one until the lever slots line up and the bolt releases.

That’s the basic concept, and Jones noted that different locks, even by the same manufacturer, might behave differently, so he has slightly different methods to defeat lever locks that have false gates.

How can you tell the difference between a false gate and a true gate while picking the lock? As with any decoding or picking process, it comes down to feel and training.

“With experience, you can feel the difference,” Jones said. “Eventually, you’ll find all the binding levers, and you can open the lock.”

Locksmith Practice

If Jones’ method for picking lever locks sounds familiar to you, chances are you’ve used a Lishi tool recently. The similarities are no coincidence.

“It’s exactly the same as a Lishi tool,” Jones noted of his picks’ operation. “It gives you tension, same as a pin tumbler Lishi, and you use bouncing to ‘decode’ the lever.”

Winton added that Jones’ method for lever locks is similar to Winton’s method for decoding a Kwikset SmartKey lock. “You’re looking for ‘sponginess.’” Winton said. “There’s a tremendous amount of crossover in the methods.”

Making that connection was the real point of the session. Although Winton said he expects more lever locks to come to North America, for the most part, safe crackers on this side of the Atlantic Ocean won’t have to deal with lever locks on a regular basis, if at all, for the time being. It’s all about learning something new and applying that knowledge in some way in the field.

Jones said whenever he has a job for something he hasn’t seen before, he’ll order a part and practice on it on his work bench before going out to the job site.

“I’ll try to do that,” Winton agreed. “Do your job prep on the bench at home, and then you look like a rock star on the job.”

Even learning basic information about a product that might come from a product sheet, such as how many bolts a safe has, is valuable.

“I want to ‘interview’ that safe and that lock, unless I’ve done it a lot,” Jones said. “Luck is for the underprepared.”

Locksmiths United

Locksmiths United is a monthly Zoom presentation to discuss locksmithing and provide information to others in the industry. The meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. ET, the first Monday of each month. All locksmiths are invited. Contact Winton via Locksmith Nation’s group page on Facebook for the Zoom link.

About the Author

Will Christensen | Senior Editor

Will Christensen is senior editor at Locksmith Ledger International. He has been an editor and reporter at magazines and newspapers for more than 30 years.