How to Pick a Lock: Steps, Tools and FAQs

Jan 14, 2024

A standard lock

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Have you ever wondered how to pick a lock? Maybe you accidentally locked yourself out of the house or maybe you just want to be like a cool spy in the movies. Whatever your motivation, lockpicking is actually a very useful skill when you’re not intending to use it for crime. Anyone can learn how to pick a lock, too. This guide will show you how and cover the tools you need. 

Lockpicking Tools

You may have seen guys pick locks with nothing but a bobby pin or a paperclip in the movies, but that’s not how it works in real life. Sure, it’s possible to pick a lock with these improvisational tools, but it’s far from easy. 

Most people use a purpose-built lock picking kit instead. These are usually pretty affordable. For instance, you can get a complete set of beginner tools with a leather case for about $30 or even a handy wallet-sized set for only $7 on Amazon. 

It’s worth noting that you don’t need any kind of special permit to have a lockpick set. At minimum, your set should have a tension wrench and a rake or pick. Some lockpick sets include a variety of rakes with different shapes and tips, but this variety is mostly just for personal preference, not different types of locks. 

Before getting started, it’s important to take a good look at the lock you want to practice on. It’s a good idea to choose an indoor lock so your neighbors don’t think you’re a burglar! Additionally, don’t practice on a frozen or rusted lock since these can get stuck even with the actual key. You may be able to save a rusted lock with some WD-40 or another lubricant, though. 

Don’t try to pick locks that look like this!

If you want to get into sport or recreational lockpicking, it might also be worth it to get a practice lock. These cool locks are see-through so you can see what’s going on inside the lock when you’re trying to pick it, such as the movement of the pins. These are fun to learn with and they can be as cheap as $20 or less. 

How to Pick a Lock: 3 Steps

For this guide, we’ll cover the steps to pick a standard pin cylinder lock. This is the most common type of lock in the world by a long shot, although there are a variety of other types. Most doors and padlocks use a pin cylinder lock. 

This type of lock essentially consists of two stacked rows of metal pins. The top row have springs that allow them to push down on the bottom row, which are all cut off at different heights. When the lower pins line up at a common point called the “shear line”, the lock can turn and open. That’s what the different sized notches in a key are for. 

Picking a lock is all about getting the pins to line up at that shear line so you can turn the lock. If even one pin isn’t lined up, it won’t work. Remember, learning how to pick a lock takes practice, so don’t get down if you don’t get it to work on the first try. 

1. Insert Tension Wrench

The first step is to get your tension wrench in place. On most locks, you simply push it into the bottom-most or outermost notch in the lock. Without anything else in the lock, the tension wrench should not be able to move much, if at all. You may even be able to push so hard it bends (but don’t do that!). Hold the tension wrench in place and grab your rake. 

2. Insert Rake

The rake goes in the middle part of the lock above the tension wrench. The rake’s job is to move the pins into the right position. When you put it in the keyhole, you should be able to feel the rake move the pins around slightly. 

3. Apply Light Tension While Aligning Rake

The last step is the trickiest. Now that you have the tension wrench and rake in place, you have to get the pins lined up so you can open the lock. You simply have to wiggle the rake around to adjust the pins. It can help if you have a see-through practice lock, but you won’t have that luxury on most locks. 

As you wiggle the rake around, gently push on the tension wrench. You’ll know you got all of the pins lined up when the tension wrench finally moves, allowing you to open the lock. Don’t apply constant pressure, though. This can work against you by making it harder to move the pins. Instead, lightly press on the wrench every few seconds. 

Lockpicking FAQs

While learning how to pick a lock, you might have some questions about how it works and what you can and can’t do with a lockpick. Here are a few of the most common questions beginners have. 

Is Lockpicking Legal?

A lot of guys don’t try to learn how to pick a lock because they’re worried it’s against the law. However, this isn’t really the case. Picking a lock to break into someone’s house, car or property is definitely illegal. However, sport lockpicking for fun isn’t a crime. Just make sure you’re only picking locks you have permission to open. 

Can You Lockpick a Car Door?

One reason you might want to learn how to pick a lock is if you get locked out of your car. As annoying as that situation is, picking the lock isn’t always possible. For one thing, modern cars don’t use pin cylinder locks. Plus, a lot of cars use electronic locks that can sense when the key fob is missing, preventing you from opening the door anyway. 

There are lockpick tools for opening car doors, but it’s definitely more challenging than picking a padlock. It’s best to just call a professional if you get locked out of your car. 

Can You Pick a Lock With a Paperclip?

When a lot of guys are wondering how lockpicking works, it’s because they’re hoping to do it with a paperclip like a spy. This is definitely a cool trick, but it’s not easy. It is possible, though. If you find yourself in a situation where you don’t have access to lockpicking tools, you can use a paperclip or bobby pin to replicate the functions of a tension wrench and rake. 

Picking Locks: A Fun and Practical Skill

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to be a criminal or a spy to know how to pick a lock. Lockpicking isn’t illegal on its own, either. As long as you’re not using it to access someone’s home or property without permission, lockpicking is safe and legal. Plus, knowing how to lockpick can come in handy if you ever get locked out of the house or lose a key.

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Jack Shaw is a senior writer at Modded. Jack is an avid enthusiast for keeping up with personal health and enjoying nature. He has over five years of experience writing in the men's lifestyle niche, and has written extensively on topics of fitness, exploring the outdoors and men's interests. His writings have been featured in SportsEd TV, Love Inc., and Offroad Xtreme among many more publications.