Some notes on locksport.

Mar 27 2018

A couple of weeks back, as part of our continuing education program at my dayjob I ran a hands-on class on locksport, the quasi-science (perhaps art) of picking locks for fun and... well... fun.  I'm a security wonk so most of the talks I run have some security content in them, but I wanted to do something that was fairly suitable for everyone (coders and not).  So, I got the go-ahead to expense a few more locks and some intro picksets to give away from The Lockpick Shop (no consideration for mentioning or using them, they had what I needed at a good price) and hauled most of my collection of locks and tools to work over the course of a couple of days.

I used the Creative Commons licensed lockpicking village slides from the TOOOL website for my talk after editing them a bit to condense them for time and spent a couple of evenings practicing both my slides and craft to gear myself up for the class.

What follows are some pictures and ruminations I have on the topic of locksport that come from years of playing around with locks (after spending about as long trying and failing to get any locks open) and doing formal and informal sessions on the topic.  Please bear in mind, I'm far from a master of this particular art.  I've competed only once (and pulled a Charlie Brown by picking the lock backwards, thus jamming it at the worst possible time) and, while I recognize that there are some very talented people out there who are into locksport for the sheer artistry of it, I'm not one of them.  I'm a pragmatic lockpicker: I'm on assignment, I need into something, I'm going to pick the lock and get in.  I'm not a spring steel artist.

Okay.  Enough chitchat, here's what I actually wanted to write.

If you get into locksport, you're goint to build up a collection of picksets, weird little tools and locks to mess around with.  Practicing with as many different locks as possible is important because every lock's a little different, and every manufacturer does things a little differently.  It's very easy to become very proficient with the locks you already have, be faced with a lock you've never seen before, and be unable to get anywhere with it.  I find that picking up a new lock or two every paycheque, and whenever I'm traveling for some reason is good for amassing a collection of practice materials.  It's by messing around with locks of many kinds that one seems to figure out the little tricks that form the meat on the bones of the art.

Things like picking a lock by working from the outermost pin to the innermost instead of the other way around.  Bouncing the pick rather than using it to manipulate a pin stack by poking at it, or rocking a pick vertically, front to back rather than probing or raking the pinstacks.  There is a difference between raking and scrubbing, and involves how much pressure you use, how fast you move the rake, and the pattern you hit the pins on.  I think.  I discovered it by screwing around aimlessly.  I suspect that everyone has a different style of doing this.  Sometimes relaxing the pressure on the tensioner to let one or more pin stacks fall back down so that another pin can be pushed (or letting an overpicked pinstack drop) is a good idea; you'll lose some progress but I think you'll have a better chance of getting the lock open sometimes.

When I first started making any progress learning to pick locks, I bought the progressive training lock sets from TOOOL.  I started with the basic set and practiced on the lock that has only one pin until I could get it open ten times in a row.  Then I started on the lock with two pins and practiced until I could get it open ten times in a row with the same pick.  I did this over and over until I could get the six pin practice lock open ten times in a row.  Then I started on the advanced lock set (which has security pins) in the same way.  When I got frustrated on a new lock (I plateau'd around the four pin mark) I stopped and worked on the previous one a bit.  Finishing a practice session on a high note seems essential - if you get frustrated, you tend to remember that frustration and don't pick up work again as often.  Then I came back to it the next night.  Eventually, after a lot of practice I was able to sucessfully pick a padlock from my collection that I'd hadn't made any progress on in the fourteen years I'd owned it.

When you get a set of picks of any kind, it's a good idea to spend some time playing with each piece of the set, regardless of whether or not you have the same kinds of picks from other sets because every set's a little different.  The feel of the handles are different, the cuts in the business end of the picks are a little different, and sometimes you find some surprises (like a worm that's tilted slightly upwards in addition to a more common variety of worm pick - there is a difference!)  If you get a large set of picks, like the Southord 74 piece C6010 kit you're actually buying three or four large-ish sets of picks in one case.  At first scratch this makes sense but it's easy to wonder just what you spent your money on when you open the zippercase for the first time and see three or four of the same kind of pick, times eight different kinds of picks.  The differences are subtle, usually the size of the pick's head but also the thinness of the metal, the width of the head of the tensioner (which has to be sized to the lock you're working on)... I could go on and on but I think you get my point.

There doesn't seem to be any one magick shape that the head of a pick must have.  Most manufacturers seem to make worm picks and rakes and so forth more or less the same, but this doesn't have to be the case.  If you wanted to you could take a set of needle files and some spring steel stock from a hardware store and make your own idiosyncratic picks and tensioners to experiment with.  If you were feeling really experimental, you could use something highly unconventional to make lockpicks, like a plastic ziptie carved into a rake.

You'll undoubtedly want to get into making your own tensioners at some point because they're tricky to get sized to the lock you're working on, and using one of the wrong size can make you think you're just not getting anywhere (it's limiting how you can move the pick, or it's applying more tension than you think and jamming the pins).  I find that the underwires from women's brasseires can be filed into picks and tensioners with a little work.  The curved shape the underwires have can make them a little frustrating to use, though.  Apparently you can now buy lockpick blanks for making your own tools.

It is common for the same kind of pick to come in multiple sizes, to accomodate multiple sizes of lock, like these diamonds.  As always, the right tool for the right job.

Sometimes you want to put the tensioner at the bottom of the keyway.  Sometimes it's easier to put it at the top, which obscures the outermost pin but gives you an advantage.  It's been my experience that the funkier the tensioner looks, the more useless it is.

I've had the best success picking some padlocks with diamond picks and others with worm picks.  I've also had the best success picking door, cabinet, and safe locks with rakes, hatchets, and Bogotas.  I'm getting better with sawtooth rakes lately, and if a worm worked on a lock chances are the sawtooth will do just as well.  For a given padlock I seem to have the best luck with a tensioner that's roughly one-third as high as the keyway and a diamond pick that's also about one-third the height of the keyway.  I seem to get lucky with snowman and snowball picks once in a blue moon.  I generally don't bother with them because 99.9% of the time they're useless.

If you've been picking locks for a while, you'll probably find that you've developed a knack for working with one or two particular kinds of picks, usually a rake or Bogota and diamond.  This might be why the James Bond-style super concealable picksets (like the Mace pickset and the Bogota Titan) seem to consist of only these two kinds of picks

On the other side of the coin, you'll probably discover one or two kinds of picks that you can't get to work for the life of you.  For me, those are the snowball and snowman picks I mentioned earlier.

The jury's out on whether or not transparent practice locks are helpful when learning to pick locks.  One school of thought says that by being able to see the insides of the lock you're working on, you're not training your sense of touch and hands for the general case (which is working blind).  Another school of thought says that seeing the insides of a new kind of lock can give you some insight into how it works, and can give you an advantage in the long run.  It's been my experience that there is truth to both points of view.