Improving Single Pin Picking Skills
Someone recently asked me for advice on how to get better at single pin picking (SPP). While drafting a response I thought this might be useful to others so I’ve decided to make it available publicly. I know that some of this may sound self-righteous or incoherent and rambling, but this brain dump is my best attempt at explaining it to those who might value my opinion. My credentials, for what they’re worth: I’ve had a hand in running the Longhorn Lockpicking Club in Austin since 2007 where I’ve taught hundreds of beginners over the years, organized a number of lockpick villages at hacker conferences and other similar workshops for everyone from Facebook headquarters to schoolchildren, and at DEFCON 17 I won TOOOL’s U.S. speed-lockpicking competition, going head to head with a personal hero of mine Schuyler Towne for the final match and earning the title of U.S. champion & invitation to compete in the world championship at my first of many LockCon competitions.
When I was first learning lock picking, I researched the idea online and observed that people generally thought single pin picking was the most skilled technique, so I stubbornly refused to practice any other way until I had learned what I perceived to be the best one. My goal wasn’t to open the lock quickly; I wanted to be able to open a lock reliably, knowing that if I repeated the same steps each time I’d likely get similar results, even if it took me much longer than other people. I think I was scared that otherwise if I went to show my skill off to other people I wouldn’t be confident about the outcome, at best I’d just know that I could sometimes open locks quickly but other times I might fail for no reason. This principle has guided many aspects of my life, for instance when I learned the linux operating system research told me people thought Slackware was the hardest to learn but once you were comfortable with it you’d be comfortable with any linux version so that’s what I started with, or how I’m trying to learn guitar now and prefer to practice harder finger-picking patterns rather than relying on strumming chords to play simpler versions of songs. My attitude, for better or worse, seems to be that any time spent learning something other than the hardest technique is potentially wasted time since you’ll eventually surpass it. That attitude forced me to improve because I would either open a lock by deliberately single pin picking it or the lock would not open, I didn’t leave myself another choice. It’s to this stubborn extremist attitude that I attribute whatever skill I have now.
So with that said, I think my first piece of advice would be don’t give yourself a way out. Decide that if you don’t understand exactly why something happened at each stage of the picking process, then even if the lock opens, it is not a victory. There’s no use falling back to raking the lock open just to feel better or impress someone. If anything opening the lock without knowing why it opened or being able to repeat it should upset you. Since we’re diving straight into the deep end with the hardest method for opening the lock, we need to start with the smallest possible part of a lock you can attack. Buy a cheap Kwikset deadbolt with the easily-removable pin cover, pull out all the pins and repin it with only the first pin stack in the lock. Try pushing on the pin with just your hook pick, feel what an unbound pin feels like, then apply tension and feel it again. Memorize the feeling of that binding pin, then slowly start lifting it and see what it feels like to set the pin, both how it sounds and how it feels through the tension wrench and pick. Add a second pin stack and repeat the process, this time with the added challenge of first identifying which pin is the binding pin and which is not. Can you tell the exact moment when that first binding pin sets, and suddenly the second binding pin that was loose is now bound? Try it over and over until identifying that tell-tale resistance of a binding pin in the lock is second nature to you. Work your way up to a 5-pin lock, then swap the order of the pins each time you feel confident you have mastered a particular bitting for a new challenge.
With basic single pin picking technique out of the way, let’s talk about tools. First, the pick. I like the idea of learning one simple pick shape and mastering it. In my case that’s the standard short hook, or feeler pick. I like knowing that I can pick up any standard pickset and find the tool I’m comfortable with there. When I’m picking locks at a club meeting or lockpick village I try to use the same spare hooks that are on the table for others to use, and while my competition set can have upwards of 20 picks in it they are all variations of the hook pick, just with different lengths, widths, angles, stiffnesses, etc. All we want to do is scoop our hook underneath the pins then lever it against the opposite side of the keyway to push up on the pins. Different hooks may be necessary for different keyways or locks of varying states of wear, they’ll all be used with the same general technique.
Tension tool, on the other hand, is extremely important, and the more ideally your tension matches your target lock the better luck you will have with it. We need to apply as close to perfectly circular tension as possible to the plug. The better your tension, the more prevalent the binding force becomes on the pins and the easier it is to set them. I know it’s commonly taught to use very light tension, but I’ve found that when the right tension is applied a heavier force will help you find the binding pins, and I tend to use moderately heavy tension. On simple straight keyways like the Kwikset KW1 it’s easy, we can just stick our tension tool in the bottom of the keyway in either direction and it will apply a good turning force. An example of suboptimal tension that I see frequently is trying to use clockwise bottom tension in the Schlage SC1 keyway. On the SC1 the bottom of the keyway angles diagonally to the right as you approach the bottom. If you insert your tension tool sticking out to the left and apply a counter-clockwise force it works with the slant to apply a circular force, but if your tension tool is sticking out to the right to go clockwise it’s working against the slant and will apply more of a downward / outward force. Another good example is a keyway where there’s a small gap under a ward in the bottom, such that when you apply tension your tool is able to slip into that gap and angle itself much further down than normal. At this point the force you’re applying is less circular as much as outward (upward?) and it will be very difficult to get that binding feel feedback from the pins. I’ve found a few solutions to deal with this, depending on the keyway. The first is to take a paperclip, straighten out one segment, then stick it straight into the gap under the warding to fill up that space, and then stick your tension tool in normally beside it. When you apply tension it will hit the paperclip instead of sliding into the gap, and the correct tension is preserved. The other way is to stick your tension tool in the bottom of the keyway normally, but then angle it upward such that the end furthest into the lock is higher than the part outside, where the higher internal part can get caught between the higher wardings on either side of the keyway and prevent it from slipping into the gap at the bottom. Off the top of my head the locks this works great in from our club’s collection are the Brinks Shrouded and Brinks 527 series padlocks. The paperclip technique seems to work great in the American 1105 and 5200 padlocks.
I like top tension, but it seems to be even harder to match your tension tool to the particular lock when you’re using top tension. Any standard tension wrench where the length of the end sticking into the lock has been cut in half or shorter vs a normal bottom tension tool will serve the purpose for simpler keyways, but on more advanced locks you’ll want a tension tool whose thickness matches the width of the keyway as closely as possible. For this purpose I like what TOOOL.us has done with their latest set with the series of 6 tension tools of differing thicknesses (3 top and 3 bottom tension tools). In my competition set I have a number of tension tools that have come from various commercial sets as well as homemade, from short thin flat ones to stiff bulky ones to small square ones designed to lock tightly into specific keyways. It’s not uncommon for me to try 3 or more tension tools in a competition lock before finding the one that applies the cleanest force and gives me the most obvious binding feedback.
Now that we have a solid foundation for picking locks in general, we can work on speeding up the process. When I attack a lock, rather than trying to move to a certain pin’s position and deliberately push that pin up, I will move my pick to the back of the lock, lever it upward slightly as if I were starting to pick a pin behind the very last one, and pull forward across the bottoms of all the pins until I feel resistance. The non-binding pins will give way easily, but once you encounter resistance there’s a good chance you’re at the edge of the binding pin. Set the binding pin, then finish your sweep forward, then go immediately to the back and repeat the same process. I also find myself “bouncing” my tension finger slightly during this process, applying slightly less or slightly more pressure, hoping one of these slight variations will make the binding force more apparent. If I’ve been pushing on a certain pin and it goes higher than expected I’ll generally assume it’s been over-set, often I can then slowly lighten the pressure until I hear a pin drop to unset it then immediately move on to a different pin and continue my search for the binding pin without having to completely reset the lock and lose all my progress.
Security pins. I love locks with security pins, because they seem to give you “more” feedback than those without. If you’re picking normally and setting a pin causes the plug to turn significantly before stopping again, you know you’re in a false set and are usually on the right path. Once in a false set it’s generally easy to find the next pin you want to work on because pushing on that pin will apply a counter-rotational force (it will feel like it’s trying to push back on your tension tool), whereas wrong ones will feel solid and not budge. In the majority of cases just pushing up on the pin is enough, and by slightly letting pressure off of your tension finger the counter-rotation will do all the work until finally you feel the pin set and you re-apply heavier tension. In some cases the pin will lock itself up and you have to apply the counter-rotation yourself. In these cases I like to use short double-sided tension tools so you can wrap your finger around the opposite side of the tension tool and pull the tool upwards slightly in addition to lightening pressure, or you can twist your pick in the keyway while lifting the pin to help apply the turning force.
That’s all I can think of at the moment. I welcome questions from folks, and if I think of anything further I’m sure I’ll add to this thread. Also for the record to avoid confusion, this is written from a hobbyist’s perspective where the goal is solving a lock as if it were a puzzle. I’m not a locksmith or professional where quick entry is the main priority and a dishonorable victory is adequate. I wish to manipulate a lock to manually simulate the correct key.
Hopefully you find something here that is of use in your single pin picking adventures!