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How to Pick a Lock With a Paper Clip | An Easy 7 Step Guide

Being locked out of your own house is annoying, to say the least. And what if you need inside quickly and cannot wait for a locksmith? You’ve seen character after character in the movies and on television with no prior training pick a lock. It seems like a myth made for easing the plot forward – locks can be opened with a bobby pin or a paper clip in next to no time. Can something so mundane hold as much power as a key?

My dad is a locksmith, so I learned a few things while growing up. One of them is that the most common household locks and padlocks available are based on the tumbler lock system. These are the most straightforward locks to pick and can be done with a couple of paper clips and a set of pliers to get them into the correct shape.

Here is how to pick a lock with a paper clip:

  1. Make a tension wrench out of a paper clip
  2. Make a rake out of a different paper clip
  3. Place the tension wrench at the bottom of the lock
  4. Insert the rake above it
  5. Scrub the rake by lifting the key pins in turn by moving the rake back and forth
  6. Torque the tension wrench by adding pressure to it and turn the lock

With a little practice, you will get a feel for the torque needed on the tension wrench and the movement required to lift the pins successfully.

Now, let’s go through the steps in more detail so you can get started on your journey toward becoming an expert lock picker.

Paperclip Held in Front of a Door Knob

7 Steps to Picking A Lock With Paperclips

Items needed:

  • 2 metal paperclips- The stronger, the better. No upper limit on size. Just be sure the paperclip’s diameter does not exceed that of the internal diameter of the lock.
  • Pair of pliers- Any type will do, whether regular or needlenose.
  • A tumbler lock to pick- A typical residential front or rear door lock will suffice. I practiced on my back door since I didn’t want to give someone passing by on the street the wrong idea. A visit from the cops, forcing me to prove I own the residence, was not something I wanted to deal with.

1. Make A Tension Wrench

Take one of your paper clips and straighten out the first two bends completely. You should now have an L-shaped piece with an extra loop as the handle.

Use your pliers to make the paperclip as straight as possible. It is essential to be diligent on this step as it needs to sit flush with the bottom of the lock.

If you don’t have pliers, you can use your fingers.

2. Make A Rake

This step is where you turn a paperclip into something that looks like the edge of a key.

  1. First, straighten the second paperclip entirely.
  2. Next, take the pliers and now bend the clip 45 degrees to make the first ridge in the rake.
  3. Keep bending the paperclip until you have three bends next to each other. It should look like a zig-zag with three points when you are finished.

Note: if you don’t have a set of pliers to make a zig-zag rake, you can also use a straight paperclip to use as the rake. However, inexperienced users will generally have more success with a shaped rake than a straight one.

3. Insert The Tension Wrench

Place the tension wrench into the bottom of the keyhole. Apply slight pressure to the tension wrench in the direction to open the lock.

If you don’t know which way the lock opens, then try using the sense of resistance as you turn the wrench clockwise, then counterclockwise.

There will be slightly less resistance in the opening direction. If you can’t feel the difference, pick a direction and switch if the lock isn’t opening.

Keep the applied tension on the wrench throughout the lock-picking process. This element is what will turn the lock as you lift each pin with the rake.

Warning: Too much pressure will cause the wrench to break. Once this happens, the lock typically needs to be replaced.

4. Insert the Rake

The rake is designed to lift each of the internal key pins in turn so that the tension wrench can twist the lock slightly when each is raised to the correct height. Put the rake all the way in so it is at the back of the lock. It should be resting on top of the tension wrench.

5. Scrub the Rake

Move the rake up and down until you feel the tension wrench twisting slightly. When this happens, you are holding the driver pin on the plug while the key pin falls down. Essentially, what the key normally does.

When you move the rake, you want it to be in a smooth motion. Don’t be slow during this process, but equally, you won’t want to yank the paperclip out, either. Some trial and error will be required here.

6. Scrub and Apply Tension

Continue to apply light pressure on the tension wrench as you move the rake along the pins. You will want to move the rake up and back to lift the pins.

Be sure not to apply too much pressure from the tension wrench, as the driver pins will not align correctly. You will feel a slight reduction in resistance as each of the pins is unpicked. In some locks, you may hear a clicking sound as well as feel a resistance change.

Repeat this step as necessary. Make this motion until all the pins are set. Most locks have five or six pins. You may need to apply slightly more tension as more pins become unlocked.

7. Torque To Open

Once all the pins are aligned, you will find that with the correct torque on the tension wrench, the lock will unlock. Remove the paper clips once you have gained entry or opened the padlock.

Voila, you are now a level-one MacGyver apprentice.

Tips and Troubleshooting

Lock picking is, in a sense, an art form. The technique is quite simple; however, several pitfalls can prevent this task from being performed successfully. Here are a few pieces of advice that can help you master your lock-picking skills so you are never stranded again.

Gently Does It

If you place too much pressure on your tension wrench, the paper clip can break, leaving part of itself inside the lock.

Be careful not to do this.

Notoriously, paper clips are hard to remove once lodged inside a lock. Alas, this tends to make the lock irreparable, and typically it needs to be replaced.

If you have a heavy hand, using paper clips for lockpicking may be unwise. Instead, more robust materials are perhaps a better option, or purchasing a machine-tooled lock-picking kit is a good alternative if you are especially prone to losing your keys.

Pro Tip: A way to assess if the amount of torque you are applying is correct is to look at the bend in your tension wrench while you apply pressure. If the wrench is bent more than 20 degrees, you are using too much pressure. Relax in this instance, and you will likely have more success.

Practice Makes Perfect

Lock picking isn’t as easy for the layman as the movies would make us believe.

Alas, while locks are easy to pick when you know what you are doing, you could just spend hours fumbling around with paper clips during your first few trials. Use some old locks to gain the skill and get a feel for the technique.

That way, you are not adding adrenaline to the mix, which will be present when you’re trying to pick a lock for real. It will also give you the confidence to go forward and tackle your own house lock or a padlock if the need should ever arise.

Clean Your Lock Afterward

Most paperclips come covered in plastic, and you will have fragments of this plastic coating inside your lock after picking it. Even if your paperclips are the non-coated kind, metallic pieces will still be inside the lock. These are deposited due to friction between the paper clips and the locks’ internal components.

Pro Tip: To clean the lock, use a canister of compressed air with a fine straw attachment. Place the straw at the bottom of your lock and blow. You should see some fine particles escape. This ensures that no particulate matter will enter your lock, causing it to jam in the future.

How Does A Tumbler Lock Work?

Close-up Of Lockpicker Hand Opening Tumbler Door Lock

While you may not need to know the internal mechanics of a tumbler lock to pick it, it may assist you in understanding the goals and, therefore, the technique required to pick it successfully.

Since their invention back in 4000 B.C.E., these lock types have become ubiquitous and haven’t changed much since 1861 when they were adapted for a cylinder lock, as we find on most doors today. They are also the type found on most padlocks that use a key.

Tumbler locks consist of five parts: Casing, plug, driver pins, key pins, and the shear line.

  • Casing: The casing is the cylinder that holds the rest of the components. It is typically made from metal. Standard materials are non-corrosive, such as stainless steel, brass, chrome, or nickel.
  • Plug: The plug is the opening of a lock that you place the key into. When the correct key is inserted into the plug, it can freely rotate, allowing the lock to be unlocked. 
  • Key Pins: The key pins are created by drilling five or six holes above the plug. The key pins, each of differing lengths, are inserted into the holes. These pins touch the key when it is placed inside the plug, hence their name. That is why keys are shaped the way they are – to match the heights of the key pins inside the lock.
  • Driver Pins: The driver pins are spring-loaded and sit on top of the key pins. They are, however, not connected to the key pins. These pins are there to hold the key pins down and align to form a shear line when the correct key is inserted. They are called the driver pins as they allow the plug to turn or “drive” when they are aligned. 
  • Shear Line: The shear line is where the height of each key pin is the same once the correct key is inserted into the plug. Only the right key can lift the key pins correctly to achieve this configuration. In other words, it is when the space between the driver pins and the key pins meet, creating a line.

Therefore, to open a tumbler lock, all you are doing is lifting each of the key pins to the correct height (the shear line) so that the plug is free to move. 

Final Thoughts

In dire times you may need to pick a lock. Whether it is for a long-forgotten padlock on your garden shed or your front door, lock picking is a useful skill to possess. It can save time and money when compared to using a trained locksmith. However, picking a lock is an art form that requires patience, practice, and a modicum of knowledge as to how the lock works.

Luckily, most locks used in padlocks, houses, and office buildings use the tumbler design, which utilizes pins of different heights to control the locking mechanism. That way, when the correct key is inserted, the pins will move to the right height to let the lock turn. Therefore, you can manipulate the lock using a couple of metallic paper clips to lift each of the pins in turn.

It is a relatively simple process but one that is hard to master. It requires the right amount of torque from the tension wrench while moving the rake in just the right way to lift the pins. However, once learned, most locks can be opened with this household item in only a few minutes.

Related Can a Locksmith Open a Gun Safe? | What You Need To Know.

Related Questions

Is Lock Picking Illegal?

Most states have their own laws. However, they generally fall into two categories.

  1. Most states do not consider lock picking a criminal offense, provided you are not gaining illegal entry. It is, therefore, legal to carry lockpicking tools.
  2. In other states, however, the rules are far harsher. It is considered prima facie evidence that you intend to or have committed a crime by carrying locking picking tools. Under these laws, it is your responsibility to prove that you had no criminal intent.

Be aware of the laws where you live before purchasing or possessing lock-picking hardware.

Are There Locks That Cannot Be Picked?

Tumbler locks can only be so complicated, and as a result, “unpickable” locks are those that are not based on this premise and are innovative.

Smart locks are increasingly popular as technology improves and smartphones become the hub of all that we do. However, while they may not be mechanical, meaning that smart locks may not be able to be picked, they can be hacked.

Combination locks can pose amateurs issues, as can magnetic locks. However, skilled lock pickers will have the required knowledge to pick these locks too. With innovation comes more considerable skill by the thief. There is, therefore, a saying that, “There is no unpickable lock, just locks that haven’t been picked yet.”

Buy locks at the forefront of technology and replace them with recent innovations if you want to stay ahead of the lock pickers.

For more, check out 10 Best Places to Practice Bushcraft and Survival Skills.

Disclaimer: This article was written solely to help individuals hone a skill that will help them in a survival situation or emergency only. It is not intended to inform or educate those who would use this information in an illegal manner. Survival Freedom will not be held liable for misuse of this or any information contained within this website.