When I was young, information on how to pick locks was not easy to come by. Nowadays, of course, you can find instructions all over the internet and a wealth of YouTube videos showing you what to do in great detail. With all that information available for free, is it worth buying a book on the subject as well? Practical Lock Picking seemed to us like an interesting read so we gave it a try. Let’s talk about it in this review.
Before you begin
I will begin the review the same way the author begins the book, with ethical considerations. Information on picking locks was hard to come by in the past for a reason–not everyone who wants the information is ethical, and it’s a skill that can be used for good or for ill, so it was thought wise not to spread the information around freely. Although access to the information is much easier today, the fact is that not everyone is ethical, and the concerns of the past remain in force.
Whether you get your information from this book or from the internet, please take to heart the author’s two golden rules of lockpicking: Do not pick locks you do not own, and do not pick locks on which you rely. He adds that just because you have a key doesn’t mean you own the lock—think of locks on apartment or office doors, for example, which actually belong to the building’s owner, not the occupant. That said, let’s discuss the book.
Lock basics and how to work with them
The book begins with the two most common types of locks, pin tumbler, and wafer. The author explains the mechanism of each type in detail. I must note here that Practical Lock Picking is written like a textbook rather than in the easy, breezy style of popular how-to computer books. The information’s all here, but the author’s tone is strictly practical and it makes for rather dry reading sometimes. However, it’s essential to understand how locks work in order to more easily understand how to pick them. Once you’ve gone through the basics it’s much easier to visualize the techniques the author will teach you. First there’s a lengthy discussion of how each type of lock is manufactured.
The section on manufacturing is followed, logically, by a discussion of keys and how they work with the locks. The various parts of the key are described in detail.
Only after this careful and lengthy discussion of the way locks and keys are made does the discussion of how to pick locks actually begin.
Common lock picking techniques & tools
Practical Lock Picking describes the ways in which manufacturing imperfections make locks easier to pick, something that I found most interesting. The locks you’ll most commonly encounter aren’t exactly high precision mechanisms, and the way they fit together—or don’t quite fit together—is what the beginner needs to understand. Holes are slightly mis-drilled, pins or wafers can be imperfectly cut, and so forth, and those imperfections make the finished lock easier to pick. Good thing for beginners, bad thing for real security.
Only after this lengthy discussion does the author finally get down to the business of actually picking a lock. He starts with pin tumbler locks and describes the two common techniques, lifting and raking. Specialized tools are needed for both techniques, but the explanations are detailed and well illustrated, so if the reader has acquired the tools, it shouldn’t be difficult to proceed step by step through the instructions. Again, though, the textbook style of writing may be a little off-putting. Here’s an example:
Mr. Ollum offers plenty of helpful hints and tips from his many years of working with locks, to help the beginner avoid bad habits. There are a lot of common beginner mistakes, most of which make the process a lot more difficult than it needs to be, so paying attention to what not to do is just as important as paying attention to what you should be doing. This is all followed by a lengthy and well illustrated discussion of the tools you’ll need. I had no idea there were so many different kinds of picks, tension tools and other devices to make the lock picking job easier. A beginner won’t want or need all of them, of course, but there are good practical suggestions which to choose to start out with.
Practicing and learning the techniques
The section called “Beginner Training—How to get very good, very fast” doesn’t really live up to its name. Its main purpose is to describe the kinds of practice equipment a beginner can purchase or construct, to make the process of learning easier. The “getting good very fast” part only comes after the acquisition of the training tools. The section is quite lengthy and detailed and a brief description wouldn’t do it justice. If you buy this book, you will want to read this section and pay close attention, because following the instructions and acquiring the equipment will make learning easier. The author points out that nearly everyone will have a degree of success by just getting hold of any old lock and picking away at it, but if the reader wants to get serious about really learning the craft, it’s going to require more equipment and more effort. The same goes for the section called “Advanced Training—learning some additional skills”. This section deals with the various ways manufacturers attempt to make their locks “pick resistant,” and again, a thorough discussion is beyond the scope of a review. Any reader who is serious about learning the craft should also pay attention to this section and practice the techniques it describes. The advanced section is followed by a brief description of specialized tools that the author thinks are especially good or especially bad, and several kinds of locks that are good for practice.
All that internet stuff
If you’ve ever looked at a video about opening padlocks with a strip cut out of an aluminum can, or about “bumping” a lock or otherwise assaulting it so that it opens without a key, you can read about these techniques and why they usually work so successfully in Practical Lock Picking. In fact, the author, Deviant Ollam, is widely credited with inventing the strip-of-soda-can technique for opening padlocks even though he modestly says he only popularized it, he didn’t invent it.
He also explains “bump keys” (you’ll get a bazillion hits if you look that up on YouTube) and explains the technique for using them—which involves a lot less force than some of those videos might make it appear. And he explains how to bypass some door locks (something I knew how to do when I was still in grade school but given how long ago that was, it’s not at all surprising that door and door lock manufacturers have made those tricks a lot more difficult by now).
And the really hard part
The instructional part of the book concludes with a discussion of the more complex and more difficult-to-pick types of locks: tubular, cruciform and dimple. These locks are not impossible to pick, but to do so will require some very specialized tools and a lot of practice. The reader who wants to take on the task of learning these specialized techniques is going to have a long road ahead, I would say. Still, if you’ve read the book so far and have seen how locks and keys work together, you’ll be able to see how these techniques work even if you have no interest in pursuing them yourself.
The details are beyond the scope of a review, but Practical Lock Picking can serve as an excellent reference if you wish to buy the specialized tools and some practice locks to work on (keeping in mind the two golden rules, of course).
Tools of the trade
The final section in the book is devoted to a detailed description of lockpicking tools of all kinds. There are photographs and diagrams of the various configurations of picks and tension tools, and a discussion of what kinds of tools are best for beginners, and which manufacturers produce the best quality tools. Having this kind of advice could save a beginner from spending a lot of money on tools that won’t work.
If you’re serious about putting the instructions in Practical Lock Picking into practice, getting the right kinds of tools will set you on the right path.
Not everyone will find this book of interest because it’s a specialized subject. And it’s not designed for quick and easy reading. It’s a textbook. While you can read all about how to pick or defeat locks, you’re going to need to practice even the simplest techniques if you wish to be successful. Always keep the two golden rules in mind: Do not pick a lock you do not own, and Do not pick a lock on which you rely. If you decide to make your first attempt on your car lock or your front door, you’re going to find out why these rules were created, and you’re going to have to call in a professional to fix what you just did.
Practical Lock Picking, Second Edition, is a thorough, extremely well-illustrated textbook that provides instruction for simple and complex techniques. While you can certainly find this information here and there on the internet and all over YouTube, having the printed instructions in front of you can be a real help (and if you don’t get it, you can always try those videos). I have not tried the techniques because I don’t have the specialized tools… but I must admit, I am strongly considering getting some. We do have a box full of old padlocks my husband just can’t bring himself to throw away. 🙂