Exploring Locksmithing and Lockpicking as an intellectual pursuit

Posted on September 30, 2012


I am fascinated by complex things and always have been, whether they are mechanical, chemical, mathematical or other, similarly elegant pieces of “clockwork”. I was the clichéd kid repeatedly told off for dismantling things or repairing them. It wasn’t because I lacked the ability to do so, it was just because I was caught in the act.

At a young age, I learnt the value of tact and that using half-truths when dealing with adults was pretty effective. If something is fixed before an adult realises that it is broken, then, well, so much the better.

My mother was a single parent and did what she could to raise me in very difficult circumstances. When I was 9 years old, she took a job as a secretary at a car scrapyard which paid the bills, but didn’t stretch to cover a babysitter. I spent my summer holidays climbing up stacks of 3 or 4 flattened cars, peering into engines, digging about in their electronics and frankly, having a wonderful time amongst all that shattered glass, buckled metal and engine parts. The few guys that worked there got used to me, and answered some of my questions about engines, carburettors, and ignition systems. They also confided in me a few hacks. Like how they got into cars and drove them when the key was damaged or lost. That you can start the car by connecting wires together, or that some older  [“older” in an 80s context] ignitions used pin tumbler locks that can be dealt with using a fine chisel and a good whack.

I caused my first car accident a few weeks after that.

I had found a car that was in half-decent shape, just needing a new battery, the distributor reattaching, and a little petrol. I ‘dealt’ with the ignition lock and pushed a flat bit of scrap into the slot and as I held onto a deep breath, I gave it a sharp turn to the right, as I had seen done before. The engine spluttered, coughed and the whole car lurched forward, smacking into the upright corrugated iron fence in front of it. Shaken, I got out of the car and my work was swiftly uncovered.

I have been paranoid about leaving a car in gear ever since.

I still retained that love of discovering how things work, what makes them tick and what their mechanisms – their secrets – are. I am more aware of risk these days however!

Locks and puzzles

Some puzzles can really get under my skin and I simply have to work them out, otherwise they will drive me insane. Locks always had a charm to them, as they can be so simple yet powerful enough to stop a determined human being. A few millimetres of dumb metal stopping an intelligent being. Feynman famously dabbled with picking locks as an intellectual pursuit and that is pretty much all the encouragement I needed to look into this further.

I made a few (mostly unsuccessful) rakes and padlock shims from coke cans, which I must confess, I used to impress friends at my new school. I opened their padlocked lockers in front of them after betting them I could. I must of become bored of this or they did, as I only did it a few times and then stopped. It was really dumb and naive of me. What I viewed as a simple party trick was something that authorities take very seriously. In any case, I quickly moved onto rubik’s cubes, my friend’s handheld computer games and just being a teenager.

tl;dr I’ve dabbled with lockpicking in the past as an intellectual puzzle and party trick

Every birthday, since I was about 20 years old, I’ve tried to pick one skill or area to take seriously as a hobby and to dive into it. This helps keep my mind working and gives me something to work towards. Last year’s skill was knitting and crafting, and previous years, I had chosen things like book-binding, microelectronics, playing the piano and guitar and so on,

This year I’ve chosen locksmithing and lockpicking.

Earlier this year, I found this excellent course playlist – 24 videos! – on pin tumblers by   on YouTube. His videos are really clear, well-done and above all, really, REALLY exciting (in a geeky way!) Re-watching these a few days ago made my decision about what to pick this year very easy indeed 🙂

Here’s his introduction to his course:

Some important information to anyone considering going further:

  1. Never pick a lock that you do not own.
  2. Never pick a lock that is in use.
  3. (In the UK) Never carry your tools outside. It’s not illegal as to own them, but for all practical purposes, it is illegal to carry them. Police officers will pull you in as you are ‘equipped for burglary’, especially if you haven’t begun any formal locksmith training or certification. So, keep them at home, with your other hobby gear.

So far, I’ve bought a nicely reviewed set of picks, a block of practice locks and “Practical Lock Picking: A Physical Penetration Tester’s Training Guide” by Deviant Ollam which should arrive next week! I can’t wait!

I doubt I’ll get as far as entering a lockpicking competition, but I do hope that I will have at least explored it. Who knows, I may even apply for formal training after all! 🙂

Posted in: fun