Lock Picking Part Deux

on August 17, 2009 in Misc

It’s a good thing Layla never needs to pick a car’s lock.

“Car locks are really hard to pick,” Chris confessed.  Rather than pick a car lock, a thief would be better off just breaking the window.  On the other hand, to break into a Bentley you just have to take off a headlight and throw a screwdriver into the opening behind it.  That’ll short out the electrical system and the doors will open.  “But at that point you might as well break the window,” Chris said logically.

Obviously, Chris and I were now getting down to the nitty-gritty of Layla’s needs.

“Where does your character work?” he asked.  When I told him she was mostly in Europe (and forgot to add the Middle East), he stated she would need flatter tools.  It seems that locks in Europe are more finely tuned than American ones, therefore the tools must also be finer.  When he asked me what kind of places she’d be getting into, I told him mostly older buildings like archives, libraries and churches.

“Then she should carry WD40 and graphite powder with her,” he instructed.

That’s because older locks can have rust in them, which makes their pins and other parts stiff.  Layla could pour a little WD40 oil into a lock, but after picking her way past the pins the lock would need to be replaced because oil can ruin it.  Graphite powder would be better:  after blowing some into the lock, the parts wouldn’t be damaged and the powder would still facilitate picking.

Precisely because Layla wouldn’t leave damaged locks behind, both to protect herself and out of personal ethics, Chris and I decided that Layla wouldn’t bump locks.  Yes, bumping is easy and it works, but bump a lock repeatedly and it has to be replaced.  Picking is kinder and gentler.


Happily I don’t have Layla breaking into state-of-the-art safes.  Even Chris believes the best of them are nearly impossible to get into.  That means the scene in The Italian Job when Charlize Theron is practicing breaking into a safe by listening to its tumbler isn’t realistic, he thinks.  Opening your standard basic combination lock by listening to it is one thing.  Listening to a very expensive safe with an advanced system would take a lot more than Charlize’s skills and tools.

Layla would also occasionally encounter the really old-fashioned lock — the kind with the classic keyhole accessed with big old keys.  When I was a kid a few doors on our family’s 1920’s house had such locks, and a standard skeleton key bought at the hardware store could open all of them.  “You can open those locks with a hairpin!” Chris said with a laugh.

I’m glad he said this, because in The Compass Master Layla picks a desk lock with a hairpin.  The scene is one of several concerning her teenage years in an Irish boarding school; it’s her first time at lock picking and getting into something that’s forbidden to her, and she finds the thrill addictive.  When writing the scene I figured this was plausible because as a kid I often misplaced the key to an old trunk I’d been given and so had to teach myself how to use a twisted-up hairpin to pick the lock.

Other everyday objects can also be altered into handy-dandy picking tools, Chris said.  To prove his point he pulled out a file and a long thin wire he’d been working on.  The wire was a bristle from a street-cleaner, the kind that can be found on streets or in gutters just about anywhere.  Then there’s the metal edge to a ruler, the wire inside a windshield wiper, even — and I am not making this up — the stiff edge of a banana’s top.  “You can turn just about anything into a pick!” Chris declared.  Apparently resourcefulness and ingenuity are points of pride among Crazy Young Guy lock pickers.

Home-made picks can also be convenient because buying real lock picking tools might get tricky.  Chris wouldn’t guarantee that I’d be able to get my hands on a set like his, never mind that they seem to be sold on plenty of internet sites.  In most states only professional locksmiths and law enforcement agencies can legally purchase lock picking kits.

Well, I still need a lock picking set with at least the four tools Chris recommended, and like him I need to buy a deadbolt lock and a couple padlocks and practice on them.  In the coming weeks I’ll find out just how tough or easy it’ll be to buy those tools.

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