Week 41: Pick a Lock

In the early days of Wikipedia, I cited the crowd-sourced encyclopedia on a paper I wrote in my Feminist Theatre class. My professor circled the citation in red ink and scribbled in the margin: “THIS IS NOT A LEGITIMATE SOURCE.” Now that the foibles of Wikipedia’s research have come to light, I wouldn’t be so foolhardy to reference it in a research paper, but at the time I remember thinking that my professor just wasn’t forward thinking. I cited Wikipedia’s explanation of a theatrical concept, and what could be more extensive and thorough than a definition which has been edited and refined by hundreds of scholars? (Turns out half of Wikipedia editors are under 22 years old.)

Still, the growing accessibility of information over my lifetime has completely transformed the way I learn, mostly in that I can more easily avoid human contact. In Week 1 I learned to tie a tie with the physical help of two friends, but these days I hop on YouTube or Wikipedia whenever I need a refresher before I tie a Pratt knot or bowtie. My first recourse in any situation, be it physical, mental, or metaphysical, is to Google it. I don’t necessarily begrudge myself for taking the easy way out. I can’t help the fact that most of my brain is reserved for obscure movie trivia; I can only thank the Internet Gods for making the rest of the world’s knowledge similarly easy to access.

However, in the pursuit of manliness, I’m beginning to wonder if internet research is on a lower tier than an apprenticeship. There are some skills that cannot be effectively learned with the aid of only a YouTube video. But at the same time, there are legitimate reasons for forgoing the face-to-face instruction, namely physical location and available funds. I’ve purposefully put off tallying up my manly expenses for this project in fear that the running total will make me cancel the whole thing, or at the very least, sell banner ads for thinly disguised Ponzi schemes in the margins of this blog. But for this week’s challenge, I was fortunate to find a class where I could learn the basics in two hours. I gladly handed over my credit card info and reserved one seat for Lock Picking.

outside warehouse

The class takes place in a nondescript warehouse in Red Hook, Brooklyn; by day, it serves as an art gallery. I walk into the building to find the ground floor empty and pitch black, only adding to the clandestine nature of the class I’m about to take. I see some light at the top of the stairs and head towards it.

Upstairs I find the classroom with several students huddled around a communal wood table, each nervous and excited for our instructor’s arrival. When he does arrive, his imposing stature makes quite an entrance – he’s the size of a linebacker with a steely gaze to match. However his friendly demeanor and soft speaking voice hints at the welcoming atmosphere of the class to follow. He calls himself Tantric, which confused me at the point of registration; I thought I had accidentally signed up for Tantric Lock Picking, which frankly sounded like a pseudonym for a key party. I didn’t see Q signing off on that.

Fortunately for me and the sanctity of my marriage, the class is a fully clothed, two-hour primer on lock picking. Tantric starts by presenting a PowerPoint that introduces his organization. TOOOL, The Open Organization Of Lockpickers, began with a couple of Dutch men twelve years ago who were interested in “sportpicking,” or picking locks as a hobby, and now has evolved into a worldwide network that boasts 22 chapters in the United States alone. What once was a group ostracized and feared by lock makers has now become a legitimate organization that is regularly shown research and development by the major lock companies in order to strengthen the security of their products.

warehouse door

Tantric works as a security professional and has been toying with locks all his life, catching the bug from his uncle who worked as a locksmith. To keep his skills sharp, Tantric says he’ll spend a night opening thirty or so locks before he goes to bed. He says he views locks as nothing more than “Do Not Disturb” signs. Tantric is a good person to have on your side.

After Tantric’s short introduction of himself and TOOOL, he presents a series of slides that deal with the mechanics of lock picking. Tonight’s class focuses on pin tumbler locks, which account for the majority of locks in the world. Tantric passes out a lock to each student, and the locks themselves contain anywhere from one to five pins – the more pins in a lock, the longer it takes to break it. He then passes out thin metal tools we’ll be using to pick these locks. Though these are standard tools for lock picking, Tantric says he’s been able to fashion tools out of common hardware like the allen wrenches that come with IKEA furniture. I imagine those instructions were in the black market IKEA line, where the cartoon IKEA man has a handlebar mustache in all of the manuals.

Tantric tells us to insert a tool into our locks and slowly remove it, listening closely to hear the pins drop. I think my lock is broken until I realize it only contains one pin, the lock picking equivalent of training wheels on a tricycle. After a half hour of jiggling, I’m finally able to get my lock open. Tantric says the one-pin locks could be opened with no lock picking knowledge and some wild wriggling, but I won’t let him burst my bubble – I’m extremely satisfied to get one open. I pick up a three-pin lock next.

lock picking tools

Tantric discusses wafer locks, skeleton keys, and getting out of handcuffs, but I barely listen because all my focus is directed toward the lock in my hands. Lock picking is almost entirely a tactile experience, and since I mostly rely on aural and visual clues, it takes some adjustment to depend on my fingertips for answers. The sound of pins dropping can offer some guidance, but this is not the kind of covert lock picking that requires a stethoscope and a mock turtleneck. When I miraculously manage to open the three-pin lock, the excitement in solving this puzzle is as palpable as any challenge I’ve completed this year. It takes another attempt at opening the lock before I truly understand the technique of lock picking, and by the end of the class, I’ve reached a decent level of competency, if not confidence.

I haven’t explained the mechanics of lock picking for a reason. There are some skills that lose their mystique when information is printed or made available on the internet. In the case of lock picking, there is even an ethical argument to be made – TOOOL makes clear that their knowledge is only to be used for purposes of a hobby, never for criminal gain. Face-to-face interaction cuts down on nefarious use of these skills.

Unfortunately, the lock picking information is already out there. A quick Google or YouTube search will produce hundreds of guides and instructional videos. Even TOOOL has made their PowerPoint slides available on their website, though I doubt that’s how they want their information delivered. In this case, I don’t want to dilute the potency of this information by making it too easy to access.

many locks

TOOOL has chapters all over the country for a reason, and I implore interested parties to seek out a meeting in their neck of the woods, or find a Tantric of your own, should you be so lucky. Not only does it expedite the learning process, it helps to be a part of a community, even if only for a couple of hours. A camaraderie develops instantly, and there’s a sweet satisfaction in knowing that this information is only available to a small group of curious souls before it evaporates forever.


Face-to-face interaction will always trump a Google search when it comes down to true manliness. There are certain things that cannot be conveyed in a YouTube video, no matter how high the resolution is. A manly man seeks out his wiser elders for guidance, and although I haven’t always stayed true to that ideal, I know that that scenario provides the most efficient vessel for learning. I certainly could have figured out the mechanics of lock picking online, but there was a palpable strength inside the classroom with every student trying to reach a common goal. I’m positive that the collective manliness got each of us to the finish line. 3.12.