Inside job: Locksmith

Paul Johnson tries to become a professional locksmith

Time Out try every job in Shanghai. This month we learn what it means to be a professional locksmith.

If you’re the type of person who likes losing your keys, you will love getting older. You may wonder why anyone would like losing his keys, but life moves pretty fast and sometimes tracking down lost house keys is the only time I pause and reflect on the past: specifically, where I’ve been the last 24 hours, what couches I may have sat on and what pants I was wearing. And while waiting for a locksmith to arrive I have plenty of time to sit on the cold floor and reflect on how I should have been a locksmith. If you’re the type who loses your keys a lot, learning to pick locks may seem like an obvious solution, but there’s no guarantee you won’t also be the type to constantly lose your lock picking tools.


Locksmith Zhang Ziyou carries his tools in a heavy steel case that would be hard to misplace between couch cushions, and props it open to reveal a jumble of picks, files, screwdrivers, hammers, pliers, shears, lubricants and jigs. We start with a pin tumbler lock, the most common lock in the world and a lock category that has existed since 4000 BC, although scholars are unsure what was worth locking up 6,000 years before the invention of Apple products. Pin tumblers have an outer cylindrical casing surrounding a plug. A series of tiny spring-loaded pins extend through the casing and into the plug – preventing it from turning – and when the proper key is inserted into the plug it pushes the pins up out of the plug and allows it to rotate. 

He instructs me to first insert a tension wrench – shaped like a letter ‘L’ – into the bottom of the keyhole and apply slight pressure. Next I insert a pick at the top of the lock and use a slow raking motion while lifting up to apply pressure on the pins. As each pin is pushed up out of the plug, applying torque to the wrench turns the plug and blocks the pins from dropping back in. As I repeat the scrubbing motion I hear clicks, but I’m unable to get all the pins to set at once and the plug won’t rotate. 


Zhang says it takes a lot of practice to develop a feel for lock picking. He motions for the tools and manages to set the pins and turn the plug in under a minute. His speed is impressive but I would suggest taking much longer during an actual lockout so the client feels he’s getting his money’s worth. We open a series of locks using specialised tools. I try a front door containing a cross lock, a common style in China requiring a key with teeth on four sides. He hands me a specialised cross lock tool resembling a thin whisk with four pick wires protruding from the end. The four wires are aligned with the four indentations of the cross lock and work to rake the pins as I begin tapping the other end with a screwdriver while applying torque. The door opens easily. Too easily to feel safe when I lock the front door that night. The legality of possessing lock picking tools can differ from country to country, but in China a locksmith has to register with the police.


Zhang smiles and almost sounds like he’s bragging when he mentions that the police have his fingerprints on file. We use a foil pick tool employing a thin strip of aluminum foil to open a dimple key lock. The door opens so quickly that I can’t help but feel we’ve cheated. These specialised tools remove all the romance from lock picking. I up the stakes by handing him my wife’s rusty bike lock. His brow furrows and he tells me the rust makes the lock very difficult to pick. He inserts a bump key, which has specially designed teeth, and when force is applied to the outside cylinder – perhaps through the rapping of a hammer – impact force is transmitted from the teeth to the pins and causes them to bounce out of the plug as the key is turned. We both take turns with the bump key while hammering on the outside cylinder but it won’t turn. 



He appears frustrated and insists he could open it easily if he could break it. He looks at me and I shake my head. Breaking the lock also seems like cheating. I once opened a safe with nothing but a hammer, but my wife chose not to be impressed when she inspected the resulting condition of the safe. We try two picks but it still won’t turn. He uses a razor blade to shave a pencil tip and allows the shavings to fall into the keyhole. We try the two picks again and I wonder if the pencil shavings are supposed to help the pick grip the pins. The plug still won’t turn. The lock turns easily with the real key, so it sounds like rust is the greatest deterrent against burglars. 

I’m no expert, but maybe you should start soaking all your locks in water. Perhaps selling pre-rusted locks could be an exciting new moneymaker for the lock industry. Zhang has been working as a locksmith for 20 years and tells me that he started lock picking at a young age. I wonder if his parents immediately viewed his hobby as a potential career or worried it was an indication of criminal tendencies. 

 When I arrive home I show my son how to open a pin tumbler lock. He nods his approval and says, ‘That was very cool. But it does make me feel less safe.’