The Scary Truth About Locks -- From Expert Lockpickers

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  • Kevin Grubb
    American racing driver

(Photo courtesy of Sure Lock and Key)

First, let’s get something straight— for the most part, what’s inside your doorknob isn’t going to keep thieves at bay.

Kevin Grubb, the owner of Sure Lock and Key in St. Louis, has been in the lock business for some 30 years. Picking a lock requires two tools, he says: a wrench and a pick, plus the dexterity and practice to use them.

Someone that good probably isn’t looking to hit up a house, says Grubb, but looking for the places with far more valuable goods. 

Most homes are instead broken into by thieves who kick down a door, breaking the door or the frame or both. And don’t think that more locks equal more protection — each extra lock is another set of holes in a door, which can weaken its structural integrity and make it easier to kick in. 

If you want a safe house, focus on the lock installation and invest in a solid deadbolt, he says. The bolts come with a plate that affixes to the door jamb, and you’ll want to make sure the hardware secures the metal plate to the door frame well.

“You want a heavy-duty reinforced deadlock with a reinforced plate that goes on the doorjamb,” he says. “There’s really no security in a doorknob,” he adds. Want proof? Grubb doesn’t even have doorknob locks on his home.


The crew at Sure Lock and Key in St. Louis. (Photo courtesy of Sure Lock and Key)

If do you have doorknob locks and get locked out, skip the paperclip approach. You’re likely to get the clip caught in the lock, and break the lock.

But some basic techniques can pay off. In fact, I once mastered the technique of popping the locks with a credit card in a former apartment building, rescuing locked-out neighbors — including a new neighbor who later became my husband. Thank you, lock-picking credit card!

Grubb says if that technique works, that’s a sign the lock wasn’t properly installed in the first place. The plate wasn’t placed right, or a button on the end of the latch meant to prevent just such entries wasn’t triggered.

If there’s one trend that disturbs him, it’s the ubiquity of lock-picking kits and tools thanks to the Internet.

“Thirty years ago when I started doing this, those tools were not available to the general public,” he says. Now they’re available to nearly everyone. 


Picking locks takes two tools, a lot of practice — and an easy doorknob lock. 

Take Dan Castimore, an IT professional in Alaska who recently bought his first lock-picking kit and a cutaway lock on eBay so he can see how the lock mechanisms react as he practices. He goes at it a few hours a week, and has worked through a cheap MasterLock padlock, and then a more expensive one a few days later.

“My father always told me that locks only keep honest people honest,” Castimore says. “You can always break a window, or force a door to get in to someplace if you really want to. Lock picking is just an extension of this idea.”

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He’s a fan of Schuyler Towne, a “security anthropologist” who has researched the origins and historical importance of locks; and the lock-picking stylings of BosniaBill’s Youtube page. 

Both Castimore and Grubb recommend Assa locks, and Grubb plugs Medeco locks too, as secure options for the home. They’ll be more expensive — maybe upwards of $400 to secure every outside door in a house — but as Grubb notes, what’s the difference of a few hundred dollars when you’re talking about your family’s security?

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