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Locks, lockpicking, locksport, and an actual locksmith

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I get locked out of my house quite a lot. By “I get locked out,” I mean that I contrive to accidentally lock myself out. By “quite a lot”, I probably mean it happens two or three or four times a year. Which is absolutely enough, thanks. (Maybe five times a year.) Anyway, the best part of a decade ago I got locked out of my house quite late at night, and the only locksmith who would come and help was from Newhaven, which was a fair distance away.

Hero! The locksmith’s name was Matt, and I am so happy I met him. Matt got into my house using a thin sheet of plastic, which is pretty alarming now I think about it, but while he worked, he also took the time to talk to me about his job, and I began to learn what a fascinating, generous, unusual person he is.

Maybe six times a year? It happens that I had just finished reading The Burglar’s Guide to the City at the time, Geoff Manaugh’s luminous and intricate book on the way that criminals operate within urban landscapes. Bump keys and McDonalds robbers! It was the perfect moment for me to be talking to a locksmith. And I really lucked in with Matt. He is a locksmith, but he’s also genuinely fascinated by locks. Inevitably, a few months back, when I heard about the game Museum of Mechanics: Lockpicking on Steam, Matt was the first person I thought of.

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Listen. It has been a pretty good few years for fans of lock-picking and that sort of thing in games. By which I mean two games have come out. The first was Sophie’s Safecracking Simulator, by the brilliant Sophie Houlden. An absolute treat, as Bertie discovered. Turn the tumblers and learn about this arcane world!

The second is The Museum of Mechanics: Lockpicking, by Dim Bulb Games. It’s a glorious, scrappy thing, more cabinet of curiosities than museum, I think. It pulls together lockpicking minigames from a handful of different video games, so people can work through them and perhaps think about them critically. You get to see the spectrum of video game lockpicking, the various ways in which game design approaches a single idea.

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There is a special affinity between locks and games, I think. And not just because one of the handiest nouns in the game designer’s vocabulary is, “door”. Intricacy! Ingenuity! And a world of moving pieces turning and sliding and slotting together just out of sight. The instance of the fingerpost. The moment the key fits. The moment the whole thing clicks.

The Museum of Mechanics: Lockpicking. What a fabulous thing this is.

It is a chilly morning in Newhaven. “Put this to your ear,” says Matt, handing me a lock.

Precision does wonderful things to language. Mechanical watches give us words like “escapement” and “complication”. They have “crowns” and “movements”. How regal. How stately. Locks and keys give us “pins” which you cannot jab yourself with, but also “shear lines” which do not really look like lines, and “shoes”, which do not resemble shoes. Locks give us “strikes” and “keeps”, both serving time as nouns. Locks are clearly tricksy things.

“Listening?” Matt pulls out a little penknife-alike and unfolds one of its scribbled prongs. A pick. He places it in the lock and I listen as he moves the pick back and forth. “Now if you listen closely, right in here, you’ve got six bottom pins, six top pins, but it’s classed as a six-pin lock, even though there’s twelve in there as such.” A pause while the lock builds itself in his mind. “Now if I just give it a wiggle with a light bit of tension, just listen closely.”

I close my eyes.

Okay. I did hear that. Not quite a click. This was a click’s quieter nephew. A shy kind of sound from inside the lock, from some distant attic or basement, deep within the mechanism. But a joy all the same.

“That’s two pins,” says Matt. “One or two.”

Pins! Strikes! Keeps! Words are everywhere in locks, curious and surprising. And in Matt’s locksmith shop in Newhaven, things are everywhere too. Curious and surprising things. Plastic and steel. Brass with its dozy spreading stains. Little boxes of bits and pieces, filed on shelves. But also buckets of stuff laid out below tables. Vices and clamps and objects with motors. Trays of tiny items called “shims”. Walls of peculiar wrenches and increasingly delicate tools. Locksmiths are perhaps the dentists of the urban world. Sometimes anyway.

And Matt himself, moving between it all, interrupting himself to demonstrate a locksmith principle, which will involve locating the correct items, for a practical lesson, and which will also itself involve a story within the story he was already telling, a story with its own interruptions, its own fine chances for further practical demonstrations and lessons. Repeat. Once when I came to visit Matt he demonstrated how a sort of pipe device could be used to pull a cylinder lock out of a door with almost no effort applied at the business end. This time, when I mention that moment, he shows me a cylinder lock that is pre-cut, compromised by design, so that if you try to pull it out of the door it will snap off, like a lizard’s tail. (This Red Queen weaponised evolution, this spikey kind of arms race between locks and locksmithing, is a big thing in Matt’s industry, as we shall soon see.)

Anyway. I phoned Matt as soon as I heard about The Museum of Mechanics and asked if I could bring it by to show him. He was totally up for it. He once told me that he thought an iPhone game made just of locks to pick would be a very good thing to have on you when the bus was late – so this new game is kind of his idea brought back to him, I suggest.

We set up a computer in the back of his shop. His colleague, Tom, and his daughter, Tess, who is now also his apprentice, handle the flow of customers while Matt looks at a lock minigame from a Sherlock Holmes adventure. I think it’s Sherlock anyway. It has a sort of graph-type thing on the screen, a line you move up and down in sections as a means of depicting the inside of a lock with all its pins.

After a second or two I realise that I don’t need Matt to tell me this particular puzzle is a terrible lockpicking game. It’s abstract, and joylessly so. Lockpicking rendered as the annual financials for a motorway service station. None of the great rattling bonework of keys in locks has made it onto the screen or into the player’s hands. And would Holmes really have to pick a lock anyway? Does he do that in the stories? (Genuinely asking.)

Is this close to what happens inside a door, though? I ask Matt. As an answer, he tells me about the shear line. “So the pins inside a cylinder lock are different heights,” he tells me. “And the pins drop onto the key, and create a flat line of pins, and once it’s flat you can turn it and work the lock.”

Seconds later he is off to a drawer and returns with a handful of little pieces of metal – tiny brass things about the width of the neat little pipe of graphite you get inside a pencil, but chopped much shorter. He drops them into my open hand, cold jiggling weight in my palm. “Pins and springs,” says Matt. “I’ll show you the bits and bobs.”

He laughs. “These here are just normal pins,” he says. “Just cylindrical, two-point-nine millimeter, great. Five-pin locks are the most basic thing you deal with, they come in a variety of about nine different products. And you could have these pins arranged at the top or the bottom.

Sophie’s Safecracking Simulator.

“But these…”, he drops another selection of pins into my hand, and these are more colourful – pinks and purples and yellows – and they also have little ridges around them, “these are anti-pick pins.” He shakes a handful with obvious delight. “These are three millimeter, three-point-one. They have serrations, grooves. The purpose of these grooves is, if you’re picking a lock, you’ll get snagged up on the grooves instead of moving the pin itself.”

He continues for a few minutes, but from here, I promise you, the ground drops away. Many locks build on these basic ideas in complicated ways. And there is a certain beauty in that complication, in the new approaches to the manner in which you arrange pins, cylinders, and springs, the new approaches to thinking of a shear line. It reminds me of that old business about how most card tricks rely on, like, four different basic moves – palms, forces, false shuffles, what-have-you. And yet you put them together in new arrangements and you get, what? You get something you can work away at for hours.

But not Sherlock Holmes’ lock-picking game. Matt is more interested in the padlock, which is just the icon the Museum uses to allow access to the individual games, and to keep track of which ones have been completed. Padlocks are trickier to pick than locks, Matt tells me. Slightly wistful, I think: he tends not to pick them anymore. Nobody does really.

I load up another lockpicking minigame. Splinter Cell. This is a personal favourite. You’re inside the lock, as it were, viewing the cylinder from the side. You move the pick along each pin, bouncing it to find the direction in which it clicks. It’s simple, and misleading – nobody gets to view a lock from this privileged angle – but it’s fun, strangely playful with all the bouncing. Explorative is the word. Whenever I play Splinter Cell I look forward to these little moments. More than the neck-snapping and night-vision, these are the moments that make me feel like a proper spy, dropped somewhere unfriendly and skilled in all sorts of odd, brilliant, almost speculative disciplines.

“This is an individual pick,” Matt says, moving around the screen. “So this pick would pick pins. You would feel for each one because, even though it’s precision engineering, it’s not that precise, right? Especially with cars. You can feel when you’ve got it right and it clicks.”

So despite the directional aspect at the heart of the puzzle, is this pin-picking stuff sort of realistic or not realistic? Matt laughs. Picking individual pins looms much larger in the collective imagination than it does in real life, I am starting to understand. As an example, Matt tells me, “We have a tool that’s like a vibrator that bounces the pins like mad. So you just keep resetting, resetting, resetting and it buzzes away – zzzzzzz!”

Does it work? I ask.

“Yes and no,” he says. “More often than not the battery goes flat so it doesn’t get used that much.”

Matt likes Splinter Cell’s minigame, but he’s being polite I think. We play through a few more minigames before landing on Skyrim, which I already know is his favourite. We are outside the lock here. We have a pick and a tension bar. An ornate piece of ironwork around the keyhole, too: someone’s doing alright.

“Applying tension hopefully holds things in place,” Matt says. “I love the Skyrim one. I thought this should be an unlock-your-phone sort of thing.”

He leans forward and moves the tension bar on the screen. “We’re going to have to snap a couple here,” he says, and I don’t know if it’s the locksmith or the Skyrim fan talking. He moves the pick. “It’s there,” he says. “I can feel it but I can’t get it.” Some part of his mind is inside this imaginary lock.

After a second or two, he pushes his chair back. I ask him if he thinks games do a good job with locks, by and large.

“Terrible,” he says. And then he nods at the screen: “Well, Skyrim was really good. And with the controller, you get the tension bar start to shake the harder the level is, the less it would resonate as such before it snapped. And you have a certain number of picks. That’s quite good.”

Does that feel real then? He nods and goes back to the lock on the screen. “This isn’t giving much away,” he says – something I’ve heard him say to my door when I’ve locked myself out. He moves the tension bar. “So it’s over here. But it’s only given me…”

Picklock, from the NYU Game Centre, is a bespoke controller and arcade game that mimics the precision and tactility of lockpicking. Looks completely rad, too.

My own favourite thing about locks is that brisk noise they make as you insert your key. A sort of poetry of wordlessness: no easy sentences for what’s going on in there. I’ve thought about this noise a lot, and I’ve decided it’s basically a garbled crunch. It doesn’t initially strike one as being a crunch, but it really is: the sound of metal passing over busy metal and only finding its correct place at the last minute. It suggests to me that there are a lot of little pleasures in locksmithing. A lot of things like that sound, that sensation, are probably just fun to work around, to make a part of your world and daily life.

On this topic: during a lull in the Museum, I ask Matt how he got into locksmithing. He tells me he used to work in security – he invented something called a datatag that was a means of property marking. Then, one day he came across lockpicking and it just seemed interesting.

He looked it up. “And it showed you what sort of shaped tools you need. So I’ve got some Allen keys, and I’ve bent them and had them smoothed. And I picked some locks.” He thinks back and frowns. “The first one took about seven hours. And then, like, seven minutes and then 20 seconds. Once you learn the signature? Not a problem.”

It sounds like it was a hobby at this point. But one day he turned up at a friend’s motorbike shop. “He had three big padlocks. And I spent about 20 minutes and I picked them all. I thought: go on. That was easy.”

An idea settled in his mind. And maybe its time had come, you know? Maybe Matt was looking for something new. For a while he’d had a garage himself. MOTs and mechanics. Interesting work if you have an intricate mind that’s attracted to intricate things. “But the problem is: 20,000 components on 2000 models of car, and it’s cold in winter.” He nods to himself. “Yeah, and that prevailing southwesterly blows through the workshop and when you bang your hand on a ramp it hurts.

“So I became a gas man after doing security stuff in between. 200 boilers, 200 components, a lot easier. LPG and you know the bottled gas they use on caravans?”

Those caravans, though. “But all of a sudden I’m back underneath caravans and it’s cold in winter, and you cannot solder. You have to nut-and-bolt and push fit, and lots of burst pipes, and crawling around on the caravans in the winter. It’s not fun, not fun.”

So? “Locks. 50 locks, 20 components and it’s warm.”

He makes it sound like a practical choice, and I’m sure there was some of that. But there’s more here surely: a kind of harmony. I mention to him that a lot of being a locksmith seems to be about manipulating intricate things that you can’t see directly.

Look at this beautiful lock, from the Museum of Mechanics: Lockpicking.

“Yeah,” he says, smiling. “Yeah, it’s inside the lock, and you invent things, or you use different things, which either make it harder to get into that or allow people to play around with it.”

He pauses to think. “But yes, the whole lockpicking bit is a mechanical puzzle that’s minute and intricate. And some of them have extra bits on the side. Some of them have pins within pins, there’s all manner of different things. Some of them have magnets to try and make a little bit harder for people to pick.”

Sounds complicated. And it is. But there’s something I don’t understand yet, something that the Museum of Mechanics hasn’t gotten me any closer to, despite the fondness the game’s designer clearly feels for this whole activity.

And then it clicks, as you might put it. “The reality,” Matt tells me, “is that out in the real world, we really don’t see people picking locks to gain entry into a property. You’re a burglar and you want to get into a house, you throw a lawnmower through the kitchen window.”

Now. Okay. This has been something of a trend when it comes to my chats with Matt. I will have a romantic, Hollywood-inspired idea about the job, and he will have to gently explain it doesn’t work that way very often. Locksmiths tend not to individually pick each pin, for example, but go for a faster, looser technique called raking. People don’t often freeze locks with a can of freezy stuff and then smash them – although he’s seen it done with bike chains, and, on the flipside, there’s also a nasty trend for blowtorching locks on uPVC doors, which can often set fire to the entire house by accident.

It goes on. Those pick sets you can buy online, with dozens of different tools? “All the gear, no idea,” says Matt, who uses a simple multi-pick tool he bought online for less than a tenner. Credit cards don’t often work with locks, but that sheet of plastic – mica – that he used on my door, sometimes does. But that’s locksmiths anyway. Real burglars heft a lawnmower through the window, remember?

All of this raises questions. Primarily: if burglars are ignoring locks, why are locks still getting more complicated?

“Because it’s an industry thing,” Matt says. “Let’s say there’s 30 manufacturers of locks and they’re all competing for a better lock for the same money or less money. It’s marketing. So we’ve got locks that are British standard three-star locks? We’ve got a situation currently with some British standard three-star locks that are so good that people are going to die.”

Wait, how are people going to die? “People will die because of fire regs,” says Matt. “There’s doors now that, when they close, composite doors in blocks of flats, they automatically engage the lock. But if a key is left on the outside? You come home with your shopping and you put the key in the lock, you turn it, you walk in, you shut it with your foot and the door shuts with the key on the outside: automatic deadlocking fire doors. The thumb turn won’t work with the key on the outside. You’d have to run outside and open it again. But you can’t if you’re in a flat.”

Meanwhile, the arms race continues: “Those 30 different manufacturers create more and more security,” says Matt. “They make them harder and harder. And burglars aren’t picking the locks, right? Not anymore. The only people that have to get through them are locksmiths. So we just go through more and more drill bits. We buy them in bulk. It’s just so much easier to drill it than pick it. Everything’s just been designed to drill it out and put a new one in.”

Steady on here. So if not even locksmiths are picking locks as much as they used to, is anybody picking locks? Yes, actually. And this brings us back to the Museum, and back to games. Curious people all over the world are picking locks.

Locks that are only picked by locksmiths? Geoff Manaugh writes wonderfully about these strange transitions in A Burglar’s Guide to the City, which I urge you to read. He also talks about the decline in burglary in general – replaced by more modern crimes, mostly involving ones and zeroes.

Let’s take another look at that definition Matt offered. It was lovely. Lockpicking: a mechanical puzzle that’s minute and intricate. Turns out some people really adore that. It gives them something they need it their lives. Around the world – Manaugh talks about it brilliantly in Burglar’s Guide – there’s this newish sport. It’s called locksport. People picking locks for fun. People cracking safes for fun. For the puzzle of it. The intricacy of it. The moment where things click. The instance of the fingerpost.

Over the last few years, Matt and his colleagues have been serving this growing community. “Well, it was never done as a moneymaker,” Matt says. “It was done to provide stuff to a hobby industry of people that like the challenge of a mechanical puzzle.”

It started with the team’s charity collection: Heart of Brass. Here’s Tess, Matt’s daughter and apprentice: “We collect people’s scrap keys and stuff. And we donate it. We cash it in and then we donate the money to local charities.

“And what we ended up with was loads and loads and loads of cylinders that we’ve taken out of doors. So we snapped them in half and put them on eBay. And that was the moment that we realised that no one was marketing a product for these locksport people. So for weeks we were shipping broken old snapped cylinders around the world because nobody in locksport could get a hold of them.”

“Well, one Saturday afternoon I’ve put about 100 cylinders on the table,” says Matt. “Photographed and then put them on eBay in lots of 20. And within two hours, it had all sold. It was ridiculous.”

I ask Tess if she is into locksport herself. She thinks about it for a few seconds. “I enjoy working with locks,” she tells me. “I don’t know how to pick a lock personally and that’s probably quite embarrassing to say out loud.”

“You do!” Matt says.

“It’s a quirky trade,” says Tess. “There’s nothing else quite like it. It teaches you a lot. But I can never look at my front door the same. I don’t trust it anymore.”

As Tess and Matt talk, on the wall behind them both is a map of the world covered with little pins – hundreds of them. This is where they’ve sent locksport materials around the world.

“We send out bits and bobs,” says Matt, reverting to his favourite phrase. “We send some sample kits of things. We send some basic packs that includes locks for people to pick. These ones at the moment are out of swimming pool changing rooms – we got given a whole load and just send them out. We produce kits for people to be able to pull a lock apart and make it harder to pick. This is enthusiast stuff – nobody’s using this on their house.”

He looks back at the map, slightly awed himself, by the number of pins, the places they cover. “We’ve got someone in Colombia, they buy about 140 pounds’ worth a year. It’s bizarre. This little sport has taken us to St Helena! There’s almost nothing there! Réunion in the Indian Ocean! Iceland, Greenland. Japan. China not so much. When you send stuff to China it never arrives.”

“It’s a quirky trade. There’s nothing else quite like it. It teaches you a lot. But I can never look at my front door the same. I don’t trust it anymore.”

He traces a finger over some of the map, some of the pins. “Not much to India, not much. America is a huge market. You’ve got the Youtube guys.” He mentions names: Bosnian Bill and the LockPickingLawyer are amongst the big players. Bosnian Bill has featured Matt’s kits a bit on his channel.

So we spend a few minutes watching Bosnian Bill on Youtube. After a while we go across the street for a coffee, and the woman behind the till hands Matt some spare keys she found – more brass for the Heart of Brass.

After that, Matt heads back to his shop and I head to the train station, past the harbour which Eric Ravilious once painted during the war, little pebbles of colour scattered across a background of blinding light. On the train, I think about locks and load up the Museum, a game that is really a clear-eyed look at what other games have done.

And they’ve done wonderful things. In Jenny LeClue, you pick locks using a child’s hairpin with a bright butterfly on the end. In Sleeping Dogs it’s all clean and abstracted, just line up the pins. It’s incredible how many memories of the wider games return with these little snapshots. It’s wonderful how much of a game’s wider character is visible in the way the designers handle a minigame. It reminds me of the art historian Morelli, who thought you could identify painters by looking at the way they did the little things: ears and hands. The unconscious things. Another Museum of Mechanics right there.

The Morellian method in all its lobey glory. Who fancies an evening looking at Renaissance ears?

I love Dim Bulb’s Morellian approach. As the train heads back to Brighton, I think about how picking between lock minigames in the Museum becomes a game in itself. And I think about how locks themselves are already games, in the way that a real tangle I found in the pull cords for the blinds in our house a few weeks back turned out to be a game when I spent an afternoon unthreading it all – a brilliant natural game, physical and intricate. The kind of thing digital games will always have to approach with at least a degree of abstraction. And that abstraction is where the craft comes in.

Put this to your ear. Locks are brilliant, aren’t they? Paranoia and security fears, yes. But also ingenuity written in brass and steel and plastic.

Consider it now, for one last moment: Lockworld. That is, consider the world within the lock. The worlds within every lock, connecting somehow in the darkness of these unseen spaces, riddled with brass and its cold, creeping patina, and with precision-tooled parts. Precise, as they say, but even though it’s precision engineering, it’s not that precise, right? A continent formed of ingenuity and graft. Grab the walls and wait, as the giant key ghosts in, a cruise ship docking at night, and slowly comes to a stop. And then? And then the whole landscape starts to turn.

Thanks to Matt and the team at SouthCoast Locksmiths Ltd in Newhaven for their generosity and patience in helping with this piece – and for getting me back into my house. Any inevitable mistakes in the piece are mine and only mine.

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