Tubular locks can be found in a range of applications, from bicycle locks to office safes, yet are often less frequently discussed within the lockpicking community.
Their unique form makes it impossible to attack using traditional methods of picking, such as raking or single pin picking. Instead, these locks can be attacked and defeated through impressioning by using a tubular lock pick, which serves to creates a temporary clone of the key. This method of attack is relatively low skill, allowing almost anyone to pick up the tools and start getting to work and start turning cores.
Tubular Lock Anatomy
Although tubular locks appear very different from the pin and tumbler style we have previously discussed, many of their design features carry over.
Much like master locks, these cores function through a series of key and driver pins that must align at the shear line in order for the core to rotate.
In traditional lock cores, these pins are aligned at the top of the lock, perpendicular to the keyway, while tubular locks have these pins surrounding the core.
These cores can contain security pins which increase the skill required to successfully bypass the lock, however, these measures are less common than in normal locks. Instead, tubular locks increase their security by including a greater number of pins (as many as 10) and limiting access to the key pins.
What is Impressioning?
As tubular locks cannot be picked or raked open as we do with a normal keyway, we must instead rely on a technique known as impressioning.
While variants of this technique can be applied to pin and tumbler locks, it is much more popular attack for bypassing tubular locks, as well as dimple cores.
To carry out this attack, a specialized key is required where each biting position is variable and can be altered based on feedback from the lock’s core. As the impressioning tool is inserted into the lock, these biting positions are moved to the correct depth by the force generated from the driver springs.
This process is not perfect so it is fairly common to have the spring push the key into the wrong biting pattern, causing you to need to reset the tool and start over. With that said, this is an incredibly quick attack to carry out meaning that you can easily reset and try again in only a matter of seconds.
What is a Tubular Lockpick?
Tubular lockpicks are much larger than the picks we use when attacking normal pin and tumbler locks, largely to make up for the different shape of the keyway.
Starting at the tip of the tool, there is a recessed region that accommodates the barrel or tube of the lock core. The size of this recess must be sized appropriately for the lock you are attacking, but the number of sizes is fairly limited and most are between 7.0 mm and 7.8 mm.
Surrounding the recessed tip lies the actual picks that are responsible for interacting with the lock and causing an unlock. While seven-pin locks are the most common you will come across, eight and ten-pin variants are also available on the market and are popular for the added security they offer.
These picks are largely free-floating within the impressioning tool and are attached only by elastic bands surrounding the tool body. This allows the picks to move very easily in response to the lock’s springs and ultimately leads to a duplicate of the key being produced.
One last feature common in most tubular picks is a magnetic ring, located just before the handle. This is used to reset the picks between attempts but is not necessary as the picks can easily be pushed back into position by hand.
Tubular lockpicks are available with both metal and plastic handles, but this is a matter of user preference. Plastic grips are more comfortable if you are likely to be picking several locks repeatedly but often come with a much higher price tag than their metal counterparts.
How to Use your Tubular Lockpick?
Impressioning is classed as a low-skilled attack, similar to bumping a lock, and can therefore be picked up relatively easily.
The lockpick is first reset by pushing all picks to their forward position, and then the pick is aligned with the top of the lock. Once aligned correctly, you simply apply gentle pressure and insert the lockpick into the core.
Once inserted, all that is left to do is rotate the lockpick back and forth to set the picks into the correct position until the lock opens. This normally takes a minute at the absolute most, so if you’re struggling to get an unlock it may be worth resetting your tool and trying again.
When you start learning to pick tubular locks, we would recommend spending the money to invest in quality locks. Cheap plastic training locks often do not provide the correct feedback needed to correctly set the picks on your tool, meaning even with considerable time working on the lock, you still may not be able to get a successful unlock.
What Pick is Right for You?
Finding the right tubular lockpick for you can be extremely difficult. Not only are there a limited number of tools available on the market, but the infrequency of tubular locks means impressioning lockpicks do not see much use and may not always be worth the investment.
This can make budget tools a very tempting option, however, from experience, these cheaper models often take much longer to actually cause an unlock while also being uncomfortable in the hand.
Discomfort may seem like a very small complaint to make over a tool but often means we practice less and fail to develop our skills properly.
If you are willing to invest slightly more money in your tools, the SouthOrd 7-pin Tubular Lockpick is an excellent choice for beginners or advanced pickers alike.
Eventually, you will likely want to add their 8-pin and 10-pin variants to your kit if you continually face tubular locks, but for most people, the 7-pin lockpick will be able to handle almost any lock you face.
It is also worth noting, third-party clones of the SouthOrd are available and can be sourced on eBay from providers such as Haoshi, but the quality from the originals cannot be beaten.
SouthOrd also set themselves apart from the competition by including a decoder, which allows you to duplicate a key for repeated access to the lock.
While this is a nice feature to have, once you have impressioned a lock, the biting will remain fixed until you reset the tool allowing you to repeated access to the core.
Although many of us will not run into tubular locks frequently, they can still be found in countless applications around us. Fortunately, their relatively simplicity allows them to be bypassed in a quick and effective manner through impressioning attacks.
There is a limited number of quality tubular lockpicks available on the market, but if you are willing to pay just a little extra, you can find very capable tools to manage almost any tubular lock you may face.
Learning to pick tubular locks is an incredibly valuable skill, but if you are looking to get started with lockpicking, we recommend you start with the more common pin and tumbler style of locks we explored in a recent article.