5 Types of Locks and How to Choose

Securing our homes and valuables is a top priority for most of us. With so many lock options available, it can be overwhelming to know which type of lock is the best choice for your needs. In this comprehensive guide, we will explore the 5 main types of locks and discuss how to determine the right lock for your specific security requirements.

Pin and Tumbler Locks

Pin and tumbler locks are the most common type of lock used for doors and padlocks today. The technology behind them is simple yet ingenious.

How Pin and Tumbler Locks Work

Pin and tumbler locks contain a cylinder that houses a number of vertically stacked pin pairs. The pins are kept in position by springs. Part of each pin pair is mounted in the cylinder, while the remaining part is in the plug, which rotates to provide locking action when you turn the key. The flat edge between the two pin parts is called the shear line.

With no key inserted, the pins’ shear lines are misaligned between the inner and outer cylinders, preventing the plug from rotating. When you insert the correct key, the pins are raised to align the top and bottom shear lines. This separation allows the plug to turn and unlock the lock.

Advantages of Pin and Tumbler Locks

  • Reliability – The pin and tumbler design is tried and tested over decades of use. It provides dependable security when properly installed.
  • Variety – Numerous pin lengths and configurations allow for intricate key patterns. This makes it difficult to pick the lock without the matching key.
  • Re-keying Ability – The pins can be easily replaced to work with a new key. This avoids having to fully replace the lock.
  • Strength – The stacking pins provide strong resistance against forceful entry and picking attempts.
  • Cost-Effective – Simple pin and tumbler locks are quite affordable compared to more complex keyless locks.

Disadvantages of Pin and Tumbler Locks

  • Can Be Picked – Though difficult, pin and tumbler locks can be picked by an experienced locksmith.
  • Prone to Wear – The pins and cylinder can wear out over time, especially if the lock receives heavy usage. This can lead to malfunctioning.
  • Susceptible to Bumping – A technique called bumping can bounce the pins momentarily to turn the plug without the correct key.
  • Keys Can Be Duplicated – There is no key control, so nothing prevents unauthorized duplication of keys.

When to Choose Pin and Tumbler Locks

If you need an inexpensive lock that provides reliable security for interior doors and storage units, a pin and tumbler design is likely the best choice. They are less ideal for high-traffic exterior doors or in situations where tight key control is essential.

Disc Detainer Locks

Disc detainer locks provide another common key locking option for doors and padlocks. Though the internal mechanism differs from pin and tumbler locks, disc detainers provide comparable functionality and security.

How Disc Detainer Locks Operate

Instead of pins, disc detainer locks use a series of spring-loaded metal discs that have two notches of varying depth cut into them. The notches in the discs align with the teeth on the key. When the proper key is inserted, the discs are rotated to align the notches with an internal groove in the lock cylinder, allowing the plug to turn and unlock the lock.

Benefits of Disc Detainer Locks

  • Pick Resistance – The disc design makes disc detainer locks highly resistant to lock picking attempts.
  • Bump Proof – Without spring-loaded pins, disc locks cannot be bumped open.
  • Durable – With fewer moving parts, disc detainer locks withstand more wear over time.
  • Different Key Profiles – Keys come in various shapes like squares, triangles, or clovers for added security.

Potential Drawbacks of Disc Detainer Locks

  • Price – Disc detainer locks have a higher upfront cost than basic pin and tumbler locks.
  • Re-Keying – The discs cannot be easily reconfigured for new keys. The entire lock cylinder needs replacement.
  • Repair – Due to their more complex design, disc detainers require a knowledgeable locksmith for service and repair.
  • Availability – Disc detainer locks are less common than pin and tumbler varieties in many local hardware shops.

Choosing Disc Detainer Locks

Disc detainers make ideal high-security locks for external doors and gates. The pick and bump resistance provides added protection, especially for off-site facilities left unattended for periods of time. Their enhanced durability also suits locations that see heavy, regular usage.

Lever Locks

Along with pin/tumblers and disc detainers, lever locks make up one of the major lock types you’ll encounter. This centuries-old design remains popular in certain settings today.

Lever Lock Function

At the heart of a lever lock is a sprung lever that must be raised to a specific height by the key. This allows additional levers to move sideways into position, so the bolt can be thrown. The key lever has notches cut into it that correspond to the key’s shape. More advanced lever locks contain multiple interleaving rows of levers for added complexity.

Advantages of Lever Locks

  • Pick Resistance – Their intricate lever designs make lever locks extremely difficult to pick successfully.
  • Bump Proof – Without spring-loaded pins, lever locks cannot be easily bumped open.
  • Smooth Operation – Properly installed lever locks have a fluid, smooth feel when locking and unlocking.
  • Slim Profile – Lever locks are thinner than most pin tumbler locks, an aesthetically pleasing benefit.

Potential Weaknesses of Lever Locks

  • Expense – High-quality lever locks are typically costlier than comparable pin tumbler or disc detainer locks.
  • Complexity – Multiple lever mechanisms require more precision manufacturing.
  • Specialized Repair – Only knowledgeable locksmiths can adequately service and repair lever locks.
  • Availability – Lever lock options are less readily available than more standard lock types at local hardware suppliers.

Appropriate Uses for Lever Locks

With their elegant operation and pick resistance, lever locks best suit front doors of upscale homes and entryways of prestigious commercial buildings. Their slim, compact footprint makes them ideal for integration into furniture as well.

Magnetic Locks

In contrast to their keyed counterparts, magnetic locks provide keyless electronic access control. They primarily function by electromagnetic attraction rather than complex mechanical linkages.

How Electromagnetic Locks Operate

Magnetic locks contain an electromagnet that is either attached to the door frame or embedded in the floor. A metal armature plate is mounted to the door. When powered on, the electromagnet generates strong magnetic force measured in pounds of pull force. This attracts and securely holds the armature plate to keep the door locked.

Disconnecting power to the electromagnet releases the magnetic bond. This allows the door to open. Access control systems govern this power interruption by granting or denying access to authorized users.

Benefits of Magnetic Locks

  • Hands-Free Access – Magnetic locks allow convenient, keyless entry for authorized individuals.
  • Instant Locking – Powering up the magnet instantly secures the lock upon door closure.
  • Integration – Magnetic locks interface well with other electronic access control and monitoring systems.
  • Flexibility – Electromagnetic locks are suitable for a wide variety of door sizes, materials, and configurations.

Potential Weaknesses of Magnetic Locks

  • Power Dependency – Magnetic locks require a continuous supply of power to remain locked. Loss of electricity releases the lock.
  • Installation Complexity – Proper installation, wiring, voltage, and anchoring are essential for reliable function.
  • Expense – Magnetic lock systems have higher upfront costs compared to keys or keypads alone. But this can be offset over time due to lower maintenance costs and improved access control capabilities.
  • Single Point of Failure – Issues with the electromagnet, power supply, wiring, or credentials could cause widespread access failure. So redundancy and backups are crucial.

Appropriate Uses for Magnetic Locks

With flexibility for indoor and outdoor settings and tie-ins with access control systems, electromagnetic locks work well for offices, warehouses, and other commercial buildings with multiple authorized personnel requiring keyless entry.

Smart Locks

Smart locks incorporate electronic access control in streamlined, compact designs operated via smartphones, keypads, or even biometrics. They provide enhanced functionality and security over traditional deadbolt locks.

How Smart Locks Grant Access

While designs vary, smart locks allow authorized entry through electronic means like:

  • Keypad Codes – Enter your unique pin code to unlock.
  • Smartphone App – Use a phone’s Bluetooth signal or WiFi to lock and unlock.
  • Fingerprints – Scan your fingerprint on an integrated sensor to open the lock.
  • Proximity – Close-range proximity of a device or RFID card unlocks the door.

Advantages of Smart Locks

  • Remote Access – Check lock status and enable entry from anywhere via smartphone.
  • No Keys – Avoid the hassle and cost of having keys duplicated. Access is allowed electronically.
  • Monitoring – Many smart locks record activity logs so you can monitor usage.
  • Keyless Convenience – Whether arriving with arms full of groceries or going for a jog, smart locks allow key-free access.

Potential Limitations of Smart Locks

  • Power Dependency – Battery-powered smart locks will become disabled if batteries are not replaced.
  • Connectivity – Bluetooth and WiFi smart locks rely on steady connections. Interference or dead zones disable remote access.
  • Updating & Compatibility – Smart locks may require firmware updates and must be compatible with your phone OS.
  • Durability – Smart locks have more components than traditional deadbolts. Electronics and batteries must be well protected from outdoor elements to ensure longevity.

When to Choose Smart Locks

For their convenience and modern features like activity tracking, smart locks are great for households occupied by multiple people like families, roommates, and AirBnB properties. Smart locks’ electronic flexibility also suits workplaces with many employees where managing lots of metal keys is cumbersome.

How to Choose the Right Locks for Your Needs

When selecting locks, carefully consider your requirements around security level, usage frequency, access control needs, budget, and installation requirements. Key aspects to factor into your lock-buying decision include:

Locking Locations

  • Where will the locks be installed – exterior doors, interior doors, gates, fence latches, padlocks, furniture, etc.? Different locations have distinct security considerations.

Level of Security Required

  • Assess if you simply need basic functionality to control access or more heavy-duty pick and bump-proofing due to highly sensitive contents.

Ease of Installation

  • Opt for lock types compatible with your existing door hardware and layout to minimize installation work required. Some retrofitting may be needed if current doors lack standard lock preps.

Traffic Volume

  • Do locks need to withstand constant opening and closure all day long or only occasional use? Highly trafficked locations demand durable locks rated for extensive cycling.

Exposure to Elements

  • If exterior locks will be exposed to rain, sun, snow, and temperature swings, select durable locks designed to withstand years of harsh weathering without corroding or malfunctioning.

Authorized Access Needs

  • Consider how many people require access. Is keyless electronic access preferable for managing multiple users, or will standard metal keys suffice?

Power Available

  • Power-hungry smart locks and magnetic locks require sufficient electrical supply for reliable operation. Pay attention to batteries for smart locks as well – how long do they last before needing replacement?

Infrastructure In Place

  • If you lack the wiring for electromagnetic locks, it may prove cost prohibitive to install them from scratch. But smart locks could be a solid electronic option running mainly on battery power.


  • Less expensive options like basic pin tumbler deadbolts may meet needs for low-traffic residential doors. But areas requiring maximum security merit spending more on premium locks.

Lock Maintenance Tips

Once you do choose and install suitable new locks, proper maintenance is key for keeping them performing smoothly long term. Follow these tips:

  • Use lubricating spray to prevent sticking and corrosion in lock mechanisms. Graphite powder also works well.
  • Ensure sufficient battery power for smart locks and electronic components by replacing batteries every 6-12 months.
  • Inspect locks frequently and tighten any loose mounting screws or bolts to prevent loosening over time.
  • Engage locksmiths to conduct periodic servicing of complex mechanical lever and disc detainer locks.
  • Fix issues right away – don’t ignore sticking, grinding, or any malfunction that could lead to lock failure and compromise security.
  • For external locks, apply corrosion inhibitors or clear-coat paint to protect metal components against rust and seizing up.
  • Keep smart lock firmware up to date and maintain any subscriptions for connectivity.
  • Replace locks proactively every 5-10 years or if they show significant wear. Don’t wait for total failure.

By selecting sturdy locks optimized for your intended application and maintaining them properly, you can enjoy years of smooth, reliable locking performance. Reach out to knowledgeable locksmiths if you need help choosing suitable locks or ensuring your current locks remain in tip-top shape. Their expertise can prove invaluable to bolstering your property and asset security.

FAQs About Lock Types and Selection

Choosing new locks involves lots of essential factors to weigh. Answers to these common questions provide additional guidance to inform your purchasing decision:

Q: What is the most secure type of lock?

There is no universally “most secure” lock. The optimal lock type depends on your specific needs. That said, each of the main lock varieties has design aspects that make them more or less susceptible to break-ins:

  • Pin tumbler locks rank lower on pick resistance. But high-quality ones still require skill to pick and provide decent security.
  • Disc detainer and lever lock mechanisms make them extremely pick-resistant. They are top choices where foiling lock picking is the priority.
  • Magnetic locks when integrated with security systems provide sophisticated access control. But power loss can disable them.
  • Smart locks allow convenient, customizable access. However, any electronic component or connectivity failure provides a point of weakness.

For maximum security, often the best solution is multilayered – for example, combining tamper-proof high-end mechanical locks with electronic access control and alarm systems.

Q: Are smart locks actually secure?

It depends. Basic smart locks using only Bluetooth connectivity tend to be the most vulnerable. Models employing additional wireless encryption, two-factor authentication via phones, and tamper-proofing components like stainless steel covers offer much more stringent security.

They won’t beat strong combination deadbolts yet in pure pick/drill resistance. But smart locks provide unrivaled convenience, monitoring, and customizable access control.

Q: Can locks be re-keyed instead of fully replaced?

It depends on the lock type:

  • Pin tumblers – Yes, re-keying kits allow replacing just the pins to work with different keys.
  • Disc detainers – No, the discs are fixed inside the lock body so the entire core must be swapped to change keys.
  • Magnetic locks – No re-keying; access control instead relies on credentials like codes, cards, fingerprints.
  • Smart locks – No traditional re-keying – access control is handled electronically via apps, codes, etc. which can be easily changed.
  • Lever locks – Only possible on simpler lever lock designs. More complex ones require full replacement.

Q: How do I choose locks for outdoor use?

Opt for durable locks designed specifically for outdoor installation. Key traits to look for:

  • Weatherproof metals that resist rust and corrosion like solid stainless steel or bronze.
  • Compression seals that keep moisture from penetrating the lock interior.
  • Freeze-proof mechanisms tested to operate down to extreme temperatures.
  • Smart locks with IPX water / dustproof ratings; avoidance of external keypads that can allow moisture ingress.
  • Built-in drainage channels, holes, or slots that let water escape rather than pool inside components.
  • Power options able to handle a wide temperature range for electronic locks.
  • Electromagnetic locks secured in weatherproof housings, with power cables properly sealed.

Q: What are the strongest commercial door locks?

The most secure options for commercial doors include:

  • Heavy-duty mortise or cylindrical lever locks made of stainless steel with added drill-resistant plating on the bolts.
  • Hardened steel padlocks, or disc detainer or pin tumbler deadbolts with drill-resistant features.
  • Magnetic locks rated for very high pull strength (over 2,000 lbs).
  • Exit door crash bars with built-in alarms that trigger upon forceful exit.
  • Locks tied into access control systems, with backup power to keep functioning during outages.

A good overall approach is a layered system combining solid commercial-grade mechanical locks, electronic access control, and active monitoring to deter tampering.

Q: Why choose a locksmith for installation over DIY?

While mechanically simpler locks like deadbolts may lend themselves to DIY installs, engaging professional locksmiths comes with several advantages:

  • Correct sizing/fit – They ensure you get the properly sized and optimal lock types for each door or opening.
  • Full compatibility – Locksmiths guarantee complete compatibility with your existing hardware, doors, and frames – avoiding function or fit issues.
  • Specialty tools/knowledge – They have specialized tools, expertise, and certifications for smoothly installing more complex lock mechanisms.
  • Added security – Their extensive experience provides reassurance