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Forensic Locksmithing

"[Forensic locksmithing] is the study and systematic examination of a lock or other security device or associated equipment using scientific methods to determine if and how the device was opened, neutralized, or bypassed. These examinations include the use of various types of forensic techniques, [...] and includes microscopic examination, microphotography, regular photography, physical disassembly of the device or devices, and on occasion laboratory techniques, such as metallurgy and tool mark identification may be conducted."
      -Don Shiles, Former President, Intl. Assoc. of Investigative Locksmiths

What is forensic locksmithing?

Forensic locksmithing is a field that combines the skill and knowledge of the locksmith with the cunning and vigilance of an investigator. The forensic locksmith assists an investigative agency in criminal investigations, insurance claims, and security maintenance by providing the facts surrounding the compromise of a lock or key system.

In this regard, the forensic locksmith identifies the method of entry, tools used, skill level of attacker(s), the relative security of the system, and evidence that may be used to identify suspects. The forensic locksmith does not solve cases for the investigative agency, rather they provide facts, evidence, and insight that may be used to effect the outcome of an investigation.

An effective forensic locksmith requires knowledge in several areas:

  • Locksmithing
  • Crime Scene Investigation
  • Photography
  • Microscopy and Microphotography
  • Evidence Collection & Preservation
  • Written Communication (Investigative reports)
  • Verbal Communication (Expert testimony)

A great deal of focus is put on techniques of compromise themselves, but the study and identification of forensic evidence left by these techniques is equally important in understanding and providing security.


Art Paholke, Chicago PD, is considered the father of forensic locksmithing. In the 1970s, then working in the crime lab, he researched various methods of attack against locks, safes, and keys. He would look at each attack to determine what it changed and what evidence it could provide. He also examined the ways in which wear of the cylinder affects marks left by various attacks. Many modern techniques and procedures used by forensic locksmiths are credited to the research and innovations of Mr. Paholke.


Unfortunately, few free and accessible resources are available for forensic locksmithing. This site and LockWiki.com are they only two that deal with the topic in-depth. There are at least three books that deal with the subject, but more often than not it is combined with generic forensic investigation or tool mark identification literature.

Currently, the best English book on the subject is Locks, Safes, and Security by Marc Weber Tobias. Chapters 24-27 deal extensively with forensic investigations of locks and keys. If you can afford it, it is highly recommended. If you can read German, then Manfred Göth's book Werkzeugspur ("Tool Traces") is available. I do not read German, but I am told this book is excellent. Manfred Göth also authored the chapter on forensics in Oliver Diederichsen's book Impressionstechnik ("Impressioning"). This book is available in both English and German.

There are also many articles published in locksmith and safe technician magazines over the past few decades. Most, if not all, are unavailable in digital form, and cannot be re-published due to copyright laws. If you are the copyright holder or author of any such articles and would like them included on this site, please contact me.

Training and Licensing

Forensic Institute of Physical Security (FIOPS) is an international organization focused on training and certification for forensic locksmiths, law enforcement, and others with an interest in forensic locksmithing. Member activities are heavily focused on knowledge sharing, advancing the state of the art, and exploring lesser known methods of entry for identifiable forensic evidence. I am an active member of this organization.

The International Association of Investigative Locksmiths (IAIL) used to offer training and certification for forensic locksmiths, but seems to now be defunct. The organization itself has been absorbed by ALOA and former members still offer training at ALOA events from time to time. (IAIL - please contact me if this is incorrect information).

I also offer training and assistance for individuals and organizations. I have trained many individuals from private companies, law enforcement, and government agencies. Training is available for topics relating to forensic locksmithing, covert entry, and physical security. Please see the contact page for more information.