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Impressioning is a covert entry technique that creates a working key for a target lock. Impressioning has two variants: copying, which focuses on making a mold of a working key; manipulation, which focuses on using a blank key to manipulate lock components to determine their proper positions. This page will focus on manipulation-based impressioning.

For information on copying-based impressioning, please visit the "Tool Mark Identification" and "Material Transfer" sections of the Key Analysis page.

Impressioning Principles

Manipulation-based impressioning works by taking a blank key that fits a target lock, applying extreme torque to the key (thus binding components), and manipulating the key blank in order to produce marks on the key. This is correct for pin-tumbler locks, but the actual process varies for different lock designs. The theory behind impressioning is that components at the wrong position will bind and become immobile. When the soft brass key contacts the immoble components, a mark should be produced. When a component is properly positioned it should no longer bind and thus no longer leave marks. The blank is used to gather marks, then filed in those positions. This is repeated until all components are in their proper position and the lock opens.

Because this type of manipulation is stressful on the key and cylinder we expect to find various types of forensic evidence. Namely, it is expected that the forceful binding of bottom pins, all of which are raised at or above shear line, to cause marks. We may also find material transfer from filing the key if the attacker is not careful to properly clean the key after each filing.

There are variations on the manipulation process that use pressure responsive materials, such as lead, tape, or plastic to facilitate the process of impressioning. In these cases we may also find material transfer as the soft materials rub against the keyway and inside of the plug.

Of course, the key used in manipulation-based impressioning will provide a good deal of forensic evidence, but that is covered in the "Hand-made Keys" and "Tool Mark Identification" sections on the Key Analysis page.

Forensic Evidence

Because we are forcibly binding bottom pins at or above the shear line we expect to see marks on the pins where this occurred. In the photo we can see several marks where the pin was bound against the plug in the form of straight lines sheared into the pin. (Note: the scratches to the left are pick marks)

A pin that has been impressioned. Marks on the pin show where the plug sheared into it.

Sometimes, impressioning marks are so clear that we can count the rounds of impressioning. If marks are far apart the forensic locksmith can also measure the distance between them. This may indicate a more skilled attacker if they are using factory depth increments to speed up the impressioning process.

Impressioned pin-tumbler pin with shearing so visible that it is possible to count the number of impressions taken.
Traces of ultraviolet ink on the face of the lock, an indication of impressioning via manipulation.

The key blank may be specially prepared for impressioning via manipulation in a variety of ways. One of the possibilities is the use of Ultraviolet ink and an ultraviolet light source. This is an interesting technique, but as you can see in the photo it leaves ultraviolet ink residue on the face and insides of the lock.

Traces of ultraviolet ink on the pins inside the lock, note the UV tracks along the side of the pins.

When using UV impressioning, UV ink is reapplied each time the blank is filed. In turn, the pins will have a large amount of UV reside on them. Notice the obvious key pattern of UV ink across the sides of the pin. In addition, the UV pen fibers may have been stuck to the key and left behind on the pins or the plug walls.

Pressure-responsive Impressioning

Stay tuned!


If you would like to help this site by donating any impressioning tools or pressure responsive materials, please contact me.