I’ve enjoyed metal detecting for years – it never gets old.
There’s always the thrill of finding treasure, but even if I don’t I’ve had plenty of fresh air, exercise and ‘Zen’ time. Sweeping my detector back and forth is a great stress buster – I love it.
When I began detecting I made loads of errors. I bought the wrong type of detector for starters!
I really wanted to search on the beach, but I didn’t know about discrimination and how it deals with salt water and black sand. It was a disaster. I came home empty-handed bar a few Coke cans.
Lots of reading up and hands-on experience with friend’s detectors showed me the way. There are some really helpful forums out there. I’d encourage you to join one and read the comments. You’ll learn plenty.
But first, read my beginners guide to ease yourself in. I guarantee it’ll save you time and expense.
I’ll take you through the terms including mineralization, ground balancing, and discrimination which can really throw a beginner that’s starting out.
Go grab a coffee and get comfortable!
How Do Metal Detectors Work?
Although they look different, metal detectors have the same four main components.
- Control Box – the metal detector’s brain is located here alongside the power source. It’s usually at the top of the machine near your hand.
- Shaft – the lengthy pole that all other components are attached to.
- Antenna – located at the base, it’s also known as the coil. There are two parts, a transmitter, and a receiver.
- Stabilizer – stabilizes the machine, obviously! This part makes it easy to hold and control.
Metal detectors are battery powered. Batteries transmit electricity down the detector’s shaft via cables to the coil.
This creates a magnetic field. When the magnetic field is placed over a metal object the current flows through the metal object and back into the detector activating the receiver coil.
The receiver coil sets off those exciting ‘beep-beeps’.
That’s the basics of a metal detector. Many have extra bells and whistles but all work on the same premise.
How To Use A Metal Detector
Using a metal detector is simple – eventually! It takes practice to understand readouts and how to choose the most effective soil settings.
First off, turn it on. Sounds obvious but many forget in the excitement and wonder why nothing is happening (why are you looking at me?)
If the detector still doesn’t work it may be time to change the batteries. Some of the pricier detectors have a battery charge screen that warns when the power is low, but not all of them do it. It’s a good idea to keep a spare set in your kit just in case.
If it still doesn’t switch on then check my troubleshooting section below.
All powered up? Then you’re ready to begin.
Sweep the machine side to side in front of your feet. It needs to be sufficiently close to the soil or sand so the magnetic field can penetrate, but not so low that you bash the sensitive coil on stones and clods of earth.
It’s best to move slowly and steadily so the coil has time to register a target. I’ve seen folks swinging their detectors back and forth like they’re playing a game of tennis. It isn’t a good technique and you’re liable to miss plenty, especially the deeper targets.
Practice in your yard first, it’s helpful if you bury different objects such as trash, gold, and coins to figure out the best technique for your machine.
Familiarize yourself with the sounds. Some detectors give out different tones when they hit iron or gold for example.
When that glorious ‘beep’ calls out, it’s time to pinpoint exactly where the signal is coming from. Spending time pinpointing the spot saves digging.
It’s good practice to dig the smallest hole possible – we don’t want to destroy the environment and give detectorists a bad name.
If you’re relic hunting, take a note of the exact place because a historical record is helpful to archaeologists should that relic prove interesting or unusual.
Always fill the search hole cleanly and remove any mess before moving on, but before you carry on your merry way, take a really slow and close sweep of the surrounding area.
Often troughs and pockets in the ground collect a variety of objects. This is especially true on the beach.
Which Are The Best Metal Detector Brands?
Many companies make excellent metal detectors and I’ve run through my top picks in other articles.
Some of the more popular makes in no particular order include Minelab, Whites, Tesoro, Garrett, and Fisher. You won’t go wrong with one of these tried and tested makes.
I always say your choice of metal detector is the best you can reasonably afford. The well-known brands offer a range of prices from a few hundred dollars to nearing the thousands and above so something will suit your price.
Personally, I have a soft spot for Garrett metal detectors. My first decent machine was a Garrett and I found some really interesting coins and jewelry with it. That’s just a hang up though. Fellow detectorists swear by their Minelabs and Fishers – I’d say our finds are comparable.
Should I Rent or Buy A Metal Detector?
Renting a metal detector is a great option if you’re just starting out as it gives a feel for the hobby.
Rented metal detectors are generally good quality brands so you’ll have a better time of it. Renting a metal detector also gives you the opportunity to try out different brands.
But I would say it’s better to own one.
This is because each machine behaves differently, and over time you’ll learn which settings are best for say coins, whereas another setting is better for dropped rings.
Although user manuals give a good indication of the best frequencies, and some models have a ‘coin’ or ‘gold’ setting, it’s no comparison to learning all the squeaks and blips of your own machine – ‘Hector the Detector’.
What Is Ground Mineralisation?
Soil and sand isn’t a blank canvas, it’s made from many different minerals and chemicals.
The worst mineral for metal detectorists is iron because it’s conductive and sets off your machine.
We’ve left uncountable bits of iron on this planet for centuries but iron exists all by itself in the soil. This is what detectorists are talking about when they complain about ground mineralization.
Your metal detector will pick up tiny traces of mineralized iron and report it as a find. Talk about tedious.
In highly mineralized soils detecting can be almost impossible because your machine is barraged with iron particles and screaming its head off with excitement.
The old soil is often highly mineralized because rain forces iron compounds to the surface. Often this soil is red or black. It makes it hard to figure out what is a real signal and what is from the soil mineralization.
Ground mineralization on the beach is an issue too. Black sand is mixed with, you’ve guessed it, iron particles.
Buying a metal detector with automatic or adjustable ground balancing and adjustable sensitivity helps sort out ground mineralization problems.
But hold up, ground mineralization isn’t the only interference issue detectors need to deal with.
Electrical interference can pop out a find signal too, exciting strong ones that ultimately lead to disappointment. If your detector is singing like Beyonce check there are no power lines nearby.
Fellow detectorists can spring a problem too. Metal detectors like to chat with each other, so keep far enough apart maintain a clear signal.
Does Coil Size Matter?
It can matter, but not much for a beginner. Coils are generally available from 6 inches to 14 inches.
Here are the benefits and drawbacks of coil size:
Small coils are those measuring 6 -8 inches.
They are better at pinpointing and discriminating between metals. A picnic area that’s full of trash is best searched with a smaller coil.
Small coils better suit fast moving water too because they are lighter less likely to get pulled aside in waves and stream drag.
Most machines are fitted with a medium sized coil.
The standard 8-inch coil is an all-purpose coil that performs well across the board and is best for a beginner.
Medium coils cover more ground than smaller ones and pick up smaller targets the large coils.
10-inch coils are considered large. They’re best for deeply buried objects and cover a greater ground surface, but they are heavier which makes a big difference for long sessions and water work.
And let’s not forget elliptical coils versus standard circular ones.
Chances are your machine will arrive with a circular coil. These cover most grounds and will serve you well. An elliptical coil works in just the same way, albeit covers less ground in one swing, but it can reach into small, awkward spaces.
Experienced detectorists have a range of coils and chose one to suit the area they want to search.
Once you’ve settled into metal detecting and know what metals you want to find, upgrade to a coil size that best suits what you’re searching for.
What Is Adjustable Sensitivity?
Getting the sensitivity right can make or break a newbie metal detector.
Most newcomers think that maximum sensitivity is best – it’ll give greater ground penetration, pick up more gold, and besides supersize-full throttle is best, right?
Using maximum sensitivity means ALL metal signals will ring out, including minerals and trash. That metal detector will end up flying off a cliff because it’s uncontrollable and really, really annoying.
You need adjustable sensitivity to pick out the good stuff and not go insane with constant false signals.
Varying conditions calls for sensitivity control. If you’re on highly mineralized ground, you’ll know because the detector will sound like a firework – turn down the sensitivity. Yes, you might lose some depth, but you’re more likely to find something of interest.
What Is Ground Balancing?
Ground balancing is linked to sensitivity. Without ground balancing, you’ll have a hard time of it. Iron deposits and mineralization will do its best to turn you against that expensive machine.
Metal detectors are so sensitive that they pick up magnetic signals from jewelry, relics, coins, minerals, and even salt.
A machine with ground balancing detects what type of ground you’re on, and eliminates the unwanted minerals in response. Your detector won’t alert you to minerals in the soils.
And what about automatic ground balancing versus manual ground balancing?
Well, if you’re a pick-it-up-and-go type, knock yourself out with automatic ground balancing. The machine does the hard work, adjusting itself as you move around.
If you like to be in control, fear the rise of the machines, and want to get the ground balancing absolutely spot-on then go manual.
You’ll get much better results with decent ground balancing.
Just a quick suggestion here. If adjusting the ground balance doesn’t stop the hysterical wailing from your metal detector try turning down the sensitivity too. You may be on highly mineralized soil.
What Is Discrimination?
Discrimination mode basically notices the difference between metals.
It’s usually a button or dial on the control box that you need to settle on before venturing forth.
Low discrimination means all metal including soil minerals, are picked up. As you increase discrimination the machine will ignore other metals like tin foil, can tabs, nails, and coins. At its highest discrimination, many metals are phased out.
It’s your job to drop tin foil, nails, coins and gold in your yard and play with discrimination. Look for the best setting – one that eliminates trash, but still picks up coins.
What Is Frequency?
A kilohertz or a kHz is the number of waves a metal detector can send into the soil. For example, 5 kHz sends 5000 waves per second.
The higher your kHz the more likely you are to find gold. High-frequency kHz has shorter wavelengths and finds smaller targets with less conductivity, such as nuggets and flakes of gold.
That’s why gold detectors generally have a higher kHz capacity than lower priced all-purpose models.
In the past frequency was a big thing, but more modern machines have pretty much-overcome frequency worries with good design and better circuitry.
Ground conditions will dictate what frequency you need to use, so automatic ground balancing makes a big difference – but here are the basic kHz for successful hunting:
Low-frequency machines at 2-4 kHz are best for deep-seeking everything, mid frequency 5-12 kHz for relics, jewelry and coins, and higher frequencies for gold.
Most frequencies will pick up coins, but detectorists have most success between 6-15 kHz -and more specifically 8-12khz.
Coins are made from different metals, so you might want to adjust your frequency for specific coinage.
How Deep Will A Metal Detector Go?
The age old question!
So many aspects affect how deeply a detector can sense metal that it’s impossible to give a straight answer.
Here are some of the variables that affect ground penetration.
In highly mineralized soil depth penetration is lessened. That’s because you need to remove some sensitivity from your detector.
Buried objects disintegrate over time meaning they rust and give out major signals. Your detector will find these even if they are deep. It’s called a halo effect.
The bigger the target the more noticeable it is. A larger surface area sends a much clearer signal. Large objects are found at a greater depth than smaller ones which tend to remain hidden particularly in mineralized soils.
Round objects with a large surface are found at greater depths than pencil-shaped objects.
Larger coils are capable of greater depth penetration
Certain detectors are better at targeting specific metals.
Gold is one of those metals that benefits from a specialized gold-detecting machine that works on a higher frequency. If you have a gold detector then you’ll find gold at a deeper depth than a standard machine.
What Is A Depth Indicator?
Pretty simple – a depth indicator shows how far down your target lies. It’s usually a number indicated on the computer screen.
Depth indicators are notoriously inaccurate, so it’s always worth digging that bit deeper if nothing shows up.
That’s it really – let’s move on.
Where to Search With A Metal Detector
Do you have some location ideas?
If not, here are a few suggestions – but always check for permissions first.
Your Back and Front Yard
Taking a long slow sweep of your yard with a metal detector is a great place to begin.
Yards are active places where we run, dig, eat and relax. That means there are plenty of opportunities to drop something. If your house had previous residents get searching for dropped coins, jewelry or other precious objects.
Even if you have a new build house it doesn’t mean the land hasn’t been used before. It may have been an old settlement, farmland or a building site.
Scanning the garden also gives you a great opportunity to understand your detector properly.
When you’ve made a proper sweep of your yard offer metal-detecting services to friends and family.
Beaches are great places for metal detecting because beaches are regularly and actively used by the public.
Cold fingers, slippery sun lotion, water action, and hot sweaty sports can lead to objects working loose or falling from pockets.
Always get permission on a private beach. Public beaches may also need a permit. Check your local council’s website for details – don’t get caught out or you might face a fine.
Parks are great places for finds because people congregate in them. Increase your chances of a find by scanning under trees, benches, and around the kiosks.
Most treasure hoards have been found in fields. A bit of research will show you which fields are the most likely to contain historical activity. Look on old maps for deserted farmhouses and ancient meeting points to pinpoint a likely spot.
Woods and Footpaths
Footpaths have carried a lot of traffic over the years including dog walkers, horse riders, and hikers. Think about all the years we’ve used footpaths instead of motorways – that’s a lot of human activity and a lot of potential dropped objects.
Scan a footpath right up to the edges and beyond. As we’ve used them less frequently footpaths have closed in. It’s likely they were much wider when we traveled by foot.
Churches and burial grounds are the oldest buildings around, but you must respect them. Scan under old trees and gates. Our ancestors took lots of coins to church for alms-giving.
Old abandoned mining or transportation towns are perfect sites for exploration. Scan doorways, floorboards, and hollow walls.
Some governments have put protection orders on deserted towns, so do check first, and make sure you are safe at all times.
Stadiums and Bleachers
Sporting events attract large crowds. Coins and other valuables can easily fall from pockets. They are popular places for detectorists, so get there early!
There were 10,000 battles between the Confederates and Unionists and if you’re lucky enough to live near a historical site you can find really interesting objects such as musket and pistol balls, arrowheads, bayonets, uniform buttons, and powder-flask tops.
If you find anything on a battlefield keep a note of the location and inform your state archaeologist.
What Can I Find With A Metal Detector?
It might sound obvious but metal is what you’ll find with a metal detector.
Metal can take the form of minerals, coins, jewelry, nails, tin foil, beer cans, meteorites, historical relics like old pistol balls, or the golden chalice found by metal detecting Key West diver Mike DeMar in 2008.
The million dollar chalice was 385 years old and found on a Spanish shipwreck that sank in 1622. Ok, so unless you’re an experienced diver detecting a shipwreck is a bit far out, but gold nuggets are buried in many places especially rivers.
You never know what you’ll come across when you’re metal detecting and that’s part of the fun. Each time you hear the beep it could be ‘the big one’.
Do I Need A Special Metal Detector?
No, all metal detectors pick up metal. Every squeak and beep is a signal telling you something metal lies beneath the soil or sand, but maybe there’s something specific you want to find.
Plenty of detectorists specialize. Here are the main groups:
What is The Best Metal Detector for Jewelry?
All metal detectors will pick up jewelry. You’re most likely to find these at the beach where cold fingers shrink and undressing pulls off necklaces and bracelets.
What is The Best Metal Detector for Coins?
Again, all metal detectors will pick up coins. Head to public spaces for modern coins.
What is The Best Metal Detector for Relics?
Relics are usually iron so any machine will pick them up but be prepared to find a lot of iron trash too. Battlefield and army campsite research are Virginia has a lot of historical battle sites from the civil war
What is The Best Metal Detector for Gold Nugget Prospecting?
There’s gold in them there hills, rivers, beaches, and deserts but to stand the best chance of finding gold a specialist gold detector pays dividends.
If beach detecting is your fancy then you may need a specific detector that can handle the wet sand – read on!
Metal Detecting On A Beach
The beach is such a great place to detect.
There’s something very soothing about combining wave action with the swing of your detector – plus piles of treasure that people leave behind mean you’re likely to find something.
Stick to the dry sand and your current detector is fine, nothing special is needed. However, venturing onto the wet sand or into salt water is another kettle of fish.
Wet sand is mixed with ‘black sand’ and black sand is mixed with iron and other minerals that can trick your detector into springing a signal. Salt from the ocean water and surf spray can also cause problems with components.
The best choice of metal detector for the beach is either a waterproof pulse induction or a very low frequency (VLF) detector.
Best places to search on a beach are the towel line where beachgoers drop their belongings and dips of sand close to the waterline or near a sandbar.
What is The Best Beach Metal Detector?
What Accessories Do I Need With A Metal Detector?
Once you have a detector there’s not much else required, but some extra bits and pieces can make you comfortable and help with the tricky aspects.
Once alerted to a target digging is next up. A small hand trowel is usually all that’s needed. It’s possible to buy ‘metal-detecting’ trowels that are longer and thinner but I’ve never bought one. A simple garden trowel has always done me proud.
A sand scoop works like a sieve. Dip and drag in through sand and water to grab a target before it drifts out to sea. If you’re digging in rocky areas get a sand scoop with a pointed tip.
Headphones reduce outside noise from wind, waves, and traffic helping you concentrate on target tones, but in my opinion, the best reason to get headphones is so the general public doesn’t get involved in the search.
I might be getting miserable in my old age, but metal detecting is a solitary hobby for me, I don’t hordes of nosy folk looking on every time my detector shouts out ‘Here it is! Gold! Look, Look!’
More sociable folk may enjoy the attention. If you do, feel free to ignore the headphone suggestion.
A harness takes the weight off your shoulders. Carrying a detector for hours can tire you out before you’re ready to head home.
Somewhere to safely store your finds is a good idea. Personally, I use a small Tupperware box with a clip-on lid, but mesh pouches and small rucksacks are good too.
No. 1 on my extras list is easy to carry, no fuss snacks. It’s surprising how hungry sweeping that detector around makes you – and all the brain power needed to concentrate on target beeps builds an appetite. Take snacks, always!
Do I Need A Pinpointer?
You don’t need a pinpointer but they do make life easier.
If your metal detector doesn’t pinpoint, investing in a separate pinpointer saves digging time and much frustration.
Once a target is roughly located, use a pinpointer to find out exactly where it is. Depending on your machine, it may narrow the search area down to a foot or two. That’s a fairly big area to dig up, but a pinpointer shows you the right spot.
Pinpointing is socially responsible. You don’t want piles of dirt and disturbed soil especially not in public parks, churchyards, and footpaths.
A pinpointer also means you don’t need to shove a trowel into the ground. Stabbing around in the soil leads to broken objects which are worth considerably less than intact ones.
Don’t forget to scan the pile of soil during the dig, just in case you already pulled it out.
What To Wear Metal Detecting
This may sound like a daft question to some, but I’ve found that proper kit makes metal detecting a more pleasant experience, but there’s no uniform, feel free to wear a mankini if you prefer.
My suggestions are:
Walking over rough ground is hard work and you’re likely to be out there a while. Don’t head home empty-handed because you’ve worked up a weeping blister. Sturdy shoes make it less likely you’ll slip in damp weather too.
Stretchy fabric shirt
Cotton is restrictive. I like to wear a sports type T or polo that moves with my shoulders as I swing the detector. A polo T is best because it stops the strap rubbing my neck sore.
Trousers or shorts with pockets
Pockets are essential for finds. I personally go for cargo pants, a polo t-shirt with fleece on top, and hiking boots unless I’m searching in the surf. Then its shorts and scuba-shoe time.
Don’t forget a waterproof if it’s wet out and sun cream plus a hat in the sun.
You can’t help exposing yourself to the elements when metal detecting, but it’s just silly to spend days in bed with sunstroke when you can easily avoid it (Trust me, I know about sunstroke from first-hand experience!)
Are Metal Detectors Waterproof?
I recommend an underwater metal detector if you are spending lots of time in or near the water.
Even if you don’t want to submerge the whole machine accidents happen and these detectors are not cheap.
- Water resistant has the lowest water capability – it will keep the rain out and deal with damp grass.
- Waterproof will deal with splashes and water immersion no problem. Read the manufacturer’s booklet to make sure the whole detector is waterproof. Sometimes the coil is but the control box isn’t.
- Submersive detectors can go fully underwater. Divers and serious surf hunters will want one of these.
Most metal detectors are either weatherproof or waterproof. You’ll need to check the specifications.
Multi-Frequency Vs. Very Low-Frequency Vs. Pulse Induction
It’s a bit confusing, isn’t it? If you’re a beginner buy a standard multi-frequency detector. Here’s a quick rundown for info.
Multi-frequency detectors are catch-all detectors.
If you want to buy only one machine, and intend to hunt on land and dry sands, choose multi-frequency as it will have a better discrimination range.
Pulse induction is a specialty machine for the serious beach and salt water detectorists. They achieve great depth on soils with high mineralization and wet sands.
A pulse induction machine finds deeper, smaller objects than VLF detectors and they’re programmed to ignore ground minerals. There’s no adjustment -just grab and go.
These machines detect on low kHz. They range from 3 kHz to 70 kHz with gold detectors in the 13-50 kHz range.
They can be used on land, saltwater, and freshwater with good discrimination on mineralized ground.
Troubleshooting Your Metal Detector
Technology is great, but it can go wrong. Buying a good quality brand minimizes the chances of breakdown, but accidents happen and sometimes it’s just a little issue that’s easily fixed.
It’s switched on but nothing happens
When did you last change the batteries? Swap them out for a fresh set and clean the connections points too.
Look over the machine for loose connections
The LCD display is faint
Change the batteries because when they run low on power the display fades out.
Turn up the volume.
See if it works without the headphones. If it does, check for loose connections or try another pair of headphones.
Make sure your discrimination isn’t on high. If it’s on high you won’t pick up many signals leading you to think the sound is caput.
The detector is noisy – squealing and jittering
Turn down the sensitivity if its stuck on high, check for nearby power lines, radio stations or another detectorist. Move away accordingly.
My detector got wet
This is a problem if the detector is not waterproof. Even if you were just caught in a rainstorm rather than a full dunking in the sea, it can destroy the control box.
Take out the batteries – quick before it short-circuits.
Put the whole detector somewhere warm and dry and see if that is enough to dry out the components.
Was it salt water? That’s a much bigger problem because salt water will corrode the delicate components. It will need servicing but prepare yourself for the worst news.
The controls aren’t working
If you’ve changed the batteries try a factory reset on the control box.
The control box is working but no signals
Take off the coil cover and give it a really good clean. Lots of debris lodges beneath the coil cover such as soil, stones, sand, and even a build-up of moisture.
The needle gets stuck
It’s probably a build-up of static charge. Wipe the control box with a damp cloth to remove the static.
I’m not finding anything
Try turning up the sensitivity and sweep the ground slowly. Test it out with some objects you’ve put in place to make sure it’s working correctly.
If so, then it’s just a case of patience.
Metal detecting is not a hobby for the impatient that need immediate results.
Certainly, some individuals get lucky. The guy in England who received a metal detector for Christmas, then took it into a nearby field and promptly found a horde of Viking gold for example, but for the rest of us finding targets is a slow process.
Go to places where you’re more likely to find objects such as the beach or a park, and do your research online. Some experienced detectorists are willing to share their best hunting grounds.
My Best Advice
Enjoy all the aspects of metal detecting. It’s not a race to find all the gold available.
There are aspects to metal detecting that are pleasurable even without finds – the fresh air, the exercise, the mindful relaxing sweep of the machine, and the never-ending tease of what might be just a few steps ahead.
If that isn’t practical enough advice for you, then I’d say get to know your machine.
Understand what the symbols and tones mean, and figure out the best discrimination setting – one that ignores iron but picks up coins. It’s variable with every detector out there.
I hope this guide has helped you understand metal detectors, or at least inspired you to get out in the fresh air and find treasure.
Good gold to you fellow detectorists. I’ll look forward to seeing your treasure horde displayed online.