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The Ultimate Guide on Metal Detecting: Everything a Treasure Hunter Needs to Know

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Metal detecting is one of the fastest-growing hobbies in the world and it’s easy to understand why. We all loved stories where characters find treasure and metal detecting is the modern version of treasure hunting.

The popularity of this hobby is undeniable. While we don’t all have the resources to dive for treasure or go off on globetrotting expeditions, we all have the ability to buy a metal detector and explore our own backyard (so does speak). Metal detectors are modern treasure hunting devices and metal detecting is the perfect way to have fun and make a little money in your spare time.

It's easy to do, but it involves more than simply picking up a detector and heading outside. There is an art to metal detecting and it requires some study and practice to get right.

The first and most important thing you need to do is buy the best multi-purpose metal detector you can afford. You may want to specialize, but it’s a good idea to start with an all-around metal detector and use it to determine which aspects appeal to you the most. Once you know that, you can shop for specialty equipment as needed.

Man Outdoor Treasure Hunter

The next step is to learn how to use a metal detector. While the techniques are simple, they require practice to master. Fortunately, there are plenty of metal detecting videos on YouTube and other guides such as this one to learn from. Watching videos is a very effective way to master the basic motions you need to know to master the art of metal detection.

In this metal detecting guide, I’ll give you all the information you need to know to get started in metal detecting and how to become an expert.


What You Need To Know To Get Started in Metal Detecting

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One area where a lot of beginners get themselves into trouble when they start metal detecting is knowing where and when it’s okay to use their metal detecting tools. They watch a few metal detecting videos and assume that they can go hunting anywhere and that whatever they find is theirs to keep. However, that is certainly not the case. It’s important to know the rules of metal detecting citizenship so you can stay out of trouble and keep doing what you want to do.


The Law

Security Warning Sign

Let’s start with the biggest potential obstacle to your metal detecting activities, the law. When it comes to understanding the rules of metal detecting, America doesn’t make it easy. Each state has its own metal detecting and treasure hunting laws.

If metal detectors, treasure hunting is your passion, you should know that there are a few places where metal detecting is simply not allowed. 

For example:

  • Laws in state parks can vary, but many of them prohibit the use of metal detectors. Always, check before metal detecting. If it's not allowed and you get caught using your equipment, a park ranger could confiscate your detector and call the police.
  • You may practice metal detecting at a protected historical site or archaeological dig. The finds there are protected by law and very likely to be of historical significance and the powers that be don’t want you using your treasure hunting equipment detectors in those areas.
  • On beaches, you may be permitted to do your metal detecting only between the low-tide mark and the high-tide mark. Often, metal detecting and digging in dunes and grassy areas is not permitted.
  • City parks may allow you to go metal detecting but not to dig and the same may go for other public land.

How to Perfect Your Swing

The most basic rule when using a detector is to lend a slight swing as you hover the coil over the ground. This requires a steady motion that keeps the coil as close to the ground as possible while you are metal detecting.

The first thing you need to pay attention to is how you swing your metal detector, in particular, the location of your coil. A lot of beginners swing the coil-like they are wielding a golf club. The reason that is a bad idea is that it brings the coil too far away from the ground. Remember, the detector can only sense what is immediately beneath it. If you lift your coil too far from the ground, it will not be accurate.

To use your coil accurately, move it slowly and steadily from one side to the other, keeping it as close to the ground as you can. When you understand how metal detectors work, the need for these movements becomes clear. You can watch some videos if you’re not sure what I mean by this description. 

Metal Detecting

The other thing to keep in mind is that you need to be careful not to let your coil hit obstacles such as rocks, tree trunks, roots and buildings. Not only do you run the risk of damaging your coil, but you will very likely end up getting false signals. You may end up wasting a lot of time digging where there is nothing to be found. Your metal detecting time is precious, so make sure to treat it that way.


How Does a Metal Detector Work?

There are various kinds, but all of them send vibrations into the ground at specific frequencies. Whatever kind of metal detector you choose to buy, whether it’s a treasure finder metal detector or a deep search metal detector, you should make sure you understand how does a metal detector work. Doing a metal detector frequency comparison before you buy can help you understand how your detector works.

How deep can a metal detector detect? When you first buy it, it’s also a good idea to do a metal detector depth test in a metal detecting garden you set up for practice. Practice can also help you learn how to read a metal detector and make any necessary metal detector modifications before you go out on your first metal detecting expedition.

As long as you maintain control of your coil and do not swing it like a pendulum, you should be fine. It will take some practice to get accustomed to swinging it smoothly while keeping it close to the ground, but start slow and get used to the way it feels. The more you use it, the easier it will get.


Location Selection Tips

Women looking through binoculars

Once you’re set up for metal detecting with the right equipment (and permits if necessary), it’s time to pick your first location and start using your new metal detector. The location you select can have a lot to do with your success, so it’s important to pick a good one. For many people out on a treasure hunt, jewelry is the thing they most hope to find. In this section, I’ll tell you how to choose a place to hunt and give you some tips about getting permission to do your metal detecting on private property.


Good Metal Detecting Locations

Castle in the Forest

When it comes to picking a location, the one thing I want you to remember is that you shouldn’t assume that a location has nothing worth finding just because it looks nondescript. For people with metal detectors, treasure hunting is a passion and they’re smart enough to know that not every treasure location is clearly marked. As helpful as it might be to have that treasure map with a big "X" marking the location where treasure is buried, real life doesn’t work that way.


Obvious Locations

Garden Knome

Let’s start with the obvious locations where you can do some metal detecting.

1. Your own backyard is the perfect place to start metal detecting, if you own your property, you don’t have to worry about a permit. It’s a good place to practice using your metal detector and get used to the controls. You can also practice shooting metal detecting videos. That’s important because you want taking metal detecting videos to be second nature, another piece of your metal detecting routine. You can practice retrieving treasure and learning how to pinpoint and pull out a plug so that when it comes time to dig elsewhere, you’ll be able to do it neatly and efficiently.

2. Any place where people gather is a good choice for metal detecting, too. The more people frequent a location, the more likely you are to find something worth having. Some examples include:

  • Parks
  • Beaches
  • Rivers, lakes and creeks
  • Playground
  • Picnic areas
  • Old factories
  • Schools
  • Fairgrounds
  • Hiking Trails

Any of the above locations would be a good place to search for treasure. It’s highly unlikely that you’ll come up empty-handed. 


Unexpected Locations

Shocked Man

There are some locations that might not be obvious metal detecting sites at first sight, but they’re good choices if you can get to them. Here are a few to keep in mind.

Large trees tend to be good gathering places. People take shelter from the sun or rain beneath their branches and lovers carve their initials into the bark. The older and larger a tree is, the more likely it is that you’ll be able to find something valuable near its roots.

Demolition sites offer a great chance to get at areas that have been covered or buried for years. When your town tears up a road or demolishes a building, see if you can get permission to go metal detecting there before they start rebuilding. You might unearth something really old and unexpected. Make sure to take a metal detecting video when you go, since you might need it to show people what you found.

Old buildings are another good spot to search, or areas where you suspect there might have been houses or buildings in the past. If you come across an unexpected clearing in the woods, it’s possible that a building once stood on that spot, even if you don’t see signs of it now. Make sure to refer to the rules about being a good metal detecting citizen before you search any land that’s privately or publicly owned. 

The more you work with your metal detector, the stronger your sense of intuition will get when it comes to choosing locations.


How to Pinpoint the Location of a Find

Pinpointer

Getting a signal from your metal detector isn’t enough. You also need to be able to narrow down the area where you dig, so you’re not uprooting huge areas of earth. You never want to dig more than you have to while you’re out metal detecting. Not only is it a waste of energy, but doing so is a great way of irritating a private property owner and getting yourself asked to leave. You want to be as minimally disruptive as possible.

Pinpointing a treasure while metal detecting is an art form. It’s not always easy to determine the location of a signal. If you are using a small coil, then you may have an easier time than you would if you were using a large coil. For example, when you get a signal from a 14-inch coil, the treasure could be anywhere under the coil. Searching a 14-inch area might not seem like a big deal, but that’s a lot of earth to move if you don’t have to.

Here's a short video on how to pinpoint a target

Fortunately, a lot of modern metal detectors come with a pinpoint mode that can help you find the precise area where your treasure is located. There are three pinpoint options: audio, visual, or a combination of the two. Here’s how they work:

  • An audio pinpoint works by increasing the volume (and sometimes the pitch) of the audio signal based on how close you are to the object creating the signal. The noise will get louder and higher as you move close to your target so you can use the pitch to pinpoint the treasure.
  • A visual pinpoint mode works by giving you a visual display that will show you how close you are to your target.
  • A combination pinpoint mode will give you both an audio cue and an image to help you locate your target.
  • A visual pinpoint mode works by giving you a visual display that will show you how close you are to your target.
  • A combination pinpoint mode will give you both an audio cue and an image to help you locate your target.

If your machine doesn’t have a pinpoint mode, there are some easy methods you can use to help you narrow down your search.

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The simplest method is to start by swinging the coil of your metal detector left-to-right. When you locate a target, hold your coil over the area where the signal is the strongest. Then, slowly move it back toward your body until you hear the signal stop.

At that point, the target should be immediately in front of your coil. You may want to repeat this method from different directions and mark it so you can get an idea of how large your target is, too. It may help to mark the areas where the signal is the strongest and take a metal detecting video so you can be sure you have the right spot when you’re ready to dig.

The next method involves taking a cue from the old pirate maps we talked about earlier. You will use your coil to draw imaginary “X” marks on the ground. You start with a horizontal movement and hold your coil where the signal is the loudest. Then move 90 degrees in each direction, paying close attention to how the signal changes. The difference in the sound and strength of your signal should help you locate the “X” that marks the spot and that’s where you’ll dig.

The third method is a variation on the X method. You start by moving left-to-right. Once you identify the strongest signal, you can switch directions and move the coil back and forth, perpendicular to the first trajectory. This motion will help you narrow down your location.

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The fourth option that you may want to consider is buying a small, hand-held pinpointer to use. It can be a bit easier to control than a big coil and you can get very close to the ground with it and use the variations in the signal to help you locate your target. Of course, it’s another item you have to carry with you. If you’re worried about the weight of your pack when you’re out metal detecting, this solution may not be ideal. However, it can be a useful tool to have and it’s one you may want to consider.

As soon as you pinpoint the location where you want to dig, you need to mark the spot in some way. For example, you might want to make a small depression in the ground using your finger or use a golf tee or even a toothpick, so you don’t lose track of your location when you stop to get your recovery tools. You can also take a metal detecting video to help you hone in on the spot.


How to Recover Your Treasure

Treasure Hunter

As soon as you have pinpointed the location of your find, it’s time to recover it. Again, the goal here is always to move as little earth as possible and not dig the deepest hole you can. Unless you’ve found an entire chest full of treasure which, is unlikely, you can probably get away with digging a very small hole. You might even be able to use a probe or other small tool and not have to dig much at all. It is going to take some practice to know which recovery method to use and to figure out how to get the job done. Be patient with yourself, you’ll get there.


Choosing the Right Tool for the Job

Tool Kit

The first thing to keep in mind when choosing the tool you are going to use is that you want to be careful. There are a lot of metal objects that could give off an enticing signal and some of them might be dangerous to handle. There’s no way to tell when you start digging whether the object you find will be a cache of coins or a buried gun. If you are digging near a battlefield, it’s possible that you might find live ammunition or even a bomb. Be cautious. It’s never a good idea to be rough or hasty when retrieving a find. Even if it’s something harmless like a gold coin, you could scratch or otherwise damage it if you try to rush.

In certain areas, you won’t have to worry about the size of the hole you are making. For example, if you are digging on the beach, you can use a sand scoop and dig as large an area as you like. The sand will be easy to replace and there won’t be any sign of the hole once you fill it. The same goes for digging in the forest or remote areas. Nobody is going to take offense if you dig a large hole as long as you fill it in when you are done.

However, if you are digging in a public area like a park, or in somebody’s yard, you are going to want to keep the hole you make as small as possible. That means that you will want to dig a plug.


How to Cut a Plug

Earlier, I told you that you would want to get a hand-held tool to use for digging. You can use a trowel, or you might want to get a serrated blade that will allow you to cut through tough turf and roots. It’s harder than you might think to cut through grass roots and the right blade can speed up the process and make it neat.

As a reminder, you should take a metal detecting video of the area where you’re digging before you start. If you move anything before you dig, the metal detecting video can help you put things back in order before you leave.

Depending on the firmness of the soil, you have two options:

1. Insert your serrated blade into the ground a few inches to the side of your target. Move it in a circular motion around the target in a sawing motion until you have made a circle. You can either cut a complete circle and remove the plug or leave a hinge that will allow you to flip the plug over. This method works best in soft soil.

In firm soil, stick your blade into the ground and then pull it out. Then, moving in a circular motion, keep making individual cuts until you have moved all the way around your target. The result will be a plug that you can easily remove, with or without a hinge.

Once you have removed the plug, you will probably have to dig a bit beneath it. This method works well for a target you think is fairly shallow. While you are digging, you should put a towel, cloth, or even a piece of paper on the ground next to you. All of the dirt you remove should be placed on it. This is very important because it is the only way that will allow you to replace all of the dirt in the hole when you are done. Otherwise, it will get all over the place.

Once you have retrieved your treasure, you can lift your cloth and pour the dirt back into the hole. Pat the dirt down gently and then replace the plug and pat it into place. When you are done, there should be no sign that you were ever there. You can verify the placement of anything you needed to move by reviewing your metal detecting video before you leave.

2. You also have the option of cutting a square plug using the same basic method here. A square is a better option if the object you are retrieving is fairly large.

It’s also important to remember that changing the angle of your digging tool can change the way your plug looks. If you angle the tool, you can dig a conical plug that will work well for retrieving small options. By sticking your tool straight down into the ground, you will make a large plug with straight edges. The more you practice retrieving objects, the better you will get at digging plugs.

I do recommend that you wait until you are fairly good at this process before asking to dig on someone else’s lawn. You might even consider bringing some before and after pictures (or before and after metal detecting videos) to show them that you will not mess up their yard with your digging.

Plug digging is one of the reasons that I recommend building a metal detecting garden on your property. You can use it to learn how to read your metal detector, how to pinpoint options and how to dig neat holes.


Cleaning Your Finds

liquid pouring out of bottle

Cleaning the treasures that you find while out metal detecting is one of those things that can be tricky. It’s not always possible to tell immediately what a find is and in such cases, it is probably best not to attempt any harsh cleaning methods on your treasures, they might get damaged. A soft cloth or brush can help you clean excess dirt from what you find, but attempting any vigorous cleaning may be a mistake. It is very easy to scratch soft metals like gold and scratches may end up devaluing what you find.

Any finds that you can’t identify should be left alone if you’re worried about damaging them. You can always take photographs or a metal detecting video and share them online or go to a metal detecting expert for help in identifying them. Sometimes, a metal detecting video is preferable to photographs because you can show all sides of the object and move around between objects easily.

Here are some tips to help you clean things:

  • Clad coins can usually be cleaned by putting them into a rock polisher. If you don’t have one of those, another easy method is to put them into a jug with some vinegar, water and sand. A good shake should be enough to remove most of the dirt and allow you to cash them in at the bank if that’s what you want to do.Old and valuable coins can be easily damaged. There are two places you can send them to have them professionally cleaned: the Numismatic Conservation Service and the Professional Coin Grading Service.
  • Other coin cleaning options include soaking in olive oil. This is the gentlest home-cleaning method, but particularly old and stubborn coins may take months to get clean this way. You can try using a baking-soda based toothpaste with a soft brush, or rub the coin with a bit of aluminum foil to create an electrolysis effect.
  • Toothpaste can also work to clean up dirty jewelry, including platinum, silver and gold. Rub a little bit into the metal with your fingers, or use a soft cloth to polish it.Gems can be difficult to clean at home. Your best bet is to take the item to a jeweler for cleaning, but if you want to try it yourself, start by soaking it in warm water and a little bit of Ivory soap or ammonia. Either option will do a good job of breaking through dirt and grease and getting the jewels clean.
  • Cleaning relics is risky business. First of all, you risk damaging them.
  • Other coin cleaning options include soaking in olive oil. This is the gentlest home-cleaning method, but particularly old and stubborn coins may take months to get clean this way. You can try using a baking-soda based toothpaste with a soft brush, or rub the coin with a bit of aluminum foil to create an electrolysis effect.
  • Toothpaste can also work to clean up dirty jewelry, including platinum, silver and gold. Rub a little bit into the metal with your fingers, or use a soft cloth to polish it.Gems can be difficult to clean at home. Your best bet is to take the item to a jeweler for cleaning, but if you want to try it yourself, start by soaking it in warm water and a little bit of Ivory soap or ammonia. Either option will do a good job of breaking through dirt and grease and getting the jewels clean.
  • Cleaning relics is risky business. First of all, you risk damaging them.

And they may be worth more in their original, dirty state. I don’t recommend trying it. Some people use home electrolysis, but I don’t recommend that. It’s dangerous to mess around with electricity if you don’t know what you’re doing. Get them appraised by an expert first and then you can make an informed decision about whether to find someone to help you clean your finds. If you’re worried that transporting them will damage them, take a metal detecting video to start and bring it to an expert.

In some cases, cleaning your finds is a good idea because it gives you a clear view of what you have. Always opt for the gentlest method possible to start, that way you will be sure not to damage your find.


Cashing In

cash for gold shop

For me, metal detecting has offered some of the most exciting and rewarding experiences of my life. I love the hunt. There’s nothing quite like scouting an area, identifying its potential and taking the time to seek out treasure. The thrill of unearthing something special while metal detecting has never faded for me. The more I do it, the more I want to do it and I suspect you feel the same way.

The great thing is that the thrill doesn’t end with the find. I get just as much enjoyment out of identifying my treasure and selling it for a profit as I do out of the hunt itself. Along the way, I’ve accumulated a ton of knowledge about rare coins and precious gems. It used to be that I couldn’t tell the difference between cubic zirconia and diamond. I couldn’t distinguish fake gold from the real thing. Now I’ve handled so much jewelry that I can often identify precious metal before I even get out my loupe to look at the markings.

In this next section, I’ll help you get the same thrill I do from identifying and selling your finds. If you know what you’re doing, you can be sure to get a fair price and your profits can go toward your retirement, or (if you’re like me) to buying new metal detecting equipment.


Negotiating Tips

Counting Coins

When it comes time to sell your finds, you have several options:

  • If you find very old glass that's intact, antique stores in the area a good place to sell them. Many decorators and private collectors are willing to pay top dollar for antique glass that's in good condition. Again, it's a good idea to try to identify and date your find before you bring it to a seller.
  • Coin collectors are frequently very eager to acquire new items for their collections. If you have something rare, you can approach collectors by advertising on coin collecting sites or place an ad online.
  • Jewelry stores and jewelers might be willing to buy and resell a piece of jewelry that's in good shape, especially one that's rare. Again, the jeweler is probably going to ask pretty close to the appraisal price and offer you considerably less so they can make profit.
  • Very rare or unusual jewelry pieces might sell to private collectors or at auction. If you think you have a very unusual find, whether it's jewelry or a coin, then an auction is a good way to get the best price possible.
  • As mentioned above, museums and private collectors are most likely to be interested in buying relics and artifacts with historical significance.
  • For more run of the mill finds, you may want to consider taking a metal detecting video and listing the items you find for sale on eBay or another website, or your own site, if you have one.

Some of the above options offer the possibility of negotiation, while others do not. If you auction a piece, you will probably negotiate up front to determine what percentage of the sale price the auction house will keep. Some auctioneers will be open to negotiation while others will not.


What's the Next Step?

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Treasure hunting is both an art and science. The best possible thing you can do to become an ace treasure hunter is to practice. The more time you spend metal detecting, the better you will get at interpreting its signals. Each detector is different and no detector is effective without a skilled and intuitive user on the other end of it. Your experience, intelligence and curiosity must work with the metal detector’s technology if you expect to get a great result.

I highly recommend seeking out metal detecting videos online to help you perfect your metal detecting technique and learn metal detecting tips. I’ve included as many techniques and tips in this article as possible to improve your treasure hunting game, but we have other articles on our experiences with specific types of metal detectors that you should read too. 

As you practice metal detecting, you are certain to add your own observations and experience to the information here. While I have tried to share as much of my knowledge as possible with you, there is no substitute for the gut feeling that tells you that an area that looks innocuous hides a treasure.

Learn to pay attention to those tingles and flashes of intuition. Human beings have great primal instincts. Over time, we have become desensitized to them as we come to rely heavily on technology. However, the instincts are still there. When you combine them with the science of a well-built metal detector, you can learn to sniff out the treasures that amateurs miss because they don’t have the intuition they need to find them.

Beach Metal Detector

Where Can You Find the Best Metal Detector?

For my money, there is no greater hobby than metal detecting. At this point, my collection of metal detectors feels like a natural extension of my arm. I feel naked without them, almost like I left home without my pants. 

If you're ready to start thinking about buying your a new metal detector and you're looking for some help to narrow down your search. You should check out our reviews to help you compare some of the top rated detectors in the market today. 

Do your research, get out there and pay attention to your instincts.

Your treasure awaits.

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