Using A Metal Detector – The Basics


When people think of using a metal detector, they usually think about the “find of the century,” or the unearthing of some untold riches. Realistically, you’re probably not going to stumble across long lost gold, but you never know until you try do you?! Even if you’re not finding pirate’s gold, there are plenty of interesting and potentially valuable things lurking in the earth, and the only way to find them is to get a metal detector. Most people are familiar with the basic metal detector design, and it consists of a large circular coil attached to a rod with a handle and control interface. The operator wears headphones and waves the coil back and forth slowly in hopes of hearing an indication of metal or some other item buried in the ground. While the concept of using a metal detector is fairly easy, there are plenty of tips and tricks to learn before you’re a pro detectorist. Let’s examine some of the basics of using a metal detector.

Getting Started

First and foremost, the best thing you can do is familiarize yourself with the manual of the detector you just purchased. Garrett, Fisher Labs, and Teknetics among others all make great metal detectors for both beginners and experts. Every detector works a bit differently, and you should know its capabilities and limitations before you ever use it in the field. Sure, it doesn’t sound very exciting to get a metal detector and then sit on your couch and read the manual front to back, but trust us, it’s the best thing you can do. Otherwise you’ll head out into the field and have no idea what you’re doing or how to use the detector, and chances are you’ll find nothing. Don’t waste a trip that way.

Companies like Garrett offer complete metal detecting setup kits like this Garrett Pro Metal Detector Kit ($934.95).

While you’re at it, familiarize yourself with the heads up display of the detector you just purchased while you have the reference manual in hand. This way you’ll know what dials control what and where indicator lights will flash when you’re out detecting. Once you’ve toughed out this initial research portion of opening your new detector, it’s time to test it out.

Test The Detector

One of the best things you can do when you buy a metal detector is set up your own personal testing environment. Gather together several materials for your testing environment like aluminum pop tabs, coins of different denominations, various common metals, and other objects. It’s best to stay small with your test objects as using a large wrench or similar item isn’t going to provide much insight on detector sensitivity. You’ll also want to get your hands on some jewelry for testing, but don’t use anything expensive or irreplaceable like your wedding ring, especially for the second part of this test.

Waterproof resistance in a detector, like this Fisher Labs F22 Weatherproof Detector ($229) is a nice bonus feature.

Now head out to the back yard and test how the detector responds to your various test objects. Place a coin down on the grass and notice how the detector sounds as you wave over it. Practice swiping over the object at various heights to see how that too changes what the detector does. Now exchange the coin with another object and repeat. You may want to place more than one object in the test area as well. If you have jewelry you want to try, place it on the grass and see how the detector reacts. This is the first part of your testing phase.

Now find a place where you can dig and perform a similar test but with the objects buried. Try a few different depths. You’ll get the best results if you get a little scientific with your test. Disclaimer: don’t bury your wedding ring or your great grandma’s heirloom necklace for this test. You don’t want it becoming lost in the back yard. If you do decide to bury some less valuable jewelry or something similar, tie a string or piece of twine to it before you bury it so recovery is easy. These tests are a great way to become familiar with your detector before you take it for its first field run.

Using The Detector In The Field

Now that you’re ready to take your metal detector out in the field, it’s time to select a proper location.

Choosing A Location


Fact is there are a lot of places where you can’t use a metal detector legally. Private property is a no unless you have permission from the landowner. Public land is generally ok to detect on, but there are exceptions like historical sites and larger parks like state and National parks. Public institutions can be hit and miss depending on laws and the permission of the people who work there. Public beaches are always one of the most popular detecting areas, but take note that salt can interfere with a detector and make it more difficult to hone in on objects.

Once you get the object narrowed down, a pointer like this Garrett Pro-Pointer ($127.45) can help you sift through soil to uncover the object in question.

Unfortunately there is no hard and fast rule for where and where not to metal detect, unless of course you own the property or you have permission to be on the property. Check your local laws and when in doubt ask. There’s no sense in trespassing, and you won’t be able to keep your finds or maybe even your metal detector if you’re caught. It’s not worth the risk so ask!

Tips For Metal Detecting Success


Now that you have a location, it is time to get to work. Make sure you head out with all the gear you need including a scoop, a backpack to hold food, water and your finds, and good walking shoes. Using a detector properly in the field usually involves two techniques. You’ll want to hold the metal detector as close to the ground as possible without banging the coil against objects as you swing it. As for swinging the metal detector, you’ll want to do it slowly and with purpose as you listen for objects. Swinging the detector wildly isn’t going to give you much time to hear any indicators of metal in the area, and you may not hear anything at all if you move it too fast. So slow down and keep the coil close to the ground to maximize success.


Once you’ve locked on to something promising, it is time to do some digging. But first, survey the area and brush away loose dirt and vegetation to see if anything is on the surface. If you plunge right in with your digging tool, you risk covering up the find. Take your time but don’t make a huge production out of the survey. Detecting is a bit of a numbers game, and often that mystery object turns out to be trash. Once you’re confident that the item is indeed buried under the ground, dig a small hole in the most likely spot. A narrow scoop with tough metal edges is likely the best tool for the job. If you bring a full sized shovel and start some serious digging right off the bat, you’ll likely end up with a sore back and no item to show for your effort because you covered it up with dirt in your over zealous digging.

A metal scoop like this Fisher Labs Sand Scoop ($29.99) is great on a beach, but you’ll need something smaller for soil excavation.

Remember, if you do find something very valuable, you’ll likely want to return to the site for more excavation later. Don’t make a mess of things and return the area to what it looked like before you dug. This is also a matter of ethics. Just like any other outdoor activity, leave things like you found it. Have fun out there and good luck!

Thumb image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.