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How to Use a Metal Detector

Updated on August 30, 2017

Metal Detecting 101 - What You Need and What You Need to Know!

Metal detecting is a fun and rewarding hobby that can be enjoyed by all. Contrary to what you might think, learning how to use a metal detector can be very easy and can be very rewarding (both monetarily and emotionally). There is nothing like finding an old coin, piece of jewelry, or long lost relic that has been buried in the ground for many years. For most metal detectorists, the thrill is in the hunt and the unknown of what you might find on a given day.

This year I dove head first into metal detecting, and have purchased all of the gear necessary to enjoy this hobby to its fullest. One of the most important things when learning how to use a metal detector is learning about how your specific machine operates.

In this lens, I will walk you through some helpful tips that will shorten your learning curve as you dive into metal detecting. I will also share some of my 'lessons learned' along the way, and introduce you to some accessories and gear that can make your metal detecting experience more enjoyable.

So 'keep your coil to the soil' and read on as I share some tips about the wonderful world of metal detecting!

(Image Credit to InterRev - Personal Photo)

Recommended Metal Detectors - Quality and good performance will eliminate frustration

The selection of a metal detector is often the biggest mistake that a person will make when getting into this hobby. There are a lot of low-end metal detectors out there that will detect items in the ground, but they will often leave you frustrated as you continually dig up junk metal items. I know this from experience. I started off with a lesser quality detector, but found myself upgrading to a better model after only a few months.

You don't have to break the bank to get into a decent quality detector. There are a number of good quality machines that can be found for reasonable prices. I did a ton of research before I settled on purchasing the Garrett AT Pro metal detector.

This model offers high end features and performance at a mid-range price. For the purposes of my recommended list below, this model will be at the high end of the price scale. The rest of the models are ones that I would recommend based on research and suggestions from avid detectorists that I am in contact with, or from personal experience with the models because I have friends that own them.

AT Pro Adventure Pack
AT Pro Adventure Pack

This Garrett AT Pro Adventure Pack is the exact model that I purchased and use today. This is one of the top metal detectors in the under $600.00 range and boasts an impressive 4.7 out of 5 star average customer rating. I went with this package deal, because for about $40.00 more than the metal detector alone you get a Garrett digging tool and sheath, a case for transporting your metal detector, a coil cover to protect your coil, and a treasure pouch for carrying the coins, relics, or trash that you find.

I was attracted to the Garrett AT Pro for several reasons.

First, it is waterproof and can be submerged up to 10 feet of water. People lose a lot of coins and jewelry in the water and this is one place that many other people will not venture with their metal detectors. Beaches at freshwater lakes, creeks and streams, and in the water at ocean beaches are prime locations to search for treasures.

Second, the AT Pro has incredible iron discrimination. In my home state of Kentucky, there is a lot of iron in the soil and being able to discriminate between iron targets and quality targets like coins and jewelry is a major plus.

A third major point that drew me to the AT Pro was the ability to switch between standard and pro modes. Standard mode offers different tones for the object that is detected. Pro mode gives you fast adjustment and continual tones as objects are detected. For example, you could hear the grunt tone of iron, then a high pitched tone for a quality target, then grunt of iron again. This could help you detect a coin or other object in a trashy area.

The headphones that come with the Garrett AT Pro are great and very comfortable. There is so much to say about this machine that I could go on all day about it.


Learning How to Metal Detect

How to do it and some tips to get you going

(Image Credit to ChrisCofer - Licensed via Creative Commons with Attribution)

The most important thing you can do when learning how to metal detect is to get to know your metal detector. Your machine will give off various signals based on what it detects in the soil, and it is your job to learn what those signals are trying to tell you.

Some basic metal detectors will just emit different pitched tones based on what they detect. Others will emit different tones, but also give a visual indication on an LCD screen of what it thinks may lie beneath the surface. The more advanced metal detectors will give a two digit VDI number, which can help you to more accurately determine what the target is.

When using a metal detector, you should swing the coil in a side to side motion while slightly overlapping the previous pass with your next pass of the coil. This ensures that you are covering the entire area and not missing any targets. The coil should be parallel to the ground, and float just above the surface. You should not swing your coil rapidly. Moving it at a rate of 1 yard or meter per second should suffice.

Iron targets will usually cause your detector to emit a low tone or a 'grunt'. When iron is detected, it is usually associated with a low VDI signal in the range of 1 - 35. Many metal detectors will include a feature called 'iron discrimination', which allows you to cancel out these low VDI signals so that you are not alerted to their presence. The last thing I want to do is dig up old rusty nails all day, so I will typically discriminate out the VDI signals up to 35 and ignore these. If you are hunting for relics that may be made of iron, then you may want to use a zero-discrimination mode, so that you are alerted of any metals that are detected in the soil.

Other metals associated with 'quality targets' will generate higher VDI signals. Copper and silver alloys associated with coins will generate a high pitched tone, and these are targets you want to dig.

The VDI signals that fall in the middle are the tough ones. Nickels, aluminum pull tabs, and gold rings can generate VDI signals that fall into a similar range of each other. In trashy areas, you can spend a lot of time digging up pull tabs, but if you don't you could be passing up a gold ring or maybe an old Buffalo Nickel.

When you first start using a new metal detector, you should spend the first 10 hours or so digging up all the targets that you detect. While this may seem monotonous, doing so will help you to learn what type of objects lie beneath the surface based on the tone that your metal detector generated. This can be very educational when your are learning about your new detector, and over time you will learn what targets to dig and which ones to pass up based on the signal it provides.

You should also know that the signal can change based on the angle that the detector passes over the object. When you get a good signal, it is a good idea to continue passing your coil over the area several times to see if the signal is consistent. Walk in a circle around the spot and pass the coil over the object from different angles. If the signal remains good, then dig it!

Here is a great tips that can save you some time. When you get a good signal, raise the coil off of the ground as you pass it back and forth over the object. Raise it up to a height of about 8 inches. If you are still getting a good signal, then the target is most likely a large object that you may not want to dig unless you are hunting for relics. You need to realize that when a metal detector estimates the depth of an object, it is doing so based on a coin-sized object. A large aluminum can may appear to be a coin just under the surface of the ground. If you raise the coil off of the ground to 8 inches and are still getting a strong signal, then you probably have a big can or other object. Try this tip as you 'dig everything' and it will help you to learn what you should dig and what you shouldn't.

Ever Been Metal Detecting - Poll

The more I get into this hobby, the more people I am discovering that love the hobby of metal detecting. Have you ever been metal detecting?

Do you metal detect?

See results

Metal Detecting Code of Ethics

Ethics, Laws, and Respect Go Hand in Hand

I need to spend a few minutes talking about the Metal Detecting Code of Ethics. You see, not everyone is a fan of the hobby of metal detecting, and a lot of that is due to the actions of some unethical detectorists. I am just touching on the high points of ethics here. For the complete list, see the link below.

It is not good practice to dig a hole and leave it uncovered. It could results in someone getting injured, but it is also just downright rude to leave the land in worse shape that when you first approached it. You should always fill all your holes and leave the land in as good or better shape when you leave. In grass or sod, you should cut a plug out of the sod, and place your dirt on a towel. When you are done you can dump the dirt from the towel back into the hole, replace the sod plug, and then tamp it down. When I dig, you can never even tell that I was there.

You should also never metal detect on anyone else's land unless you have permission. Getting permission in writing is always a good thing. If you don't have permission then you are trespassing and that is against the law.

Know your laws. Some state and local parks allow metal detecting, and others don't. Parks are great places to metal detect but you must respect the laws and the land. These laws can usually be found on the city, state, or local parks websites which can easily be found with a Google search. You can always pick up the phone, call the office, and ask about the rules too.

You should also obey any antiquities laws, and contact an archeological office if you find any relics of historical significance.

Most of the code of ethics is common sense, but you should become familiar with it. I recommend that you read more about it (here) before you get out and start detecting.

A Metal Detector Pinpointer is a Must-Have Tool

Save Time and Eliminate Frustration

One piece of gear that will make your metal detecting experience much more enjoyable is a pinpointer. A metal detector pinpointer is essentially a small, hand-held metal detector that looks like a wand. Once you have dug your hole you will often not see the object that you are searching for. A coin can be covered in dirt, inside a dirt clod, or still in the ground. Pinpointing exactly where that object is will be a huge time saver.

A pinpointed will only detect a metal object if it is passed within an inch or two of the wand. So when you dig your hole, you can run your pinpointer through the dirt that you have removed and it will alert you if the object is there. If not, you can pass the pinpointed around the edges of the hole, along the sides of the hole, and across the bottom to determine exactly where the object is.

One thing I really like about using a pinpointed is that it may keep me from digging a hole at all. If I get a shallow signal on my Garrett AT Pro metal detector, I will pass my pinpointer across the top of the ground in the exact spot that I think the target is located. Remember that a pinpointed only has a range of an inch or two. If my pinpointer sounds off as I pass it over the area, then I can be certain that the object is on the surface or just under the surface. This technique helped me to recover a ring this past weekend hat was in the sod without even digging at all. The ring was of no value, but a ring none-the-less and still fun to find.

(Image Credit to InterRev - Personal Photo)

Metal Detecting Digging Tools

You Gotta Have Something to Dig With!

The last piece of gear that you really must have is some type of shovel or digging tool. Having the right tool to dig with can make the difference between effortless digging and a major chore.

Now if you are metal detecting out on farmland or in the woods, you could easily use a standard spade or garden shovel. Remember that one of our main goals as metal detectorists is to fill your holes, and ideally leave no trace that you ever dug in location. So using sharp digging tools with a thin blade is ideal whenever it is possible.

It is common practice to use some form of a hand shovel. There are many of these available at any local hardware store. You just need to ensure that you get something with a sturdy blade that will resist bending or breaking.

I personally have two tools that I use that are specialized for metal detecting. They are the Garrett Edge Digger and the Lesche Sampson Pro-Series Shovel with T-Handle. They are both pictured here.

The Garrett Edge Digger came with my Garrett AT Pro metal detector package, but is available for purchase separately as well. It has a 7.5" serrated digging blade, and cuts through sod easily. It also comes with a sheath, so you can keep it in a handy spot right on your belt. This digger is great for making clean cuts in sod, and for shallow to medium depth recovery.

The Lesche digging tool is by far my favorite. I recently purchased this shovel and can tell you that it makes digging so much faster and easier. It is 31 inches in overall length and weighs just over 2 pounds. So it is easy to carry and use. It has a 7.5 inch long blade that is 4 inches wide and has pre-sharpened edges. This tool is definitely tailored for metal detecting. I was amazed at how easily the blade cuts through the sod or dirt, when you have the leverage of your foot helping to drive the blade into the ground. It makes very clean cuts that allows you to remove a plug from the soil that can neatly be replaced. For anyone that really gets into this hobby of metal detecting, I would highly recommend that they use a Lesche digging tool.

(Image Credit to InterRev - Personal Photo)

Are you For or Against Metal Detecting - There are ethical and legal conflicts occurring now on this topic

There is a hot legal and ethical debate occurring in many States right now concerning bans against metal detecting on public lands. Many archeologists believe that all relics should remain where they currently are, and should only be excavated by trained professionals. Others enjoy the hobby of metal detecting and are mainly searching for lost coins, and jewelry.

Assuming that the metal detecting code of ethics is followed by the detectorist, would you be for or against allowing metal detecting on public lands?

(Please note that this code of ethics states that all holes should be filled, permission should be obtained, laws followed, and any relics of historical significance should be reported to the appropriate parties.)

Are you For or Against allowing metal detecting on public lands?

Video Explaining How to Metal Detect - See it in action...

Here is a very good video from a kid that created this video as a school project. I like this kid, because he does talk about ethical behavior when metal detecting, and not leaving any holes behind. He does a good job of showing some metal detecting in action and explaining some of the features of his metal detector. Nice work!

Do you have a question or comment about the fun hobby of metal detecting? Please leave it below. I'd love to hear from you.

Do you have any tips or tricks you can share?

Have you ever been metal detecting? If so, tell us about one of your best finds or a quick story about one of your metal detecting hunts.

Comments about Metal Detecting?

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    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Great lens! I'd love to try it!

    • k4shmir profile image


      6 years ago

      interesting topic and nice lens. thanks for sharing.

    • OpenThis profile image


      6 years ago

      Great lens, nice job really!

    • OpenThis profile image


      6 years ago

      Great lens, nice job really!

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Seems like a great hobby and one I've always thought would be interesting. When we used to live near the beach, we would see fellows with detectors all the time. The one thing I didn't like was when they found something in the sand and it wasn't valuable that they would throw it back down on the sand. It had been semi-safe while it was buried but now it was back on the surface. Maybe you could add that to your etiquette section?

    • GregoryMoore profile imageAUTHOR

      Gregory Moore 

      6 years ago from Louisville, KY

      @wiseriverman: That is a great story. Thanks for sharing. I can only imagine how excited he must have been with each of those ring finds!

    • wiseriverman profile image


      6 years ago

      My friends grandfather enjoyed metal detecting on the beach near his home in Florida. He did it into his nineties and I think that his interest in it and the exercise kept him going strong. Once when I was visiting him he pulled out his huge collection of diamond engagement rings that he had found over the years. He also had a ton of coins that he'd found. Ever since then I thought that I'd like to give it a try. I'm bookmarking this for when I do.

      Thanks for the great information!

    • bancdebinary1 profile image


      6 years ago

      What a great lens :) this pretty sums up all you need to know about metal detectors..

    • LiteraryMind profile image

      Ellen Gregory 

      6 years ago from Connecticut, USA

      My significant other bought a metal detector but we have never used it. I will show him this article, maybe he will get some inspiration.

    • Northerntrials profile image


      6 years ago

      Very helpful advice and a nice selection of products.It.s good to see the range of products and the reasons for and against them . I like this approach. I have this one bookmarked. Thanks

    • GregoryMoore profile imageAUTHOR

      Gregory Moore 

      6 years ago from Louisville, KY

      @anonymous: Thanks Tipi. I definitely have a passion for it and hope to be sharing more lenses on the topic of metal detecting in the near future.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Now this is a hobby that definitely could be has that sense of suspense to it of what might be found. I'd say you are an authority on the subject. The pinpointed is something I'd not seen, now that is a very handy gadget for sure....very well presented, may many stop by and learn the ins and outs of metal detecting from you! :)

    • GregoryMoore profile imageAUTHOR

      Gregory Moore 

      6 years ago from Louisville, KY

      @Anthony Altorenna: Thanks for the comment Anthony. I'll warn you up front, it can be addictive. I'm hooked!

    • Anthony Altorenna profile image

      Anthony Altorenna 

      6 years ago from Connecticut

      Good information! I have a budget metal detector that I've used for finding nails and other debris after having a new roof put on the house (and finding a nail in a tire) but I have not tried searching for relics. One of these days....

    • GregoryMoore profile imageAUTHOR

      Gregory Moore 

      6 years ago from Louisville, KY

      @bloggerjon: That must have been awesome to find those old Roman and hammered coins. It is great to see another avid metal-detectorist out here on Squidoo. I went as recently as yesterday, but only found 24 clad coins (no exciting finds). There wasn't much age on this site I was on, but it was still loads of fun!

    • bloggerjon profile image


      6 years ago

      Great lens on a subject that i love. I metal detect all the time and at the moment it is mainly the beaches that i do. I have been luck enough in the past to detect field sites and find all sorts including Roman and hammered coins. Great subject and great information.

    • GregoryMoore profile imageAUTHOR

      Gregory Moore 

      6 years ago from Louisville, KY

      @Cynthia Haltom: I hope you are able to find what you are looking for. It can be like searching for a needle in a haystack sometimes, because of all the other metal objects that are already in the soil. If your metal detector supports 'notch discrimination' then I would recommend you configure it to only alert on the signals that are associated with jewelry and you can ignore all of the other targets. The only problem with looking for jewelry is gold gives a signal that is in the same range as pull tabs. So you've gotta expect to dig some junk while you search for the good stuff. Good luck!

    • Cynthia Haltom profile image

      Cynthia Haltom 

      6 years ago from Diamondhead

      My husband bought me a metal detector for Christmas 2 years ago so I could search our hurricane ravaged property trying to find some of my lost jewelry. I find lots of pennies and quarters, but nothing much yet.


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