Lew is an American expat living in Honduras. A former gold assayer, he is now a photographer and conservator of Central American culture.
Treasure-Hunters And Dreamers
After over forty years of prospecting, panning for gold, and swinging a metal detector in just about every kind of location imaginable, I can say I have seen every type of “treasure hunter” that exists. I've met them in the hills and streams, and I've met them in city parks. Frankly, the chances of finding gold in your city park are much greater than in the hills.
Types of Novice Treasure Hunters
- Those who buy the most expensive metal detector they can find, use it in the default settings for a few days expecting gold and coins to jump right out of the ground and into their pocket. It doesn't happen, so in great disappointment, the detector is stuffed into a closet to be sold in a year or two at a yard sale for twenty dollars.
- Those who buy the cheapest metal detector they can find, use it like the above and sell it or give it to the kids in a couple years.
- Those who actually do research before buying a machine, and who know what they are seeking, where and how. The ones who read the manual more than once, practice, and have the patience not to be frustrated when they don't become wealthy. Those who enjoy the solitude and thrill of the hunt. These are the minority.
Metal Detector Facts
- They ALL do the same thing: they find metal.
- A $50 machine does the same thing as a $5000 one. The more expensive one does it easier and more efficiently.
- Buy the smallest coil you can find for your chosen machine. It will work wonders in trashy sites.
The items below were found in a city park with a detector costing less than $200, using a four-inch coil. The ring upper right is 18K white gold.
Types of Metal Detectors
After World War II a lot of used mine detectors came on the civilian market. They had no speakers so headphones were plugged into an external jack. Some enterprising engineers got the idea for a better civilian metal detector. They put internal speakers and a headphone jack on the new machines, put them in a smaller lighter box, painted it with company logos, and the Beat Frequency Oscillator detector was born. I had a BFO detector once. I still like them, but they are not on the market except in swap meets or yard sales.
BFO detectors made a constant sound which increased in frequency when the coil was influenced by something metallic in the ground. They were horrible in trashy areas because the constant OOOOEEEEEOOOO noise could drive the operator nuts. In the hills they were superb. They were deep-seeking and sensitive. My old D-Tex was great at mapping the underground extent of black sand deposits in dry stream beds, indicating where to dig for placer gold.
The next generation of detectors came around 1970 with Transmitter-Receiver technology. The TR detector used a double concentric coil with a transmitting coil on the outside and a receiving coil in the middle. It worked something like radar, sending a pulse into the ground and reading the resulting bounce. When a metallic object interfered with the bounce, it gave a signal to dig. The constant noise was eliminated, and for the first time, there was discrimination.
With discrimination, the operator could tune out certain frequencies thus eliminating iron or aluminum trash. They were great for silver coins, as are all detectors, but gold has the same conductivity as iron and aluminum. Using discrimination most of the gold in the ground was not detected. TR detectors were also prone to false signals.
The Almighty VLF
The final generation of detecting machine for the non-specialist operator came around the 1990s with the Very Low Frequency technology. Most detectors today are VLF type, except for specialized Pulse Induction. VLF machines do not send out a radar pulse but a constant truncated cone-shaped signal, like a curtain of underground flux lines. When this curtain is disturbed by any conductive metallic object, it generates an audible signal.
The VLF machines have been around long enough that most of the bugs are removed. They give less false signals, are deep-seeking, and many can discriminate out any selected conductivity. Most have several modes, selected bands of frequencies that favor certain targets like coins, gold or silver. Lower frequency machines favor gold nuggets and iron, while higher frequencies are better for small finds, gold flakes and tiny pieces of jewelry. But no machine can do it all, so the human factor takes over.
Below are two finds, a silver conch and a hand-cast gold ring with no marking. It was around 16K gold. Both were found with a VLF and four-inch coil, on the same day about ten feet apart.
Tools of the Trade
- Metal detector: Unless you are an experienced operator, you will find the cheapest machines frustrating. For around $200 you can get a name-brand VLF machine equal to one five times that price a decade ago. It will usually have a digital screen readout, depth indicator, battery indicator, discrimination indicator, pin-pointer, etc. And you may get two coils, as well.
- Headphones: Those that cover the ear for a better outside noise reduction.
- Coils: You will need two, one the smallest available for your machine, the other eight inches or larger. Concentric or Double-D is not crucial. Both work fine.
- Pin-pointer: This is a separate electronic hand-held detector for finding the exact location on your target within the hole. It is not necessary, but you will dig twice as many targets per day with it. A good one costs over a hundred dollars, but I could never survive without mine.
- Screwdriver: A six-inch flat is perfect. It is a digging tool that leaves little evidence and causes little negative curiosity.
- Mechanic's hammer: Mine has a large flat head on one side and a long spike on the other. It's great for digging in areas where ground cosmetics is not a problem.
The half-dollar below was flipped from a muddy jeep track with my screwdriver.
Older cities and villages are your best bet. The best places are where people have gathered over many years. Even modern subdivisions over ten years old are ok but don't expect to find silver coins. Gold jewelry probably, but not silver.
Because silver is the most conductive of all-natural metals, it is the easiest to find with a metal detector. Dig all the highest frequency sounds, those with short sharp beeps. A long drawn out sound is almost never a good signal, nor is an ear-splitting blare. But there are exceptions to everything.
And herein lies the rub. Contrary to common belief, gold is not a great conductor. It is plated onto electrical contacts not because of its conductivity, but to prevent corrosion of the copper underneath. Gold has about the same conductivity as iron and aluminum, and your metal detector will see them all equally.
Gold can be found only by digging A LOT of iron, aluminum, lead, zinc and other assorted trash. Most gold lost in the ground is still there because few people with detectors will do the backbreaking effort to find it. That's why discrimination is so popular in modern machines. No one wants to dig 200 pieces of trash to find one piece of gold, and in a trashy park that might be 1000. Many dedicated gold detectors do not even have an option for discrimination. They are just sensitive and deep searching machines. You must dig every signal if you want to find gold.
Digging every signal for an occasional piece of gold brings a lot of interesting relics to the surface. Most are iron, zinc, lead or copper, with an occasional silver item. These are my favorite finds because there is no end to their variety and historical significance. I have found everything from tokens, religious items to even a military tunic button from the army of Emperor Maximilian of Mexico. For those interested in history this is a great incentive to dig all signals.
Below are some miscellaneous finds from some old sites. These include a dog license issued by Yuma, AZ in 1899, an Elks Club Bazaar token from 1913, and at bottom left a souvenir pin from the 1939 World's Fair in New York City. All these were found in the course of digging all targets searching for a bit of gold.
Below is a very special historical find. It is a bronze political pin with the likenesses of Robert M. "Fighting Bob" LaFollette and Burton Wheeler for president in 1924. They were the only candidates ever to run for that high office from the Progressive Party.
Note that the pin is uncleaned. Any find that has known historical or collector value should never be cleaned at home. Try to get an assessment of its value first, then if it warrants, get it cleaned professionally. Many a rare and valuable relic has been ruined by home cleaning.
Why Most People Fail to Find Anything of Value
The foremost reason for failure in this hobby is lack of patience. It takes the patience of Job to continue hour after hour, sometimes not even getting a signal for an hour or more. That's why it's best to go with a buddy. Company makes it so much more enjoyable.
The second biggest reason for failure is lack of knowledge about the machine. To be really successful, you need to be fluent in the detector's "language" and understand it's every beep, chirp and grunt. Only then will you know enough to leave a signal without digging. This takes lots of practice.
The third reason for failure is expecting too much and going too fast. I've see so many people walk like they're going to a fire sale at the US Mint, and swing their detector like a golf club. The golden rule is: low and slow. The slower you go, the more you will find.
Patience Pays Off—Usually
Yes, you can find buried treasure. Silver in many forms, gold and the gemstones that accompany it, and a world of interesting historical relics are closer than you can imagine. You need not take a week off to scour the dry washes of Arizona looking for gold nuggets when there is buried gold within a hundred yards of your living room sofa if you live in an older populated area.
You will need lots of patience, and a certain sense of adventure because this hobby will take you to lots of new places, usually alone. If your machine has discrimination, shut it off and forget it. You will get more exercise, and find lots of interesting finds you wouldn't get otherwise. My final advice is don't go on private property without permission and ALWAYS refill any holes you dig.
Rick on September 04, 2019:
I found your advice very interesting and informative. I`m just starting out with an Ace 400.
I`ve been reading,practicing and watching all kinds of videos every night.
Lew Marcrum on May 23, 2019:
Digging in ALL federal parks, national parks and historical sites is not allowed. Digging in BLM land is almost always allowed except on active mining claims. State land is iffy, depending on the state. Local and city parks are usually ok unless posted otherwise.
Many metal-detecting advisors on the internet say to always go to the city government and ask permission to dig. This works in some cases, but I don't recommend it. In the past so many "treasure hunters" have shown up in local parks with shovels and major digging equipment, almost always leaving huge unfilled and dangerous holes behind. This has totally ruined the hobby in many places, and will surely get you banned from the site and maybe fined as well. So, asking permission at a local government office is usually a guaranteed "no". I suggest, if the park is not posted "no metal detecting", just go and do it, making SURE you leave no un-filled holes for evidence, be sure you know how to replace turf undamaged, and leave the park just as you found it. Keep all your worthless junk in a bag to show if asked. Strangely, that goes a long way in your favor.
And DON'T bring a shovel of any variety. I know of one guy who even tried to dig in a park with a backhoe. A small screwdriver and a small chasing hammer with spike will usually get you by. The vast majority of finds are less than six inches deep.
Old, well-established parks are the best for both finds and no hassles to dig. Parks in relatively new upscale neighborhoods are the worst, so expect a visit from the police. Be prepared to explain what you are doing, it's just a hobby and you're doing no damage. Nearly always they will be friendly and go on their way.
Good luck, and be careful not to wander onto some historical site. The feds have NO sense of humor.
Gabriel Cesena on May 22, 2019:
Is digging in parks allowed?
Lew Marcrum (author) from Ojojona, Francisco Morazán, Honduras on March 27, 2019:
Hi, I'm very glad to see someone interested in this wonderful hobby! A lot depends on where you want to hunt and what you hope to find. Also how much you can budget for the purchase of a good machine. "Good" metal detectors can run anywhere from $200 to $5000, so that's a serious consideration.
If you're a beginner, I'd recommend a Garrett Ace 300, a Minelab X-Terra or a Fisher F22, all around $250 or a bit less at Kellyco online. There are several exceptionally good machines available for less than $500, and some basic but good ones for around $200. If you can go as high as $500 you might look for a slightly used or refurbished White's MXT at Kellyco or on eBay. I bought a used MXT over 15 years ago, and it's never had a single problem in all those years. You can't go wrong if you stick to the main name brands like White's, Tesoro, Minelab, Garrett and Fisher.
Keep in mind, if you're a beginner ANY detector will be frustrating until you learn its "language". When you have some extra bucks, buy a good pinpointer. Good ones are expensive, but you will be so glad you did. I bought a Garrett Pro, cost around $120 at the time, but it and the MXT are the best detecting investments I've ever made.
Guillermo on March 27, 2019:
Mr,marcrum,am very interested in purchasing a Good metal detector,can you please recommend me a few ? Thanks
mohamed kamel hamido on August 23, 2018:
thank you sir. https://www.facebook.com/MOHAMEDKAELHAMIDO/