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Can You Really Make Money With a Metal Detector?

Buried treasure often has more personal or historic value than cash value

spinner image metal detector hobbyist michael mccullough on the left and underwater detectorist rob ellis wearing scuba diving gearon the right
[l-r] Michael McCullough, president of the Maryland Free-State Treasure Club, has been using his metal detector since the 1980’s. Rob Ellis searches for treasure on land and in the water in Northern Virginia.
Matt Roth

Mike McCullough’s first big find with a metal detector was a gold wedding ring. Even better, it belonged to his wife, who had lost it in 1976.  “I found it about nine years after she lost it,” McCullough said. “That was my first really excellent find.” He’s been hooked on the hobby since then.

spinner image michael mccullough digs out a piece of metal from the ground that he found using his metal detector
McCullough, from Baldwin, Md., hunts for metal near his home.
Matt Roth

He’s not alone. Detectorists, as they like to be called, have found gold and silver hoards, Civil War relics and other valuables hidden beneath the soil for years. Their finds can have personal value — small bits of history — or real cash value, in the case of coins or jewelry. Most recently, a loose confederation of detectorists called The Ring Finders has been using metal detectors to help locate lost rings and reunite people with their missing personal treasures. They get big thanks from the owners — and sometimes a gratuity as well.

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A growing hobby

Metal detecting is a big hobby in Britain, thanks in part to Detectorists, a television series about eccentric metal detectoring enthusiasts. Some stunning recent finds, such as the 2,500 Norman pennies known as the Chew Valley Hoard, have sent Britons scouring the countryside for buried treasure. One of the more famous British detectorists is Bill Wyman, former bass player for the Rolling Stones, who sells his own branded line of metal detectors. “You never know what the next find is,” he says in a YouTube video about metal detecting. “Plus, you get fresh air and exercise. It’s a great hobby.”

But metal detecting is a growing hobby in the U.S., too. McCullough has found coins, buckles, buttons and other common items from the Colonial era, as well as Civil War relics. “Those are very memorable finds because this was part of our history,” he says.

spinner image rob ellis waist deep in the water of the occoquan river wearing a scuba diving wetsuit and holding his metal detector
Ellis, geared up for a search in the Occoquan River in Northern Virginia.
Matt Roth

For Rob Ellis, a retired teacher from Lorton, Virginia, the thrill of metal detecting is returning a lost ring or other valuable to its rightful owner. “It’s not the money,” says Ellis, who charges about $25 to cover the cost of coming out to a customer. The customer then gives him whatever he feels the service is worth. “It’s like, ‘Hey, here’s a tip,’ ” Ellis says. “It can vary so much, but it allows me to buy new equipment and maintain it.”

Ellis belongs to The Ring Finders, a directory of people you can call if you’ve lost a ring (or other valuable) and need help finding it. Most work on a reward basis — you pay only if the Ring Finder finds the ring. And in many cases, the fee is extremely flexible.

Some detectorists serve as volunteers for local law enforcement. In June 2021, members of an Ohio metal detecting club called the Dayton Diggers helped solve the mystery of who killed 22-year-old Joseph Kancy in front of his Lebanon, Ohio, home. Dayton Digger member Jared Shank of Beavercreek, Ohio, found a cell phone thrown into a ditch by Hemilio Castro, 20, of Miamisburg, Ohio. Castro pled guilty the following April to involuntary manslaughter in Kancy’s death, according to WHIO TV.

Gearing up  

Most metal detectors look like a frying pan on the end of a long pole. To find objects, you wave the round search coil that’s located at the end of the shaft over the ground. The coil radiates an electromagnetic field. If the magnetic field encounters an anomaly underground, a signal is sent to the control box near the top of the shaft and a tone is emitted. Typically, the louder the tone, the greater the likelihood that there’s something underneath the detector. The pitch of the tone can indicate the type of metal below ground. When you get a strong enough tone, you start digging. 

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Metal detectors can range in price from $100 to $5,000 or more. (Bill Wyman’s model costs about $160.) Some current models can distinguish between gold and iron and ignore aluminum can pop-tops, the bane of detectorists. Most metal detectors can find objects 10 inches or so underground; others can sense as deeply as 18 inches, depending on the soil type.

The hobby takes practice: Different soil types can yield different tones, and more sophisticated detectors have several different modes for finding gold or silver or iron. Underground electric dog fences or power lines can easily interfere with your detector. “There are so many variations; you never know what you’re going to run into,” says Ellis. 

Metal detecting requires a bit of research, too, says McCullough. Not every vacant field is going to contain coins or cannonballs. “You’ll find better things if you have some idea of how the land was used in the past,” he says. One big help: Google Earth allows you to overlay current maps with historic maps.

Video: Hobbyist Got Into Metal Detecting for the Stories, Not Treasure

You can also use metal detectors to find things underwater, says Ellis, a certified scuba instructor. Typically, this requires a special type of detector, but there are some types of detectors that can work on land and in limited water depths. “I’ve been getting a lot of calls lately,” Ellis says. “People keep dropping their iPhones in the Occoquan,” a popular recreational river in Northern Virginia. True underwater metal detectors, the type used by shipwreck hunters, can cost $5,000 and more.

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spinner image an assortment of metal items michael mccullough had found while metal detecting include a saddle strap guide coins from the eighteen and nineteen hundreds a key to a model t ford and a knights of pythias badge pin
Items from Michael McCullough’s collection of artifacts he’s found, [l-r]: A saddle strap guide plate and a crossed cannons hat insignia in Baltimore, Md.; Various flat buttons ca. 18th and 19th century found in Baltimore; A Ford Model T ignition key found at Baltimore home site; a Knights of Pythias Medal from their July 1914 Terre Haute, Ind. convention.
Matt Roth

Where to go

If you’re eyeing private property, you should ask the owner before you start digging for treasure. State property may require a special permit for metal detecting, and some states prohibit digging on state property. Be sure to cover up any holes you dig. It’s illegal to use a metal detector on federal land.

Beaches are a favorite spot for treasure seekers, in part because that’s where people tend to lose coins and jewelry. But sometimes the sea releases bigger treasures, particularly after storms. In 2020, detectorists in Indian River County, Florida, found a trove of Spanish coins from a 1715 shipwreck.

Civil War buffs can find relics throughout most of the South, ranging from bullets and cannonballs to buttons, buckles and ID tags, the precursor of the GI dog tags still in use by the military today. Although most major battlefields are on protected property, many minor battlefields are not — and there were plenty of places where the 3 million Union and Confederate soldiers camped.

If you’re interested in history, you can find something with a metal detector where people have lived previously. People have been losing things throughout time. “Don’t get discouraged, because there’s still a lot of stuff that’s buried that people haven’t found,” McCullough says. “People have been doing this detecting since the ’60s. They’ve pulled a lot out, but there’s still a lot left.”

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