Detecting in Heavy Iron Part 1: Why Nails Are Your Friend

Detecting in Heavy Iron Part 1: Why Nails Are Your Friend

One of the greatest poets of all time, Mr. Samuel Roy Hagar, once wrote:

“It’s your one way ticket to midnight, call it Heavy Metal.    Higher than high, feelin’ just right.   Call it Heavy Metal.  Desperation on a red line.  Call it Heavy Metal noise.”  – Sammy Hagar

Clearly, Sammy is a detecting enthusiast with a solid understanding of detecting in heavy iron.   However, most of us – nay I say all of us – become frustrated by iron at some point in our detecting lives.  Our detector goes crazy in iron or is dead silent due to discrimination.   We dig up deep, bent and rusty iron objects that our detectors flat-out lied to us about, confidently stating that these targets were silver coins.  As a result, many detectorists will get away from the “iron field” and swing their detector elsewhere.

The Nail Bed is Your Friend

The most common heavy iron site, in my opinion, is where an old house used to stand long ago.   My mentor always called this a “nail bed”, so naturally I do as well.

Sure its easier to hunt elsewhere, but the problem with avoiding a nail bed is this:  Long ago when people carried silver coins and wore jewelry that is now antique, those nails held together a house that people lived in.    And where is the easiest place to lose something?    That’s right – your television’s remote control is currently in between your couch cushions, in your house.  People are a little less protective of things in the security of their own home.  So coins and jewelry from time to time ended up in cracks in the floor, under base boards, hidden on purpose or even secreted away by animals.  I once found a 1917 mercury dime, a tiny perfume bottle and some cool old marbles all in an old rat’s nest full of shreds of early 1900s newspaper inside the wall of an old crumbling house.  

I’ve found some of my best stuff right in the middle of nail beds where a house had stood.  Both of my oldest silver coins – a 1900-P and an XF 1900-O Barber – were found in nail beds.  An 1897 Indian Cent.  My first standing liberty quarter.  A nice fat pre-1900 sterling ring.  All found in nail beds.   Most of these prizes were at 1 to 4 inches.   I surmise that most of these targets were either still in the house when it collapsed or had fallen through cracks in the floor while the home was inhabited.  Either way, the coins were protected from the elements until all of the wood rotted away.  So another reason you get great older finds in a nail beds is that they haven’t been able to sink below the reach of your detector. 

The nail bed also serves as the “signature” of a house that no longer exists:

– When trying to locate a home site that no longer exists from an old map, many times you can find clues like foundation stones, certain trees or plants, a depression in the ground that was a well, or perhaps a mound of dirt that holds bricks where a chimney collapsed.  Often, however, the site where the house once stood has been cultivated over the intervening years, and no visual traces exist at all.  The only thing that has helped me find many of these locations is picking likely spots like high, flat topographical elevations near water sources, and swinging my detector in all-metal mode until the audio lights up like a slot machine – indicating the nail bed.

– I’ve hunted several newer homes out of convenience, not expecting to find anything, and realized that the nail bed in the yard meant that an older home once stood on the site where the current house now stands.

Other types of heavy iron fields we might encounter may include, but are not limited to, places where farm equipment, vehicles or machinery were stored and maintained, old junk pits, and the remains of other structures such as barns, outbuildings and outhouses.

Final Thoughts

It is empirical that you tackle master techniques for working in iron with your detector.  As we can see, the reward is clearly worth the effort.  Let’s discuss techniques for conquering iron in part II.

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Detecting365 staff photographer Jessica Arnold.  Please use it if you wish, but please credit Detecting365 and link to



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