This is a very important topic. Retrieving targets from the ground so as not to make a mess, leave holes or cause turf damage is critical for the longevity of our hobby. There are several effective techniques for retrieving a target you have located with your detector. The two used most often by metal detector users looking for coins are “popping” and “plugging.”
Metal detectorists who started detecting before the advent of electronic probe/pinpointers are generally well experienced in the art of probing and “popping” shallow coins. Early detectors generally did not get much depth, so popping techniques were adequate for almost all target retrievals. Modern detectors have greater depth capabilities, so the plugging method has become necessary and more popular. For quickly retrieving coins from just under the surface to about 2″ deep, with practice, the popping method is the fastest and least invasive.
There are probes made of brass specifically for metal detecting. Brass is softer and less likely to scratch or damage a coin. With that caveat, I have always used a cheap, $1.00 variety 8″ regular-tipped screwdriver from the hardware store. You can round off the blade or just the sharp points with a file, grinder or Dremel tool if you like. Another advantage of the screwdriver is that if I lose one in the field, it’s so cheap, I’ll just get another rather than wasting much time searching for it.
The probing technique takes some practice, but once you’ve learned it, you can easily tell the difference between a metal object and a rock, tree root or even aluminum can scraps just by the feel of the probe. I describe coins as having a “tap-tap-tap” sound that other stuff in the ground just doesn’t have. Obviously probing will not work well in especially rocky or gravelly areas.
Some great diagrams and an explanation of the popping technique are given in the book Detectorist by Robert Sickler. Sickler’s diagrams are pictured above with a modified version of his instructions below.
“The probe used can be a non-metallic probe such as a modified fiberglass fishing rod or a metallic probe such as a blunted ice pick. A non-metallic probe will be the least damaging to the target.
After pinpointing the target with your metal detector, use the probe to locate target depth (Fig. 1). Next, insert eight-inch screwdriver on center just above target and rotate slightly to open ground (Fig. 2). Now insert screwdriver just under target at an angle and lever target to surface (Fig. 3). Brush all loose dirt back in the hole and close by exerting pressure all around opening (Fig. 4).”
Another technique I should mention when the coin can be pinpointed with the probe (or screwdriver) but is too deep to be popped out with the probe alone is outlined below.
Having a probe or screwdriver handy is also useful in locating a target that is under roots or otherwise hard to retrieve. The thin shaft of the screwdriver can get in between roots so that you can locate the exact position of the target, or even help nudge it out from between the roots.
Thomas A. Thomas has a short essay with more tips about probing and popping on his website Tom’s Treasure Island on the Web.
There are many types of hand tools made for making plugs or divots to recover objects located with a metal detector. The one pictured at left is commonly called a Lesche tool, named after its inventor, George Lesche. The Lesche tool is one of the most durable and effective I have used. It fits handily and discreetly in the back pocket of my jeans. Others prefer garden trowels, tools shaped like garden trowels and some even make their own tools. There are also bulky plugging tools somewhat like a caulking gun on steroids that extract a round cork-like plug.
A good tutorial of plugging technique, with pictures, is at the Sacramento Valley Detecting Buffs website. The Lancaster Research and Recovery Club of Pennsylvania also has a great pictorial of the proper plugging or divot technique on their website. You may visit their website, the following is a copy of their tutorial:
“The following is a step-by-step instructional on how to properly extract an item from the soil. It is just one method that is suited for digging up items from grass, fields or lawns. It is wise for a beginner to learn and is widely used by many detectorists in the field. It is vital to anyone who metal detects on private land or public land that they practice clean and neat digging habits so that “non-metal detectorists” do not tarnish our reputation because of careless and reckless digging techniques.
2. Push the digging tool into the ground about 4 inches deep, this way you will get all the roots to the grass and prevent damage. Cut a plug of grass in a semi-circle and pry it upward with the tool causing a hinge on the uncut side of the circled plug of grass. Note: If you do not do this properly, you will cause the grass to turn brown in that spot and it could take weeks for it to recover. If you have been given permission to hunt a site and you do not do this properly, chances are you will not be welcomed back.
3. Now use a cloth (called a “drop cloth”) to pile your soil on. This keeps the dirt from soiling the neat grass around the hole and you can also grab the corners of the drop cloth and pass the dirt over top of your coil to see if the item was in the dirt you extracted from the hole. Your item may be a deep target and this method allows you to dig very deep while keeping everything neat and orderly. Now you can also sweep your coil over the hole and the pile of dirt separately to better locate the item.
4. After you find your item, take the cloth to the edge of the hole and dump the dirt back in and pack it down. Now you should flip over the plug back into the hole (grass side up of course!). Then lightly stomp or press the plug of grass so that it is level or even with the surrounding surface. You may even want to take your fingers and run them through the grass to groom it like you would with a comb or brush. No one should be able to tell that you just disturbed that area.”
One last note about plugging in hot and dry conditions. Straight sided deeper hinged plugs stand an excellent chance of surviving. Shallow plugs cut at 45 degree angles and/or not hinged are sure to die. Be mindful of how you dig and make adjustments for the prevailing conditions. Additionally, you’re less likely to accidentally damage your target when cutting 90 degree plugs.
This is one of the better videos I found online. One very important item counter to the technique demonstrated in this video is do not cut a full plug! Leave it hinged on one side to improve the chances of grass survival. Shallow targets, 1″ to 2″ deep should be “popped” or probed and recovered without plugging. Shallow plugs are also easily pulled up by lawn mowing equipment, another reason not to dig a shallow 45 degree plug. Lastly, don’t rub old silver coins in the field as this will damage the surface of the coin with hairline scratches which will diminish the value of your find (for more on these scratches, see my article on Silver Coins, Cleaning and Condition.)
In the video, Carter Pennington makes it look easy, as he is an experienced detector user and can pinpoint well with his detector. Learning to pinpoint with your machine takes practice. The electronic probe is a big help too in make a fast neat recovery.
Important points covered in the video:
- 90 degree vs. 45 degree plugs
- Deep vs. shallow plugs
- Neatness, use of dropcloth
- Use of electronic pinpointer
Finding the Target…Without an Electronic Pinpointer
I’ve gotten so used to good handheld electronic pinpointers that I’m quick to forget the frustrations of finding a target in the plug or the hole without one. My first detector, back in the dark ages, 20 years ago, had no meter for ID or depth and only an all metal mode for pinpointing. I still found plenty of good stuff even without all the bells and whistles. In this section, I’ll assume you are using the basic pinpointing method of X-ing your target with the detector to find the “center.” This is where you sweep over the target at a 90 degree angle from your initial sweep. The center of the X made by the horizontal and vertical sweeps, in this case, really does mark the spot. You can also double-check this with your detector’s pinpointing feature, if it has one.
If your detector has a depth meter, that will help you determine how deep the target might be. Remember that in many cases larger targets will sound and read as shallower than they really are. If your ears are sharp, the tone will also be a guide to the depth and ID of your target. Shallow targets are generally louder than deep ones. If your detector has an ID feature, then you’ll have a pretty good idea of the size and shape of what you might have detected.
So, you’ve cut your plug and opened up a hole. You look inside…where’s the object? Sometimes you can pick it out easily, but not always. So, next step, rescan the plug and the hole with your detector to determine if it is in the plug or the hole, then you can start looking in the right place. You can X the target again with your detector to find the center again, or use the pinpoint feature.
There are a two different courses you can take at this point, and you may need to do both. One is to use your probe or screwdriver to try to pinpoint the item in the plug or the hole, by poking around in the soil. Then you can use a modified method of popping, or use your digging tool to remove more soil to get to the target. If you are unable to find the target by probing, loosen some soil from the plug or the hole, grab a handful and wave it over the top of your coil. (Coils send a signal both up and down, so you can wave the handful over the top or the bottom of the coil.) If you have a ring on your hand, use the other hand to pick up the soil, so you don’t pick up your own jewelry! Eventually you’ll have the target in a handful and can flick through that soil with your finger or dump a little soil out of your hand and keep rescanning the handful until only the target remains.
Sometimes the object is a coin on edge, or something oriented in such a way that the detector has a hard time finding the true center. X-ing is a big help in this case, as it can give a more accurate read than the detector’s pinpoint circuit. Different detectors will respond differently to trash targets, but iron nails can give good sounding signals on almost any machine. Some detectors will give a double beep, one at each end of the nail, but learning how your machine and coil responds is key, as each model can be different. My point here being that the head of a rusty nail in the side of the hole can often sound like a good target, and without an electronic pinpointer, can be a tough target to track down. If you’re frustrated and not finding your target where you think it is supposed to be, consider that it might be a rusty nail or piece of iron in the side of the hole.
Be patient and take your time. Pinpointing and target retrieval take practice to master, but by digging properly you’ll be able to work faster, retrieve more targets and leave areas in the same condition as you found them.
Visit the author’s website at ohiometaldetecting.com for more helpful tips, stories and pictures of finds and more.
Join the Discussion
Please discuss this article below! We want to hear from you. If you like this article, please reward us by liking D365 or this article on Facebook or Twitter.