The Magnet Test

The Magnet test is used to distinguish ferrous from non-ferrous metals; or, rather obviously, magnetic metals from non magnetic metals. 


I found also, that it is important to have a magnet that works for you! If you need help finding a magnet, I suggest you check these cheap sources of where to find free magnetsAnother useful test for scrappers is THE SPARK TEST


The Magnet will become your weapon, and with it you will sort ferrous and non-ferrous. Follow these steps:

  1. Step One: Find a metal sample
  2. Step Two: Find a magnet
  3. Step Three: Place the magnet against the metal sample.
  4. Step Four: Pull the magnet away from the metal sample.
  5. Step Five: Obey the magic rule…
     If the magnet sticks to a metal alloy, it is a ferrous (or nickel or cobalt) alloy. 

Ferrous Metals

Ferrous metals are alloys of iron, and they usually stick to a magnet… BUT a common misconception is that steel is the only metal that attracts a magnet; This mistake can be an expensive one. There are actually 3 (THREE) common elements that pull to a magnet, and those are iron, nickel, and cobalt.  (there are some others, but they are mostly rare earth metals. For example, gadolinium)

These three metals are known as ferromagnetic (ferro- the latin root for iron) at room temperature. Ferromagnetic, for all intents and purposes, is just a fancy way of saying “strongly attracts a magnet.” So ONLY iron, nickel, and cobalt will have a force exerted on them by a magnet, nothing else.

Iron, is a common, cheap metal; Nickel is an expensive metal, more so then copper; and cobalt is even more expensive, more so then nickel. If your magnet gets pulled to a metal alloy, it contains iron, nickel, or cobalt (usually just iron).

Many other compounds (non-metals) can be magnetic, but these are easily distinguished from a metal alloy as they are usually ceramic; for example, ferrite.

Be warned; things that are not attracted to a magnet can still contain iron, nickel, cobalt, or a combination. Take for example, 304 stainless steel. It contains both iron and nickel and yet, it doesn’t attract a magnet! (Actually, there are many different types; find out why some types of stainless steel  aren’t magnetic!)

Metals that stick to a magnet that you should know of:

Non-Ferrous Metals


Non-ferrous metals are generally non-magnetic (except for nickel and cobalt). It is worth learning to identify these scrap metals:

As you guessed, these metals are very valuable and will be easily distinguished from ferrous metals with nothing but a magnet.  Only after you have been learning for a while, will you be able to sort metals by simple sight and touch.

{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

- IAN May 25, 2011 at 9:59 pm

Its really cool that you are so enthusiastic to share your insights with the world. I've found that the scrapping game is pretty competitive around here, but have found a yard I like. Even if they pay 2 cents less for ferrous, they are usually higher than others and are friendly. I also get that "scrappers are thieves" thing around here but am making a point to change that perception with those that I interact with. Like you, I want to keep it honest and legal.

I do have a question for you: I work in a bike shop and was recently given permission to take all of the shop's scrap metal… awesome! Lots of aluminum and other valuable metals. I was wondering though, I haven't found anything in this blog about identifying titanium. Might you have any tips about that?

Thanks,

– Ian

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The Irrationalist May 26, 2011 at 9:07 am

I'm glad to hear about your fighting the good fight, because scrappers work hard enough to deserve a better name.

I did actually write a very small note on how to identify titanium using the spark test. My note is at the bottom, and is the 3rd bullet point.

Basically, when you hit it with an angle grinder, you will get EXTREMELY white sparks. Remember, there are many aluminum alloys that claim to be "titanium!" but they are just aluminum alloys with a little titanium added for strength. Good luck!

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- IAN May 31, 2011 at 10:46 pm

Thank you The Irrationalist! I look forward to your future posts!

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Chris January 29, 2013 at 9:33 am

Hi there iam new to the scrapping game. Are the electric tops for my stove nickel alloy ?? Also is the heating element in the stove its self nickel alloy. If neither one of these were is the easiest place to find nickel alloy??? My scrap yard does have a xrf gun if that will determine the metal…if not …what results should I get when doing the spark test

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Chris January 29, 2013 at 9:35 am

Were is the easiest place to find cobalt? Even the littlest amounts

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ScrapMetalJunkie February 1, 2013 at 7:26 pm

It’s used as a binder matrix for cemented carbide.

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Stephen F. November 18, 2013 at 4:31 am

Thank you for creating this website as it has been most helpful, but I am still in need of a few answers please. First, you should know that I am a low budget scrapper who does it to help pay bills and keep my wife in college, so I don’t really have the money for most of the luxuries other scrappers or metallurgists can afford. So I have no idea if I am being ripped off half the time. I am curious about tin, cobalt, and titanium. I thought tin was magnetic, is it? If so how do you tell the difference between tin and steel? (I cannot afford a grinder for spark tests or anything) Secondly, if it isn’t magnetic, how can one be sure whether he has tin, titanium or aluminum? (Some buyers value tin at around $10.00 per lb. but the scrapyard here says that is bull crap. I just want to be sure) Thirdly, how can you tell if you have (for certain) cobalt. I know it is much softer than stainless steel scissors, but then again so is a steel soup can. Just tired of being ripped off, it makes my efforts feel much less than they should be worth. Scrappers help keep the environment cleaner, recycle, and make the market for metallic goods, our efforts should be properly, and fairly rewarded. I keep getting someone who claims he doesn’t know the difference between some varieties of aluminum and non-magnetic stainless steel, even when it is clearly labeled with a 316. (Some would think that a good reason to assume it is 316 stainless) So if someone could help me I would more than appreciate it. Apologies for the lengthy comment, just feel the need to be detailed.

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J.P. Van Houten November 6, 2014 at 10:26 am

Hello, I’ve been scrapping here and there over about 6 months of saving scrap metal. I have been saving aluminum cans, copper, stainless and other metals for the scrap yard. I am a chef by trade and I have been saving #10 cans from canned foods. Would you know what kind of metal these cans are? Am I wasting my time by saving these cans? I have a never ending supply of these cans and was wondering if the metal they are made of is of any value. And if these cans can be scrapped, what would be the value per pound?

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Grayson September 6, 2015 at 10:05 pm

J.P. Van Houten: (To the question you asked about can food type cans.) I burn my trash living way out in the country and so I take and recycle my glass, metal cans (just like your never-ending supply…..mine builds up fast through the year) and so I have a certain yard I take my metal stuff to. I hope some other folks answer and comment on this (as well as other topics above on here that don’t have any knowledgeable replies yet- some of which I am wondering the same thing and hoping to read a concise response with some certainty, from a knowledgeable source) also but for me, the guy only gives me a penny per pound and calls them scrap steel. Anything like tin foil and soup/food cans and their lids are not worth much at all. However, to me, it is worth someone like you saving other metals and these along with it, so that as you go to recycle other stuff such as aluminum cans (which carry their value if you have enough) or whatever else you may have, we can keep them out of our landfills and at least hand them over to be recycled into more cheap, crappy cans for non-perishable foods. Ya know? I realize this is super long and I apologize. I hope, however, that someone will respond and prove me wrong so that I can tell my guy who would apparently have been ripping me off for a few years running now, to “GO STUFF IT” the next time I take a load up there. (Barely seems worth keeping up with these cans when half a truck bed full gets you less than $2.) But still……at least they aren’t going to take up space FOREVER in the local landfills because of people like us! Someone please tell me I’m wrong. I also, would love to know this for sure.

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luke February 21, 2015 at 12:21 am

I have a nice amount of something that passed both the acid scratch tests for gold and platinum and is non magnetic but nobody can give me a definitive answer, any ideas?

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Stephen Fullmore June 12, 2016 at 10:34 pm

Where did you find it? This is important because their are a lot of high density non-magnetic metals. Also, consider the color, most metals give off either a silver luster, bluish-white hue, or dull gray appearance, if you can, compare the color to that of platinum, iridium, and titanium. Hardness is also to be considered, you could try cutting it with a stainless steel knife to check this. If it is harder than that, it could be titanium or a very hard alloy of some kind. Also, get a weight comparison to iron, aluminum, and lead. If it is heavier than lead, than it is probably one of the heavy earth elements which could be radioactive to some degree. I know this is lengthy, but bear with me. The last thing I would check for is the consistency test. Their are some metallic elements which are in fact non-metals, and whereas this is a rarity, it is possible. The good news there is that most non-metals are far more valuable. Metals, appear smooth on the outside but are jagged when cut open and examined under a microscope, such as cobalt and tin. Non-metals on the other hand are much smoother. The handy thing about this is that if it is in fact a non-metal element, you are probably holding selenium. Carbon is very hard to obtain in raw form which is why people put it on rings, and the others are mostly very colorful, such as sulfur and phosphorous, or are gases. But if what you have is very hard, shines like aluminum, and is as heavy as steel, and passes the acid test, you might have the metal known as high grade stainless steel. This is actually just quite valuable, most scrapyards will pay between 55 and 88 cents per pound depending on where you live. Once again, sorry about the length of the message, but I hope that helps. Keep scrapping on!

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JAMES June 28, 2016 at 4:34 pm

WHAT ARE THE LIST OF MISTAKES CHECKING PRECIOUS METALS?JAMES

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Angel Rose May 14, 2015 at 11:13 am

this site sucks just saying nor trying to hurt anybodies feelings or anything but yall suck.

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Grayson September 6, 2015 at 10:06 pm

Make it better then, Angel. Any expertise to offer?

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joey May 14, 2015 at 11:13 am

Thanks `for they info me and my friend looked at other websites but this was the best

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james July 14, 2015 at 4:38 am

MY UNDERSTANDING IS PRECIOUS METAL IN COMPUETERS IS NOT WORTH THE TROUBLE EXTRACTING AND ANYWAY GOLD CONTENT WOULD NOT BE HALLMARKED AND COULD NOT BE WEIGHED IN? JAMES

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Grayson September 6, 2015 at 10:14 pm

You can send computers to me, James! Housing, cords and all! Hahaha. You may be right about their low value and no hallmark for the purity but most scrap buyers I’ve met know and pay for the precious metals computers contain even without the purity stamp. Its a lot of work to tear them down and separate the value from the garbage within computers but I would much rather save the boards and pieces over time in some bucket or box and possibly cash in one day. Well, ok……realistically not “Cashing In” on them but still. It could supplement the cost of the new computer or tv you by next time. If you have any at your disposal, watch Youtube to learn how to determine the value parts and the non-value parts. Also, how to tear them down quickly. Many scrapping videos there which are pretty informative…….you just don’t always know where they live (local market prices) nor how old the video may be……..But still, good stuff.

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JAMES September 9, 2015 at 2:55 pm

I HAVE ABOUT DOZEN LAPTOPS. I WONT BE BREAKING FOR METAL YET BUT HOW CAN I BREAK THEM UP TO GET PARTS FOR LATER STRIPPING AND DUMP REST FOR SPACE REASONS?JAMES I WAS INTERESTED TOO IF THERE WAS A MAGNET TEST FOR PRECIOUS METALS AND PRECIOUS STONES?

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JAMES September 9, 2015 at 3:04 pm

NOW WE HAVE LIST OF PREVIOUS METALS HOW ABOUT LIST OF OBJECTS APART FROMTHE OBVIOUS LIKE JEWELLERY, THAT CONTAIN NOT ALLOYS AS THEY ARE PROBLEMATIC, BUT ARE EASILY IDENTIFIED. I UNDESTAND DENTAL TOOLS ARE PLATINUM AS A EXAMPLE?JAMES

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Stephen Fullmore June 12, 2016 at 10:47 pm

I just want to say that there is another magnetic metal which most will toss into scrap which is actually far more valuable. Tin, though it is running out of mainstream uses in the mass production industry, it is still used in the making of bronze and in certain lightweight pliable alloys. Also, the fact that it is no longer heavily mined gives it more rarity. Most scrap yards will try to confuse you and tell you it is scrap iron or steel, but one way to be sure is by its hardness, weight, and a method called the grind test. Tin is able to be scratched/cut by iron, but cannot cut/scratch iron, it is noticeably lighter than iron, and sparks green when you use a wire brush grinder on it. The scrap yards who are honest will pay pretty close to 10 dollars a pound for tin. Just so you aren’t reading this wrong, I said around $10.o0 per pound. It is worth it to check before scrapping if you notice a difference in weight.

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Stephen Fullmore June 12, 2016 at 11:13 pm

I have a question for anyone qualified to answer. Why do scrap yards try to play dumb about certain metals and act as if they have no idea what it is and don’t want to pay you what it’s worth. Mainly talking about nickel, cobalt, and bronze(not to be confused with brass). What’s up with that? I spent almost seven months separating these elements from my usual scrapping activity. Finally had a good amount, (149 lbs. of nickel, 202 lbs. of cobalt, and 87 lbs. of bronze) so I took it down to the scrap yard. I was met with more contempt than I usually get, and a dumb*#% attitude. The cobalt was considered ferrous right away, the nickel was questioned with a “What is nickel anyway?” and “What’s that used for?” and my personal favorite “That’s not worth that much to me?” I mean sure, the value of metals is based on the need for them, don’t get me wrong, but fair market price cannot be argued. If you don’t want to pay that much for it, then don’t buy it, but don’t try to swindle me with idiocy. The bronze was even worse if you can believe that. For some reason, the merited metal recycling yard couldn’t tell the difference between bronze and brass. Even when I explained to him the difference in hardness, pliability, and usage, he still argued. His final resolve was the age old inquiry, “Why should I pay more for this than brass?” I kindly took all my metal back and cursed at him under my breath all the way home. My only guess is that this guy didn’t want to pay me the close to $3,300 dollars I would have walked away with that day. Other than not being able to fill the monetary requirement for what I had to offer, why would an esteemed recycling specialist play stupid like that?

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ScrapMetalJunkie June 28, 2016 at 2:43 pm

This is a complex problem, and I know it is frustrating to find yourself getting a tepid response from the scrap yard. There are a number of reasons a scrap yard can give you a hard time. 1) The yard worker is very likely naive to special metals that the yard doesn’t regularly work with. They will take the nickel item you sell them for shred steel price and they will go and drop it into the shred steel pile. They just don’t care much and want to get you out the door as fast as possible. They don’t make any more or less for helping you or not. It is no skin off their back.
2) The scrap yard leadership knows that 80%+ of the profit the yard makes is in large bulk transactions (multi-tonnes of metals). Arguing with you about buying or selling a specialty metal for more than standard pricing? At the end of the day, it is a low priority, especially if you are misinformed or uncooperative. If it is the difference of a few dollars, some scrap yard owners may say “Ok, I’ll pay you the same as copper radiators” or make some compromise. This may or may not just be to get you away from them. They would not pay money to you for metal unless they themselves can sell it for more. A smart leader at the scrap yard would consider how much business you bring into the shop, and then decide how to proceed. If you are a regular customer, they will probably be more receptive to listening and negotiating.
3) If a scrap yard doesn’t regularly get enough of a special type of metal (for example, Cupronickel), they will not be able to pay you full price for that metal because they don’t have a regular buyer lined up for the metal. If you can negotiate with a scrap yard, and you can guarantee a certain monthly delivery, they will be able to broker a better deal. You also, will be able to shop that around at different scrap yard to get bidding on your business.

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JAMES June 28, 2016 at 4:29 pm

PLEASE CORRECT IF MAGNET DONT ATTRACT METAL WITH NO HALLLMARK AND IT PASSES THE ACID TEST DIFFERENT SHADES OB BROWN CONFIRM ITS PURITY /GREEN MEAN ITS NOT SILVER OR GOLD BUT HIGH CARAT GOLD KEEEPS GOLD COLOUR —EXPLAIN? ALSO ARE THERE OTHER COLOURS IN PRECIOUS METAL MRANGE THAT PROVE NEGATIVE OR POSITIVE?JAMES

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Stephen Fullmore June 28, 2016 at 10:07 pm

Thanks for the response. It was very informative. So I guess I should just save up a whole bunch and try to make sure its enough for the yard to sell next time.

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