The Magnet Test

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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.

{ 7 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

Reply

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!

Reply

- IAN May 31, 2011 at 10:46 pm

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

Reply

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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