The Spark Test and Spark Testing Metals

Ahhh, the allusive spark test. This indispensable tool/test in sorting metals/alloys has been used for at least the past few centuries, along with the magnet test. With the standardization of metals, it can be quite easy to distinguish many types of alloys just by looking at the stream of sparks they throw off (with a little practice of course)… Oh, and before starting the spark test, please be sure you have a large enough sample of metal. If it is so thin that it just melts, then you will not get an accurate spark stream. 

The first thing you want to do, is find a grinder of some kind. A bench grinder should be used, as opposed to an angle grinder or the like. Plus, I would rather hold the sample than hold the grinder, and that way I can get a nice steady stream of sparks due to control.I tried writing out good description of the sparks of metal, but the truth is, this info graphic is 100x better than a written description. Here is this amazing pictorial I found in a very old magazine. Source

The Spark Comparison: The look of a spark is only useful if you know what it should look like!  That is why above the grinding wheel in my shop you will find a small fishing tackle box with small samples of different metals. In each compartment, I have different metals/alloys that I have come across in the past few years. (including a little Titanium).

All of these metals produce very different types of sparks that any shopman should become comfortable identifying. Ideally, everybody should have a small utility box of some sort in their shop or garage filled with samples of different types of labeled metals.When you come across an alloy you need to identify, do a Magnet Test. That will narrow down many of the alloys in your box. Then, cross reference your sample’s sparks with the sparks of your known metals.

In 1941, a Detroit Shopman spark tests automotive
metal stock for consistency.


Note worth characteristics:

  • Number of Forks, Sprigs is proportional to the carbon content of the metal. The more carbon, the more of these bursts you will see at the end of the sparks
  • Color is going to help identify the alloy content. The darkest red sparks will come from nickel, and cobalt, and tungston carbide
  • Brilliantly WHITE sparks: Means TITANIUM! The most magnificent sparks I have ever seen are those from titanium. They are incredibly WHITE and luminous!
  • NO Sparks means that the metal is non-ferrous. This is particularly good for telling apart stainless steel from aluminum. 
Please remember, the more experience you have, the better you will be at identifying all types of metals. A little time invested in hitting a few different types of steel with a grinder, and you’ll have a hold of it in no time. If you have any questions, leave a comment or voice yourself on our Scrap Metal Discussion Board.
- IAN May 31, 2011 at 10:44 pm

I recently broke up a bicycle rim that I thought was aluminum, but noticed when I was grinding out the steel spoke eyelets that the "aluminum" produced an extremely small stream of orange-ish sparks… any thoughts?

sean September 17, 2013 at 4:05 am

The nipples are brass. Rim is aluminum and spikes are stainless. That’s what’s most common. Nipples could be aluminum, and spikes could be mild steel chrome plated. Rim could be pained steel. Magnet test it.

The Irrationalist June 1, 2011 at 2:28 pm

That sounds like a stainless steel spoke, or the very small amount of sparks were from the chrome plating that is on top of the aluminum. Chromium doesn't spark, but the chroming process is actually a layer of nickel, THEN a layer of chrome. The nickel layer is what is causing that tiny stream of sparks, most likely.

Thanks for the question and good luck scrapping!

Geox August 31, 2011 at 6:59 am

Your house is valueble for me. Thanks!…

Ezekiel Clerino September 28, 2011 at 8:48 am

Great post! I was wondering if there are any other colors of sparks…

ScrapMetalJunkie September 28, 2011 at 5:27 pm

I know that titanium makes super-white sparks, but I’ve never seen anything other then that.

geddie ann February 14, 2012 at 7:10 am

what is in plastic why it doesnt make sparks?

Cory December 17, 2012 at 3:59 am

Seriously? Because its not metal scrap….. Oh Hi guys.. Names Cory.. Down here in the DFW Tex area and scrappin to get thru this xmas slow time for business.. Just want to let everyone on here know how useful this site is.

ScrapMetalJunkie December 17, 2012 at 4:45 am

Hi Cory! I appreciate the support!

Jeff March 26, 2012 at 5:46 pm

I’ve been trying to identify the metal used in computer printer rollers. They appear to be stainless steel, but are magnetic. Spark stream is not clear to me, and I have not been able to find any specs. Thanks for any help.

ScrapMetalJunkie March 31, 2012 at 4:32 pm

My guess is that it is nothing more than regular steel. Maybe it has been chromed to prevent corrosion.

Jett July 5, 2012 at 1:21 am

Hi there, It is fire season here in Northern Utah, and a lot of the fires are being blamed on gun fire. I am wondering If lead causes sparks? Or copper in the case that the bullets were copper clad?

Cory December 17, 2012 at 4:02 am

Wont be the ammo doing it. I say that because I live in Tex and shoot everything from handguns, g3’s, and such.. Alot of shooters down here.. And never seems to be an issue.. Id say its cigarettes and carelessness.

Chase April 24, 2013 at 1:12 am

I could imagine if the friction caused the bullet to be hot enough it could ignite the surrounding brush, leaves, or whatever else it may come into contact with. While I haven’t ever looked into the heat of a bullet after it was shot, if it exceeds the temperature it takes to ignite dried leaves and/or sticks I imagine that it would be possible for a bullet to cause a fire in certain climates and conditions.

In this case sparks would not be needed because the correct temperature for combustion could be reached just by being in contact with the hot bullet and not a spark itself. Using this information you may be able to look up some information on whether this is possible or not.

pat August 11, 2013 at 4:47 pm

the bullets could not catch the dried brush on fire due to the duration the bullet (which is very hot) has in contact with the brush. you can wave your hand through a flame and not get burned if you do it fast enough correct? the bullet would need to be incontact with the brush long enough to heat the brush up to its burning point. the split second isnt enough time for the bullet to heat the brush. In other words your hand doesnt get burned it just gets a little warm if anything.

Havotix December 8, 2016 at 12:00 pm

I have witnessed tracers start fires. Especially when it slams into a metal target close to dry grass or hits then ricochet into a berm with dead leave and grass. I don’t know if shooters in your area use them, but it could happen with them.

Bluanvil December 13, 2016 at 1:28 pm

You have to visualize the bullet on flight. It bounces of a rock at 1200fps and like an extremely course grinder it peals off some chunks of the copper jacket. At that speed and force it is entirely possible that the copper chips are in fact hot egough to light dried pine needle’s on fire. Keeping in mind that these chips, very hot have now become stationary for long enough to cause combustion. There are lots of rocks in the Rockies and it gets so dry that it takes little to ignite a fire there.

Ian July 7, 2012 at 9:53 am

Hi, I would like to know about stainlessteel, do you get stailessteel that sticks to a magnet ??, how do I grade sstanlessteel ??

K.Prabakaran November 11, 2012 at 4:32 am

Hi, i need the procedure for spark test and the comparison chart for that for all grade of steels…

casefile101 March 15, 2013 at 11:14 am

Hello, first I would like to say what a great and useful site this is.

Now I am a scrap buyer. Primarily interested in Ferrous metal, which has no coating (Tin, Zinc, Nickle & Chrome) when I go out to the scrap yards it is unfeasible to run the spark test. Can you please tell me of any method (besides lots of experience) that I could use to quickly identify whether the shredded scrap metal is of the quality it is advertised as. I am interested in scrap not junk. If this information has been provided elsewhere in the site please direct me to it.

ScrapMetalJunkie April 8, 2013 at 9:00 am

Yes, the fastest method of testing scrap materials is the handheld XRF analyzer:

Stephen March 9, 2016 at 12:49 pm

You could bring a quality battery operated drill and chuck a little grinding wheel in it. I used this to grind steel for a long while before replacing my busted bench. Its not the most efficient and wont throw the most sparks but with a fresh battery you will see plenty enough for quick testing. They have battery grinders or battery skil saws that a metal chop blade will work even better.

Jeremy May 28, 2013 at 8:08 pm

im just thinking about doing the scraping thing and want to know what a xrf analyzer is and were I can get one from.

DK June 16, 2014 at 10:57 pm

About $7000 – $35000
check on ebay

Joshua December 28, 2013 at 12:44 am

First off I want to say that I have been a scrapper for several years now and a metal conisuer/enthusiasts I had a pretty good bit of knowledge already but I am about to seriously start up a junking business so I want to be very informed and educated before investing, this site has been so much help. The area that I am from has a lot of scrappers and scrap yards but the scrap yards are all underhanded or just not as knowledgeable as they should be. The scrappers either don’t know that they are being ripped or like me just have to do business with them because there isn’t much other choice. I would really like to have an honest and informed scrap/junkyard. I know it would help my my fellow scrappers and junkies out. Do you have any suggestions that might help me get the ball rolling? Sorry for the long post and thanks again for your hard work and service to the scrap community.

scrappydoo January 25, 2014 at 1:19 am

this site is sort of a game changer my dad showed me all the trick years ago and iv made approx 5k in my 3 years of scrapping now im lucky to make $50 due to every tom dick and harry doing it. all i ask is not to post $$$ money figures as it gets all the minds turning wild. i seen a guy with a brand new ve blue meanie lol you think he needs scrap cash NO. my dad always said if you find a easy way to make a dollar keep your head holes shut and keep making that dollar TELL NOBODY. same goes with a good fishing hole.

Nazmul March 17, 2014 at 1:22 pm

Why does nickel show sparking test?

michael August 5, 2014 at 5:31 am

I have two old lamps that are brass plated… When I scrape it, the plating comes off and its a white Lookin metal the magnet doesn’t stick to it and I don’t have a grinder.. can any one help? They are about 20 inches tall and way around 15 lbs each. What is this please help

ScrapMetalJunkie August 5, 2014 at 10:14 am

This sounds like it is most likely die cast zinc.

Rob October 13, 2014 at 6:51 pm

Hello my name is rob i recently had a friend pass away who was a tool maker i cleaned out his how and have a bucket of metal I’ll describe it help me all you can i understand its going to just be a guess 1)it doesnt rust was left in my truck in the rain
2)its heavyyy almost comparable to lead for size&weight
3)it is magnetic
4)looks to be scrap from him making or designing tools or machine parts
thank you for all your help

scott January 19, 2015 at 3:40 pm

I have an exhaust heat exchanger from a marine application. With 60 tubes of what I think are brass? But have had others say stainless.

Philip Salzman June 13, 2015 at 7:27 pm

Can the metal sparks form a plate?

ScrapMetalJunkie July 14, 2015 at 5:47 pm

I’m not sure what you mean by this? Can you ask your question a different way?

Ron Davison February 4, 2016 at 12:54 pm

I was diving for lost anchors in Puget Sound area and ran across a couple miles of 2″ WWII logging cable about 30 feet down, 100 miles from scrap yard. Do you think that it would be worth salvaging?

Brad Penner September 2, 2016 at 12:40 pm

Hi i just bought a 18 inch candle holder. It has 17 crosses on it and non are magnetic. Honestly it looks like a church donated to a goodwill store and i got it for 7 bucks. I have two gold crosse on it and i thin silver and pewter. How does pewter do with spark test. and there are also glued to a 18 inch box as i said is this a common church decoration or do u think its home made.

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