How to Identify Different Types of Scrap Metal

Written by Brian Sedasky
Published on the 13th of April, 2023

‘How can I find out which type of scrap metal I havel’ is a question we get a lot from new scrappers who want to learn how to sort their scrap metal.

I had this problem, too. I’d collect different types of scrap materials, but differentiating between the metals was quite challenging, especially when the metals had extra coating or painting, were old, or had rust.

Some metals also looked similar. A good example is copper and brass since both are red. Sometimes, I’d mix brass metals with copper. It would later affect my payout once I took them to the scrap yard because they’d have to pay someone to sort the metals.

I had to learn how to differentiate scrap metals.

Here's a comprehensive guide if you’d like to know easy ways to identify scrap metal types.

In summary:

Scrappers will use different methods to identify what scrap metal they are dealing with. They’ll examine its color, level of magnetism, hardness, oxidation, weight, and original purpose or take it to a professional metal tester.

Why Learning How to Identify Scrap Metals is Important

  1. You get a good price for your materials

Generally, you need to identify the scrap metals you are working with to get the best price for your scrap metal

When you take scrap metal as it is, the scrap yard might pay less because they have to pay their workers to sort them on their behalf. But if you can learn how to sort the materials and take them to a scrap yard or a facility that takes the kind of metal you are selling, they will pay some good money.

We talked to a few experts about this. One of them, the owner of Excel Recycle in Freetown, Massachusetts, says, “Scrap yards normally classify unsorted materials as the least valuable.” That means you'll have a low payout if you mix bare bright copper wire with copper tubing.

  1. Identifying the scrap metal you are dealing with gives you a market advantage.

As you know, scrap metal prices are constantly fluctuating. For instance, let’s say the market price of copper is low now, but brass metal prices are good. You can hold on to your copper and wait for the prices to soar, but sell brass metals to get a good profit for your materials.

On the other hand, someone who doesn’t know how to differentiate scrap metals may miss an opportunity to sell the metals at the right time.

If you want to know the cost of metals per pound, follow our website. We always have daily updates on scrap metal prices. You can get price updates for countries such as Canada, the USA, Australia, the UK, South Africa, etc.

  1. You’ll know how to store the materials appropriately.

Some metals (a good example is copper) are sensitive and can deteriorate if you don’t store them appropriately. Identifying these metals will go a long way in maintaining their structure, which eventually affects the price you get when you take them to the scrap yard.

Easy Ways to Identify Non Ferrous Scrap Metals

1. Use a magnet

I use this method all the time. For me, it’s the easiest way to determine whether a metal is ferrous metal or non-ferrous. It would be best if you considered using this method before applying any other method first.

Non-ferrous scrap metals will obviously not attract a magnet because they lack iron. That includes metals such as copper, brass, aluminum, and lead.

Ferrous metals will attract a magnet because they contain iron. These include metals such as iron, nickel, cobalt, steel, stainless steel, dysprosium, and Gadolinium. Alloys containing a mixture of two or more of these metals will also attract the magnet.

Additionally, I noticed that precious metals such as gold, silver, palladium, and platinum are not magnetic. These metals will only attract a magnet if they contain ferromagnetic materials or alloys.

What magnet should you use? 

You actually don’t need a big magnet. As long as it works, then it’s perfect for the job.

2. Examine its color

Color is another thing that’ll help you determine the metal it is. The following table is a summary of colors you can expect to see from common metals.

CopperYellowish to reddish brown, red, pink, green, blue, and black
BrassGrayish yellow, reddish-yellow
AluminumSilvery white
LeadGrayish or silvery white
NickelSilvery white
SteelSilver or gray
GoldBright yellow

Note that some metals can have a coating of another metal. For instance, silver rings or earrings can contain a thin layer of gold on them. Alternatively, stainless steel contains chromium and carbon. So, you might need to scratch the surface a little bit to identify the metal underneath.

3. Consider the metal’s hardness

Although checking the color of the metal can take you a step further into determining what scrap metal it is, it comes with its challenges. For instance, some metals have similar colors. Good example is aluminum, platinum, and nickel. All have a silvery-white color.

Here’s where you can check the metal’s hardness to determine what metal it is.

Here’s a table summarizing different metals and their hardness. You can use this table to identify what metals you are dealing with.

CopperSoft and Malleable
AluminumSoft, and malleable
LeadSoft and dense
NickelHard, malleable, and ductile
ZincSoft and stable
SteelHard and tough
PlatinumRelatively soft
PalladiumLess dense and soft

You can also use a drill to determine whether it’s a ferrous or non-ferrous metal. Run the drill on any part of the metal. If it sparks, it might contain stainless steel, cast iron, or wrought iron. Meaning it’s a ferrous metal.

If it doesn’t, it could be a non-ferrous metal such as aluminum, brass, silver, copper, or lead.

4. What’s the metal’s weight?

When comparing ferrous and non-ferrous metals, I always notice that ferrous metals are heavier. Non-ferrous metals, on the other hand, are very light – especially when it’s not an alloy.

So, how do you check the weight of a metal?

The easiest is lifting or placing the metal on your hand. You’ll feel the metal's weight and know what metal it could be.

The second method – a bit complex, is the water displacement method, otherwise known as Archimedes’ principle. Scrappers use this method to find the density of the metal by placing the metal into a bowl of water. The amount of water it displaces will determine the density of the metal.

Watch this video to learn more about the Archimedes’ principle.

5. Get to know its original purpose

Knowing the purpose of the metal first can help you identify the metal immediately.

For instance, copper is an excellent electrical conductor. It will carry electric current better than any other metal like silver. It’s also ductile, affordable, and resistant to heat and corrosion. Hence, it’s the reason why manufacturers will use copper in electrical wiring.

Another good example is gold. Gold is an excellent electrical conductor, besides it being used to make jewelry. You’ll likely come across gold on your computer's motherboard on soldered joints, connection strips, switches, and relay contacts.

If you are looking for iron in a junk vehicle, you can get on the trunk closure, doors, wheels, tires, steering, etc.

6. Check its oxidation properties

When you expose metals to oxygen or air, they oxidize. In other words, rust forms on the surface of the metal.

You can use metal oxidation to identify the scrap metal you are dealing with since the rust looks different for every metal. For instance, when copper and bronze oxidize, the rust is green. Red rust indicates that the metal contains iron. Conversely, silver will have a green, black, or greyish discoloration when they corrode.

The disadvantage of using this method, however, is that:

  • Not all metals will oxidize. Good examples of such metals are stainless steel and chromium.
  • You cannot use it to identify newer scrap metals since you must expose them to air for some time to see this color change.
  • Precious metals such as gold and platinum don’t oxidize. Here’s a summary of colors you can expect to see on common scrap metals.
Color when it oxidizes
Turns brown then black
Turns Yellow to pink
Powdery grey
Turns grey to White
Turns from reddish to greenish

7. Using Chemical Tests

In our research, we noticed that even experienced scrap metal sorters find it challenging to identify what metal they are dealing with, especially when it’s an alloy. For instance, manufacturers galvanize metals such as steel to make them stronger.

That’s why chemical tests can help you identify whether the metal you are dealing with is an alloy or a pure metal.

Place the metal on a surface that can withstand the acid, pour a drop of nitric acid, and wait for the reaction. The metal is not pure if you see bubbles forming, hissing, or effervesce.

Here’s a table summarizing results you should expect to see when you use nitric acid to test gold.

Metal18k and 24k gold14K Gold10K GoldBrass, copper, nickelSilverStainless steelPlatinum
Color change to expect
No Change
Slight brown color change
Turns brown
Turns green
Turns white or grey
No change
No change

If you want to test a piece of jewelry to determine whether it’s pure platinum, you can use aqua regia. The following table summarizes what you can expect to see.

Platinum (pure )If it has nickelIf it has palladiumIf it has a white base metal (zinc, lead, or tin)
No change
Turns yellow
Turns brown
Turns green

You can use schwerter’s solution to test silver’s purity. The solution contains nitric acid, distilled water, and potassium dichromate. Here’s what you should expect.

MetalPure silverSterling silverLower amount of silverLeadNickel
Color to be seen
Bright red
Dark red
Dark red, brown, or green

Have the acid bottle with you when collecting metal is essential. It can help you quickly identify fake to original metals before you take them to your nearest cash-for-gold store or scrap yard.

Here are a few things we recommend when performing acid tests:

  • Be careful when dealing with acid or any other chemicals. Wear basic personal protective equipment (such as gloves and protective glasses) and keep it away from children.
  • Use it for scrap jewelry only.
  • If you don’t have experience with this, you had better take it to a sorting expert to help you with this.

Once you are done with the test, soak the metal in water and baking soda. Then rinse it with fresh water to prevent further reactions.

Here’s a video showing how acid tests work and the reactions you can expect from different metals.

8. Buy Metal Testing Machines

Investing in a metal testing machine can take your scrap metal identification process to the next level. They have become a standard tool for scrappers who would like to scrap on a full-time basis because they can detect different the physical and mechanical components of metals.

Metal testing machines come in different shapes and sizes. The four common types of these devices are:

  • X-Ray Fluorescence metal detectors (XRF machines): These machines use x-ray technology to determine various alloys contained in metals.
  • Optical emissions spectrometer: These devices use a spark to check the elemental composition of a wide range of metals. The spark causes the metal atoms to react, which tells you what metal it is.
  • Rockwell hardness tester: The testing machine determines the metal type by testing its hardness. Its limitation is that it only considers the scrap metal's hardness and not any other metal properties.
  • LIBS: The Laser-Induced Breakdown Analyzer uses laser technology to determine the elements in the metal.

Investing in these devices can be expensive if you are a scrap metal recycling beginner. You can instead take the materials you want to test to a professional metal tester.

Wrapping It Up

There you have it! If you want to learn how to identify scrap metal independently and become a pro at sorting your materials, you can use the eight methods we’ve highlighted in this article. Recognizing the differences in metals at first may be difficult, but be assured that you‘d get the hang of it as time goes by.

If you have any questions about identifying scrap metal, contact us. We’d like to assist you with any queries you might have.