Antique Toy Hunting with a Metal Detector

By Michael Bernzweig

There is a world of difference between the toys of today and those from a century ago. At the turn of the nineteenth century, toys were constructed mostly of metal; they were more solid and sturdy than today’s plastic counterparts. Antique metal toys are highly desirable and collectible throughout the world. Because of their durable construction, they can often be scooped up by collectors in mint condition. Surprisingly, antique metal toys may be worth thousands of dollars. Just visit an auction house and you’ll see how much rare old milk trucks, sleighs, cars and other metal toys go for.

The most common way to collect antique toys is by purchasing them at flea markets and antique shops. However, you can also locate antique metal toys with a metal detector. Metal detector hobbyists have discovered thousands of toys buried just inches below the ground’s surface. Common finds are old lead soldiers and cast-iron cars. Metal treasures are scattered all around us just waiting to be found! Antique hunting with a metal detector is a great way to locate valuable toys to collect or sell. Where should you begin hunting for them? You can do a little research in the town room of your local library to locate areas that were once populated by children. Be sure to read our related article entitled Metal Detecting Locations: Digging Into Research at Your Local Library for more information.

Types of Metal Antique Toys

  • Tin Metal Toys: From the early 1800’s until about 1940, tin was the metal of choice used to create toys. It could be lithographed and was bendable enough to make trucks and other play vehicles and houses. Some antique tin toys had parts including wind-ups and friction. According to Schroeder’s Antique Toys Price Guide, a tin horse-drawn milk delivery wagon with an opening front sells for $1,400 today. A 7 3/4" street railway car with six passengers is valued at $200.
  • Cast Iron Toys: Realistically modeled and carefully detailed cast-iron toys were popular from the turn of the 20th century until about the 1940s. Some of the cast irons were more than 20" in length and very heavy. Many were vehicles patterned after actual models seen on city streets at that time. Horse-drawn carriages are highly collectible and valuable. Other sought-after antique cast-iron toys are airplanes, boats (including paddle wheelers and riverboats), construction vehicles and fire engines.
  • Lead Toys: Lead toys had their heyday well into the 20th century. Children collected and played with cowboys & Indians, war heroes, soldiers and toy cars. Manoil toy soldiers and figurines are well-known antique lead toys that are valuable today. Lead toys were very popular until concerns emerged about lead poisoning and they were banned from production.
  • Steel Toys: Steel sheets began to be used for the production of toys in the late 1930’s. This is when Matchbox and model cars made a splash in the toy market. Steel die-cast cars were great because of their level of intricate detail. Steel allowed for the design of opening doors, trunks and hoods. The time frame of steel toys gave way to the age of plastic.

What are the Best Antique Toy Hunting Metal Detectors?

Antique toys are considered relics, so a metal detector suitable for relic hunting is ideal. Be sure to check out our selection of relic hunting metal detectors. Also, be sure to read our related article entitled What are the Best Metal Detectors for Finding Relics for more information.

It’s important to determine if the soil you will be hunting in has heavy mineralization. If so, choose a detector with automatic ground balance or manual ground balance. The next consideration is the frequency of the detector. A detector with a lower frequency will better target metals such as iron and steel than a detector with a higher frequency. Your metal detector should be able to accept both large and small search coils depending on the ground conditions and terrain. For targeting antique toys, accessories can also prove abundantly helpful. For instance, headphones can help you indicate shallow or deep targets.

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