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Adventures in Vintage Cast Iron Cleaning

May 1, 2013

In:About The Pan Handler


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I’ve been doing this for a while now, and I’ve got a method that works pretty well for me. I know that everyone has their own “favorite” method of cleaning cast iron, and what works for some doesn’t necessarily work for others.

I am frequently asked about how I clean my cast iron. With a few caveats depending on the amount of rust and crud and the piece itself, here’s my general process for cleaning and seasoning vintage cast iron kitchenware.

Take a good hard look at the piece. If it’s cruddy AND rusty, it goes in the electrolysis pile. My electrolysis method works for me, but my set up is probably not “conventional.” If you do some googling, you’ll find all kinds of methods to create electrolysis set ups. Here is one written by John Belden for the Griswold Cast Iron & Cookware Association.  Electrolysis works great at getting crud and rust off of cast iron pieces. You can only do one piece at a time, though (at least using my method), so it takes much longer than a lye bath. There are also other methods used to remove rust from cast iron (vinegar baths, wire wheels, etc.), but electrolysis is the one I typically use.

If the pan is primarily cruddy (and cast iron only – don’t put aluminum pieces or enamel-coated pieces into a lye bath, and don’t put wood handles into a lye bath), it goes in the lye bath pile. I used to keep my lye bath outside, which was handy for spraying pieces with the water hose (a good blast works well to get crud off of pans after a lye bath). Then winter arrived along with its freezing temperatures. Now I have my lye bath in a corner of the laundry room near the laundry room sink. My lye bath is in a big Rubbermaid container with a lid, like this one:


I put a brick on top of the container to ensure that the lid doesn’t inadvertently get knocked off by a delightful but curious dog who lives in my house. Lye is caustic and dangerous; you need to be very careful with it.

I don’t have a specific “ratio” of lye to water that I use. A common ratio I’ve seen is one pound of lye to five gallons of water. I order my lye online.

I attach a short hose to the laundry room sink’s faucet and fill the tub about ¾ full. I then add the lye to the water. Using long heavy-duty rubber gloves, I carefully place pieces into the lye bath. Be careful not to splash lye water on yourself or into your eyes! I attach a piece of string to each piece, and leave the string dangling out of the lye bath, so that I can easily retrieve it from the bath.

I’ve found that pieces can stay in the lye bath for pretty much any period of time. I’ve left them in there for several weeks with no ill effects. I try to retrieve pans from the lye bath at least once a week, but sometimes life just gets in the way.

I recently purchased a number of Wapak pans (see my earlier post) from a collector. I decided I’d show the cleaning process using a Wapak #4 skillet as an example. This particular skillet has the tapered Wapak logo. It was manufactured between 1912 and 1926. It’s almost 100 years old. Just imagine where this pan has been, how it has been stored, and the age of the layers of crud on this pan!

Here are a few photos of the Wapak #4 tapered logo skillet before it was placed in the lye bath:


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This little skillet required quite a bit of time in the lye bath before the crud loosened up.

Here are a few pic of the skillet after about 5 days in the lye bath. You can see how the crud kind of congeals and loosens.

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After I pull the pan from the lye bath, I rinse it under full-blast running water. That will immediately remove some of the layers of crud. After the rinse, I give it a good scrub. I typically use Dawn Blue Powerscrub and a coarse (#3 – get them in the paint section of your hardware store) steel wood pad. If the crud is really bad, I also use a stainless steel stripping brush (also in the paint section of your hardware store), or a brass or stainless brush (found in the hardware section of the hardware store or in the auto detailing section of the store). For little nooks and crannies – especially in waffle irons – I use a stainless brush that is about the size of a toothbrush. I also sometimes resort to a metal paint scraper if I have to chip some of the crud from the pan.

Here are some photos of the Wapak #4 after round one of scrubbing. After round one, it went back into the lye bath for about a week.

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Once I pulled it from the lye bath for the second time, it looked like this:

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The last photo shows some of the tools I use. Those little terry towels are great – I buy them in bulk at Sam’s Club. They start as kitchen dish rags. Once they aren’t pristine white any more, they move to the “cast iron towel” pile. They are great for cleaning up muck, protecting other surfaces beneath the cast iron, and for drying cast iron between cleanings.

After a good final scrub, I thoroughly rinse and dry the pan. Pans that are cleaned to bare iron are susceptible to “flash rust,” which will quickly cover any parts of the pan that are not dried.

To ensure dryness before seasoning, and to help the pan acquire the rich black color that is so prized, I place the pans in my oven and “cook” them for an hour at 450 degrees. I place them in the cool oven, set the timer for 60 minutes, and turn the oven on. I let the pans heat up with the oven.

You will notice an odor as the pans “cook.”

Here is the Wapak #4 after cleaning but before being placed in the oven for an hour at 450 degrees:

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After “cooking” for an hour, I let the pans cool for a bit but pull them out before they are perfectly cooled. It is easier to get a very light layer of seasoning on a warm pan.

My preferred seasoning is Crisco vegetable shortening. I know that others prefer other substances. I’ve tried flax seed oil, Crisco, and Pam. Of the three, I like Crisco best. I do use a mixture of Pam and Crisco when I have little nooks and crannies to get into (such as on waffle iron paddles), because the Pam reaches those small areas better than the Crisco, unless you use a heavy layer of Crisco, which you don’t want to do.

I use a microfiber hand-towel-sized cloth to put a very thin  layer down on all surfaces of the pan – inside and out. The pan needs protection; without any seasoning it will rust. I find that I often don’t have to dip the cloth into the Crisco; the remnants of the Crisco on the towel are enough to cover the pan. This is what my seasoning towels look like:


You need to be careful that the pan is not too hot when you use a microfiber cloth to layer seasoning. If it is too hot, your cloth will melt onto the pan and leave guck and you’ll have a mess on your hands.

After I put a very thin layer of Crisco on the surface of the pan, I place the pan upside down in the oven. Some people put a layer of foil or cookie sheets on the bottom of the oven to catch any drips. I have found that if your layer is thin enough, you do not need a cookie sheet or foil.

You can put a number of pans in the oven at the same time for both of these heating steps. I do not lay them on top of each other, however, though sometimes they are touching. I would be concerned about the Crisco layering onto one pan from another if I did so, and the seasoning then being uneven.

The first few times you try this you will probably find that your seasoning looks funny or uneven when you remove it from the oven. In my experience, that’s because you put the seasoning on too thick. If that happens to you, you can try removing some of the seasoning with steel wool and Dawn and then re-seasoning, or you can just start over with the lye bath.

Once I put the Crisco-coated pan back into the oven, I turn the heat up to 500 degrees and I let the pan “cook” for an hour. After an hour I turn the oven off and let the pans cool in the oven. This can take several hours.

As the pans “cook”, you will notice an odor. You may also notice smoke coming from the oven. If you have too much Crisco on the pan, you will notice a lot of smoke, and your fire alarm might go off. Your family members will also likely complain about the smoke and the odor. Some folks use an outdoor grill for this step, presumably for these reasons. I open the windows, burn scented candles, and use the hood vent on the oven. Even so, there is smoke and there is definitely an odor.

Here is the Wapak #4 after having cooked for an hour with one layer of Crisco.




Notice the reflection of light on the pan. Lovely!

The layer of Crisco creates a hard surface, and protects the pan from rust. It also forms the base for more seasoning. Once you have several layers of seasoning down on the pan, it will be virtually non-stick..

I like to cook hamburger or bacon in my personal pans when they are newly-seasoned. I like to think that the fat from the meat helps to build a good solid layer of seasoning. I don’t know if that is true or not, but I like to think that it is. 🙂

After the pans have cooked for an hour at 500 degrees, I let them cool for a few hours in the oven. I remove them while they are still warm, and use the same microfiber cloth to place a very thin layer of Crisco down on the pan. I wipe off any excess with my handy Sam’s Club terry towels. The pan is then done and ready for me to photograph, list, and sell to my customers!

Here is the Wapak tapered logo #4 pan, finished and ready to list.

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