If you're just starting out with cooking and/or collecting cast iron, it's easy to become overwhelmed with the choices available to you. Here are my top 10 considerations for selecting a vintage cast iron pan.
1. What size do you need?
Skillets often but not always have a number on them. Sometimes it is on the handle and sometimes it is on the bottom of the pan. The number corresponds to the size of the skillet, but it does not equate to the diameter of the pan. A "0" skillet is the smallest, and is usually referred to as a "toy" skillet. It is too small to use for most purposes. Next in size is the 2, then 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, and 20.
The first skillet most people buy is a 8. The 8 is usually about 10-1/2" in diameter. The 9 is usually about 11" in diameter, and the 10 is usually about 11-1/2" in diameter. An 8, 9, or 10 will, in my opinion, cover most cooking jobs. Obviously, the larger your family, the larger the size of pan you want for your "every day" cooking.
2. Is the pan clean?
Cleaning a crusty old cast iron pan can be difficult, to put it mildly. If the pan has been cleaned, it will save much work for you. Ideally, the pan should be squeaky clean, without blobs of crud baked on. In a different guide I've outlined how to clean your cast iron, should you decide to forge ahead and purchase a "well loved and used" crusty pan. Cleaning years of crud from a cast iron pan takes time, experience, proper methodology, and patience. As you might expect, a cleaned and restored pan is typically more expensive than a crusty pan because of the time, effort, and materials that have been put into restoration of the pan.
3. Is the pan rusty?
Cast iron is very susceptible to rust, and the rust can be difficult to remove. The Pan handler typically uses electrolysis to remove rust from pans that we plan to resell. You may also try a vinegar/water soak, commercial products such as EvapoRust (find it at an auto parts store), or you may sometimes have success with elbow grease and steel wool. Ideally, your seller will have removed any sign of rust so that your new vintage pan is ready to use.
4. Is there any pitting on the cast iron?
Sulfur pitting can occur on the bottom of pans from use over an old wood or coal stove. This is typically seen in the center of the bottom of a pan. Also, given the variety of ways in which very old pans have been stored (I have seen pans that were buried in dirt!), you might find pitting on the pans. Old pans have history! The pitting doesn't bother me, but it might bother you. If a pan has not been cleaned, you often cannot tell whether there is pitting under the crud that has built up.
Be sure to look carefully at the pan you are considering, so that you can see if there is pitting and if so, how much. If there is, you will need to make your own decision about whether the pitting turns you off to the extent that you should choose a different pan. The Pan Handler takes many photos of our pieces, so that you can see exactly what you are getting.
5. Are there any cracks or signs of repair?
Cast iron is surprisingly fragile. Before shipping, your pan must be carefully packed so that the handle doesn't break off, or have a hairline crack develop when the package is tossed about during shipping. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to see hairline cracks near the handle of pans. A crack dramatically decreases the value of the pan, but it often still may be used. If it is a hairline crack, you might expect that crack to seal with additional seasoning.
Another downside to purchasing a pan that has crud built up is that you don't know what lies beneath the crud. I have been heartbroken on more than a few occasions to find a hairline crack once the pan has been cleaned.
6. Has the pan been seasoned? With what?
When purchasing a pan online, read the information about the pan carefully. Make sure that "well-seasoned" isn't code for "I didn't clean the pan and I'm calling all of this crud on the pan 'seasoning.'" Unfortunately, that is often the case.
We typically use Crisco vegetable shortening to season our pans before listing them for sale. Occasionally we also use Pam, because Pam more easily goes into the tiny nooks and crannies of the piece. We carefully heat season our pans in a lengthy and several-step process.
If you care what your pan has been seasoned with, you'll want to ask if the description doesn't say. For example, vegetarians probably prefer not to cook on a pan that has been seasoned with lard. If you are planning to use your pan for cooking and not display only, you'll want to make sure that your pan was seasoned with something that you're comfortable eating/something food-grade. For those of you who want to season your own pans, I have written a guide on how I season my cast iron pans, and you can find it here: Seasoning and Care of your Vintage Cast Iron Pan.
7. What is the thickness of the walls of the skillet, and what is the type of pan interior?
A great old vintage skillet will have a beautiful almost silky satiny patina inside the bowl. Modern skillets often have a "bumpy" texture; the great old skillets do not. They are smooth and almost glassy-looking. It's likely that your pan will have some scratches or marks; it's a used pan, after all. A great old pan should have a black satin finish, however, and be free of significant pitting on the inside. Be sure that your pan has been cleaned and seasoned and that's why it's black - there are horror stories of some pans being painted black. You don't want to be cooking and eating foods from a pan that has been painted black. At least I don't!
You will need to make your own decision about what you prefer regarding the thickness of the walls of the skillet. Many if not most of the very old pans have thin walls - they are much lighter than pans of more modern vintage. Newer pans have thicker/coarser walls and casting. They are heavier. You might prefer a heavier pan for camping or cooking over an open fire. As for me, I'll go for the thinner walls every time.
The photo below shows the beautiful satiny smooth black patina of a properly cleaned and seasoned Griswold #8 skillet. Note the thin walls.
8. Is the pan warped?
Some folks think that putting a pan on an open fire is a good way to clean pans. Please don't do this! Placing the pan in such high heat can result in damage and warpage to the pan. Similarly, putting a hot pan into cold water can warp the pan.
Many old pans - especially larger sizes - have a small amount of movement when pressing along the upper rim. A small amount is not typically an issue (see my blog post here). A major wobble or a pan that spins can be a pain. If a pan does not sit flat on the cooktop, it may wobble when you boil liquids. It can also wriggle around while you're cooking, which can be an annoyance.
You can tell if a pan has warping by pressing along the upper rim of the pan. If it rocks while you press, there is some warping. You can also try slipping a small piece of paper or a dollar bill under the pan around the edges. If the pan sits perfectly flat, you won't be able to get the paper under the skillet. If it doesn't, you can. If you're buying a vintage pan, be sure to consider whether the pan rocks or spins. If you are buying online and the listing doesn't say, ask before you buy!
Cast iron pans should be pre-heated before use. Once heated, cast iron retains its heat for a long period of time. A small amount of movement will not matter on a pan that has been pre-heated. Cooktops with raised burners can tolerate pans that have movement. If you are cooking outdoors or on a grill, or baking, movement of the pan probably is not much of an issue.
With pans sold by The Pan Handler, we might post a video showing the movement of the pan on our You Tube channel. Or, we might mention that a pan moves a "dime's" worth or a "nickel's" worth. This refers to the distance between the pan and the table surface when pressing along the upper edge of the opposite side. A "dime's" worth, of course, would be less than a "nickel's" worth. In either case, the distance will matter less to you if you are cooking on a gas or other raised burner cooktop than it will if you are cooking on a flat cooktop.
9. Who is the manufacturer of the pan?
In my opinion, the brand really only matters if you are collecting, want an epic piece to hand down through the generations, or if you plan to resell the pan at some point.
Pans made by Griswold are, in our view, the most collectible vintage cast iron pans. Griswold also manufactured Victor, ERIE, Iron Mountain, and some of the Puritan and Andresen pieces. Wagner pieces are also collectible, as is vintage Lodge (you can typically tell if it's an old unmarked Lodge pan if there is one or three notches in the heat ring ). Wapak, G.F. Filley, Waterman, Favorite Piqua Ware, and Vollrath are other well-known manufacturers of collectible quality cast iron kitchenware. There are a number of great old pans made by many different makers - if you're looking for a vintage pan for cooking, I'd suggest you don't knock a pan out of consideration just because it isn't a Griswold. Pick the pan that works for you. Look at the quality of the pan and determine how well it suits your needs.
10. Who is the seller, what is the cost, and what is the shipping charge?
If you are purchasing from the internet, be sure to check out your seller. Be comfortable that your seller stands behind the product. Ask questions before buying, and know what you're buying before buy it. Be sure to check the shipping charge. Cast iron is darn heavy, and shipping can cost a pretty penny. Be sure to factor in any shipping charge in determining whether to purchase a cast iron pan.
Happy hunting - we hope you find a pan that is just perfect for YOU!
Okay, you've got the pan, now what?
You need to season it, and then you need to properly care for your investment.
There are many different recommended methods to season your pan. I've tried most of them. Here's how I season and then maintain my vintage pans.
Before the initial seasoning of a pan, it should be cleaned to bare iron. See FAQ on cleaning cast iron. After the pan has been cleaned to bare iron:
- Thoroughly dry your pan. I use paper towels. If I need to dry nooks and crannies, I use a chopstick covered with a piece of terry cloth. Wet pans are very susceptible to flash rust once all seasoning has been removed, so act quickly to dry the piece.
- Once it is dry, put the pan on the rack in your oven and turn the oven to 450 degrees. Let the pan "cook" for an hour, then turn off the heat. You will notice an odor as the pan "cooks." Let the pan cool for an hour or so. I have found that this step helps your pan to get that rich black color that is so beautiful on vintage cast iron.
- After the pan has cooled for at least an hour (cast iron holds its heat well, so it will be HOT for quite a while - let the pan cool down so you don't burn yourself), take the pan out of the oven using pot holders. I use a microfiber dish cloth rag to put a very thin layer of Crisco vegetable shortening on the pan. Cover all areas of the pan - inside and out. I use a chopstick covered with a piece of the microfiber, dipped in Crisco, to get into nooks and crannies. Wipe away the Crisco using a different rag. Take care to wipe away any excess; you want a very very thin layer. I use the microfiber cloth because it seems to do a great job at putting down a very thin and even layer of Crisco. Beware: if your pan has not cooled enough, the microfiber cloth will melt onto the surface of the pan, leaving quite a mess!
- Place the pan upside down on a rack in your oven. Some people put foil or an old cookie pan on the bottom of the oven to catch any drips, but I've found that using the microfiber towel, there are no drips because it's a nice light layer of Crisco. You can "cook" multiple pans at the same time, if you wish.
- Turn the heat to 500 degrees. Once it's up to 500, "cook" the pan for an hour. Turn off the heat, and let the pan fully cool in the oven - about 3 hours. You will likely notice some smoke coming from the oven during this step. The amount of smoke depends on the amount of Crisco used. When you have a very light layer, the smoke is minimal. If it is not a light layer, you will need to use fans and you will likely get complaints from other household members. Regardless of any smoke, there is an odor during this step.
- Once your pan has been properly seasoned, it will be virtually non-stick. The more you use it, the more seasoning that will build up and the more non-stick it will be. I like to cook bacon or hamburger in a newly-seasoned pan - I think that it helps to build up seasoning.
- After use, I use a nylon scrub pad or stainless steel scrubbie ball and plain hot water to get any stubborn sticky areas clean. If I feel like the pan needs a drop of soap, I use a drop of soap. If I don't get to the pan right away and food has crusted on to the surface, I heat water in the pan on the stove and scrape it with a nylon scraper or wooden spatula. I also use my chain mail scrubber for particularly dirty clean up jobs.
- After cleaning it thoroughly, I immediately completely dry the pan with paper towels. Sometimes I place the pan on the warm stove or into a warm oven to ensure complete dryness. I then spritz some Pam on the pan and wipe it down with a paper towel.
Cleaning a well-used cast iron pan can be a challenge, to put it mildly. If you purchase a crusty, rusty old pan, you've got your work cut out for you. Before you can season it, you've got to clean it!
There are a variety of options available to clean your cast iron pan. Commonly recommended options include: elbow grease with steel wool, self-cleaning oven, oven cleaner and plastic bags, lye bath, and electrolysis. Sometimes used but not recommended options include using mechanical means such as an angle grinder to get to the bare iron, and sandblasting. This article will give a brief overview of each.
1. Elbow grease and steel wool and / or stainless / brass brushes:
This method can work great if your pan is not a holy nightmare. If you just have a small amount of crud, roll up your sleeves and get to work. I like to use Dawn Powerscrub with a sink full of hot water. Let your pan soak for at least 5 minutes, then get it out and scrub it (wear rubber gloves!) with a coarse steel wool pad (you can get them at your local hardware store in the paint section). There are big stripping brushes you can find in the paint section of your local hardware store if your pan is really cruddy. A brass brush (you can get these at the auto store - they are often used for detailing) can be helpful to get into any smaller areas. There are also small stainless steel bristle brushes you can buy at Home Depot that are a little bigger than a toothbrush that work well at getting into nooks and crannies. Once you've got the pan cleaned, rinse it well and thoroughly dry it immediately. Without seasoning, the pan will rust very quickly - this is called "flash rust." I use a big terry towel to dry the pan, along with paper towels. Beware - your towel will get very dirty. :)
2. Self-cleaning oven:
Some people swear by this method; others claim it can warp the pans, and still others refute that. I don't know the answer. If you want to give this method a try, stick your pans in your self cleaning oven, and run the cycle. When the cycle is done, LET THE PANS COOL (this will take several hours). Then, pull the pans out and use the elbow grease option detailed in #1. This option works, but it will smoke your house to kingdom come. It also uses a lot of energy, and can discolor your oven racks since you need to leave the racks in so that you have something to set your pans on during the cleaning cycle. I do not use this method.
3. Oven cleaner and jumbo plastic bags:
Get yourself some heavy duty oven cleaner, jumbo or extra-large plastic bags (you can get these at Walmart or Target - Hefty and Ziplock both make them) and good plastic gloves. Spray your pan liberally with the cleaner, then put it in the jumbo bag, seal it, and let it sit for a few days. The bags keep the liquid from evaporating. After a few days, put your gloves back on and take the pans out and revert to the elbow grease method to scrub the crud off. It should come off pretty easily, though if you have a really cruddy pan it can be difficult and you may have to repeat once or twice.
4. Lye bath:
Some folks are opposed to the lye bath method because of the use of chemicals. In my opinion, it works about as well as the oven cleaner/plastic bag method at getting crud off of your pans (probably because the oven cleaner contains lye, too!) For the lye bath, get yourself a big plastic container and fill it with hot water. Add a liberal helping of lye. Put a piece of twine through the handle of your skillet and place the skillet into the container with the twine hanging out so that you can easily grab it to get the skillet out without having to put your hand into the lye bath. Lye is very caustic, so you will want to be very careful so that you don't get splashed or get the solution on your skin. You also need to be very careful to cover your container (when I've used this method, I put a piece of wood over the container and put a brick on it to hold it down) so that it's not accessible to children and pets. If you can't find lye at your local hardware store, you can order it online. Look for the "Red Devil" brand. Let the pans sit for a day or two (I've left them up to a week), then pull them out and rinse them off well. Then, revert to the elbow grease method.
I love this method, but the downside is that it does only one pan at a time (at least using the method I use). Do a little googling to find the instructions - the instructions are too lengthy for this little guide. When I do the electrolysis method, I let the pan "cook" at least overnight and up to a few days. I take it out, rinse it off, and revert to the elbow grease method. I don't typically have to use much elbow grease, as the crud is all lifted off the pan, and any rust is removed.
Here are some photos of a Griswold griddle #18 that I cleaned using the electrolysis method.
Immediately after being taken out of the electrolysis bath; before cleaning with steel wool:
After scrubbing with steel wool, drying carefully, and "cooking" for an hour at 450 degrees:
After seasoning with Crisco:
6. Angle grinder or other mechanical methods:
If you are desperate and have tried everything with no luck, and are willing to risk ruining the patina of your pan, you can use an angle grinder with a brass brush or a dremel to get to the bare iron. I do not recommend this except as a last resort, as it will change the surface of the pan. It can also result in a mottled or uneven appearance and finish.
Sandblasting will certainly get any and all crud off of your pan, but it will totally remove the lovely patina that you expect with a vintage pan. It also leaves a rough surface instead of the satin surface that you want on your great vintage skillet. Most collectors will not buy a pan that has been sandblasted. The pan will come out an odd light grey instead of the lovely black you want. If you must try this method, after sandblasting you can use a very light touch with an angle grinder with a brass brush to smooth out the surface. After the surface is smooth, if the pan is properly re-seasoned, it may again revert to black with a nice patina. If the surface is not smoothed, however, you will not likely be able to get the pan black with a satin patina.
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When you purchase a piece from The Pan Handler LLC, you can expect it to be clean and heat-seasoned with one coat of vegetable shortening seasoning, or a mixture of coconut and canola oils and beeswax. Because the pieces have been heat-seasoned, the oil(s) have polymerized and bonded to the pans surface, resulting in a hard coating over the iron. If there are deviations from this standard, they will be noted in the description of the piece.
When you receive your piece, it is ready for use and display unless otherwise noted in the listing description. It may also have received a spritz of Pam prior to packaging. Given that the piece has been packaged and shipped, however, you will want to give it a light scrub before cooking.
Remember that you are buying a vintage, used, pan. It is not new. You should expect to see signs of use - you may see some scratches or some small pinprick areas or little pockmarks caused by air bubbles during the casting process. These will even out with seasoning. Significant defects or pitting will be noted in the description. We take pride in giving complete and accurate descriptions in our listings as well as providing many photographs so that you know exactly what you are purchasing before you buy. We want our customers to be happy customers, and to know exactly what they are purchasing.
If the listing refers to a piece as "minty," it means that in our considered opinion - having held and examined tens of thousands of pieces of vintage cast iron pieces - the pan is in pretty-much-perfect vintage (see above) condition. If it is described as "near-mint," it means that there is a very slight issue which makes us hesitate to call it minty.
For pots and pans, you can expect that the description of the pan will note whether it sits flat on the cooktop. If there is movement between the pot and the tabletop when the pan is pressed along the top edges, the description will say so. If it is stated that the pan moves a dime's worth, it means that the movement is minimal; only enough to slip a dime between the table and the pan. If it's a nickel's worth, the movement is enough to slip a nickel between the pan and the table. If the description says that the pan spins or rocks, there is significant movement when pressing along the upper rim. Sometimes we will make a video and post it in the listing to demonstrate any movement. You may also want to check out our blog post on this issue - you can find it here.
If you have any questions about a particular piece, please do ask before you purchase. You can reach us via our contact form. Shipping cast iron for a return is very pricey; be sure you know what you are buying before you buy it.
On my contact form, you will see that I specify that I do not reply to inquiries from people seeking identification, education, or valuation of their vintage cast iron pieces. I am not trying to be impolite. Before I made this policy, I found that I was overwhelmed with enthusiastic inquiries from many, many people seeking education about their vintage cast iron.
I am really happy that there has been such a resurgence of interest in vintage cast iron cookware, and I am so proud to be able to provide new life and new homes to these valuable vintage pieces. I simply do not have the resources, however, to also provide free research and education services.
For questions of this sort, there is a wealth of information available both online and through reference materials for you to do the research and learn the answers for yourself. In the FAQ section, "where can I learn more," I have put a host of links that will help you to get started in your personal cast iron research.
For people who have questions about selecting a vintage cast iron pan, I have written a FAQ sheet on considerations in selecting a vintage cast iron pan. Review of this document will hopefully be helpful as you begin your search. I have also written blog post aimed at helping you identify unmarked vintage cast iron cookware.
We consider a number of factors in setting the price for a particular piece. Included are:
- Markings or lack thereof;
- Rarity or commonality of the piece;
- Book prices for the piece;
- Recent selling prices for similar pieces;
- Time and money invested in the particular piece by The Pan Handler LLC (acquisition costs have dramatically increased in recent times);
- Business overhead; and
- Our interest in earning a fair wage for our work.
We take pride in providing the finest in restored vintage and antique collectable cast iron cookware available along with top-notch service.
We travel to find the best vintage collectable cookware. Every single clean and seasoned pan that we sn ell takes hours - days - weeks of time to restore it to the condition that you see in the listings. Our work is a labor of love, but that labor of course increases the cost to you. Our pans are not sold with rust or layers of crud baked on; we don't refer to pans as "well-seasoned" when it is really code for "I didn't clean the pan - you will need to do so." Our pans are painstakingly cleaned and seasoned. Each is separately photographed and examined and described and listed on our website. We strive for complete customer satisfaction.
We do not negotiate our pricing. Our pans are not cheap; we know that. We hope that you will agree, however, that our pricing is fair.
We appreciate and value each and every one of our customers. We are grateful to be involved in this wonderful and fun business and we are so glad that you are here to give our much-treasured pieces new life and a new home.
In addition to the The Pan Handler Facebook page and information contained elsewhere on our site, in our blog, and in this FAQ section, there is a wealth of information on the web to assist you in learning all about vintage cast iron. Here are a few links to get you started!
The Book of Griswold & Wagner (includes sections on Favorite, Wapak, Sidney Hollow Ware), by Smith & Wafford (commonly referred to as the "Blue Book").
The Book of Wagner & Griswold, A Schiffer Book for Collectors, by Smith & Wafford (commonly referred to as the "Red Book")
Griswold Muffin Pans, by Jon Haussler.
Wagner & Griswold Society - Wags is a "community of cast iron and aluminum cookware collectors." I am a dues-paying member of Wags.
There is a wealth of information on the Wags site; some available to the public and other that is available only to dues-paying members. There is a forum with sections available for viewing by visitors. One forum section available to the public is entitled "How much is my item worth." There are also articles available to the public which have been written by members on cast iron cleaning and seasoning methods. You can also find a plethora of recipes for cast iron cooking.
The Griswold & Cast Iron Cookware Association is a group of cast iron and aluminum enthusiasts. I am also a dues-paying member of G&CICA. G&CICA also maintains a ewebsite with information and links to a lot of information about vintage cast iron collecting.
There is also a website established by a cast iron collector that has a ton of info on it; it's worth checking out! Additionally, reddit has a sub-forum on cast iron, where folks often ask for and receive cast iron identification assistance. I also wrote a blog post about identifying unmarked cast iron, which you might find helpful.
A little googling on your part will turn up an abundance of information to get you started. Happy hunting!