Monday, July 28, 2014

Casting Iron

Seen some better days.
The old adage "they don't make them like they used to" gets thrown around a lot.  In my opinion the blame for that can be laid as much on our collective attitude towards our things as the construction or workmanship.  That and maybe just how much more "stuff" we surround ourselves with.  I'll have to think about that angle some more.

Manufactured obsolescence may exist (I know of more than a few cellphone manufacturers likely guilty of that) but there are still some things out there that seem to last and last and last.

Cast iron cookware is a good example. (continued)

The back looked just as bad.
A fixture of many kitchens, cast iron cookware well cared for only gets better with age.  Arguments abound over who will inherit grandma's ancient skillet with its thick layer of seasoning and (often) a family legacy that goes back even further.  You don't hear much about someone shopping for a new skillet either, and if you do, in the same breath they will lament that "everyone says" the old ones are so much better than what is being made today.

All too frequently one will find even cast iron being discarded. Whether at the dump, recycling center, local flea market, or a yard sale the iron always looks a little worse for wear, the cookware has clearly gone a long way from grandma's kitchen, and well, wouldn't it make more sense to buy a new one?  After all, all that other cookware, the non-stick lacquerware, stainless steel, aluminum, or glass stuff only lasts for so long right?  After you dent it, crack it, lose a handle or a lid, or discover it no longer fits in your cabinet nesting scheme, it's just disposable right?  While I don't have solutions for fixing chipped Pyrex or repairing scratched Teflon I do happen to know something about cast iron.

You can't wear it out.  A full 1/4" (or more, depending) of iron may show a bit of rust but it's still got figurative miles of material left before it would fail. It is possible to crack cast iron with mishandling or if you drop it but most of time it's not a crack or damage that sends that skillet to the trash it's the rust.
For want of a little TLC, a piece of cookware that is likely already decades old and one that would last for decades more goes to the dump.

This particular specimen walked by me Saturday and I could not help but bring her home in the hopes of helping her get cleaned up and back to work.  After a bit of research I am able to tell you this old girl is probably pushing 100 years old. Without a doubt she's at least 79.  The Wagner #6 skillet with these markings were manufactured in Sidney Ohio between 1922 and 1935 only.  Talk about a nice surprise.

Step 1:  Cleaning
While that thick layer of much prized black stuff on your pan is very much desirable when YOU have put it there the remnants of someone else's "additions" to the pan are less appetizing.  Seasoning is what you yourself work hard to build on your cast iron, crud is the end result of anyone else having done so.  So step 1 is very much focused on removing the crud and any rust.

There are extremely detailed instructions and theory here at with a few options to choose from.  Being the simplest option, and since I did have some on hand I elected the Vinegar method and between a few vinegar soaks and a bit of work with a wire brush the difference was quite striking.  The skin deep accumulations of rust and crud fell away revealing bright iron and solid craftsmanship in short order.

Step 2:  Pre-seasoning
Before the pan is seasoned you need to address the fact that it is wet, and possibly covered in something from your cleaning process and room temperature cold.  After a rinse and quick scrub in cool water the skillet can pop right into a 200°F oven.

After only 15 minutes the iron will be quite dry and on its way to heating up.  Increasing the temperature in stages, the iron will spend 15 minutes at 275°F, 15 minutes at 350°F, and then the oven can be brought to 425°F.  Which means we are ready for...

Step 3: Seasoning has quite a bit of information on this also along with step by step instructions.  I was also provided a link by a friend to The Science behind the seasoning which was quite illuminating.  It was a bit amusing to notice where the two sources differed in opinion or interpretation and as I found both valuable, I hope you will enjoy them as well.

After your research and selection of a suitable fat your 425°F iron comes out of the oven, and gets a hot oil rub. If juggling a hot piece of iron and applying oil to it with your hands sounds like fun you are, I think, what can only be described as an odd duck.  I was prepared (I thought) for this but still managed to almost burn myself both with the iron and the oil, proceed with caution when dealing with hot cookware or oil. The resulting layer of oil covering the skillet will be thicker than ideal so after going through the trouble to apply it you will immediately wipe most of it off.  The goal is actually the very smallest possible layer of oil left on the iron at this stage.  Back in the oven she goes for another 15 minutes.

When removing the iron this time turn your oven up to 500°F, wipe the pan down to remove any excess oil one more time and place the iron back into the oven for a final 15 minutes.  After darkening and solidifying the oil in this step we turn off the oven and allow the iron to cool (which may take several hours).

As noted in my sources above additional cycles (layers) of seasoning can be added as desired using steps 2 and 3 before choosing to use the skillet to cook but as the iron is used additional seasoning will build up all on its own and some think only the initial seasoning is needed.

After one "seasoning".
Still old, but this girl still has game.
I found it enjoyable restoring a piece of cookware like this and while opinions abound for "the right way" to proceed on any given step there is very little you could do that you would not be able to recover from by starting over.  An afternoon of work and research has yielded not only a new working piece for my kitchen but saved a bit of history from the scrap heap as well.  This was all so simple, and so much fun.  It is something easy to do, so I hope you give it a try if the opportunity arises.  I know I will be looking for other pieces to restore myself too.

Thanks for stopping by.


  1. Wonderfully wtitten! I liked the little plug as well, my friend! :-)

  2. Glad you enjoyed it, and I'm glad I could pick your brain before giving it a try. Only thing I would do different next time is getting some of that stinky flax seed oil in the house apparently, of all things, we don't have any in the house yet.

  3. You might like Paul Wheaton's article on cast iron.

    1. I love Paul's work in general and actually did not think to reread his page about cast iron prior to this project. Thank you for reminding me to go and have another look. Luckily for me very little appears to have changed in the months since I last checked things out so I didn't miss any nifty tricks he had recently added. Rest assured that Paul will get a number of mentions in this space as time goes on, even if he managed somehow to slip my mind today.

      In fact, I believe I linked to the permies forum in the comfrey post yesterday as part of my many sources of information and inspiration.

      Thanks for the input Nancy, and thanks for stopping by.