Restoring Cast Iron Skillets

My wife wants to start cooking using cast iron.  As such, I was tasked with procuring and restoring older (early to mid 1900) cast iron cookware.  Why older cast iron?  From what I’ve read, back in the day, cast iron cookware was made of higher quality materials and finished better than todays offerings.  Today’s cast iron has a rough surface and is pretty heavy.  Older cast iron is lighter and the cooking surface was ground to a glassy smooth finish. Check out this Black Iron Blog post for more info on old vs new cast iron.

To be used, cast iron cookware is seasoned to prevent rust.  In this case, seasoning means that a coating of grease or oil is applied to the surface while the pan is hot.  The grease or oil will bond with the surface of the cast iron preventing rust and making the surface non-stick.  Repeated use of the cookware further enhances the seasoning.  So, if you see a cast iron pan it’s either going to be rusty, seasoned, or a combination of the two.  Obviously, if you’re buying vintage cast iron its going to be used and dirty.  So, you want to strip the old seasoning and apply your own.

My wife found a site on restoring cast iron which references a post on the Black Iron Blog.  His technique is pretty simple.  You coat the old cast iron with spray on oven cleaner, chunk it in a trash bag, and forget about it for a couple of days.  After waiting, you clean it off and check out the results.  If there’s still black patches of hardened grease, it goes back in the bag.  This process is repeated until it is clean.  The author then suggests soaking it in a wash of vinegar and water, drying and then seasoning.  There are other methods of removing an old coating but this seemed to be an easy and less risky method.  I came across another method which suggested putting the pan in your oven on the clean cycle but folks mentioned it could crack pans.  No thanks.

I found a Wagner 1058V pan size 8 at an antique store.  It has a bottom diameter of about 9″ and a top diameter of around 10.5 inches to give you an idea of the size.  A chart of pan sizes can be found at the panman’s site.  Here’s what I picked up.  As you can see it’s rather grungy.


Here’s the bottom of the pan.  That’s Sidney, Ohio in case you were curious.


Here I am hosing it down with oven cleaner.  There’s fume free, non-chlorinated oven cleaner but in my experience with brake cleaner, the stuff containing chlorine works better.  It’s pretty caustic so wear gloves and don’t inhale it.


Chunk the foamed pan in the bag and wait.  As shown in the pic below, it is already breaking down the old seasoning.


Of course, I didn’t wait that long.  I just had to pull it out after a day and see the progress.  It’s doing a good job but there’s still a lot more work to be done.


There are no pics of me washing it because you can imagine washing a pan I’m sure.  This was after a two more washings and reapplying the oven cleaner.  Total time in the bag was about a week (Tue-Sun).  Here’s the final, cleaned Wager skillet before seasoning on Sunday night.  After the final washing, I dried it with a towel and stuck it in the oven at 250F for about 10 minutes to dry it further.  I pulled it out and took the picture you see below.  It’s still rusty you say.  Well, when I looked at this pan and the other one (its coming up, hold on) they looked rust free.  When I take a picture with my camera flash they look like this though.  The flash and camera seems to show stuff that doesn’t appear to the naked eye.  I’m not sure why.  Bare cast iron starts rusting immediately and its worse here in FL where there is salty humid air.  As such, I don’t fuss over the rust because I’m never going to eliminate it all.  Besides you have to get your iron somehow.


While the Wagner was spending time in the bag I ran by the flea market on Saturday.  I found this nice looking Griswold 710C pan size 9 skillet and decided to pick it up.   This pan has a bottom diameter of about 9.5 inches and is a little bigger than the Wagner.  As you can see, unlike the Wagner, it’s primary issue was rust.  Here’s a shot of the top and bottom of the pan.


Rusty pans get treated like anything else I have that is rusty.  So, it got put in the electrolysis tank.  By tank I mean the jerry rigged plastic tub seen below.  I’m going to do a post on electrolysis soon, but the way it works is by attracting rust to some sacrificial steel using electricity.  In this case, I have two pieces of re-bar in the bottom sides of the tub and a small piece of angle iron suspended above the top of the pan.  The picture below is after the pan has been in the tub for about 3 hours.  The water was initially clear so you can tell its working.   The sacrifical pieces also develop a heavy coating of rust.  The pan on the other hand, gets cleaned.


During the electrolysis process brown rust is removed but the surface gets coated with a black oxide that needs to be removed.  I scrubbed it under the sink for a bit and removed most of it. The result of the electrolysis and the cleaning is seen below.  There’s still a bit more rust on the surface, as you can see, but it wasn’t apparent to me at the time.


To be sure that the pan was really clean, I hosed it down with oven cleaner and let it sit in a bag for about 6 hours.  After that I washed and dried it with a towel.  Once again I placed the pan in the oven at 250F to dry it for 10 minutes.  After this, I bumped the temperature up to 500F.  When it reached this temperature, I let it sit for another 10 minutes to evenly heat the pan.  I next pulled the hot pan out and carefully rubbed it down using some Lard and a rag.  Why Lard?  It’s what the wife wanted.  As you can see in the pic below, the rust on the skillet has increased in the short time that the pan was in the oven.  Rust was faintly apparent to me at this stage.


I coated the pan with the Lard and then placed the pan back in the oven with the oven turned off.  Periodically, I’d take the pan out and wipe it with the cloth to remove any bumps of liquid that may have beaded up on the surface.  If you don’t do this soon enough, it will harden into little bumps as I found out.  They can be removed by scrubbing them with a brillo pad.  By Saturday night, the Griswold was seasoned and ready for use.  The next night, I seasoned the Wagner the same way.

Here’s a picture of me improving the seasoning on the pans.  Yeah, sure…that’s the reason I’m cooking bacon.  If you’re curious, the lighter patches on the right pan’s (Wagner) wall are reflections of the bacon not rust.  The red thing on the handle of the other pan is a silicone cover meant to keep you from burning your hand.  It seems to work well.


As with most of the other stuff I have on my blog, a little time and effort can enable you to restore something to great working condition for less money than buying the equivalent new item.  In some cases, such as these skillets, there isn’t a modern day equivalent.

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3 Responses to Restoring Cast Iron Skillets

  1. Amy says:

    The reason I wanted lard was because I had read somewhere (can’t find it now) that lard would give you the best seasoned finish. If you think about it, it makes sense because lard is a natural oil that does well at high temperatures. By the way, absolutely drooling looking at the pictures of the bacon….wish I was home to eat it!!! Thank you for my cast iron!!!!

  2. Hey, rust is iron, iron is good for you, right? Ahhh, why clean it?

  3. Dave smith says:

    Great info. I love using cast iron skillets. I use one that was my grandmother’s and I think it may have been her mothers. It’s a good feeling to use something of hers or when I use knowledge I gained from her.

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