A Guide to Collecting and Restoring Cast-Iron Cookware
Shopping for Vintage Cast Iron
To truly appreciate your new pan, it should be comfortable to handle—not too heavy or bulky for you to lift. It should also appeal to your aesthetics, for you're sure to use a pan you enjoy more than one you don't. Lastly, you should appreciate the history of your vintage pan, and for that you'll need to research the manufacturer.
If you're interested in restoring and selling cast iron, then you'll need to become a bit of an expert on cast-iron cookware so you'll know which pieces to purchase and at what price to sell them. (Read more about the restoration process itself in Restoring Cast Iron.)
There are many resources available, but these are the ones most recommended by the Skilletheads I interviewed:
- A Cast Iron Journey by James P. Anderson—This small book provides an introduction to collecting and restoring cast iron and includes sample photos of pans from major manufacturers.
- The Book of Griswold & Wagner ( "the Blue Book") and The Book of Wagner & Griswold ( "the Red Book" ) by David G. Smith and Chuck Wafford—These two books are considered the "bibles" of cast iron collection and are on every restorer's bookshelf. Each book contains detailed images and manufacturing years for products from the most famous companies, including Wagner, Griswold, Favorite, Wapak, Lodge, and Vollrath. While these books are excellent for identification purposes, consider their valuations as starting points only. If you're trying to sell restored cast iron, consult online sales pages for current pricing of similar cast-iron pieces.
- CastIronCollector.com—This one website contains a trove of information on cast-iron cookware as well as images to help you identify pieces. To connect with other cast iron fans, and to post your own questions, visit their Facebook Group at www.Facebook.com/CastIronCommunityCIC.
"Only buy what you enjoy; don't worry about what is most popular or valuable." Orphaned Iron
Where to Shop
With the increasing interest in cast-iron cookware, vintage pieces are becoming harder to find. Here are the places Skilletheads frequent along with tips on getting the best deal:
- Antique/ Consignment Shops—These stores usually have cast iron, but the prices are high.
- Auctions—Look over the inventory and determine how much you're willing to spend before the auction begins.
- Estate Sales—Look for entire collections of cast iron.
- Facebook Marketplace—This is a big resource for many Skilletheads.
- Flea Markets—You can still find cast iron here, but as Orphaned Iron says, "You can't be afraid to haggle!"
- Garage Sales/ Yard Sales—You may find low-priced pieces that have been well cared for, but they're few and far between. Cast Iron Kev recommends shopping only at the larger, combined sales because they're more likely to have cast iron and you'll waste less time and money driving.
- Online sales sites like Craigslist and eBay and apps like OfferUp—Look for bulk sales from retired collectors.
- Swap Meets—Connect with local cast iron collectors in your area and with groups online to learn when the next swap meet is scheduled.
- Thrift Stores—These stores don't always have cast iron, but when they do, it's often sold at a low price. Introduce yourself to the owners of the local stores and ask them to notify you when they receive cast iron donations. If you offer to pay a little extra, they may be willing to make the effort.
- You Name It—One Skillethead told me he found a piece of cast iron in a snow bank! If you keep your eyes open and let others know you're on the hunt, you may be pleasantly surprised. As What's Up Homer Skillet told me, "Finding a piece where one is least expected is thrilling."
"Nobody drives farther, gets there earlier, or walks faster than me!" Cast Iron Kev
Pro Tip: When purchasing cast iron online, beware of scams. Request additional pictures of the cast iron to be sure it's in their possession. Ask how they plan to ship it and if it will be insured, and check their sales ratings, if available. In general, established restorers (like those referenced in this book) and cast iron sales groups are safer than one-off sales from unknown individuals.
Pro Tip: Skilletheads will often purchase whole collections of cast iron from other collectors, giving them a lower cost per item. Plus, these collections are usually well cared for. As Cast Iron Kev says, "Embrace the Bundle!"
What to Look For
If you're in the market for vintage cast iron, you can't be afraid of rust. In fact, Skilletheads often look for the dirtiest, rustiest, cruddiest piece of iron they can find because it's cheaper than a pristine pan. They're going to strip and re-season it anyway.
But what's under all that rust? Learn as much as you can about the piece before you buy it. If you're shopping online, the seller should be able to answer basic questions about the pan. If you're shopping in person, though, you get to be the detective.
- A small flashlight
- A pocket knife
- A measuring tape
- A straightedge or ruler
- A small magnet
- Collector's guide books (e.g., The Blue and Red Books)
- Smart phone with internet and camera functionality
To determine the quality of the pan, look for:
- Cracks—Use your fingertips to feel all over the cast iron and follow-up with a close visual inspection with your flashlight. Cracked pans cannot be restored or used safely, so avoid these, regardless of brand. (That is, unless you plan to cut them up and make cast-iron spatulas out of them like Cast Iron Kev does!)
- Chipping—If a small chip has broken off of the pan, it may still be usable, but its value will be reduced.
- Pitting—This could be a result of previous rust and restoration, and it can keep the pan from accepting seasoning.
- Heat damage—People often use fire to clean cast iron, but the extreme heat can cause thermal shock to the pan, causing it to warp, making it more brittle, and changing the composition of the iron so that it refuses to keep a good seasoning.
To determine if a pan has heat damage, first look at the color. If it has a red or pink hue, it was likely in a fire. Then use your straightedge on the bottom of the pan or place the pan on a level table and see if wobbles or spins. Place the straightedge on the inside of the pan to see if it is warped at an upward angle. Warped pans, wobblers, and spinners cannot be used on a smooth surface stove top, but they may be used on a gas top stove, grill, or over an open fire. If it is an otherwise good piece of cast iron with a well-known brand, you may be able to restore and sell it, but you will need to disclose the damage and charge a much lower price. Better yet, keep it for your camping needs.
Part science and part personal preference, collecting and restoring cast-iron cookware is a complex art. For instance, what makes each company's cast iron unique? Do chemicals used during restoration leech into food? When it comes to surface finish, is textured or smooth better?
In Skilletheads, the highly anticipated follow-up to Modern Cast Iron, Ashley L. Jones dives deeper than ever into the world of cast iron. In these pages, which feature over 100 full-color photos, you'll find expert advice on purchasing cast iron from some of the most active collectors in the field today; side-by-side comparisons of the major manufacturers in the US and interviews with each company; and detailed how-to guides for restoring cast iron, including such methods as lye baths, electrolysis tanks, and chemical products, all compiled with input from devoted Skilletheads. And because no book on cast iron is complete without a little cooking, Jones includes 35 mouth-watering recipes contributed by foodies who know cast iron best—everything from Sunday Frittata to Braised Chicken to Skillet S'mores.
Whether you're interested in finding the perfect pan for your kitchen or starting a new hobby restoring cast iron, Skilletheads is here to help.
About the Author
"Obviously Ashley has a problem, and thankfully she's kind enough to share it with us! This book really is for everyone. The home cook to the Michelin chef. The newbie collector to the seasoned pro (ha!). A must-have for the cast iron user in your life!"—Kevin Fogarty, Content Creator Cast Iron Kev
Other Titles in Cooking with specific gadgets