Restoring vintage cast iron to its original glory isn’t actually all that hard to do, as long as you follow a few simple steps. In the simplest of terms, cast iron restoration just means stripping a pan of its original seasoning, along with any rust and/or dirt that has accumulated over the years, and then re-seasoning with fresh oil.
As you’ll see, it’s extremely satisfying to watch your old cast iron transform before your eyes. And the method that I use, detailed below - one which employs an oven cleaner, a metal abrasive and paper towels - is extremely easy, safe and straightforward. I have used it repeatedly over the years with excellent results each time.
Here’s what you’ll need to get started, photographed above:
While there are other methods for restoring vintage cast iron out there - methods involving harsh chemical and electrolysis baths - I’ve always found the procedure outlined below to be more than enough to restore even the worst cast iron to near original condition.
And best of all, this is a restoration method that you can do at home. You probably even have most of the supplies already under your sink. It’s in my opinion easier, and a lot safer than messing around with harsh chemicals.
In fact, the hardest (and most critical) step in transforming an old, rusty yard sale find into a freshly seasoned, ready-to-go piece of kitchenware isn’t even part of the restoration process itself; it’s selecting the right pan from the outset.
That’s why this guide begins with a few tips to keep in mind if you’re on the hunt for vintage cast iron cookware.
Where to buy vintage cast iron skillets
If you’re looking to buy a vintage cast iron skillet, the easiest and quickest way to do so is through eBay. There is plenty of cast iron here in all conditions, but prices can be high, and you’ll also need to pay for shipping, which can be expensive.
I got this beautiful Wagner Ware Bacon and Egg Breakfast Skillet on eBay for about $50 all in, which is probably more than you need to pay for a regular skillet. But this is a special piece, and I’ve always wanted one, so I yielded to temptation and clicked “buy.”
And although I couldn’t examine the piece in person before receiving it, I could tell it was in pretty decent shape. You can see from the photo above that it hadn’t yet been restored - the skillet was covered in old food bits and had some rusting on the bottom. But most critically, it had no significant problems, like cracks, chips or pitting.
The only thing that I couldn’t verify was whether or not the pan was warped at all, and luckily, it wasn’t! More on that below.
In addition to eBay, there is also a good deal of cast iron circulating on Craigslist, Nextdoor and Facebook’s marketplace, which is convenient because with these platforms you can pick up your purchases in person, straight from the seller. There is an added layer of protection here as well, since you’ll be able to examine your piece carefully before turning over your hard earned cash.
That said, if you don’t find anything within your price range online, my advice would be to give your search some time. There are always nice pieces turning up at local yard sales and thrift stores, and often at much reduced prices compared to what you might find online.
Lastly, the beauty of vintage cast iron is that it was made en masse, and made well. These pieces truly were made to last, which is why there is so much cast iron from the early part of the 20th century still out there. Just be patient!
How to identify vintage cast iron skillets
The easiest and most accurate way to identify vintage cast iron is by looking for a maker’s mark on the bottom of the skillet that corresponds to a particular brand and time period.
The most famous American cast iron kitchenware producers of the 20th century - brands like Wagner, Griswold, National and Lodge - all produced cast iron cookware with their logo stamped to the bottom. These marks and logos changed over the years, and can be used to identify the approximate decade of manufacture.
But herein lies the complexity - you’ll need to have at least some basic familiarity with logo evolution over the years. For example, the skillet below features the Wagner Ware stylized logo on the bottom of a completely flat pan (no heat ring) which means it was made sometime between 1935 and 1959.
There is a lot to pay attention to here and many variables, including sizing denotation, logo design and the presence or absence of a heat ring, and that’s too much detail to go into here. If you’re looking to do a deep dive on cast iron dating, you can check out my complete guide to Wagner Ware, here.
Another way to identify vintage cast iron is by examining the condition of the material itself, and the accuracy of the cast. This will take a trained eye.
But essentially, vintage cast iron was produced with greater care than the mass produced pieces manufactured today. Each piece was cast by hand, and then machine-smoothed individually, resulting in extremely smooth surfaces that just got smoother with time.
As long as the piece you’re examining isn’t caked with food or rust, it will be much smoother to the touch than newer cast iron.
What to avoid when selecting vintage cast iron
Chipping, cracking, warping and pitting are the four most common ways that a piece of vintage cast iron might be damaged. While the first two conditions result from physical impacts, the latter two types of damage are usually the result of improper heating.
Chipping and cracking are pretty self explanatory, and generally result from accidents like banging your pan against a hard surface or dropping it on the floor. Cast iron is incredibly hard, but it can also be brittle, and should be handled with care.
Incidentally, chips and cracks are also the least concerning when it comes to damaged cast iron. This is because chips and small cracks are largely cosmetic, and cracks are often superficial.
That said, if you can avoid a cracked pan you should, since these kinds of cosmetic issues can lower the pan’s resale value, and just don’t look good. Remember, there is always plenty of vintage cast iron out there.
The latter two problems, warping and pitting, are generally bigger issues. Warping is especially problematic, in that it will directly affect your ability to cook with your pan, especially if you have a flat top stove.
It’s easy to check for a warped pan though - simply put it on a flat surface, like a countertop, and check its stability. If it wobbles, move on.
Pitting, on the other hand, refers to the small craters that develop in cast iron as the result of chemical erosion. This usually has to do with the heat source that previous owners have cooked on, and pitting is as a result most often found on the bottom of the skillet.
Pitting on the exterior of the pan, as long as the craters don’t go too deep, is generally ok, while pitting on the inside of your pan will negatively affect your cooking experience. Remember, you’re looking for the smoothest cook surface possible - this is in fact much of the reason to go vintage - so don’t compromise on smoothness.
Here are a few close up photos of my breakfast skillet, the cast iron I’ll be restoring. You can see that the pan is completely free of cracks, chips and pits, though it does have quite a bit of food gunk and carbon caked on from over the years.
You can see that there is quite a bit of debris caked in there that I’ll need to scrub off, especially in the corners. But beyond that, and except for a bit of rust on the bottom, this pan is in phenomenal shape.
I’m really excited to get this breakfast skillet fully restored. Buying it on eBay was a small risk, I’ll admit, but so worth it. I could tell before buying that it had no major issues.
In summary, it’s best to avoid vintage cast iron that displays any signs of:
Restoring vintage cast iron
Ok, you’ve selected your vintage cast iron kitchenware. Now it’s time to move on to restoring your piece.
When you get down to it, in restoring cast iron, you’re essentially only doing two things. First, you’re cleaning off hardened layers of food, carbon and possibly rust that have accumulated on the pan over the years, and using some sort of abrasive to do so.
And second, once you’ve removed years of crud and rust from your skillet, you’re re-seasoning the now virgin cast iron skillet to both protect it from the elements and turn it into something you can actually cook on.
Simple enough, right? Now, here is that process broken down into manageable steps, along with a few items that I like to use that make the job easier.
I should also mention that this isn’t by any means the only method for restoring vintage cast iron, but it is the easiest, and in my opinion the most practical for most of us. While there are restoration methods that involve chemical baths and electrolysis tanks, I’ve always found those processes just a bit too intimidating, not to mention potentially dangerous.
Instead, this is what works for me and a lot of others:
STEP ONE: Applying oven cleaner
You’re going to want to coat your pan in Easy-Off, as I’m doing below. Although the brand I prefer is fume free, I’d still recommend doing this outside if you have the option. Otherwise, apply the oven cleaner away from you, in the sink.
Apply more than you think you’ll need - you really want to be generous and build up a solid layer of foam on every square inch of the pan. You might need to do some juggling here!
Even though I’m not following my own advice, I’d also recommend using gloves for this step. Easy-Off is a lye based cleaner, which can irritate the skin. I felt some light stinging after this, and remembered pretty quickly why I usually like to wear gloves!
I like Easy Off to comparable cleaners because of the lack of fumes. But regardless of what brand of oven cleaner you end up using, make sure that you apply it for long enough for the degreasing elements of the cleaner to break down and dissolve the food crud.
With respect to rust, I’ve never really had the need to invest in rust removing products beyond steel wool. Rust comes off of cast iron pretty easily, and isn’t nearly as stubborn as old, caked on food.
I’m also hesitant to use any product not designed for kitchens - which could be potentially toxic - and don’t feel comfortable recommending them here. If you’re really having trouble with the steel wool, I would go a grade coarser and give that another try before introducing potentially harmful chemicals to your cast iron (and your lungs).
STEP TWO: Letting the pan rest
Next, you will place your pan inside of a plastic bag and tie it off, either with some string or a rubber band. You’ll see that I also snuck some paper towel in there, which I was using to wipe my hands clean as I worked. This worked really well for creating an airtight seal.
One trick that I learned from my father-in-law, that I would suggest using here as well, is to blow some air into the bag right before sealing it off. This will cause the bag to bubble up, and prevent the plastic from dipping into the foam layer covering your pan.
Once the plastic bag is sealed, wipe down the exterior of any extraneous oven cleaner, because this can really mess up your counter if you aren’t careful. I also put some heavy brown paper under the plastic as an added layer of protection.
Now let your pan sit in the plastic bag for 24 hours!
STEP THREE: Scrubbing with a metal abrasive
After you’ve let the pan rest for 24 hours, carefully remove it from the plastic and begin scrubbing! The first layer of filth will come off pretty easily, but be forewarned, it gets nasty.
You’re definitely going to want to do this in the sink.
I started this step with steel wool, but you can use whatever metal abrasive you’ve got at this point. Proceed slowly and deliberately. This is the most important step in cast iron restoration because you only have one shot at getting off all that gunk.
By this step, the oven cleaner should have eaten away at the years of carbon that were caked on your pan, and now your job is to scrub it away. It may still be difficult, and that’s why you’re using heavy duty scrubbing pads and steel wool. But be patient, and you’ll definitely see results.
I like to use gentle steel wool at this step, something with relatively fine texture so as not to damage the cast iron. That said, it’s actually quite difficult to mess up cast iron with steel wool, so I wouldn’t worry too much about this.
STEP FOUR: Rinsing and washing with soap
After you’ve thoroughly scrubbed your pan down, give it a good rinse. If you still see significant bits of carbon at this point, you have two choices. Either use more elbow grease, using your steel wool and/or scour pad, or apply more oven cleaner.
I would recommend the first option here unless you’ve really got a mess, since too much lye will eventually eat away at the cast iron itself. Just be persistent - this will take time.
But if you rinse your pan and are satisfied with the results, then re-wash the pan with a regular sponge and some dish soap. This is an important step because it will clean the pan of any harmful chemicals and crud before re-seasoning.
I have to tell you, it feels so weird to use dish soap on a cast iron pan! This is really the only time you’re allowed to do this!
Once you’ve washed your pan with soapy water, and rinsed it clean once again, it should look something like this:
This is virgin cast iron. I know I didn’t get off every bit of black, but the pan is smooth to the touch and ready for re-seasoning.
STEP FIVE: Re-seasoning your cast iron pan with oil
Once you’ve washed your pan and wiped it dry, it’s time to re-season your cast iron. You can’t leave your cast iron in this condition without re-seasoning, because it will begin to rust again immediately.
At this point, the metal has been stripped down to its initial casting condition, but remains unprotected.
To season your pan, first make sure that it is clean of any moisture or debris from previous steps. Then preheat your oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit and wipe your cast iron with a layer of vegetable oil, making sure to coat every inch of the pan, inside and out.
Rub oil into the pan until it completely absorbs, really until you can barely see it anymore. The virgin cast iron will actually absorb quite a bit of oil, so don’t worry if your oil disappears. In fact, this is preferable to leaving oil on the pan without massaging it in, since that will pool and create bizarre, sticky spots.
Some people use vegetable or canola oil, while others prefer to use an animal fat like lard, which works quite well. This is a matter of personal choice. The only thing you’ll want to ensure at this point is that you avoid oils with relatively low smoke points, like olive oil.
Olive oil will NOT work to season your pan, as it will burn off almost immediately.
See how the oil rubs in, and how my paper towel still looks relatively clean? This is a sure sign that I did a good job with the previous steps.
If you start rubbing your pan with oil and notice that the paper towel blackens, my suggestion would be to go back to step four and wash the skillet with more soap and water.
STEP SIX: Baking in the seasoning
Place your oiled pan in the oven, upside down to prevent any oil from pooling in the center, and leave it to bake at 425 degrees for thirty minutes. If you massaged the oil into the pan properly it shouldn’t drip, but you still might want to place a cookie sheet below everything, just in case.
STEP SEVEN: Re-applying oil, re-baking
After thirty minutes, remove the pan from the oven and apply another layer of oil. Just be careful - it’s now extremely hot!
At this point, the pan will absorb oil even quicker than it did when the metal was cold. Just be sure once again to rub the oil in thoroughly, before placing it back in the oven for another thirty minutes.
Repeat this step about three to four times, for a total baking time of an hour and a half to two hours.
STEP EIGHT: Letting the pan cool
After your final bake, turn off the oven and let your cast iron cool down slowly inside without removing it from the oven. I like to do this, rather than removing the pan quickly, to prevent any accidental cracks.
Remember, cast iron is at its most vulnerable during rapid temperature changes, which is something we want to avoid.
I also like to leave the pan in the oven at this point to avoid burning myself! Cast iron, baked at 400+ degrees for almost two hours is extremely hot, and can burn you so easily. Why risk it?
After the pan has cooled, remove it from the oven and take a peek. It should look something like this:
There you go. Your pan is now fully restored, re-seasoned, and ready to go!
I was so excited to get and restore this Wagner Ware Bacon and Egg Breakfast Skillet - it’s so unique! Here’s another quick photo of the final product, used for the perfect breakfast!
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