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When yard sale or thrift store shopping, be on the lookout for cast iron cookware. Here are the how’s and why’s to purchase this old-school cookware.
Cast-iron cookware is coming back in vogue. The cost of new cast iron pots and pans has skyrocketed, making purchasing some for your own use out of reach. There is a tradition of cast iron cookware being passed down from family member to family member in my country clan. I have a set from my grandmother’s kitchen in my own home.
Cast iron is virtually indestructible. Made of cast iron, the longevity cannot be rivaled by today’s cookware sets. There are also great health benefits of using cast iron skillets versus today’s nonstick counterparts.
Because cast iron is so durable if you are willing to invest time rather than money to get the pieces you want there are many in the second-hand market to be had. But where do you start?
Old Versus New
Generally speaking, older cast iron cookware is smoother, thinner and lighter than the modern versions. Originally, cookware was cast by pouring molten iron alloy into ceramic molds. When the casting was cooled, the molds were opened to remove the pan and the flashing was ground off of the edges. The ceramic mold produced a much smoother surface.
As large manufacturers needed to meet a higher demand, they converted to a sand-casting method. The mold is a box of moist sand mixed with clay and organic materials to bind it. Some used a split mold and adhered the two halves after casting. Others used a wax pattern buried in the sand. Heating the assembly causes the wax to melt and seep into the sand, leaving a pan-shaped cavern in the mold. Molten metal was then poured into the mold. When cool, the mold is broken to retrieve the pan.
Sand casting leaves a rougher surface than the old-school ceramic molds did. Lodge brand cast iron skillets and pans are of the sand cast variety. While the old-school smoother surfaces are easier to season, both can be made nonstick with regular use and proper seasoning techniques.
Brands to Watch For
Most of the high-quality American-made cast iron manufacturers no longer are in business. But they can be found in the second-hand market if you are willing to seek them out.
Griswold of Erie Pennsylvania
Established in 1865, Griswold Manufacturing Company initially manufactured door hinges but became known worldwide as one of the top cast iron cookware manufacturers. Their production began in 1880 under the ERIE brand name. They also used the trademarks of Tite Top Dutch Oven, Tite Top Baster, Kwik Bake, Aristocraft, and Colonial. Griswold’s closed their doors in 1957 for a variety of reasons. To find the best quality pieces of Griswold cookware, look for a larger stamped trademark in the bottom of the pan.
Wagner of Sidney Ohio
Founded in 1891, the Wagner Manufacturing Company became one of the two largest cast iron cookware producers alongside Griswold. Wagner products were thinner than Griswold’s making them lighter in weight and quicker to heat through, but slightly more prone to cracking if not properly cared for. The simple “WAGNER” trademark was stamped on their cookware until 1922. They transitioned to a new logo, printing Wagner Ware as stacked words with “Sidney” and “-O-” beneath it (the O standing for Ohio) starting in 1914. Wagner Manufacturing was purchased by the Randall Corporation in 1952.
As of April 2016, American Culinary continues to market the brands Wagner, Wanerware, and Griswold as their own.
Lodge of South Pittsburg Tennessee
Joseph Lodge opened his foundry in 1896 in the small town of South Pittsburg, TN (population 3,300). Originally named the Blacklock Foundry, the company burned down in May of 1910. Three months later, the foundry reopened its doors as Lodge Manufacturing Company. Today the company is still run by members of the Lodge family.
Some collectors view the Lodge brand as too commercial. The early years of production utilized ceramic molds in their manufacturing. Readily available, much of the American population has Lodge cast iron cookware in their households.
Wapak of Wapakoneta Ohio (1903- 1926)
Favorite of Piqua Ohio (1910- 1935)
What to Look For
Secondhand pieces will most likely not be in perfect condition. Do not be afraid of the surface rust of a thick layer of baked on yuckiness. As long as you do not see pitting in the metal upon inspection, you can bring an abused piece back to life. Most likely all the cast iron you find will be dirty and rusted. The appearance of the pieces can help you to get an even bigger bargain, as long as you are willing to do the labor of restoring the skillet to its original grandeur.
The biggest things to watch for are cracks around the sides, chips on the surface of the interior, and distortion or warping. If the pan is warped or the bottom is bowed, the pan has been overheated and will definitely be hard to cook with. Cast iron repair is very obvious. It cannot be welded like steel, but only brazed with very obvious repair marks. Make sure to inspect for these marks in the pan before purchasing, as repairs are likely to fail with long-term use.
Where to Look
Your best bet for finding quality second hand cast iron cookware will be at auctions, estate sales, and farm sales for older properties. Farms are known for having quality cast iron in the kitchen as if was inexpensive in the old days and lasted almost forever. Do not overlook garage sales, however, as some older households may be in possession of collections as well.
If you live in or near a rural area, stop into flea markets, thrift stores and second-hand stores in those areas. People in rural areas tended to be slower to switch to steel pans. They liked what worked and didn’t see the point in buying new pans when they had a set already that was just fine for their uses.
Beware Online Sellers
Online sources such as eBay and Etsy are great for finding great pieces, however, these tend to have been purchased elsewhere and the marked up to make the seller a good profit. Do not expect to find a bargain on these sites. Also, try to steer clear of sellers who do not offer a guarantee or return policy. Pictures do not allow a proper inspection. You want to be able to return a cracked or otherwise flawed pot or pan.
How Much to Pay
As the popularity of cast iron returns, the price increases with the demand. There is no magic number on what each piece is worth. My only advice is to know ahead of time what you are willing to pay for what quality. Inspect carefully. Never gush over a skillet in earshot of the seller. Disingenuous sellers are likely to up their price due to your excitement. Take the time to look into the cost of new pieces of cast iron cookware. Use these prices as a baseline for your second-hand purchases.
Have Fun Searching
Taking the time to do a little legwork will not only save your money in the long run. It will increase your knowledge of cast iron quality and care. By purchasing a piece that needs a bit of restoration and care, your knowledge of how to care for the piece will ensure that you will know how to make your cast iron cookware last long enough to pass onto your loved ones. Enlist your family and friends to help you in your search, making an outing of it. You can learn together about cast iron while having a fun time doing it.