Restoring cast iron pieces: Bringing history back to life

Restoring cast iron pieces: Bringing history back to life

     The other day I was asked by a close friend if I would be willing to restore a piece for them and it reminded me that I've been thinking about blogging about restoration methods.  I'm often asked about the restoration process and how we restore our cast iron.  Many times these questions are coming from folks who, like us, have a pan or two that (they may or may not know where it originated) needs a good cleaning.  They want to pay homage to the history of the piece, but they really don't want all the gunk and buildup that comes with that history!  So being new to the hobby, they aren't sure exactly where to start.  So I thought I'd share some thoughts on restoration and hopefully this will answer some underlying questions you may have as well. 

     Restoring cast iron can be broken down into three phases:  Stripping, seasoning and long term care.  Prior to stripping down pieces, you would be shocked at how some of them look versus when they are finished.  You would understand why I say that of the three phases of restoration, CLEARLY our predecessors only were focused on the seasoning stage and not the stripping or long term care.  Some of the "buildup" can be inches thick!  It's almost as if soap never existed back then!  (Yes, I mentioned soap.  I'm on team Soap.)  The buildup can be significant.  But then again, when it comes out of the tank to be scrubbed and cleaned, and its original beauty or current patina is revealed, you see the majestic transformation.  

Anyway I digress...back to the stages.  

1. Stripping:  While the word sounds harsh, there are two very natural ways to strip cast iron pans that I'm okay with utilizing.  Those methods are electrolysis and using a lye bath.  Both should be approached with caution because lye burns, and electricity....well it electrocutes.  So before attempting either, there are TONS of videos and instructional videos on YouTube for you to discover the methods that are best for you.  Take your time and use the proper safety gear.  Electrolysis tanks seem to be popping up all over the place online but just please keep in mind you are combining water...with electric. 

2. Seasoning:  A huge misnomer in cast iron cooking is that seasoning is the same thing as "oiling up" a piece of cookware.  And while that's PART of it, it's definitely not the goal of seasoning.  Seasoning is the process of preventing rust from developing on your cook surfaces.  It's done by a process of polymerizing (say that five times fast) fats from oils using heat just beyond the smoke point of the oil.  The result of burning off the oil that's been applied to the piece is a microscopic layer of protection that will over time prevent rusting when you are cooking.  A great example would be cast iron lids.  The purpose of a lid is to keep moisture in, and when a piece is newly seasoned (we season three times before posting it for sale) it can easily lose its seasoning with the moisture from hot steam.  Especially since some stews and soups take hours to cook.  I like to use what my Grandmom Clara Bell used, which would be a combination of vegetable oils.  I find they leave a deep chocolate brown color to the piece and form a good base for future seasonings.  

3. Long Term Care:  The last important part of the process is long term care of your cast iron piece.  It's critical to stress here that while cast iron is very, very durable and will last virtually forever if properly cared for, it is not in fact, indestructible.  Cast iron can crack, rust to the point of pitting, or scale with excessive heat (heat damage from exposure to 600 degree plus heat).  But every day use of your cast iron is the best way to enjoy your historical investment for your lifetime and the next.  Make sure you use it for what its for!  But when you are finished, here's some tips on deepening that dark finish and having the perfect cookware for your kitchen. 

 When you are finished cooking and preferably while the piece is still warm to the touch, use chain mail, 3M mesh ball (my preference) or a non abrasive scrub pad to get all the food off your iron.  Food is NOT a good thing to leave on your iron.  It's gross, your grandmother would not want to see caked on bacon bits on her skillet.  Then when you've removed the residue, give it a good wash with soap and water.  (I'll talk more one day about soap, I just don't have the energy now)  You will NOT remove the polymerized "seasoning" by just using soap and water.  You COULD remove it if you let water sit in the piece, so make sure you dry it thoroughly, or pop it in a warm oven to burn off the moisture.   Lastly, I take a clean but lightly oiled paper town and I give the piece a good rub down.  I am NOT advocating that you put more oil on it.  But I personally like to have them shine when hanging on the wall in the kitchen so I do lightly (stressing...LIGHTLY) wipe it down with my oiled paper towel.  You want it to look clean and shiny but not oily or sticky to the touch.  Depending on how often you use your piece, leftover oils can become rancid or at the very least, become sticky and accrue dust.  That's gross too.  

That's my thoughts on the restoration process as I see it today.  I've learned a lot over the years about what works for me and for our business.  But I've changed a lot too, learning from good mistakes and listening to the advice of others.  If you have any questions that we can assist with as it pertains to your cast iron, just shoot us an email at 

Happy Cooking! 


Back to blog