Cast-iron cookware is experiencing a revival of sorts. Maybe you’ve read articles or seen video of people who tout the superior cooking ability of cast iron, the material’s longevity — so nearly indestructible that collections are often passed down through multiple generations — and the healthful benefits of cast-iron cookware. Perhaps you have acquired a piece to try out, and now you’re hooked.
But buying a full complement of cast-iron kitchenware from retail stores gets pricey. Because it is so durable, be willing to invest time, rather than money, to seek out the pieces you want on the secondhand market. But where do you start? First, let’s examine what you will be looking for.
Old school vs. new school
Generally speaking, pre-World War II cast-iron cookware is smoother, thinner, and lighter than modern versions. There are two reasons for this. First is that originally, cookware was cast by pouring molten iron alloy into ceramic molds. When the casting cooled, the molds were opened to remove the pan and the flashing was ground off around the edges. The ceramic mold produced a smooth surface.
When manufacturers needed to increase production, they went to a sand-casting method to form their pans. The mold is a box of moist sand mixed with clay and organic binders. Some stamped the shape into two halves of a split mold. 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 medium. Molten metal is then poured into the mold. When cool, the mold is broken apart to retrieve the pan. Very little grinding is required, no mold maintenance to perform, and the mold is reusable.
Sand casting leaves a rougher surface than the ceramic molds did. Some say this ruins the pan and only the older, smooth-surfaced pans should be used, but I for one make omelets in a sand-casted Lodge cast-iron skillet without any trouble. A smooth surface is easier to season quickly, but both can be made nonstick with regular use and proper seasoning.
Some brands, notably Griswold and Wagner, machined the interior surfaces of sand-cast pans to smooth them. Most modern brands leave the surfaces rough to facilitate their preseasoning process.
Brands to look for
Most of the revered names in American-made cast-iron cookware have gone out of business. But because their products are so durable, they can still be found on the secondhand market.
Griswold: The Griswold Manufacturing Company of Erie, Pennsylvania, was established in 1865 between the Selden and Griswold families. Initially manufacturing door hinges, they became known worldwide as a top manufacturer of cast-iron products, especially cookware. Their production of cast-iron cookware began around 1880 under the ERIE brand. Later, the familiar Griswold logo emerged. Other trademarks they used included Tite Top Dutch Oven, Tite Top Baster, Kwik Bake, Aristocraft, and Colonial.
For a variety of reasons, Griswold’s product quality declined in the 1940s, and they closed their doors in 1957. For most of their run, the Griswold logo was displayed on the bottom surface of most pans. They went to a smaller logo during the troubled years, and this is a good indicator of the lesser-quality products.
Wagner: The Wagner Manufacturing Company was founded in Sidney, Ohio, in 1891, and became one of the two largest cast-iron cookware producers, along with Griswold. Wagner products were known to be thinner than Griswold, making them a bit lighter in weight and quicker to heat, but slightly more prone to cracking if not properly cared for.
From the company’s inception, the simple name “WAGNER” appeared on skillets until after 1922. In 1914, Wagner began transitioning to a new logo, printing “Wagner Ware” as stacked words and sharing a single “W.” Below this were “Sidney” and “-O-” — the “O” standing for Ohio.
The Randall Corporation purchased Wagner Manufacturing in 1952.
Cast-iron cookware made up until the last year of production, 1959, is considered to be collectible Wagner cast iron, when the “SIDNEY -O-” was removed from the logo. This may have reflected that operations were moved from Sidney to Cincinnati by Textron, who had purchased Randall.
Through a series of buyouts, both the Wagner and Griswold brands were owned by The Randall Corp, Textron, General Housewares Corporation, and the American Culinary Corporation of Willoughby, Ohio. As of April 2016, American Culinary continues to market products branded Wagner, Wagnerware, and Griswold, and claims the heritage of these companies as their own.
Lodge: Joseph Lodge and his wife settled in South Pittsburg, Tennessee, population 3,300, and in 1896, Joseph opened his first foundry. Originally named The Blacklock Foundry, the company was successful until a fire burned the foundry down in May 1910. Three months later, and a few blocks south of the original site, the company reopened its doors as Lodge Manufacturing Company. Today, Joseph Lodge’s great-grandsons are CEO and President of Lodge manufacturing.
Lodge has worked hard over the decades to eliminate waste and environmental hazard from their operations. They have developed new recycling methods within the plant and adopted a new smelting method to significantly reduce waste output. Lodge is committed to working with their community to make South Pittsburg a better place to live.
That said, collectors sometimes snub Lodge as “too commercial.” Some do give a nod of approval to the earliest years when Lodge used ceramic molds. Some professional chefs, including Martha Stewart and Johnny Nix, consider Lodge cast iron essential tools in their kitchen.
Wapak: The Wapak Hollow Ware Company was named after its hometown of Wapakoneta, Ohio, where it produced several lines of “thin-wall” cast-iron skillets. Information about this company is scarce, as they only manufactured between 1903 and 1926, when they declared bankruptcy.
Wapak Hollow Ware changed logos several time during its time in production. One of the company’s more well-known logos is the American Indian head with the words “WAPAK HIGH GRADE HOLLOW WARE.” Pieces bearing this “Native American logo” are prized by collectors.
Favorite Piqua Ware: In 1887, the Favorite Stove & Range Company moved from Cincinnati, Ohio, to Piqua, Ohio. From the 1910s through the ’30s, Favorite focused primarily on making stoves and stove parts, but also produced midpriced cast-iron cookware. The owner, Stanhope Boal, passed away in 1933, and combined with the devastation of the Great Depression, this led to the company’s closure in 1935.
What to watch for
When evaluating a secondhand piece of cast-iron cookware, do not be afraid of surface rust or a thick layer of baked-on grunge. As long as the metal has not pitted, you can work with it. These are common in used pieces and can be easily remedied in the restoration process. The disreputable appearance can often bring you a much lower price, too.
The big things to watch for are cracks around the sides, chips in the cooking surface or along the rim (which may lead to cracks), and distortion. If a pan is warped or the bottom is bowed, the pan has been overheated and will give you trouble.
Cast iron cannot be welded or flattened like a steel pan can. Cast iron can be brazed, but the repair is very visible.
Cracks are difficult, if not impossible, to see under a thick layer of seasoning. If the metal is clean, bounce a strong light off the sides of the pan as you inspect it. A crack will look like a hair or scratch on the surface.
Some pans will have severe bottom-pitting from being used over caustic fuels like coal and old-style natural gas. These fuels contained sulfur and produced sulfuric acid while burning, which ate into the pan at one point. This diminishes the value to a collector, but may not be a deal-killer if a pan is intended for use.
Where to look
Now that you are armed with some information on what to look for, where do you go looking for secondhand cast-iron cookware? Your best chances at finding usable cast-iron kitchenware will be auctions, estate sales, and farm sales for older properties. Farms are known for having quality cast iron in the kitchen, because it was inexpensive and lasted almost forever. However, any home or restaurant that had a kitchen may have used cast iron.
You can also poke through thrift shops, flea markets, yard sales, and moving sales, especially in rural areas. Many city folk went to the “modern” cookware because it was stylish, whereas rural folks tended to stick with what worked well for them.
Don’t forget to ask around with family, friends, and co-workers. Sometimes people box up old cookware and stash it in the attic when they get a set of shiny new pans for Christmas. They may be happy to let you clear out some space in their attic for little or no money.
Also, don’t forget online sources like eBay. Your favorite search engine will turn up many websites that sell secondhand cast iron — but, of course, these have been bought elsewhere and are being resold at a higher price, so don’t expect the best prices. And unless they offer a guarantee of quality, you don’t know for sure that you’re not buying a cracked piece.
And, of course, there is always Amazon, where pieces of new cast iron can be found at lower prices than what you might find in retail stores, but not as low as secondhand shops or auctions.
When to look
Do it now. Cast-iron cookware is enjoying a resurgence of popularity among people who have grown wary of nonstick coated pans. Cast iron is cool again. Because more people are looking for it, the longer you wait, the less of it will be found, and likely at higher prices.
How much to pay
Traditionally, when a slightly rusty or badly crusted cast-iron pan is found at a thrift shop or yard sale, you’d expect to pay a dollar or two for it, maybe $5 if it’s a big Dutch oven and is in usable condition. But as demand increases, so does price — if the seller realizes that these items are again in high demand. If you find a cast-iron piece you want, do not gush over it. A cagey seller may hike the price up because you are excited to find it.
Decide ahead of time what you are willing to pay for specific pieces you want. You may want to look at the prices of new pieces and use that as a basis for your upper limits: 50 percent if it’s something you really want and it’s in good shape, 25 to 30 percent if you’re less interested in it.
Of course, if you are buying as a collector and not as a user, you will want to invest a lot more time into researching what specific pieces, brands, and vintages are worth. But as a user, your interest in resale will be almost nil. Once you get hold of a full set of cast-iron pots and pans, you won’t be giving them up.
Learn how to restore and season your latest cast-iron cookware find.
Doug Bittinger has been an author, writer, and prattler since the 1970s. He lives on a mountainside in East Tennessee with his wonderful wife, Marie, and their very talented American Bulldog, Cochise. He can be contacted at DougBittinger.com.