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Buying used cast iron skillets

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So I've never looked at CI before because they were always too heavy for me. But, today, I picked up a Wagner 1891 Original, which I guess is from 2001 so it's really not *that* old, but nevertheless, was MUCH lighter than the Lodge that I've fondled in the stores.

There is a large antique mall near me that sells CI skillets, but all have been wire scrubbed clean, so that they are silver and shiny, like carbon steel. They need to be completely seasoned.

If I went this route, I do know that I should test the bottom for warp-age (is that even a word?) I have a miniature level that I can stick in my pocket and use. Is this a good/bad idea? Are there any other recommendations you have?

Many thanks,


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  1. Hi, E_M:

    Lighter means thinner. In your case, because you already are pleased with the evenness of your DO on your resistive hob, you will probably also like this pan--if it is no larger than your coil.

    But if it is a big pan, and were you to want to cook on an inexpensive gas or induction hob, you might be displeased with the unevenness. In those cases, you would be better off with a thicker/heavier pan.

    There are those who say that a good cast pan/skillet will ring like a bell when struck, and that a thud will indicate a casting flaw or crack. I don't know if this is true or not.

    There are also a bunch of ideas as to older models of Griswolds and Wagners based on the marks on the bottom. Some pans are worth a lot as collectibles, others not so much, and it is difficult for the uninitiated (like me) to tell the difference. There is a thread of mine where I kinda asked the same question. Search "Griswold values" and you should find it.

    4 Replies
    1. re: kaleokahu

      "There are those who say that a good cast pan/skillet will ring like a bell when struck, and that a thud will indicate a casting flaw or crack. I don't know if this is true or not."

      Yeah, I am not sure about that neither. There is some truth to it, but one should only takes it as a grain of salt.

      1. re: Chemicalkinetics

        A dull thud is definitely proof of a crack. A good pan will ring like a bell, but heavy seasoning will lower the pitch.

        1. re: Kelli2006

          What should I hit them with? My fist? Knuckle? (ouch!)

          1. re: E_M

            Id use something metal, like a heavy serving spoon or the spine of a knife. Hold the pan vertical and loosely by the handle so you don't accidentely dampen the force.

            Sorry for the G33K knowledge but I studied engineering.

    2. I own 4 old CI skillets, 3 of them later Griswolds. The big one is a a secondhand no name, and I haven't the foggiest how old it is, but if fits right in with the others.

      I use all my skillets for various things. I use canola oil for seasoning. I tried the flaxseed oil method recently and decided it was too expensive (electric rate) for repeated use.

      You are correct about getting a level bottomed pan. That is a priority. The small level should work.

      What you want, more than the name on the bottom of the pan, is how it feels in your hand and whether you find it balanced. I like to look at how refined the spouts are as well.

      Don't forget to ask your old female relatives if they have an old skillet or two they can give you!

      1. I love my old cast iron and always check the bottom of any cookware or pyrex bakeware to make sure it is level. I find a glass surface or other flat surface and if it is warped, you will know right away. If you can't find a surface at an antique mall, very often the checkout area is flat. I will check it on a few surfaces if there is any doubt. I'm not sure how a pocket level would show if it is warped unless you have a way to know if you are holding the pan level. I really don't care about having it for collector's value. The value to me is in it's ability to cook. Some dealers do reseason and I bought one pan that had a perfect, even black seasoning. I love that the surface on old pans are flat as opposed to sand cast(others like the rough surface).

        1. What is a good way to check for evenness inside the pan? I thought dropping some water in to see where it puddles but don't think the proprietor would approve.

          K, I realize that lighter means thinner, but...i just can't lift heavy pans. They are too unstable in my hands, which makes them unsafe. I am looking for the "sweet spot" between a good heft and something I can manipulate. I did look closely at all the pans and my eye couldn't see a difference in thickness between the heavy one and light one, which is why I was so surprised that they should feel so different. (I did try all the carbon steel pans, and find them really, really uncomfortable. The handles are too long and too flat and the ergonomics are such I need two hands to properly hold them, even for the smaller sized ones.)

          BTW: There are no relatives, females or otherwise, who have anything other than cheapo non-stick pots and pans.

          2 Replies
          1. re: E_M

            Generally, in my experience, if the bottom sits flat, the inside has been flat. I have never had to pay very much for any of my ci pans and they have all worked out. If one didn't work out at home for some reason, I guess I would just pitch it. Your range has to be level too.

            1. re: E_M

              A small ruler that fits inside a pan will show if it is level. I bought a warped skillet once through ebay. The warp was right in the middle. I'd rather buy my skillets in person now.

              The smaller iron skillets are not as heavy as say, a #9. I really like using the smaller skillets.

              Berndes makes some cast aluminum that has density, but is light in weight. http://tinyurl.com/658yj7e I own a Dutch oven in this line and it works well, except for the small handles. I think a skillet might be fine. With a non stick, you should not use high heat. But that is the beauty of cast iron. You can get it as hot as you need.

            2. From a sanitary standpoint, I would never use a second hand ci pan without resurfacing and reseasoning...that's just plain gross...I'll develop my own patina and layers of seasoning, thankyou. I think you'll find a small straight edge more effective in checking for a warp...level is only relative

              7 Replies
              1. re: BiscuitBoy

                Wouldn't washing it in really hot water with a detergent kill all the cooties?

                1. re: redfish62

                  True, the soap may or may not disolve the seasoning and layer of potential funk...be it grinding or a soap bath, that rascal is coming clean before I'd use it. Besides, given the bargain new ci is, that second hand unit better be waaay cheap

                2. re: BiscuitBoy

                  From a sanitary standpoint, any viruses or bacteria on a pan are removed by washing and/or killed the first time you heat it. My particular skillet came from an immaculate estate and was used everyday. It has a beautiful layer of polymerization that took years to develop. Do you not eat in restaurants? Your food is often cooked on pans or grills that have years of many other people's polymerization on them. If you are worried about disease, the relative risk would seem higher in that situation, especially when other risk factors associated with food handling are added in, than buying a cast iron pan that has been used and lovingly cared for.

                  1. re: wekick

                    yeah, but food in restos is rarely cooked in ci, and the pans they do use go thru the wash barn. The essence and spirit of someone else's polymerization just isn't important to me I guess

                    1. re: BiscuitBoy

                      In restaurants, I'm not talking about CI, although I know some around here who do use CI. I've never seen any pans in a restaurant that did't have a patina of use(brown/black polymerization). It doesn't have to be CI to have it and it doesn't come off in the wash barn. If the machine is working right and you have the right water, chemicals and heat you will remove pathogens though and thus be sanitary in spite of the patina of use. Built in grills/griddles cannot go through a wash barn. Heat and superficial washing keep the cooking surface sanitary.
                      I don't care about "essence and spirit" either but that black, smooth, inert, perfectly nonstick coating is hard to come by. All the rest of the pans I have, have been seasoned by me over 5-30 years but that one is the best pan I have. I know some don't like used items -to each his own -and my point is there is a difference between being sanitary (free of pathogens) and what your personal fancies and sense of comfort are.

                    2. re: wekick

                      I really wouldn't be surprised if some unscrupulous antique dealer spray-painted a skillet black to facsimile a well-seasoned pan. You bet I'd reason it.

                    3. re: BiscuitBoy

                      It is not too logical, I suppose, but I think I would do what BiscuitBoy does. I think I would like to reseason mine from scratch.

                    4. I buy used all the time. I give them as gifts to foodie friends. I clean them to bare...or almost bare... then I season with bacon. Lots of bacon and lots of butter. It doesn't take long before the sheen comes back and the black surface is smooth as a baby butt. I think they "re-season" much faster than any new lodge. I know if there is a problem when I am seasoning (then I get rid of it). That is the advantage of cooking bacon for seasoning. If it doesn't cook up right- the pan is warped.
                      Note: I freeze the cooked bacon to season other things, otherwise I would be fat.

                      My friends love me ;)

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: sedimental

                        Of course your friends love you! What a fabulous present. I wish knew someone who would give me a present like this.

                        My best cast iron pan is the one I bought used. The new ones are still achieving proper seasoning (20 years later...).

                      2. It has been claimed that the CI ware from before WWII is made from superior iron ore...specifically the iron ore from western Pennsylvania. While that has I don't think ever been substantiated, I can say from first hand experience that the older skillets retain heat dramatically better than their modern counterparts. I have run some tests and the results really are dramatic. And this is true despite the fact that the older pans are thinner and lighter. These pans perform well on burners that are smaller than their diameter. I have a pre-1900 #12 Erie that when properly preheated cooks a dozen crabcakes as evenly as you could want.

                        Regarding the sound they make, in my experience old iron rings like a bell and new iron has a somewhat dull sound to it. That might be a function of thickness or the ore quality, I don't know. But I have noticed it.

                        If the pan sits flat on a counter then you can be 99.5% certain that the inside surface is level. That is because in pre WWII pans the inside was actually machined smooth. In bigger older Griswolds you can see the machining pattern. That is why these skillets are so smooth to begin with. Warping that happens to these pans is mostly from having left them on high heat. It generally turns them into "spinners", with the bottom somewhat "dished". If they don't spin and they rock less than 1/32" then you have a usable pan for cooking.

                        The best way to ensure that you are getting and older pan is to look for one with a "heat ring". This is a metal ring on the bottom that in the days of wood stoves raised the flat bottom off the stove surface by a small amount to prevent hot spots. If it has a heat ring then you know you have a nice old pan.

                        I *always* clean my CI and reseason it before using. You don't know if someone has used it to change the oil on the truck or what. I use a combination of a lye bath and electrolysis to clean my pans. The lye takes off the carbon and accumulated gunk, and the electrolysis takes off any surface rust and leaves the metal looking brand new and ready for reseasoning.

                        Regarding values, there are a few that are valuable because they are rare, such as #2 Griswolds that go for north of $700. But generally speaking the bigger you go the more expensive they get with the price taking a dramatic upturn once you go larger than #9. Given that #9 is a great all around size, I would look for sizes #6 through 9. If you fall in love with CI then you'll want a #12, and a #14, and maybe a griddle and dutch oven or two :)

                        2 Replies
                        1. re: LovinSpoonful

                          Really good info, LS. I enjoyed your post. Just want to mention though, that skillets without the heat ring work well. None of mine are pre WW II, I don't think. But you know, they work well. I definitely agree that the Lodges are heavier than the older skillets.

                          1. re: sueatmo

                            Yes I have a number of more later skillets that do not have a heat ring and they are just as good. I only mentioned the heat ring because often you'll come across a skillet that is totally crusted in carbon and you can't even tell what it is. If it has a heat ring odds are that it is worth restoring.

                            As far as Griswolds go, if they are marked "Erie, Pa" then you are at least guaranteed that you have one of the better quality skillets from before they were bought by Wagner, production was moved to Ohio, and quality went downhill.

                            My favorite skillets for cooking are the Piqua "Favorite" line. I don't know what it is about them but I just love the feel of them. Piqua went out of business in 1934 so any skillet of theirs you find is "old guard".

                            They say a picture is worth a thousand words and in this case it's true. On this page is a picture of a new Lodge next to an old Piqua. The difference, even visually, is like night and day:


                        2. I'm kind of a weirdo and if I don't know where the seasoning came from, I will run it through an oven cleaning cycle and reseason. I also don't like eating food that has been cooked by someone that I don't feel is "clean." And I'm not a sanitation nazi.