Buying a Vintage Cast Iron Pan: Top Ten Considerations

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So, you've decided to try cooking with cast iron. Good for you! 
Here is my (The Pan Handler LLC - see the pan-handler profile page ) top ten list of what to consider when purchasing a vintage cast iron pan on ebay: 

1. What size do you need? 

Skillets often but not always have a number on them. Sometimes it is on the handle and sometimes it is on the bottom of the pan. The number corresponds to the size of the skillet. A "0" skillet is the smallest, and is usually referred to as a "toy" skillet. It is too small to use for most purposes. Next in size is the 2, then 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, and 20. The most common skillet number is the 8. The 8 is usually about 10-1/2" in diameter. If you're only buying one skillet, I'd recommend the 8, 9, or 10. In my opinion, they will cover most cooking jobs that you have. 

2. Is the pan clean? 

Cleaning a crusty old cast iron pan can be difficult, to put it mildly. If the seller has done the cleaning work for you, so much the better. Ideally, the pan should be squeaky clean, without blobs of crud baked on. In a different guide I've outlined how to clean your cast iron, should you decide to forge ahead and purchase a "well loved" crusty pan. You can find my guide here:  Methods Used to Clean Vintage Cast Iron Pans.

3. Is the pan rusty? 

Cast iron is very susceptible to rust, and the rust can be difficult to remove. I typically use electrolysis to remove rust from pans that I plan to resell. You can also try a vinegar/water soak, commercial products, or you can sometimes have success with elbow grease and steel wool. Ideally, your seller will have removed any sign of rust so that your pan is ready to use!  

4. Is there any pitting on the cast iron? 

Given the variety of storage methods for very old pans, sometimes they have some pitting especially on the bottoms. The pitting doesn't bother me in cooking, but if you are using your pan for display, it might bother you. Be sure to look carefully at any photos that the seller posts, so that you can see if there is pitting and if so, how much. You will need to make your own decision about whether the pitting turns you off to the extent that you should choose a different pan.  
The photo below shows an old Erie (Griswold) #9 pan that has some mild pitting on the bottom. The pitting wouldn't impact the cooking quality of the pan, but you would have to make your own decision about whether it bothered you aesthetically. 
Here is a photo of an old Victor pan that has some pitting on the interior of the pan:

5. Are there any cracks or signs of repair? 

Cast iron is surprisingly fragile. Your seller needs to carefully pack your pan so that the handle doesn't break off, or have a hairline crack develop when the package is tossed about during shipping. It is not uncommon to see hairline cracks near the handle of pans. A crack dramatically decreases the value of the pan. If you purchase a pan and shipping is not insured by your seller, consider offering to pay the extra amount necessary for insurance. It is disappointing to receive a pan with a broken handle. The photo below shoes two hairline cracks to either side of the handle on an old Victor skillet. 

6. Has the pan been seasoned? With what? 

Read the ebay posting carefully. Make sure that "well-seasoned" isn't code for "I didn't clean the pan and I'm calling all of this crud on the pan 'seasoning.'" Ideally, your seller will have carefully seasoned the pan, so that it is ready for you to use. A well-seasoned pan is basically non-stick. While you might not be purchasing a pan with layers of seasoning, you want to be sure that the pan is properly seasoned. If you care what the pan has been seasoned with, you'll want to ask if the posting doesn't say. For example, vegetarians probably won't want to cook on a pan that has been seasoned with lard. If you are planning to use your pan for cooking and not display only, you'll want to make sure that your pan was seasoned with something that you're comfortable eating/something food-grade. For those of you who want to season your own pans, I have written a guide on how I season my cast iron pans, and you can find it here:  Seasoning and Care of your Vintage Cast Iron Pan.

7. What is the condition of the interior of the pan? 

A great old vintage skillet will have a beautiful almost silky patina inside the bowl. Modern skillets often have a "bumpy" texture; the great old skillets do not. They are smooth and almost glassy-looking. It's likely that your pan will have some scratches or marks; it's a used pan, after all. The pan should have a black satin-y finish, however, and be free of significant pitting on the inside. Be sure that your pan has been cleaned and seasoned and that's why it's black - there are horror stories of some pans being painted black. You don't want to be cooking and eating foods from a pan that has been painted black. At least I don't! 
The photo below shows the beautiful satiny smooth black patina of a properly cleaned and seasoned Griswold #8 skillet. 

8. Is there any warping? 

If the pan doesn't sit flat, it can wobble when you boil liquids. It can also wriggle around while you're cooking, which can be an annoyance. Many of the old pans have some warping. A small amount isn't necessarily a problem, but a major wobble can be a pain. You can tell if your pan has warping by pressing along the edges. If it moves up and down while you press, there is some warping. You can also try slipping a small piece of paper or a dollar bill under the pan around the edges. If the pan sits perfectly flat, you won't be able to get the paper under the skillet. If you're buying vintage, be sure that the ebay auction mentions whether the pan sits flat or not. If it doesn't say, ask before you buy! 

9. What is the brand of the pan? 

In my opinion, the brand really only matters if you are collecting, or if you plan to re-sell the pan. Griswold is the most collectible of the cast iron pans. Griswold also manufactured Victor, ERIE, and Iron Mountain pans. Wagner is also collectible, as is vintage Lodge (you can typically tell if it's an old unmarked Lodge pan if there are three notches in the heat ring). Wapak and Favorite Piqua are other well-known manufacturers of collectible quality cast iron pans. There are a number of great old pans made by many different makers - if you're looking for a vintage pan for cooking, I'd suggest you don't knock a pan out of consideration just because it isn't a Griswold. Look at the quality of the pan and determine how well it suits your needs. 
Griswold large block logo (there are other Griswold markings, too):
One of the Victor logos:
One of the Wapak logos:
Mountain Iron pan (made by Griswold):
Two unmarked Lodge pans (note the three notches in the heat rings):

10. Who is the seller, what is the cost, and what is the charge for shipping? 

Finally, as with any ebay purchase be sure to check the feedback of your seller. Be comfortable that your seller stands behind his or her product. Ask questions before buying, and know what you're buying before you bid. Be sure to check the shipping charge. Cast iron is darn heavy, and shipping can cost a pretty penny. Be sure to factor in any shipping charge in determining whether to bid on or purchase a cast iron pan. 

I hope that this guide is helpful to you as you begin your search on ebay for vintage cast iron. There are a huge variety of options available to you - happy hunting!   

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