Where To Look
There are several sources from which vintage cast iron ware may be obtained. Garage and estate sales, flea markets, antique stores, thrift stores, online classifieds, and auction websites are all good places to look for pieces. The condition of items found at each type of venue will vary considerably.
The roughest and dirtiest pieces are most often seen at flea markets, where items are mostly sold "as found", but with a reasonably good chance of being able to negotiate a good price. Indoor flea markets tend to have a higher chance of finding good pieces, as their dealers are more or less permanent; outdoor venues tend to be filled more with arts and crafts type items and cheap imported new goods.
Garage sales have the potential to yield the cleanest pieces for the best price, but you may spend a great deal of time and expense travelling around, only to find little to see.
Thrift stores, typically operated by charitable organizations, may see collectible quality iron from time to time. But considering that they rely on donations of items that the previous owner might have just as well thrown away, superb finds are not likely. A relatively new development seen is the online auctioning of better quality donations by nationally-based thrift operations. This phenomenon tends to lower one's expectations of finding good pieces on a random store visit.
Lots containing vintage cast iron can often be found at estate or antique auctions. Large cast iron collections are often sold at auction, either by the owner's heirs or by a collector who has decided to "cash out". Live auctions are not for the faint of heart. You must have knowledge of values, must not let your emotions get the better of you, and hope that any similarly-interested others in attendance have budgets smaller than yours.
Occasionally, you'll find an antique store whose owner or an associate has an interest in collectible cast iron, resulting in an above average selection of items in better, cleaner shape, but typically at a much higher asking price. Don't be afraid to try to negotiate a better price at an antique store. Often, 10% off will be given just for the asking, sometimes more if the dealer is motivated to move the item.
If you check listings for your area frequently, you may occasionally see potential deals on Craig's List (www.craigslist.org). Sellers using it and similar online classifieds may not be as motivated, however, to provide detailed descriptions and photographs of what they are offering as one would expect on eBay, for example.
For many collectors, eBay is the prime if not their only source of vintage cast iron cookware. Currently, on any given day, there are over 9000 listings in the "Cast Iron Collectibles" category, up from a daily average of 4000 just three years ago. As with anything purchased on eBay, there are pitfalls to be avoided.
Since not all old cast iron ware is considered collectible and therefore valuable, here are the things you need to know, regardless of where you purchase it.
First, make it your business to know what you're buying.
Many eBay sellers will themselves admit they have little expertise in what they are offering for sale. Many obtain vintage cast iron in the course of purchasing estates, and often tend to know only a little about a lot of different things. An unfortunate side-effect of this lack of cast iron knowledge is the propensity of some sellers to start the bidding at an outrageous figure, just in case what they've found is something of high value. You'll often also see items offered with a similarly ridiculous "Buy It Now or Best Offer" price, apparently in the hope that either someone will bite on the BIN price, or that the actual value can be gauged by the offers made.
It's not uncommon to see sellers describing every piece of cast iron they list as "vintage" or "rare", either because the names Wagner or Griswold are on them, or because they don't know better, or just because. It is important to note that the production of domestic cast iron ware in general after around 1957 varies from reasonably good to very poor in terms of finish quality regardless of whose name is on it. Therefore, the cast iron that truly qualifies as "vintage" and collectible falls in the range of at least 55 or more years old.
One of the biggest reasons to know what you're looking at before you buy is the occasionally-seen seller who, innocently or not, tries to make a big deal out of something not uncommon, and prices it as if it's one-of-a-kind. If your first impression is that an asking price seems crazy, it probably is.
You can begin to educate yourself by seeking information online, from websites like this one, from collector group websites, and from published guide books on vintage cast iron such as those shown below. You can also use eBay's "completed listings" search feature to see just what pans similar to ones you are interested in have sold for recently, as well as pans that did not sell due to poor condition, inadequate descriptions, or unreasonably high starting prices.
Second, ask questions.
eBay has a feature on every listing that allows an interested member ask the seller questions about the condition of their item. The seller may or may not, at his or her discretion, show the question and answer in the listing. Just because you don't see any answered questions on a listing, don't assume that none have been asked, nor that none need to be asked.
It is not uncommon on eBay for sellers to "underdescribe" their items or disclaim expertise in order to avoid accusations of misrepresentation. You will occasionally see listings with little to nothing in the way of a description, containing instead only an instruction to message the seller with any questions. An actual example:
heres a old piece of wagner ware. a # 3 - 6" skillet, look over pics,ask questions and buy it if u want it !
Conversely, don't allow yourself to be misled by lengthy, effusive descriptions. You should never rely on vague, subjective statements and terms, e.g. "in great shape for its age", or "nicest I've ever seen".
To insure the best chances for satisfaction, ask for clear, definitive answers to the questions that follow, if they are not already specifically spelled out in the description, and if they are not forthcoming, walk away.
Is there any damage not discernible in the photographs? There should be multiple, clear photographs, taken in good light, and from all angles. There is no excuse for single photos, photos that show no pertinent details, or poor quality images that obscure details. Any of the following types of damage may detract from collectible value.
Is there any rust or pitting? Pitting is the erosion of metal either by rust or from constant use over a fire emitting sulfurous gases. Be aware that this type of damage can often be obscured by build-up coating the pan, and the seller may not be able to supply a definite answer.
Is the pan warped? Warping is the result of thermal shock (improper rapid heating or cooling). Major warping can often be detected by feel, by visual inspection, or by placing a metal straightedge across the cooking surface or the bottom of the pan. A downward warp can be revealed by placing the pan on a hard, known-level surface, and pressing downward on the rim of the pan at various points, with rocking or wobbling indicating warping. Some collectors also use the term "movement" to describe the behavior of a warped pan. Be aware that some sellers will describe a pan as having a "flat bottom" when what they mean is the pan's design is "smooth-bottomed" (as opposed to having a heat-ringed bottom), and are not indicating a pan is warp-free. Also bear in mind that a crud-coated pan may indeed "sit flat", but end up exhibiting a warp once stripped back down to bare metal. A pan can also have an upward warp which will still allow it to sit without wobbling, on its perimeter.
A note about warping: Over time, you will encounter almost as many pieces that exhibit the characteristics of minor warping as do not. It is important to note that some pieces may well have been made with a less than perfectly flat bottom, especially the largest of the skillet sizes. Procedures employed by foundrymen in the manual preparation of sand casting molds could have easily produced an inadvertent bump on the bottom of a pan, from time to time. And on older pans, the heat ring served as a stabilizer which often masked slightly bowed bottoms. Unless you intend to use your smooth-bottomed cast iron on a modern glass cooktop, you may want to consider softening somewhat your criteria for bottom flatness on pieces you intend to keep and cook with yourself. On gas burner grates, electric coil burners, or on oven racks, pans with minor warping often perform just fine.
Are there any cracks or chips? Hairline cracks are also typically the result of thermal shock, are normally found in the sidewall of a pan, and look like vertical scratches extending from the top edge of the rim of the pan downward. Close inspection in good light that reveals a corresponding scratch across the top edge and down the outer wall confirms a crack. A cracked pan is often also a warped pan as well. If you shop flea markets or antique malls for iron, a pocket LED flashlight can be invaluable help in detecting cracks and other damage.
You may see online sellers describe a pan by saying it "rings like a bell when tapped with a wooden spoon". This is supposed to be an indicator that the pan is not cracked, but the quality of the tone produced is often subjective, and not a guarantee. A build up of seasoning may muffle the ringing sound of a well-used but otherwise intact pan, and it may also obscure hairline cracks.
Have any repairs been made to the pan? Sometimes you will come across pans that have had damage in the form of cracks or broken handles that a previous owner has addressed by welding the affected parts.
Is there other damage? Be especially wary of any pans which exhibit a patchy, often scaly, dull red discoloration (vs. the orange/brown of normal rust). This can be an indication the piece was previously cleaned by burning in a fire. Overheating can cause a change in the molecular structure of the iron, rendering it no longer seasonable. Bail or coil handles on overheated pieces will have also had their tempering removed, making them pliable.
Here's a good one: Is it counterfeit? Not that a seller would necessarily freely admit to it; he or she may not even know the item they are offering is not genuine. But there are several widely-counterfeited cast iron pieces, mainly Chinese knock-offs of smaller items like toy skillets and waffle irons, and tea-size cornbread stick pans. Casting quality and finish on these items is generally sub-standard, and obviously so when compared side-by-side to a genuine article. The term "reproduction" is often applied to these fakes.
For further reading, an article with photos of commonly-seen reproductions can be found here.
You may also see pieces that are "recasts". A recast is a piece that was produced using an actual cast iron pan as a pattern. A recast may have been produced by someone with access to the resources of a foundry, with or without the intent to deceive, or it may just be the result of a metalworking project in a high school shop class.
Recasts typically have obvious casting flaws, and may also have casting artifacts inconsistent with the technology used by the original pan's maker. A gate mark on the bottom of an early to mid-20th century piece that would have employed a side-gating technique is a primary indication. Recasts are also typically smaller than the originals they attempt to duplicate, since an original pattern is slightly enlarged to offset the shrinkage that occurs during the solidification of molten iron.
Assumption And Cost Of Risk
No matter how well-informed or experienced you are in the area of collectible vintage cast iron cookware, there will be times when you find yourself weighing cost vs. benefit. If the piece you are considering buying is rusty, there may be no way to tell for certain until after that rust is removed whether or not pitting from it has occurred. If the piece is covered in a thick layer of crud, that build-up may be hiding cracks, casting flaws, damage from previous rust, acid erosion, or even from ill-advised cleaning methods. In buying such a piece, you are assuming a certain degree of risk. Only after it is cleaned and found free of defect is a piece valued at $50 worth $50. If you spend $25 hoping to end up with a $50 value, you may very well have spent the money plus time and effort only to end up with worthless scrap. That may not be a problem if $25 doesn't represent a lot of money to you. And that is not to say that sometimes you will get very lucky, however, in the end, only you yourself can decide how much you are willing to risk to purchase a piece in unrestored condition only to get it home, clean it up, and find you may have wasted your money when you were hoping to have found a bargain.
A note about "Made In USA": The great irony (no pun intended) about vintage cast iron ware is that there really are no pieces considered collectible that have that inscription. From the late nineteenth century forward, up until about 1960, foundries typically inscribed products merely with their city and state of origin, sometimes only the city, as in early pans made by Griswold simply marked "ERIE". That the products were made in the USA was a given.
But, in the latter half of the 20th century, cheap imports began appearing in the marketplace. Part of their low cost was due to the fact they were produced from recycled scrap iron, and were not finished to give a polished-smooth cooking surface. The quality of domestic cast iron declined as foundries were forced to cut costs in order to compete in a market already in decline due to the introduction of newer, more "modern" forms of cookware. About 1960, however, laws were enacted requiring the country of origin to be indicated on products. By adding "Made In USA", domestic manufacturers were able to comply with the law, to expand into export markets, and also, hopefully, to call attention to and differentiate their products from the low quality imports.
What little domestic (and imported) cast iron cookware production remains today is marked by awkwardly heavy pieces with grainy surfaces inside and out, mainly produced by automated factories. The handcrafted workmanship of the last century has sadly been lost. Even cast iron ware bearing celebrity chefs' names is typically imported and of relatively poor quality.
In as much as a great deal of cast iron cookware of the late 19th and 20th centuries is deemed collectible, a considerable number of items from the various makers and eras is not. Most if not all bare iron ware not of domestic manufacture can be immediately eliminated, as can nearly everything made by automated production lines. Of the major U.S. foundries, the earlier output typically holds more value, as the scarcity of pieces in very good to excellent condition is high. The lesser interest shown in collecting pieces produced in the latter years of the major foundries' existence may be due to the de-emphasis of the more detailed markings and logos of their earlier designs, in addition to a perceived decline in quality.
Griswold pieces were made with a few variations on their "cross-in-double-circle" logo. The later pieces, with the "small block logo" and only "Erie, PA" are not considered as valuable as earlier pieces with the larger diameter "large block" or "slant" logos, even though they are in quality generally on par with their large logo predecessors. ("Block" and "slant" describe the lettering style of the word Griswold in the trademark, while "large" and "small" refer more to the size of the lettering than the diameter of the double circle). Griswold trademarked pieces not marked "Erie, PA, USA" or "Erie, PA" were made in Sidney, Ohio by Wagner, after it acquired the rights to Griswold, and are not considered collectible (nor even really Griswold for that matter).
Similarly, Wagner Ware pieces not inscribed "Sidney -O-" (the O standing for Ohio), or the earlier "Sidney, O.", are not considered collectibles, and are usually of inferior finish quality. Pieces with the word Wagner in heavy block letters and Sidney Ohio USA inside an oval are from a very late period in Wagner history, and are not collectible. Pieces marked "Wagner's 1891 Original" and also inscribed with seasoning instructions were first produced in the late 1980s as a commemorative series to mark Wagner's 100th anniversary in 1991, and are not collectible.
Pieces marked with both the Wagner and Griswold trademarks were produced by the company which owned Wagner after it acquired the rights to Griswold for about a year, reportedly, as a method to phase out the Griswold TM. You don't see very many of these offered for sale, but it still does not cause them to be considered rare or otherwise valuable as collectibles.
Generally speaking, pieces created for advertising purposes are not considered as having collectible value. There are a few exceptions, however, which include some Griswold skillets-- including a regular skillet and a square breakfast skillet-- marked "Compliments 'Cliff' Cornell, The Cleveland Flux Co.", another marked "Rau Brothers, Hamburg, PA.", and yet another marked "50th Anniversary King Hdw. Co.". Wagner produced an advertising skillet for Wertz & Singer Co. of Middletown, OH. There are also griddles advertising Ballard Pancake Flour and skillet covers advertising Wesson and Mazola, made by Martin Stove & Range Co, which are considered collectible.
Finally, don't confine your search to just Griswold and Wagner pieces. Other early- to mid-twentieth century foundries such as Favorite Piqua Ware, Lodge, Birmingham Stove & Range, Martin Stove & Range, Vollrath, Wapak, and others made high-quality, well-finished cast iron ware in their heydays.
A note about shipping charges: A piece worth $15 is no bargain at $10 if you have to pay $20 shipping. You should be aware that, occasionally, some eBay sellers will price their items very attractively, but then specify inflated "expedited shipping" charges as a means of boosting profit. In order to dissuade sellers from this practice, eBay began charging fees based on a percentage of the shipping charges in addition to the sale price, but the policy has not been entirely effective at eradicating it. By being the successful high bidder, you accept the charges as such, are contractually bound by them, and the seller is under no obligation to negotiate a reduction once the auction has closed.
Speaking of shipping, there is another important issue to consider when buying online: proper packaging for shipment. Many sellers are not aware that cast iron is brittle and can crack or break. You should be proactive in contacting the seller immediately after the end of the sale to insure that he/she knows how to and is willing and able to pack the item safely. Feel free to point them to web resources such as Cast Iron Selling Tips: Packing. Sellers may balk at having to incur unanticipated expense of better packing. If the sale specified expedited shipping, suggest that using a slower, less expensive shipping method should more than offset the additional material. It will take a little longer to get your item, but the chances of it arriving safely intact are increased.
One more thought: The "rare", "HTF" (hard to find), "EUC" (excellent used condition) piece you see on eBay today is not the only one in the world. Don't overpay just to get it; another one will come along sooner than you think. Check back on Sunday.