Friday, August 7, 2015

Reconditioning Cast Iron Cookware in the North Woods of Maine

Recently my brilliant and talented friend Chad posted some photos on restoring a rusty cast iron pan to a beautiful like-new one on Facebook. From the photos I was amazed to see that he was able to restore such a pan using 3 simple items that many people may already have at home! I asked him to be my guest for this post and luckily for us he has agreed to share this story. Thank you Chad for this well-written post!!

Chad was born and raised in Bangor, Maine. A graduate of Bangor High School and Maine Maritime Academy with a bachelors in Power Engineering Technology (he regularly made the Dean's list but he is too humble to tell you!). He has worked and/or traveled in 49 States, 47 countries and 5 continents. He lived in Dabhol, India, and Sabha, Libya. He currently resides in Atlanta, Georgia and St. Clairsville, Ohio with his beautiful family.

Reconditioning Cast Iron Cookware in the North Woods of Maine

young Chad with teddy (Maine, summer 1976)
As a young boy, camping in the woods of Maine…cooking over an open fire was quite common. The four year old boy pictured (above) was me, headed out on our first family camping trip to the North Woods of Maine… teddy bear in tow…in the summer of 1976. It was on this first family camping trip to the north country that my father, Steven, proved himself to be a very crafty individual. We blew tires, got stuck in beaver flowages, were locked behind gates that were open upon entry, but locked when we tried to depart. The most crafty lesson I learned…had nothing to do with catching trout, fending off insects, navigating woods roads or ambiguous, impromptu feats of engineering. It was how he expertly handled that rusty old cast iron pan.

After a morning of successful trout fishing, my father and I returned to camp…and returned hungry. Trout and eggs were on the menu and the only thing standing in our way was the rusty cast iron pan. Dad announced that our catch would be ready in short order, started a fire and moved as though he were preparing to cook. Mom saw the pan and looked to my father with a tilted head and furrowed brow. Even at four years old, I knew what that look meant. Dad smirked as though he was aware of something that we were not and headed to the banks of the lake. With him, he carried one can of Coca-Cola, a box of SOS pads, one can of WD-40…and that rusty 'ol cast iron fry pan. 

WD-40, coca-cola, SOS pad, & rusty cast iron pan
It was there on the lake that Dad explained to me that Coca-Cola was actually a very strong acid. "Acid Strips and Caustic Pits" he said. I had no idea what that meant…but it felt like big boy talk, so I figured it was worth remembering. He poured the Coke into the pan and it fizzed as though it was poured over ice cream. Today, as an engineer, I now know that I witnessed a chemical reaction between oxidized iron and a strong acid. At the time…it simply looked like a rusty Root Beer Float. He poured in half the can and and let it sit for a minute. Then picked up a hand full of gravel and worked it around in circles. He repeated this step again before rinsing out the pan with fresh lake water. Next up was the SOS pads. I asked…"Pops, why didn’t we just wash the pan with the SOS pads like we do after supper?" He went on to explain that the acid removes the rust and the soap "passifies" the iron. Again…I was dumbfounded. All I could think of was a baby’s pacifier and I must have looked confused, as the 'ol man went on to explain, "if you use acid to wash…you have to follow with a caustic…if you don’t do this, you will make it rust worse in the future". Future damage was a concept I could understand, the pH scale…not so much. Along the lines of understanding, pH is a scale that communicates the acidic and caustic effects of a substance. The scale runs from 1 to 14, 1 being the most acidic and 14 being the most caustic. When washing metal with a strong acid, it’s always prudent to follow with a caustic to neutralize the surface of what was washed, and the soap in the SOS pads does the trick. After two strong washings with the SOS and subsequent gravely rinses in the lake…it was time to add heat. 

adding acid to rusty pan
heating the pan in the fire to bring the carbon to the surface
Dad took the pan to the fire ring and simply laid it down in the fire. I looked at him and asked…"Where’s the fish"? He explained we weren’t quite ready for the fish just yet and that heat applied over time would bring the carbon to the surface and we had to do that before we could make the pan really slick. As I grew more and more hungry I noticed that the pan was changing color and starting to look more and more like something we’d want to cook on. After about 10 minutes the pan came out of the fire and was placed on the ground. It appeared Dad was letting it cool just a touch before the he moved on to the WD-40. It was just then that I heard my mother chime in…that if he thought we were eating something lubricated with auto parts cleaner…he had another thing coming. After a shake of the head and a pronounced eye roll (that appeared to earn him a glare from mom) he went on to explain that WD-40 is mostly "fish oil"! Which in turn, earned him a head shake and prolonged eye roll himself. (I was learning more than just cast iron reconditioning at this point) Yet, as things turned out, Dad was using the WD-40 to remove the carbon, the top layer of carbon that had come to the surface during the application of heat. He took the pan back to the lake after a minute or two of cooling and scrubbed the surface with fine gravel, rinsed it off and then…back into the fire the pan went. At this point, the pan was really starting to look good…and I must admit, the 'ol man was looking pretty sharp. After another 10 to 15 minutes of direct heat he took the pan and laid it in the dirt to cool. It was here, he explained, that cast iron needed to cool slowly…and if we placed the cast iron in the lake to cool, it would cool off too fast and become brittle. As a four year old, I didn’t understand how that terrible peanut butter candy my grandmother always carried in her purse came into play. However, as time marched on, I figured out that peanut brittle was named after what happens to rapidly cooled metal…not the other way around…however, I digress. After the cast iron had cooled to the touch dad put some vegetable oil on a rag and wiped the pan down inside and out. I recently replicated this process with an antique cast iron fry pan that I picked up in Searsport, Maine at the Hobby Horse Flea Market. Upon completion, the pan looks fantastic and if stored with a light coat of oil…will maintain its usefulness…for many years and camping trips to come.

beautiful as new
beautiful as new
*All the photos above are courtesy of Chad. Chad tells me his aunt Cindy encourages him to start writing again (something he finds therapeutic).


  1. This is a remarkable story. I found the story very entertaining and educational. I was not aware of this type of cleaning for cast iron skillet. Thank you

  2. Wonderful great going, I love your work and look forward for more work from your side. I am a regular visitor of this site and by now have suggested many people. Cast Steel