Retinning & restoration

Bad tin



I had a bad experience with a retinning job, but I learned from it and I can help you avoid making the same mistakes I did.

When I started getting into vintage copper, I bought pieces online that definitely needed new tin and I was apprehensive about the cost. There are several good retinners in the continental United States but none of them is close enough to me to be convenient, and shipping heavy copper back and forth can get expensive. I decided to explore whether a local metalworking shop in my area could handle the work.

Long story short: It looked terrible, they used a “lead-free tinning compound” that tested positive for lead, I had to have the entire set of pans redone, but everything is fine now. (The bad work was NOT by East Coast Tinning — they’re tagged in this post because they ended up fixing all the pots for me.)

I’m not mad at the shop and I have no interest in shaming them. They outsourced the tinning to a guy who did it wrong, and when I showed the shop what had happened, they refunded my money with no argument. I was inexperienced and I blame myself for not using my own common sense during the process.

To save you from the same hassle, I’ve put together the yes/no questions that I should have asked that would have helped me realize up front that this little company just wasn’t up to the job.

When you’re considering whether to send your copper for retinning, ask:

Is copper restoration and retinning a substantial part of the business? You want a company that routinely and frequently tins pots and pans, not one where this work is an occasional sideline. You want a place that advertises copper work as a passion and to which lots of people send their stuff.

Does the company do the work in-house? It’s not a dealbreaker if a shop outsources its retinning, but you need to know who is actually doing the work so that you can assess what their practices are. But if a shop outsources, they may not want to tell you where they send it because they don’t want you going around them. I can understand this from a business perspective, but as a consumer, you should insist as it is in your best interest to know. Also, if you intend to retin lots of copper, it may also be in your best financial interest to work directly with the tinner and save yourself some money.

Does the company use specialty tin ingots or pellets that are 99% pure or better? The only correct answer here is “Yes, and we’d be happy to tell you where we get it and show you the assays to prove its purity.” You cannot accept anything less than high-purity tin of documented quality backed by a responsible and accountable supplier.

Can you see some examples of the work they’ve done? You should expect to see lots of photos of really beautiful copper that looks like it’s been to the beauty parlor. Look for bright tin of consistent color and texture with a minimal amount of visible wipe marks and no black splotches or fingerprints. Look for closeups that tell you that the shop is proud of its work.

If you get “yes!” answers to all of these questions from the website, word of mouth, or from asking the shop directly, you’ll likely have a positive experience. I didn’t ask about any of this and I wish I had because it would have saved me some anguish.

My tale of woe

The shop in question is a small local metal plating shop. Their website mentioned retinning as a service but didn’t provide any details or show any photos of their work. (In retrospect, that’s red flag number 1.) I called them and asked about their prices and they put me on hold while they dug up the information. (That’s red flag number 2.) When I asked how long it would take, they said they needed a minimum order of six and that it would take at least a month. (That’s red flag number 3.)

I took them six pots, paid half of the cost up front, and got a time estimate one month later to pick them up. At the appointed tim, the shop emailed to say they were running behind and needed two more weeks. (That’s red flag number 4.) Six weeks after I dropped off my pans, I brought them home and took a look at my nice “new” pans.

Here is the whole group and shots of each individual pan, fresh from the tinner. I will give more zoomed-in photos below, but for now, just take a look.

The immediate specific issues I saw with the tin were:

  1. A rough, almost lunar surface texture with visible drip marks
  2. Scratch marks as though the tinner tried to sand down the more egregious drip marks
  3. Craters where water droplets sat on the surface and evaporated, leaving dents
  4. Surface residue in the form of dark spots and a whitish crust

I had never seen these phenomena in any of my other pans from a range of tinners. Check the photos below for some close-ups.

Looking at these pans, I started to wonder if something was a little off. But was I imagining things? I was not (and am not) an expert on tin and tinning. I had the idea to compare it to another newly hand-tinned pan in my possession. In the photos below, the pan on the right was retinned by Erik Undiks at Rocky Mountain Retinning.

Now, hand-wiped tin is by definition imperfect: it can be shiny or pearly; it can be mirror-smooth or showing visible wipe marks; it can be thin as a layer of glaze or a little thicker, depending on the judgement and skill of the tinner. Erik’s beautiful work looks flawless but still shows wipe marks if held in the correct light. These are all acceptable artifacts of a hand-done process, and in my opinion as long as the cooking surface is clear and flat, visual imperfections are not worth complaining about.

But it must be pure tin.

With this batch of pans, the lining looked more like pewter than tin. It had a thick consistency, as shown by the drip marks and craters. And it seemed to have impurities in it — black particles and whitish crusts. It didn’t look like the tin on any of my other pans. I started to wonder.

Alarm bells

Bad tinIt was the daubière that did it: the interior just looked dirty. Remember, this was fresh tin — it should be pristine, a clean blank slate for cooking. Instead, the tin had prominent patches of greasy blackened soot. When I rubbed my thumb across the sooty areas, it came off onto my skin. I tried washing the pan again thoroughly and not only did it not help, it left new dark water spots as though the water was picking up some residue from the metal.

Click the photos below and you can zoom in really close and see what I mean.

Bad tin

Bad tin

Bad tin

I emailed the shop with questions: what was the sooty substance and how could I get it off? It took a week or two for them to come back to me with an answer (that’s red flag number 5): “in regards to the black substance, [the tinner] mentioned if you wash the pots and water sits on the tin, it will start to turn black.” (That’s red flag number… actually, that’s just false.)

The fix, according to the tinner, was to “take a Scotch Brite pad and scrub a bit and then thoroughly dry the inside afterwards.” That is red flag number WTF. Their solution was to use a harsh abrasive scrub to remove tin? The tin I had just paid them good money to put there? They were telling me to undo their work? Alarm bells went off in my head: These people were giving me bad advice.

That’s when I bought three home lead testing kits and tested each pan. See for yourself: a pink or purple color (or darkened swab) means that lead is detected. (These are also great detail photos of the surface of each pan and you can see how weird the tin is.)

I advised the shop that I had tested the pans and the results were positive for lead and that I needed to know exactly what was on them. This is when things began to unravel.

It turns out that the shop outsourced the work to a guy “up the street.” He did not use pure tin ingots or pellets, but instead a substance that he mixed himself that he called “Instin Post-Tin tinning compound.” He promised to forward the shop information about what was in it, but he assured them that there was no lead and that furthermore that large amounts of tin can cause false positives on home lead testing kits.

This is when I asked for, and instantly received, a complete refund from the shop. I think they realized they were in trouble when they couldn’t answer a series of reasonable questions and were grateful when I gave them a way out. But I was and am very angry with the (still unidentified) tinner, and my outlet for this rage was therapeutic Internet research. I will spare you the full extent but here’s what I learned.

  • A tinning compound is an industrial soldering substance generally understood to be a powder or cream made of tin, chemical flux, and depending on the formula, other alloys to help the solder perform as desired. It is intended for one-step soldering of metal parts so that the user doesn’t need to work with tin and flux at the same time.
  • There are lead-free tinning compounds that are described as non-toxic, but the instructions specify that excess flux must be burned away or rinsed off because if the compound is not sufficiently heated, it may continue to exude flux. That may have been the black sooty substance, but I assure you, it did not rinse or wash off.
  • Flux is used during the tinning of copper pots to help the tin adhere to the copper, but is not considered edible.
  • I can’t find any product on the Internet called “Instin Post-Tin.” If you know what this is, please tell me.
  • I called the manufacturers of the three lead test kits I used and asked whether tin would produce a false positive. They all asserted that no, the only chemical that the tests responded to was lead.

In short, I believe the tinner was using a tinning compound as a shortcut to save himself time, effort, and expense. This is laziness, but his inability to document what was in his home-brew compound is, in my opinion, malpractice.

But I really blame myself for not asking the common-sense questions above. If I had asked them I would have gotten negative answers and would have avoided all this.

But all was not lost.

The happy ending

The great thing about copper pots and pans is that even when the tin gets messed up, like with these, there is a straightforward solution: just retin them.

I had the good fortune to have some upcoming travel through the Providence area and I reached out to Jim Hamann at East Coast Tinning. He’s one of the best tinners around — in addition to making beautiful copper under the Duparquet name — and I asked him if he’d be willing to fix my pots. The burden for him would be that he’d have to dispose of the old lining as a potentially toxic substance and I hoped he’d be okay with it. He graciously agreed and I made arrangements to bring the pots and pans to him early before work and drop them off them in his locked car.

I took advantage of the situation to add a few more bigger pans that also needed tin, of course, so here’s how everything looked when I crammed them into his car.

Jim did a lovely job for me. The bad tin is but a distant memory, and ultimately I learned a lot about what to expect from a retinner. The bottom line is that the extra expense of working with an expert who uses top-quality materials is absolutely worth it, compared to the time and hassle I faced. I’m really glad to know Jim, I can vouch for his work, and I’m grateful to him for restoring my faith in the tinning process!

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  1. Thanks for the helpful information on the pitfalls (ha) than can befall a debutante in getting copper pans retinned. Interesting that the home-tests for both lead and nickel (“Nickel Alert”) produce the same tell-tale pink/purple stain.

  2. Ha — I didn’t notice that until you mentioned it, but you’re absolutely right. I can’t imagine it’s the same detection chemical for nickel as for lead so it must be an indicator color of some kind…. chemistry is so interesting to me.

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