The iron handles on early French pans can be susceptible to rust. These two big pans are good examples: the one on the left is a 41cm sauté stamped “Waldorf Hotel”, and the one on the right is a 42cm sauté stamped Wagons-Lits “OC”.
They were beautifully refurbished but have been sitting for some time. The copper looks pretty good but the iron handles have begun to pick up some rust. It’s not a serious problem yet — the restoration scoured away all the prior rust, so they’ve only had a year or two to build up more. (What I should have done was apply some metal polish when they came home from restoration!)
The atmosphere in my house is relatively dry and I don’t expect the iron to corrode away completely, but I would like to prevent actual deterioration. My plan is to scour away rust from the handle, clean the tarnish from the copper, and then apply metal polish all over the handle and pan to help seal the metal from air and moisture. This will slow down the process of oxidation that produces tarnish and rust.
- Copper cleaner (I like Bistro, and also Wright’s Copper Cream on tougher tarnish)
- Metal polish (I like Simichrome, but Flitz and Wenol are also good)
- Steel wool (the gauge doesn’t matter as far as I can tell)
- Soap and water and a non-scratch sponge to wash away traces of the copper cleaner
- At least two rags I don’t mind staining (one to apply metal polish, the other to buff it clean)
- A tabletop and chair at a comfortable working height
The first step is to take them to the sink to get the rust off and give them a good cleaning. I have found that if I lay the pan upside-down beside the sink I can work on the handle within the sink basin.
Both handles responded well to a good scrub with steel wool. I used an SOS pad, a US brand of household steel scouring pad impregnated with an abrasive cleaning chemical, but I don’t think the added cleaner made any difference. What I wanted to see was plenty of rusty water coming away from the iron.
The OC handle was a tougher case. The iron is already pitted so I knew I couldn’t get it to a perfect shiny state. My objective was to get as much rust off the surface as I could. I was very careful around the edges of the baseplate not to scrape the copper, as steel wool will easily scratch it. The end result was not perfect but removed at least 90% of the surface rust.
With the handles scoured clean as I could get them, I gave the copper a good going-over with copper cleaner to remove surface tarnish. They did not have any serious tarnish deposits so it was not a dramatic difference. I rinsed and wiped the copper cleaner away and then followed with an all-over wash with soap and water and a non-scratch sponge. This step is important to get all traces of the acidic copper cleaner off the surface. I also took great care to wash and clean around the crevices of the handle, using the sprayer attachment to blast the area clean. Copper cleaner can get in those cracks and when it dries and hardens it’s much harder to remove.
Here are both pans, clean and dry, ready for the polishing step. I’d been intentionally spraying water under the edge of the baseplate, so to help it dry I slid the edge of a paper towel into the crevice to help get all the water out.
The scouring did not remove all the rust, but that is okay as metal polish will remove more of it. I apply a dab of metal polish to the polishing rag and rub it in all over the handle. The polish thickens as the solvents evaporate, which is the signal to bear down in small circles to put the abrasives to work. I focus on areas that still have rust on them — the fine abrasives in the polish will help to dislodge the surface rust but I need to rub firmly to generate enough friction. This tires out my arms, hands, and wrists, which is why I tried to get most of the rust off in the sink with the steel wool.
Once I’ve worked the polish over all the surfaces of the handle, I wipe the spent polish away with the polishing cloth and then follow with the buffing cloth to smooth the surface. When I’m buffing copper I know I’m done when the shine emerges, but there’s no such visual transformation on the dark iron. Instead, I go by feel — metal polish has a slightly tacky and greasy texture, so I rub the surface gently with the buffing cloth until the cloth slides freely and doesn’t get caught in areas of residual polish.
The result is that the metal polish really finishes the job of removing rust. There were some traces of rust around the neck of the handle and right along the edge of the baseplate, and the polish has taken that right off. Metal polish is great to use on rust right up next to the copper because it won’t scratch — you can really work hard on it without worrying about hurting the finish on the copper.
Now it’s time to polish and buff the copper. It picked up a little instantaneous tarnish from the copper cleaning process. I don’t know if it’s something in my water supply or what, but oftentimes my freshly cleaned copper will develop patches of light tarnish within a minute or two. I can usually avoid this if I dry and buff the piece immediately and thoroughly with a dish towel but in this case I didn’t put too much effort into it as I knew the metal polish will take that light tarnish right off.
I’m quite pleased with the results. It took me about an hour to do both pans. The rust on the handles was the major issue I wanted to address; the copper had not tarnished too badly but it seemed a good idea to clean and polish the copper as well to set them up for storage.
A few minutes with steel wool over the sink is not as fast or thorough as a grinding wheel, but it certainly felt very satisfying to clear away the rust and lay down a protective barrier against more. This is a good rainy day project — just remember to watch your posture, switch hands, and take breaks now and then to avoid soreness from the repetitive motions. Your hands and wrists — not to mention your pots and pans! — will thank you later.