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.
To remove light rust, you might try Bon Ami, and also use an old tooth brush to get at the tight places.
Once clean and dry- very dry- a light application of mineral oil, which is non hardening, rubbed into the iron is a suggestion. You can buy mineral oil in the drug store.
Thanks Michael! I’ll try Bon Ami. I also have mineral oil on hand for my wooden cutting boards — I hadn’t thought to try it for iron handles!
Thanks for tips on the cleaning and polishing. Would it be a good idea to periodically apply Renaissance wax to the iron handles to keep the rust away? I have bought and used this after seeing your post on this product.
Hey Stephen — Sure! Some iron handles seem especially prone to rust and I like to keep something on them to protect them. I don’t think you need *both* Renaissance wax *and* metal polish — one or the other seems fine to me. But I like having both Renaissance wax and metal polish in my arsenal: Renaissance wax for the iron handles on my working pans, as it’s so easy to apply, and metal polish as a more laborious all-over cleaning and protectant for the pieces that will sit untouched and retain that finish for a while.
This is a great post! Thanks for the useful information VFC!!
I also took up your earlier suggestion and used “Renaissance” wax to care for knife handles made of wood and prophylactically on some iron handles. In my experience this works well. I am particularly surprised at how long this thin film can survive washing off without damage. According to the manufacturer, this wax is also used outdoors, where it defies the effects of the weather.
An alternative rust protection is “Ballistol”, a biological, non-resinous oil that has been on the market since 1904. In particular, I use it to care for knife blades made of non-rustproof carbon steel that are not in constant use. The iron handles of some pans were also cared for with it. It is also a proven lubricant for moving metal connections. Personally, however, I prefer the smell of “Renaissance”.
Martin, I like Renaissance wax as well — it’s a great sealant, non-reactive and “safe” for a wide range of materials.
Great in depth article, VFC, a really good read.
Thank you for your fantastic information. Now addicted to your site. It has helped me identify an old copper saute pan I bought at a vide grenier in SW France as an A La Menegere and taught me how to clean it and get it ready for selling. Much appreciated! Ruth
Thank you for your kind words, Ruth! I’m so glad you’ve found some information that helps you!
I have an Baumalu sauté that I use every day, the handle gets rusty very easily.
I’ve been thinking of trying the method I use to season my carbon steel pans – apply thin layer of vegetable oil then bake to smoking 500 degrees for 1 hour, then repeating 3-5 times.
Well, as we all know this is a no-no for tinned copper. Luckily my pan will need retinning soon, so I’m planning to try the seasoning just before that. Do you think this would work ?
Hey Ivan! If you want to experiment with seasoning the handle this way, I’d be interested to know the results. My experience with tin is that some kind of mechanical action is needed to dislodge it, even at melting temps. But it’s possible that prolonged heat over multiple hours would encourage some slippage even if the tin was undisturbed. If protecting the handle is your goal, you have another option — I apply Renaissance wax to the iron handles of my working pans when they start showing a bit of rust. It’s lightweight, non-sticky, and can be applied with your fingertips at room temp. Best of all, in my experience it seems to withstand a few rounds of hand-washing.
I ended up seasoning with flaxseed oil and heating the handle with blowtorch and I’m very happy with the result. Here is a photo mid-process where only half of the handle is seasoned. I could not heat the very base of the handle high enough to smoke the oil but I’m not worried about that part since it will get heated as I cook.
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