For me, quality is about the characteristics of the piece when it was made, while condition is its present state of cleanliness and repair that can be improved through restoration.
To me, quality derives from the details in the materials and finish of a pan that speak to the deliberate choices by its maker to take extra time and expense in its making.
In my opinion, look for pans with these signs of quality:
- Three copper rivets in the handle baseplate. Aside from small pieces for which three rivets would crowd each other, high quality vintage French copper generally has three copper rivets attaching the handles to the pan body. The categorical exception: Steel- or nickel-lined pieces have stainless steel rivets that are quite strong and only two are technically needed. Still, steel- and nickel-lined pieces kept the three-rivet look, and only Mauviel dropped to two steel rivets around 2014.
- Handle metal appropriate to the type of pan. The key distinction is iron (or steel) versus brass. Stick-handled pans like saucepans, skillets, and sauté pans will ideally have heat-resistant iron or steel handles so you can pick them up while cooking. Short-handled pieces like rondeaux, stewpots, and stockpots that aren’t moved much during cooking are fine with brass handles.
- Smooth finishing on cast metal handles. Cast handles often have ridges and other minor cosmetic defects when they come out of the mold. A well-finished piece will have these visual flaws filed down to reduce or eliminate them completely.
- On hammered-finish items, a consistent hammering pattern that is not an embossed texture. Antique pieces (and a few modern artisan pieces) have been struck with a hand-held hammer; high-quality 20th century pieces have been hammered with a hydraulic hammering machine as the maker shifted and repositioned the piece. Both of these qualify as “hand-hammering.” Baumalu is one manufacturer who currently embosses pans with a “hammered” look that confers none of the actual benefits of impact work-hardening.
- On antique and vintage tinned pieces, beveled planes around the outer edge of base. This is a hand-applied finish that hardens the copper in that area and is a sign of a high-quality finishing.
- A base thicker than the sidewalls. This was an intentionally done in the 19th and early 20th century to put copper where it would do the most good for cooking.
What’s not on that list? The copper’s thickness. Every French chaudronnerie made copper pieces in a range of thickness with the same innate quality characteristics, and while thicker pans are often considered more desirable, they are not necessarily better made than their thinner brethren. Many absolutely gorgeous 19th century pieces represent the epitome of beautiful craftsmanship but are thin by 20th century standards.
I have specific guidance on what thickness to look for at “What should I buy?”.
By condition, I mean the physical state of the piece at the present moment. Unlike quality, which is innate, condition can change: it can deteriorate with use and neglect or be improved with restoration and repair. In my experience the three key components of a pan’s condition are its lining, its geometry, and the damage it has experienced.
The inside of stovetop and oven copper pans is not copper-colored but instead silver-colored because there is a layer of some other metal there. This lining is purposely applied to keep bare copper from direct contact with food. Copper in contact with certain food acids at cooking temperatures reacts to form a mildly toxic chemical compound, and the lining prevents this reaction. If you want to cook with a pan, or plan to sell or gift it to someone who will, the lining needs to be intact and clean for cooking.
When assessing a pan for purchase, check the lining. If it is in rough shape but renewable, factor the additional cost of relining into the price. If the lining is in bad shape and not renewable, then the pan may never be suitable for cooking.
By geometry I mean the piece’s original shape, usually a symmetrical circle, oval, or rectangle with a nice flat base. If a pan has been dropped or struck it can deform, which alters its natural geometry. The risk is higher for thin tin-lined copper pans that are inherently flimsy but even thick restaurant pieces can dent and bend if they are treated roughly.
Two of the most common geometry issues in vintage copper that I see are:
- Out of round: The pan’s rim is no longer symmetrical. This can happen if a pan is dropped on its side or crushed between heavy items on a shelf. You may not realize a pot is out of round until you try to put a fitted lid on it and find that the lid just won’t settle on the rim. This is a problem, as a pan that won’t take a lid has some limitations in the kitchen. A universal lid or baking tray can stand in, but putting a pan back into round is often a straightforward process for a coppersmith and worth fixing at the next retinning.
- Uneven base: The base of the pan is not longer a flat plane, such that the pan wobbles back and forth when set on a flat countertop. (Sometimes the same force that squashes a pot out of round also torques the base.) A mild case may be merely an annoyance, but if your cooktop is electric or radiant, an uneven base can interfere with cooking performance by reducing the areas of contact with the pan. (A more serious condition is if the copper in the base is actually stretched and damaged — see the next section.)
A skilled coppersmith can address these issues and make adjustments to bring the piece back into cookable shape, but in my experience a little wonkiness usually remains. Steel-lined pans are not as susceptible to geometry problems because the steel provides structural rigidity. However, heated copper and steel expand and contract at different rates, and it is possible that a pan subjected to thermal shock — for example, taking a very hot pan and dunking it into a sinkful of water — can warp or delaminate. I suspect, but do not know for sure, that wonky geometry in a steel-lined piece is permanent.
Antique and vintage copper cookware was not sentimentally cherished in its day, but instead was used. The examples that survive today often bear physical scars from their working days and may have been left to sit in damp conditions that encourage rust and corrosion. Some damage is primarily cosmetic and relatively inconsequential (such as shallow gouges in the base from cutting food with a knife while it’s still in the pan), but other issues are serious enough to need attention and repair.
Here are some of the physical problems to check for when you’re assessing a pan, and whether they can be repaired.
- Loose handles: If you can wiggle the handle a little against the pot, this means that the copper rivets have stretched and need to be tightened. This is a routine procedure during the retinning process and a skilled smith will try to match the look of the repaired rivet to the originals.
- Dents: Copper is malleable and susceptible to dents. Fortunately, that same malleability means that they can often be dramatically reduced or eliminated completely during restoration.
- Separated dovetails: Prior to the advent of welding in 1901, complex pans were assembled with cramp seams sealed with brass brazing. These seams can fail and the pan will no longer be watertight.
- Cracked handles: Brass and even iron handles can snap under force. If the pieces can be rejoined, a skilled coppersmith can solder them together again, oftentimes without compromising the strength of the piece.
- Corroded handles: Iron and brass can oxidize if left in contact with moisture, eating away at the metal and leaving holes that weaken the handle to the point where it might not be strong enough to bear the weight of the pan in use. This type of metal loss can’t be repaired, but a coppersmith can replace the handle with another. Ideally you’d find an inexpensive donor pan just like yours from which to harvest a handle, but if that’s not feasible, there are coppersmiths making their own copper lines (Brooklyn Copper Cookware, Duparquet, and House Copper come to mind) who could apply a modern replacement. (Bear in mind that a modern replacement handle would likely diminish the collectibility of an antique pan.)
- Stretched base: Big pans — greater than, say, 30cm in diameter — are more susceptible to bottoming out if they are heavily loaded and carried around without support. The ductile copper stretches under the load, creating a rounded base that causes the pot to wobble and spin on a flat surface. The fix is to invert the base back into the pot and try to even it out with strategic hammering, but unfortunately copper once stretched cannot contract back to its original size and the base will always be wavy and uneven. This may not matter in a big stockpot or stewpot but could really diminish the utility of a sauté pan.
As above, damage may not matter to you if you don’t intend to cook with the piece. But if reselling or regifting the piece is a possibility, then its value and utility will be reduced until it’s repaired.