Think all iron handles are the same? I sure did.
Val Maguire at Southwest Hand Tinning was telling me about the beautiful wrought iron handle on an antique pot she was restoring. I thought “wrought iron” was a fancy term for cast iron, so I asked, “You mean cast iron handle, don’t you?” I was wrong, of course, and Val was generous and patient enough to educate me: not only are wrought and cast handles quite different, there are actually three types of handles the appear on French copper from the 19th century and into the 20th. It’s not just interesting to know this, but useful as well: the type of handle on a piece tells you its approximate age but also something about the skill and sensibilities of the maker.
Iron ores occur naturally in the earth, and “making iron” is the process of smelting: heating the ore to separate the elemental iron from unwanted impurities called slag. In Europe up into the 1500s, iron was smelted in a bloomery furnace running at around 1300°F (700°C). The goal was “wrought iron” that was soft enough to be worked with hand tools (that is, wrought), which meant keeping the carbon content low. Too much carbon produced useless “pig iron,” iron locked in a cage of carbon too brittle to be wrought. The smelter’s task was to produce a “bloom” of mixed iron and slag that was then pounded with a hammer to drive the last remnants of slag out of the metal. (Ever seen a blacksmith hammering iron while sparks fly? Those sparks are hot slag flying off the surface.) When the iron was acceptably pure, the smith formed it into bars or ingots that could be reheated and re-wrought into useful objects.
The next major innovation came in the 1500s: more heat. The blast furnace used bellows to blow air into the smelting chamber to increase the temperature substantially. By the 1700s, harnessing water power and then steam power to drive larger bellows improved it further. A blast furnace could exceed 2000°F (1100°C) at which temperature the unworkable high-carbon pig iron could finally melt.
This was the beginning of the era of cast iron in Europe: melting and molding what had been brittle trash iron into resilient useful shapes. (Thank Henry VIII of England for this — his orders for cast-iron cannon and shot for his armies spurred innovation to meet the demand.) But blast furnaces were huge and so expensive to run that only a few cities in Europe could sustain them. Most smaller cities and towns continued operating bloomeries to produce inexpensive wrought iron.
The industrial revolution in the 1800s brought a new factor to bear: engineering. By adding different substances into the furnace, the smelters discovered how to control the iron-carbon blend much more precisely; new furnace designs were smaller, hotter, and less expensive to run. By the 1890s, blast furnaces had supplanted bloomeries and every major city in Europe had iron foundries capable of producing copious amounts of low-carbon wrought iron, medium-carbon steel, and high-carbon cast iron.
The progress of European metallurgy from the 19th century into the 20th shows up in the evolution of handles on French copper pots during this span of time. Based on consultations with Val and my own observations of the craftsmanship I’ve seen on a wide range of pans, I’d like to suggest this timeline.
|Base metal||Shaping technique||Recognize by…||Era estimation (France)|
|Low-carbon wrought iron||Forged (compression): Concussive hammering on an anvil||Flatness, spread baseplate, rat tail hanging loop||Early 1800s to mid 1800s|
|Wrought (tension): Stretching and pulling with hand tools||Smooth surface, soft contours, asymmetry||Early 1800s to very early 1900s|
|High-carbon cast iron||Cast with molds||Filing marks, symmetry||1880s to present|
Again, my era estimations are just that — an observation based on what I have seen. There will be outliers: early and late examples of each style, dependent on each maker’s access to handles of different types (and desire to work with one style over another). Please use this as a guideline but not an arbiter.
The term wrought means worked, and wrought iron is a grade of low-carbon iron that is malleable and ductile enough to be worked with hand tools. This is the primary grade of iron that metalsmiths used in Europe until the late 1800s: the bloomeries produced lumps of iron and slag that were hammered (that is, wrought) to expel the slag. The wrought iron was formed into bars and ingots that could be easily transported, reheated, and re-wrought into finished products.
There are two types of handle made from wrought iron: those shaped by hammer blows, which I will call forged handles, and those shaped by stretching with hand tools, which I will call wrought handles.
This type of handle was shaped by compression: the iron was held against an anvil and hit with concussive hammer strikes.
The clearest indicator of a forged handle is its flattened profile. It’s made from bar iron cut to size and then hammered to spread and thin it as needed. The little pot below is an unusual example because the hammering is so obvious to the eye — many forged handles have a smoother surface than this one.
Rat tail hanging loop
Another key indicator of a forged handle is a “rat tail” hanging loop: the end was thinned into a slender “tail,” curled around into a loop, and then pounded to re-join the handle.
Another characteristic of a forged handle is a spread baseplate: the iron was flattened, sliced, and spread apart into two flanges to create more surface area to rivet to the pan body.
I often see forged iron handles on unusually-shaped pans or as patched-on repairs. This is one major advantage of forged iron: the smith can cut and shape the metal to the exact right size and shape to fit the need, be it the stubby legs of a lechefrite or Band-aid style reinforcements to a handle baseplate. In this sense, forging represents the ne plus ultra of handwork: every forged handle is custom-made to the pot.
Based on what I have observed, forged handles were used on French copper cookware up until the early 19th century, but by the 1850s had been supplanted by wrought handles.
By and large, forging was a pre-industrial manufacturing technique in Europe. Every village blacksmith was an expert in the techniques of forging metal, be it iron for horseshoes, precious steel for swords, or sheets of copper for cookware. Before there was such a thing as a copper cookware industry in France and Europe, there were thousands of blacksmiths and itinerant tinkers creating, repairing, and recycling pots and pans wherever they happened to be.
In antiques catalogs and online marketplaces, copper and other artifacts with forged iron hardware that have survived from this era are often described as “primitive” — a term intended to characterize skilled hand-craftsmanship that is beautiful and resilient even if it lacks the pleasing visual symmetry and clean lines of industrial production of the later 19th century.
This type of handle was shaped under tension: it was heated to make it pliable and then stretched and bent with hand tools. I believe the handle on this lid is an early wrought handle, perhaps 1830s-1850s or so; while it has something of the flat profile of the forged iron handle I show above, it looks quite different. The graceful contours and smooth surface are characteristic of a wrought handle, which has never been struck with force but instead stretched and curved into shape.
Smooth texture and rounded contours
The most marked characteristic of a wrought iron handle is its smooth surface texture. The iron retains the soft contours of its semi-molten state because it has not been planished with a hammer. There are no sharp edges — the baseplate meets the copper in an uninterrupted curve; the inside surface of the hanging loop is smooth. The iron has not been struck, sliced, or sanded.
Wrought handles have fine lines in the metal, most easily seen on freshly restored pieces. The lines come from remnants of slag in the wrought iron. When the iron is stretched or bent, the bits of slag leave visible dark streaks called grains. Look for graining in the regions of the handle that have been manipulated by the smith: the curve from the baseplate to the handle shaft, or along the shaft where it has been lengthened.
Punched or rat tail hanging loops
A punched hanging loop was made with a hand tool that pierced the metal and enlarged the hole. A punched teardrop-shaped loop have a characteristic V-shaped notch where the punch was rocked out of the hole.
The two wrought handles below have rat tail loops. You can see a faint seam where the loop rejoins the shaft of the handle and subtle distortions in the metal where it was manipulated into the loop shape. The metal forming the loop is rounded and the inside of the loop is smooth.
From what I have read, wrought handles first appeared on French copper in the early 1800s and by the 1850s had replaced forged handles. The beginning of the end for wrought handles was the 1880s and the last examples I have found are super-sized restaurant pieces of the 1900s.
Wrought handles mark the peak of the “golden age” of French copper: the era of the rise of French cuisine, the relative peace and prosperity of the Belle Époque, the flowering of Paris as the center of European culture — factors that also fueled the French copper cookware industry. In this increasingly competitive market, the smooth voluptuous curves of a wrought iron handle on a copper pot would be an instant sign of quality and luxury, like fine Corinthian leather for a car’s interior. If the chaudronniers were sourcing and riveting wrought handles for their products, it was because their customers were willing to pay more for them.
But advances in metallurgy changed the economics. It is significantly easier and faster to cast and machine-form iron components, and new inventions at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries made it less expensive as well. Why continue the time-consuming process of hand-working wrought handles when cast handles could be made to look identical at a fraction of the cost and effort?
This handle was molded: the metal was melted, poured into a two-piece mold, and left to solidify into its final shape.
Seams and filing marks
The mold for a cast handle is in two pieces and the casting process can leave a visible line called a “mismatch” or “shift” along the seam where the two pieces of the mold were joined. Based on what I have seen on cast handles, the seam runs around the outer edge of the baseplate, up the sides of the handle shaft, and around the inside and outside of the hanging loop.
The smith seeks to reduce the appearance of this seam with a grinder or a hand-held rasp. These file marks, often mostly clearly visible around the baseplate, and are a clear indicator that the item was cast.
If a cast iron handle has been carefully filed, the marks may be less visible. What’s key here is to look for flattened planes along the upper contours of the baseplate where it narrows to form the handle shaft. These flat planes were produced by machining.
While it’s relatively easy to smooth the baseplate and handle shaft with a grinder or rasp, the hanging loop is a different story. There is very little space inside that loop for a tool and so oftentimes the seam here is left raw. Look closely at the seam inside the loop and you can see extra material called “flash,” “fins,” or “burrs”; run your finger around and you can feel it.
My observation is that the surface texture of cast handles can vary quite a bit: some have a visible graininess while others have a smooth surface to rival a wrought handle. My guess is that this has to do with the specific method of casting. If the foundry used molds made of metal, then the finished piece would have a smooth surface; if the method was sand-cast, then it would leave a grainy appearance. Says Roger W., “The majority of modern cast iron is lower quality with an internal texture like one of those honeycomb candy bars so it is thick and heavy to compensate for how brittle it is. For some reason I don’t know, much coarser sand is used for the mold making the surface very rough. Often no attempt is made to improve the casting other than rounding off of sharp edges.”
Based on what I have seen, cast iron handles for French cookware appeared in the 1880s and by the 1900s had supplanted wrought handles. It is simply so much more economical to cast hundreds of identically perfect handles in a day rather than laboring over pieces one by one, and cookware handles are cast in iron, steel, or brass to this day.
But Val notes that some makers of cast iron handles sought to make them look like wrought, most notably by adding a V-notch to the hanging loop. Look closely at the hanging loop of 20th-century Mauviel pans and you’ll see it — a deliberate vestige of the wrought handle era.
When you’re evaluating a piece of iron-handled antique or vintage French copper, take a look at the handle — it will give you a clue as to the era in which the pot was made. Forged? Think early 19th century, maybe even earlier. Wrought? Mid-19th to early 20th. Cast? Late 19th to the present day.
One area where this information can be particularly useful is if you’re trying to estimate the age of a piece for sale. Many sellers claim a piece is “early 1800s!” when to my eye it’s clearly much later. The handle can be a giveaway here: if it has the liquid look of a wrought handle, it very well could be mid-1800s to the 1900s, but if it’s cast, it’s most likely 1880s or later.
I’d like to extend my profound thanks to Valerie Maguire at Southwest Hand Tinning. She is not only a talented tinner and restorer but also a student of history and a generous teacher. I’m very grateful for her time to help me with this post and also for the care she’s given to several cherished antique copper pieces.
A word on cast brass
While European smiths did not cast iron in quantity until the 1500s, they had been casting brass well before then. Discoveries about the chemical properties of zinc in the 1700s made it easier to produce high-zinc brass and encouraged an industry to cast brass instruments and devices, especially for maritime use to resist corrosion. Cast brass handles appear on French cookware throughout the 19th century to the present day.
Brass handles on older pieces can have fine surface scratches. TJFRANCE tells me that these marks could be left by the wire wheel that a 19th or early 20th century retinner used to abrade off carbonized or polymerized oils from the brass; modern retinners in my experience are more gentle!
Brass has qualities similar to cast iron: it is strong but brittle. I have bought a few pots with cracked brass handles and on more than one occasion a handle has broken off during rough-and-tumble shipping. Fortunately, the break can be repaired with silver solder.
Medieval Iron and Steel — Simplified; Bert Hall, Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, University of Toronto.