Archaeology Cast Iron Cookware Cast Iron Repairs Cultural Anthropology Field Work

Almost but Not Quite Crazy— a Wee Bit on Cast Iron Repair

This post goes over cast iron repair, using my own success and failure as examples, as well as considerations to make before deciding whether or not to repair at all.


I mentioned in one of my very first sentences on cast iron cookware that it has an almost mythological status. Well, part of that myth is its supposed immortality. 
Forget about your breakfast until it’s a charred concretion in the pan? Not a problem.
Accidentally let it soak overnight and now it’s a slimy, rusted mess? Not a problem.

Put it out in the yard and forget about it for literally 250 years? Not a problem.

But…it’s more of a conditional immortality. Closer to a vampire than a god. It’s super strong, resistant to just about anything you can put it through, and will quite likely last forever. But some really dumb things can obliterate it. For vampires it’s garlic and sunlight. For cast iron it’s rapid temperature change and bumping it the wrong way/dropping it.

Fairly easy rules to follow. But we all know how Gremlins goes. Easy rules don’t mean they’re always followed.

And so sometimes, cast iron breaks. It happens and it’s miserable. Whether it’s an heirloom, a found treasure, or the $20 Lodge you got at walmart four years ago, cast iron cookware comes to have a personality all its own. And when it breaks (or is found broken), it’s devastating.

Whether you’re a collector, researcher, or casual user, it’s heartbreaking and I’m sure every single person who has encountered broken cast iron has wondered about repairing it. And so I’ve written this for others who are down the “can I repair this rabbit hole” and seeking such arcane knowledge. 

The first consideration to make, and in my opinion the most important, is whether or not to repair at all. It’s similar to archaeology/paleoanthropology in some ways. When something is found, careful consideration must be made during excavation on how to best treat the artifact.

Is it solid or will it need immediate stabilization? Should it be left buried/mostly buried/at least sheltered until further notice to protect it from the elements? And there’s even the potential of simply leaving something in situ for any number of reasons.

During field work I once found a pretty close to complete fossilized elephant skeleton. But we weren’t there studying elephants and that would’ve been weeks of painstaking work for something that frankly had nothing to do with what we were up to. It was completely counterintuitive to everything I had dreamed of as a kid. But it was better to leave it where it was, whether for future researchers who are actually looking for something like that, or simply to save time.

I can’t find a picture of the elephant in question but here’s a fossilized rib from a different elephant, which was also left behind.

Basically, some things have more historical and research value when left alone.

Cast iron has been around a long time. Some of it has genuine historical value, and that alone can eclipse the use of the piece. Sure, it’s exciting to hold a piece that’s potentially over 100 years old, and the thought of cooking on it has a weird kind of intoxicating effect. But cast iron is still made.

It’s just as effective as cookware even if much of the finesse and craftsmanship have been removed from the production process. And while it can be tough to find specific pieces you’re looking for, there is no real shortage of very old cookware. 
What it comes down to is, if I can walk away from having discovered a 1.8 million year old elephant skeleton, we can hold off on conducting invariably damaging repairs on very old, cracked cookware for the sole purpose of being able to cook on something that old.

Broken cookware has lost much of its collector’s value. However, many collectors do NOT want very old pieces restored. Without the original seasoning, many collectors pass. Drilling, grinding, sanding, and epoxying/welding/whatevering a pan in addition to stripping and reseasoning removes a lot of the historical connection. And I guess there’s some argument (however slight) to be made about the carbon in the seasoning having isotopic information that can tell us something about what the original users were cooking.

It might sound outlandish, but in prepping and cleaning fossils, it was routine to clean and polish teeth. Turns out that dental calculus can tell is a whooooole lot about what individuals were eating, and therefore a lot about the environments in which they lived. It’s no longer such a hot idea to clean that off now.

It may be of less scientific value, but there’s something to be said for conservation of historical artifacts, however mundane.

Inevitably it’s your piece, you can do what you want. But just consider your end game—how old is it? How common? How damaged? Is it a family heirloom?

And finally:

Is it worth risking actual total destruction of the piece just so you can cook an egg on this one specific really old pan?

In short, as collectors of any antiquities, we are part steward. There’s an ethical aspect to it, and I genuinely do not care if you think I’m a dumbass for saying so.

That being said. Cracked cookware. It can quite often be repaired. There are examples of very old blacksmith repaired cookware with wrought handles replacing cast handles that had cracked off. They’re often fastened with hammered rivets and though strictly utilitarian at the time, they’re absolutely beautiful.

More recently, some have been welded. Some have been brazed. And honestly very minor cracks can often simply be sealed by the seasoning process. 

There is also the option of having your piece used as a mold to recast it. You’ll have an exact replica without mucking up or demolishing your pan. From what I understand, many if not most foundries will do it. But it varies in price and with price comes quality. And for older pieces that were cast in, say, loam, a newer, sand-molded casting will be a lot rougher and require much more finishing.

I’ve personally attempted two repairs. One was successful. One was…very much not.

The first one (the failure) was a number 9 griddle with “my handle.” It was cracked when I got it. And I later saw the original listing photos had the crack. It just didn’t look like a crack in the photos so much as the scar on the cook surface where you could see the bottom gate mark. I was disappointed but used it anyway, thinking would take it out of service once it got too bad. 
Well, it got too bad and I decided to attempt to weld it. We’ve got an arc welder at work and some cast iron specific rods. My thoughts were it’s too badly cracked to use safely, in very poor condition to start with, and it’s a pretty common griddle. Either it would be restored to use, or it would continue being a broken piece with little to no collector or historical value.

Long story short I made it much worse before I made it better (cast iron is hard to weld and it took some sorting out before I actually ran a bead well enough to stabilize the thing). I made it real ugly but would be able to grind down the excess and have a perfectly usable piece.

But then…these rods are old (1970s probably). I started hunting around for information on them and after a while I found the MSDS. Turns out they have hexavalent chromium. That’s the real bad kind. And so now that griddle is going to be made into a spatula because there’s enough uncontaminated surface area. I just have to first get over having made such a stupid and avoidable mistake.

Long story short, don’t weld your cast iron. Find a welder to do it for you and get food safe welding or brazing rods. Or have it silver soldered.

But you aren’t necessarily out of options. Many skillets wound up being cracked along the side wall, most often on either side of the handle. Probably as a result of being bumped a bit too hard while still being hot, it’s a very depressing fate. Not quite as bad as being dropped, which often results in shattering.

After my complete failure with the griddle, I decided to keep an eye out for a piece with my handle, but that was cracked. And I would research and brainstorm repair methods. And talk amongst other enthusiasts about best ways forward. I wound up finding a really, really pretty number 8 skillet with my handle and a single pour lip. And a crack to the right of the handle.

I have a lot of pieces with this handle, and have spent an inhumane amount of hours researching it (as evidenced by my last post on cast iron). This is probably the cleanest, smoothest casting of a piece with this handle that I’ve come across. 

Usually these things are at least a little bit of a mess. Not this one.

But, it’s got a crack.

Going all the way down the side wall and stopping just where it curves to the bottom, this crack being next to the handle means it’s at the point of highest stress. Bummer.

This pan being cracked, cleaned by the seller (very well I might add), and a common enough pan to risk makes it exactly what I was looking for.

When repairing cracks in things like this, one of the first and most important steps is to drill the very end of it. It might sound counterintuitive. But cracks end at a point, and it’s that narrow point that keeps splitting. As a pan heats and cools, the expansion and contraction of the metal will make it continue along until it splits in two. Drilling a hole at the end of the crack stops it. It’s a rounded, smooth surface. The crack has nowhere else to go. Without doing this, even a well done repair is useless because the crack will just go on its merry way.

First thing I did was clean both sides with soap and water, just to make sure I could see the end. Then I used a pencil to sketch along the crack to make sure I was seeing it stop at the same point on both sides.

Then, I put a 1/16” drill bit in my drill, did 76 hours of breathing and relaxation exercises, and drilled a hole in this ~120 year old pan.


At this point, for a display piece I could honestly have stopped. I could season it without the crack spreading.  For simply stabilizing the piece, this would be a really odd decision for a conservator but once here, it would be effective.

But we aren’t done. We wanna cook on this thing. And if nothing else, that wee hole needs to be plugged so all the cooking oil doesn’t leak out all over the stove.

Next comes the most objectively destructive part of this process. And one that involves some real thought and decision making. Next we widen the crack.

What?

You read that right. Cast iron doesn’t bend, it’s crystalline structure is both its literal strength and weakness. Intensely strong and unyielding means brittle and susceptible to shattering on impact. And so cracks can often stay very tight. This means two things—it can be hard for any repair to penetrate the crack and actually seal it off, and there can be a whole mess of debris in there which will prevent the repair from properly adhering.

And so, we widen the crack. In this case I didn’t want to cut all the way through the pan. I wanted to cut into the crack enough to make sure the repair had a lot of meat to which to adhere, but would be minimally visible, if at all, on the inside of the pan. Plus if I have to go back and cut through all the way, I can. But I can’t replace what’s already been cut and I would prefer to keep as much of the original aesthetic as possible.

It requires a Dremel-type multi tool and a rather steady hand for this step, so it’s worth practicing if you’re not used to making cuts like this.

I put a teeny cutting wheel onto the end of my Dremel, and cut a shallow line (just under high speed, experiment to see what’s best for you) along the crack. Once established, I did several more passes, each time deepening the cut ever so slightly, until it was deep enough.

Then for maximum stabilization, I wrapped the cut around the top rim of the pan, cutting completely through the very top.


Here is the completed cut:

At about 3/32” wide, and just over halfway through the wall of the pan, I was confident in this cut. I cleaned the pan with soap and water once again, this time to remove any skin oils and iron dust that may prevent adhesion.

Along with the trusty Dremel are, from left to right, the 1/16” bit, the teeny cutting wheel, and the grinding bit. That’s all I used for this project.

And now, we’re ready for the repair itself.

As you can see, there is a good amount of destruction involved. Again, it’s up to you what you want to do, but I would not attempt this on older, rarer, more historically valuable pieces.

I decided to go with a cold weld for this repair. Essentially a metallic epoxy, JB Weld makes an “extreme heat” product that is rated up to 1000°. Furthermore, ALL of their products are non toxic once cured. There’s a chemical reaction that occurs when wet and exposed to air for a bit, which means that I wouldn’t go dumping it into my mouth. But if not for the toxicity of the wet stuff, it may have been FDA approved. I’ve looked at the MSDS and the only thing that has any danger is silica/quartz, and that danger comes from inhalation in powdered form—ie lung damage. No components of this stuff have known toxicity levels.

Don’t eat it. But also it isn’t gonna taint your food and make you grow extra limbs. It’s apparently used in the food industry often enough anyway, so there’s a chance we’ve all eaten food cooked with equipment repaired with JB.

If I hadn’t looked into it myself, there’s a 2% chance tops I would ever have thought this might be nontoxic.

Also, I didn’t tell you what I used until just now, because I want to stress the importance of prep. If I gave you the punch line first, you may very well miss out on the important stuff. 90% of any job like this is prep, whether you’re painting your bedroom or fixing your great grandma’s skillet.

Skip the prep and your repair is useless. End of story.

I should also mention at this point that JB has stated that their products are for crack filling only, and that it does not provide the structural integrity necessary for repairing shattered pieces. I personally would try it on a new piece if broken on a non-stressed area, but for repairing an old piece I would look for better methods than this. 

Anyway.

Using a toothpick and a plastic butter knife that I cut into a putty knife, I carefully filled first that hole all the way through, and then the cut, up around the rim, and then used the toothpick alone to fill the crack on the inside. Then it was all “smoothed” with the knife.

And then comes the wait. 1-2 hours to touch, 24 for full cure. Next day it was ready for inspection and cleanup.

You can do a far less blobby job on the outside.

The inside was a little tricky. I used the toothpick to make sure I got it in there. If I were to do this again, it would be cleaner.

I used a cone-shaped grinding/polishing bit in my Dremel being careful only to grind off the excess weld with as little scuffing to the pan as possible. The scuffing is inevitable, so I made sure not to use my finest bits, that way seasoning would be more likely to adhere (I’ve heard anecdotes of seasoning not sticking to JB Weld as it is). The grinding exposed some air pockets in the first go, so those were filled and it was back to waiting.

The next day, the wait was over. Almost.

Here is the completed repair, before seasoning:

You can clearly see that. But it’s not the most offensive thing I’ve seen done to a skillet. It’s not even the most offensive thing I’ve done to cast iron myself.
A close up of the outside, again this is before seasoning. I’m very happy with how it came out.
And here he is hanging out next to his new buddy. That skillet is also cracked but not in a way that’s concerning. And that particular skillet will not be repaired because it’s very old, and of much more value (literally and figuratively) as is.

And, lastly. How does it hold up? Well, I haven’t had it repaired for an incredibly long time. But once ready for seasoning I washed it—drying it on the stove to see if the repair would immediately fail. It held.

It has since gone through two complete rounds of oven seasoning and cooked hash browns. Only time will tell, but I’m considering it a success.

After two rounds of seasoning, I would say that repair is hiding pretty well.

Now before I release you all into the world, I have one more thing to add.

All of this is very much at your own risk. I’ve written this to alleviate some anxiety by giving you my process and experience.

But if you’re the type to rush the prep or not wait for full cure, or if you’re miserable with a Dremel and don’t practice, of if you don’t have one and decide for some sick reason that an angle grinder is fine—that’s on you. I cannot guarantee your success with this process. I can’t even guarantee my repair is gonna last longer than four months.

All that said, I am fantastically happy with this repair. I would recommend this process for anyone looking to repair fairly minor cracks in cast iron cookware. If you’re worried and want advice or help with the aforementioned 76 hours of breathing and relaxation techniques, feel free to reach out. But don’t be sad if I tell you you have a piece that I wouldn’t repair because of its age or historical value, or that it’s too far gone. It’s all awesome, and the broken bits are part of the story.

 

I have a degree in anthropology from Rhode Island College. My focus was in biological anthropology but I also have a broad interest in cultural anthropology, archaeology and linguistic anthropology. Pedal Powered Anthropology is an anthropological educational initiative that seeks to bring profound travel experiences to a local level while encouraging others to get out and explore the world around them. This blog details all aspects of my work as Anthrospin, including my take on topics within four fields anthropology as well as bits about a lot of different aspects of culture, primarily race, gender, privilege, the environment and my own personal relationship with anxiety.

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