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Retinning Copper Pans

Martha Stewart Living, November 2001

Working in the tiny corner of a vast tattered warehouse in the Faubourg Marigny district of New Orleans, Lambert Joseph Gonzales III is retinning the inside of a century-old copper saute pan. Its curved surface has been soaked in lye and then scoured with fine steel wool to clean off old tin and corrosion.

He turns up the propane flame on a crawfish burner -- blue tongues of fire dart higher than his head -- and heats the pan, rubbing it with an ingot of tin that looks like a chocolate bar, except for its silver color. The tin melts, covering the pan with a surprising brilliance. It is a relatively straightforward procedure, but achieving a thick, even coating requires all manner of subtleties, which together form an art that is as elemental as sharpening knives.

The wonder of it is, here at the start of the twenty-first century is a man willing to practice an ancient trade that has virtually disappeared in the United States. "It's fun to take something and make it functional again," Gonzales says. "I like the solitariness of the craft. And I like being around old pieces of copper and handling them."

Indeed, for those who love the kitchen and the past, there is nothing quite like the rosy bloom of antique copper pots and pans. Their nicks and dings hint at the fabulous sauces they have held. Their heavy weight and dovetailed seams are remnants of a world where all was handmade and nothing was disposable.

Not just beautiful objects, they remain practical and useful -- as long as the interiors are coated with an inert metal like tin, which prevents the reaction between copper and acidic foods that results in verdigris poison. Copper cookware made today is often electroplated or laminated with a wafer of stainless steel, linings that wear out more quickly than a wiped-tin one.

But before electroplating came into use on a commercial scale around 1840, all copper pots had to be tinned and retinned once the protective metal wore away with use. "In New Orleans, many tinsmiths attended not only to the needs of private Creole kitchens but also to those of the great and small restaurants that the city is famous for," says Patrick Dunne, proprietor of Lucullus, a shop specializing in culinary antiques.

"Retinning wagons equipped with Bunsen burners on the back would pull up to the side door, and the chef would bring all the copper out into the street." Dunne, who also cooks with antique pots, is Gonzales's best customer. He provides Gonzales space in his own restoration warehouse to shelter his fledgling business and introduces him to prospective clients. "Four years ago, when I met Lambert, he was a classical guitarist -- literally a starving artist," Dunne recalls.

"Then he learned this and became fascinated with it. Lambert has a great sensitivity about how to polish something, and he's able to make it fresh and desirable without taking the patina away." An age-old craft like retinning is rarely taught in school, but usually passed from person to person.

In this case, Ellis Joubert, a fine-metal restorer in New Orleans and Gonzales's friend since the first grade,was the source."I learned it from an old body-and-fender guy who collected the tools of all the manual trades that were fading away," Joubert explains. "He taught me just enough so that I could pass it on. In any of the older trades, if you don't find somebody and pass it on, the information will be lost."

Hoping to help launch someone else's retinning trade in New Orleans, Joubert taught Gonzales and five other men he had rounded up. Only Gonzales stuck with it and developed the proper touch. "I just try to slip into the heat envelope," he says of his tolerance for the high temperatures he endures in a day's work.

And it helped that he already had a base of related skills: He had been a blacksmith for ten years and had done burnishing on bronze. Retinning suits Gonzales, who lives at arm's length from the modern world. He has no car or credit cards. He owns one pair of shoes. He just acquired a telephone to help him handle his business. Until recently, he lived without electricity or heat. His apartment in the French Quarter is across the street from the dwelling of an ancestor, Pierre Lambert, a chief medical officer at the Battle of New Orleans, and the proximity to this fragment of family history delights Gonzales.

He cooks meals in an old copper saute pan or the bottom half of a bain-marie -- a double boiler; he found both at garage sales and retinned them. "Wouldn't you rather cook in something that has been used to sustain a few generations?" he asks. Even new pots with worn-out stainless-steel linings can be retinned. The time to resurface any pot is when copper starts showing through an existing lining, Gonzales says.

Cooking and cleaning take their toll, and tin will also "turn gray and darken when you cook anything acidic, like tomato sauce," he says. "The darkening is harmless, but to try to get back that shiny tin, some people will scrub too hard." Gonzales advises people never to scorch or scour a tinned pan. Use only wooden spoons, always cook with a liquid in the pan, and, after cooking, soften residue by soaking the pan in water before wiping it out with a soft brush.

In addition to retinning everything from long-handled copper dippers and rounded teapots to broad jelly molds and portly old stockpots, Gonzales wants to learn to make copper pot lids. In the realm of antique cookware, lids are the main casualty of time. "I plan on making the older form of lid that's basically a disk without a lip. It would be in keeping with the spirit of an old pot, and it would completely restore it," Gonzales says.

He likes a certain saying: There's not a pot so out of shape that there's not a lid to fit it. It is, of course, an aphorism about individuality and the universal search for a mate, but he aims to make it literally true. He wants old pots to gleam whole again.

Lambert Gonzales holds a nineteenth-century copper saucepan that he is in the process of retinning. He employs the old-fashioned, hand-wiped method, which involves using high heat, various chemicals, and billets of pure tin, which he rubs on the insides of pots until the tin liquefies. This pot has been heated, coated with molten tin, and wiped out once. Gonzales will repeat the process for a smoother, more-even lining.

After Gonzales retins, repairs, and polishes old pots, the finished products have a satisfying reddish luster and insides as bright as new dimes. This set of old French copper casseroles is somewhat unusual in that each pot still has its original "sunk cover" copper lid with a poured-iron handle.

Retinning Step By Step
1. Gonzales begins with a scrupulously clean pot that has been soaked in lye. He then paints the outside of the pot with a paste of yellow ocher and water to keep tin off it.

2. Gonzales sprays the pot with flux, a chemical that coats the metal and prevents oxides from building up, allowing the tin to adhere. Next he heats the pot, and the flux "caramelizes," or turns brown, when it reaches the right temperature for retinning.

3. After he rubs a bar of tin on the inside of the pot and the metal begins to flow, Gonzales reaches for his mitt of cotton. He heats and wipes, over and over, spreading the tin around in concentric circles, trying for an even finish without drips or marks. Each new area of the pot that he heats must be carefully controlled; tin melts at 490 degrees, and he doesn’t want to heat the pot above 500 degrees.

4. Gonzales wipes the inner sides of the pot with a cotton rag that has accidentally caught fire -- a common occurrence.

5. He holds the pot aloft to wipe out excess tin. Later, he will perform steps 2 through 5 at least one and possibly two more times.

6. After the pot cools, Gonzales cleans it with fine steel wool and dish-washing liquid. Finally, he polishes the outside and bottom of the pot on a buffing wheel, using compounds such as Crocus, Tripoli, and Jeweler's Rouge.

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