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The (re) Making of an American Copper Skillet

In case it hasn’t been obvious, I’m a little enamored with the notion of recreating American copper cookware pieces that have been lost along with the slow disappearance of the hand-made, coppersmith trade itself.

So – surprise! I’ve made a skillet next.

Though most copper skillets were relatively small in terms of today’s expectations (and uses!), they all had high sides (not rounded) and a sharp edge. In fact, they were nearly identical in terms of form and shape to cast iron skillets, even though the copper pieces were made by hand and usually had relatively long wrought iron handles.


vintage copper cookware

Copper skillet in the tinshop in Metamora IN

Today, you’ll usually see low-sided copper skillets – some lined with tin, and some with stainless. They are softly curved, and have shorter handles. Part of this is because most of us don’t need to hang our copperware right next to the hearth, or stick it in and need an easier way to grab it out of the fire. It’d be very hard to wield the copper skillets of the 1800’s on today’s stoves, or put in the oven.

But I still believe there’s a place for the traditional, slightly tapered, straight-sided skillet in our kitchens. We just have forgotten they existed, and so have stopped looking to use them.

{Photo from American Copper & Brass book by Henry J. Kauffman}

Imagine a cast iron skillet that performs just like a copper pot!? That’s kinda what I thought. And I’m stupidly over-excited about this next piece. Thanks to the help from my good friend and product architect, who can take my sketches, the finds in old books, and my rough descriptions and make it a transferable file, and the master smith I apprentice under…AND all the guys from the tinsmith convergence this June, who are weighing in…as well as the feedback from the people actually spinning the bodies…

Well, it’s coming along!

It’s a big piece – bigger than the other pots in the House Copper line, and it’s thicker too (3mm) because I’m not flaring or rolling the edges (many older, (smaller) versions had wired rims or a beaded edge to help with strength, especially since these were usually formed by hand out of a thinner gauge copper sheet). And though the ductile handle won’t be long, it will still look similar to what was typical in the 1800’s for wrought handles.

house copper

Prototype of the 12″ American copper skillet

And of course, it will be lined with tin.

The skillets of old (and especially ones contributed to an American smith) are hard to find according to Henry Kauffman’s books, and yet they were the easiest to make for the beginning apprentice coppersmith. As it was typically formed from one circle and required no soldering, cuts (other than the circular blank itself) or fancy forming, it was typically a “trial” piece made with nothing but a stake and a hammer.

Traditional coppersmith copper skillet formation. {Photo from American Copper & Brass by Henry J Kauffman}

I’m excited to see each piece come to life – the guys in Ohio will be spinning the copper components from the Texas copper and the handles poured by the family-owned foundry in Lodi CA. And as for the actual drilling, riveting, tinning, polishing and buffing? Well, that’s going to happen (if all goes well) by…me. Because it will help with the pricing so more people can get pure metal cookware in their homes. And because I’d like to use much of what I’m learning in my own apprenticeship.

It’s just like the good old days, isn’t it?

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The Truth about Copper Moscow Mule Mugs

I was going to post a recipe today. Very “garden fresh and organic!” and all that.But instead there’s all this buzz about copper: copper Moscow Mule cups, copper cookware, unlined copper.

And before there’s yet another article published that cites the same source or two, I thought I’d throw my hat in the ring as an American coppersmith and copper cookware manufacturer. I bend copper using tools from the 1800’s, I apprentice under a master smith, and I can tin my copper pots. Suffice to say, I touch a lot of copper.

So first and foremost: copper itself, in the proper amount, is not poisonous.

In fact, it’s a micro-nutrient the World Health Organization says everyone needs to live and many of us fall short of our daily dietary intake. (Sources: US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, Copper Development Association UK/ CDA Inc (USA). Copper is safe in the proper amount.

There are two exceptions to unlined copper: Jam Pans and Bowls. Jam pans are not lined at all because of the science that goes with the sugar process that happens during cooking jam. Bowls aren’t lined because of the science that goes with egg whites and the fact that you’re not heating them.

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But COOK with acidic foods in unlined copper? I’m the first to tell you it’s not safe.

That means using unlined copper with tomatoes, many kinds of hard alcohol, limes and lemons, wine, and the like is a big no-no. (Here is a really lovely chart showing the alkaline and acidic nature of many foods and drinks). Copper is reactive, releases copper molecules easily, and too much of a good thing is never…good.

Copper gets a tricky reputation because we all apparently have long memories when it comes to it (because it was the first metal we really utilized as Neolithic farmers, perhaps…). Some people talk about copper and lead in the same sentence, and that’s also true – back a LONG time ago, copper cookware pieces were held together with solder (“metal glue” as my kids call it) that contained a lot of lead, so people would eventually get lead poisoning. Thankfully, we’re all wiser, and now solder for old cookware repairs are 100% lead free.

And thankfully we’ve learned to line our copperware with something.

The Moscow Mule mugs out there – if they’re silver on the inside – are usually made from stamped/formed/spun aluminum or stainless, with a thin coat of copper on the outside for looks…or even copper paint! Why? Because it’s cheaper and easier to do that than to actually use pure, real, solid copper. These mugs are readily available and relatively inexpensive to make if you’ve got a factory to spin ‘em. So you’re not actually drinking out of a copper mug, but a stainless or aluminum one just dressed up to look like copper.

(How to know if it’s aluminum and not real copper? Pick it up – it’ll be really lightweight! Stainless will be a bit heavier but you’ll also see the circular spinning marks inside so you know it’s not tin or nickel.)

Sometimes you’ll find real, pure copper mugs lined with tin (we do it, but we do it by hand – there’s no other way to tin something), especially vintage pieces. And yes, I know we have the unlined version in the shopping list. I have to tell Bob that he might want to take it off. He has received orders in the past for people who want unlined copper drinking cups – they leave the water (a neutral! no pH!) in the unlined copper overnight and drink it in the morning, believing the copper to have purified the water due to its antibacterial properties.

copper mug, copper cookware

Something else that I want to point out – there are several articles that mention using nickel as a lining. That’s totally true and possible to do as the two metals bond, but there’s a reason most of us cookware makers don’t line the copper with nickel much any more – if at all – (and this is true for American coppersmiths as well as the many over in Europe) and that’s because of nickel allergies. If you have a nickel allergy, make sure your copper cookware is lined with something else.

Nearly all copper should be lined.

It can be stainless steel, tin, nickel, silver, (heck, gold would bond as a non-ferrous metal) and even ceramic in some cases.

And while there are endless debates on which type of lining works best for copper cookware or even copper moscow mule mugs, as long as you don’t see any copper where you’re putting food or booze, you’re just fine.

Bottoms up!

PS – this article on Refinery29 is also really great on this super current topic.

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Creating Copper Cookware

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Sara here. Today I’ve spent the majority of the morning working with copper and nothing else. Copper is on the brain.

Copper cookware is an art form that is, to me, timeless because it really does last a ridiculously long time. Copper cookware has been dug up in Egypt, relics of cultures lost thousands of years ago. But what remains? The copper pieces. Copper doesn’t rust, doesn’t crumble the way iron can, and the beauty of my day job is that the tin-lined copper pieces I’m holding over the buffing wheel could very easily be dug up in an archeological dig 5000 years from now.

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That’s insane to realize, but very very true.

It’s not why you buy copper cookware, obviously. You don’t go in a store and say “Clearly, this will last millennia, and therefore I should buy it!”

You purchase cookware based on its ability to perform on your stove, or based on the contents of your wallet. I get it, because I’ve done just the same.

Yes, I create copper cookware in my garage/copper/tin shop. So I’m biased. But let’s go where the discussion about copper cookware purchasing goes first. Your pocketbook.

Figure you purchase a handful of (likely non-stick, paint coated) pieces from the local Target or Walmart. Or maybe you even go to Macy’s, but you’re still not spending top dollar. (I know I didn’t for years!) Fast forward about five years later, and your non-stick coating doesn’t work the same, and might even be chipping off and it’s time to throw that piece of cookware into the trash. The landfill. Then you go out and buy some more. Let’s be generous and say each piece of cookware is $40/e to balance out the really inexpensive and relatively expensive. And let’s say you only buy 1 kind of pot ever. But you have to toss it for safety reasons or because it breaks about every 5 years. And let’s hope you live to be 90, and you started cooking at 30. That’s roughly 13 rounds of $40, so you’re spending $520 to have one pot in your house, which all ends up in the landfill. And that assumes you only get 1 piece – most of us who cook have at least 4 – 7 pieces ofcookware in our kitchens.

Copper cookware is going to last you the rest of your life, plus it’s safe (copper cookware is not made with any non-stick stuff that’s um…not exactly safe and pure) and healthy and green/energy efficient (it’s 25x faster using less heat than stainless), so your gas bill is lighter too.

One copper pot and lid will run you around $500, give or take. And it’ll last you…you know. Forever. No landfill. No unhealthy plastic in your food. Just pure metal cookware. Healthy, transparent, and safe. Just like what we say we want with our actual food. Is it so much to want the same from our cookware?

(You all know tin is non-stick, right? As in… ‘nature’s teflon’ – it’s honestly just like that. Except made in nature. You know. Healthy and safe. Pure.)

I create my copper cookware knowing that I’m supporting a lot of craftspeople in the country – my neighbors, and other family owned and operated small businesses – by working with local sources. I like shaking their hands and watching them spin the copper bodies on the machine (which, by the way, is one of the few things I can’t do in my garage). I appreciate seeing the huge furnace at the foundry (because the other thing I can’t do in my garage is melt and pour ductile iron) where the owner is the guy answering the phones and my emails. And it’s a blast taking the kids up to the rivet maker, where they hunt for old rivets in the cracks while I get a lesson on machinery built in the early 1900’s that still works today to make my copper rivets right up the road from my house.

Am I old fashioned to like such handshaking and supporting local? Yeah, I guess. Do I love manufacturing copper cookware? Heck yeah. Am I obsessed with learning the vintage tinsmithing trade from the master smith, Bob? Definitely. Do I believe in making something (in this case, copper cookware made entirely in America!) that will actually help everyone in the long run, creating a wave of people who cook in something that’s cheaper to heat, won’t end up in a landfill – as proven for the past several thousand years? Absolutely.

So now I’ll get off the soapbox. Go buy some copper. Real copper cookware.