I’ve had many people contact me about their copper cookware handles over the past year, with varying questions about what is what and how to take care of different types of metal. I admit I’ve learned most of my knowledge based on trial and error fixing and making a lot of cookware, and also working with Bob in the tinshop for the past several years.
The most important thing is to realize that while not all copper cookware is created equal, not all handles behave the same way. It depends on the quality of the metal, the age of it, and how well it’s been taken care of over the years. So, if you have a new piece or a vintage piece, use these general rules with a bit of salt (figuratively, not necessarily literally!) and dive in!
Copper cookware generally is built with these basic types of handles: copper, brass/bronze, wrought iron, and cast iron. Recent copper cookware is also made sometimes with cast steel handles or even stainless steel (though vintage pieces will never have stainless, and anything with stainless steel rivets are also newer pieces vs vintage).
Copper handles are the oldest handles. Sometimes they have a place for a wooden dowel/handle to be stuck or riveted inside for easy handling or the vintage version of “insulated” handles. Traditional copper kettles and pots were made in the flat, from sheet copper, so the coppersmith would make a tube and rivet it to the body. The tube could be used as a handle if it was long enough or closed at the end, or it was left open for the wooden handle to be fitted. Later, copper was “forged” into solid and thicker copper handles. Copper handles, almost always, are handmade handles, and usually are found on the older pieces that were made in the flat and have the cramp seams (what laymen call ‘dovetail’).
Cast brass handles are also common in copper cookware. Sometimes it’s bronze. These were almost always cast, and not hand-formed. Any descrepencies you find are from wear/tear and use, or some issues during casting. But these are usually attached with copper rivets on older models and stainless on new models. The brass transfers heat well with close to the same speed as copper, so they don’t come loose as quickly, but they can be made of cheap or poor quality brass or aren’t thick enough and can bend easily because of their softness (the thinner the long handle on the pot, the cheaper the quality).
Wrought iron is also used on very old, vintage pieces. Wrought iron were handles hand-made by a blacksmith, and the hammer marks are usually apparent, as well as the curls and thinness of the iron bars used. Traditional old copper kettles, like during the fur trade, might have had wrought iron bails so the pot could be hung over the fire. Wrought iron is pretty rare, all things considered, so it’s exciting when I see it. These also can rust quickly.
Cast iron handles are the most prolific. These can range in size and weight, and also have rust issues if they are old or haven’t been taken care of. Most old pieces are time-worn and smooth, from wear, tear, use, and heat. These stay the coolest the longest, and ideally should be attached to the pot with copper rivets to allow for the discrepancy in thermal expansion rates, to stave off the slow loosening of handles as time goes on.
Copper and brass/bronze handles can be treated the same when cleaning. I usually use ketchup or vinegar to do some minor cleaning. If the handles are very dark and you want them shiny, you’ll have to do some light scrubbing, followed by Tarnax and then a power wheel for buffing.
For wrought iron and cast iron handles and very old pieces with heavy rust I usually do some soft glass bead blasting. However, I know most people don’t have a blaster in their garage! So, take some vinegar and take a wire brush and use the vinegar as your scrubbing agent and scrub away until all the rust is scrubbed and then washed away. Dry very thoroughly before rubbing in some oil – I use flaxseed as it polymerizes well with use and heat as time goes on.
Be aware this scrubbing process can get really messy and splatter a lot of rusty vinegar, so do it in a deep sink or a tub outside or in the garage in a bucket.
And sometimes, specks of rust, buried deep in very old handles, don’t cause any trouble and don’t get worse and add a lot of charm!
Like all things with copper, beauty is in the eye of the beholder!