Who: Lodge Manufacturing
What: Seasoned cast iron and seasoned steel cookware
Where: South Pittsburg, TN
Lodge Manufacturing has been in business since 1896, and they are the oldest manufacturer of cast iron cookware remaining in the United States. The company continues to make classic, long-lasting skillets and other tools in a manufacturing process honed by both age and necessity.
I took a tour of the 118-year-old company's plant in South Pittsburg, Tennessee to see how its popular line of factory-seasoned cast iron is made. If you've ever wondered just where your cast iron skillet came from, come along and see!
Lodge has been doing business and crafting cast iron cookware in South Pittsburg, Tennessee, since 1896. Joseph Lodge founded the company, and it has stayed in the family ever since. Two fourth-generation family members still run the company, and Lodge is the largest employer in its county.
What's So Special About Cast Iron?
First off, why is cast iron so popular? For cooking in the oven, on the stovetop, grilling, or camping, cast iron cookware is tough as can be. Well-seasoned and virtually nonstick pieces become coveted heirlooms, seasoned by years of big breakfasts, Sunday dinners and special holiday treats.
Cast iron is also extremely long-lasting and the coating gets better with use. "100 years and still cooking . . ." headlines the history section of Lodge’s website. Chef Elizabeth Karmel includes a great quote in Lodge’s most recent cookbook Cast Iron Nation: "My cast iron pans are like my favorite pair of cowboy boots — they get better and more dear to me with every use."
How The Skillets Are Made
Lodge products start with a mixture of pig iron, recycled cast iron and recycled scrap steel that are melted into molten cast iron. A 2,000 pound mixture of ingredients takes around 15 minutes to melt into molten iron in a 2800°F furnace. Vermiculite is then added as bonding agent to remove impurities.
The molten cast iron is poured down between two sand molds to create each piece of cast iron, then the formed cookware is shaken and tumbled to remove molding sand. The cookware is shotblasted with a fine steel shot to remove any residual molding sand, then it's ground, polished, rinsed, and hung to dry with a steam dryer.
After drying, electro-static spray guns apply a soy-based oil to the cookware to create a uniform seasoning. Finally, the cookware is transferred to a high-temperature oven to transform the oil into the black patina that gives Lodge skillets their distinctive look.
A Hands-On Process
In a high tech world, it was surprising to see how much of the Lodge manufacturing process still employs a hands-on process with machinery that is controlled directly by workers rather than computer-automated. The metal chemistry and other aspects of the production process are monitored by workers during melting and and throughout the rest of the process.
Technology is not neglected, however, as Lodge has used it to help implement eco-friendly options, including the replacement of coal-fired cupola furnaces with an electro-magnetic induction melting system. They also have improved the foundry to yield little to no waste since sand, steel shot, and any lesser quality products are continually recycled.
Pioneers in Factory Seasoning
The cast iron cookware is also factory seasoned (more in-depth info on this in a later post!). When they launched this in 2002, it was Lodge’s “aha! moment," according to Public Relations and Advertising Manager Mark Kelly. They feel their factory seasoning was "how it should have been all along," and it has helped establish the brand’s identity (and easy-t0-use products) to new customers.
It has also been copycatted throughout the industry, and now almost all cast iron cookware is labeled “factory-seasoned.”
The (Quirky) Details
Much like any cult classic, Lodge has become a collector’s delight, full of quirky details and a rich history. Ever noticed unique symbols or numbers on the bottom of Lodge cookware? In the days of hand-pouring, employees were compensated by the number of molds poured daily and these signature symbols were simply a tracking method.
Some tooling (molds for cookware) still include labels that indicate eye size rather than skillet size. For instance, L10SK3 is a 12-inch inch skillet, not a 10-inch, because the numbers are from the days cookware was sized to fit on the numbered eyes of a wood stove.
→ Where to Buy Lodge Products: Lodge products are available in Lodge factory stores (see a list here), numerous retail stores (including Target and Wal-Mart), catalogs and online merchants (Amazon).