before and after

Before & After: Cleaning Vintage Enamelware

by Daniel Kanter

I love camping. By which I mean, I love the idea of camping. It isn’t an activity I’ve engaged in for about a decade, and I have no imminent plans to take it back up. But there are so many things about it that are appealing, at least conceptually: cute little canvas tents, a crackling fire, lots of plaid, the stars. There’s something about just getting away from it all that seems so lovely and quaint.

But then I remember that camping occurs outside, and that my notions of camping are roundly betrayed by my actual lived experiences. Outside, there are hazards. Stones, for instance. There are also wasps and other stinging insects whose damages range from annoying to disgusting to life threatening. There is weather to contend with, there is no running water, there is soil and there are unknown plants. Also, you have to poop in a hole. So forget what I said at the beginning. Camping is not for me.

But one of the good things I do recall about the few times I went camping is my little set of enameled bowls, plates and cookware. Even if I was never one for the outdoors, I was always one for the accoutrements and accessories, and those enamel pieces were just so simple and nifty. They were easy to clean, light to carry, durable and cute. In other words, we had a lot in common.

And so, all these years later, I’m still drawn to enamel like a proverbial moth to a proverbial campfire (except my love of enamel hasn’t incinerated my body . . . yet.). Even though I’m not using them for cooking, vintage enamel pieces are so simple, versatile and charmingly utilitarian that they’re easy to find a use for. If there is no use, I’ll invent one. They’re generally cheap and easily collectable, so I like to keep my eye out for little bowls and baking pans and trays at junk shops and estate sales.

The problem with vintage enamel, however, is that it’s often disgusting. Because it’s so un-fancy, enameled pieces are often left outside and/or coated in dirt and debris and often get passed up because of it. When enamel chips, the metal beneath becomes exposed and tends to rust, leaving behind unsightly rust stains. Luckily, enamelware is also extremely resilient and can be brought back from the brink of despair with a few simple products! — Daniel

Learn how to clean vintage enamelware after the jump . . .

As with almost any cleaning-related project, you want to start with the most mild, least-harsh solution before moving up the ranks. For instance, if you feel like you need an abrasive, it’s often best to start with baking soda and a sponge instead of a wad of steel wool. I’m often surprised by how effective even small measures are — so effective, in fact, that I end up skipping the harsher chemicals and materials altogether!

With vintage enamel, it’s best to wash everything down with water and a mild dish soap before doing anything major. This will get rid of any surface dirt and debris and allow you to better identify the underlying problem areas.

With this particular piece, there is some minor pitting and many, many scratches to the finish with deeply ingrained rust stains. These scratches (and rust surrounding the pitted areas) did not go away with soap and water alone, so I made a paste mix of lemon juice and baking soda and spread it evenly on the tray with a paintbrush. I left the mixture on the surface of the tray for roughly 30 minutes, then agitated it with the rough side of a sponge as I rinsed it off in the sink.

While the lemon juice and baking soda did help with the rust stains, the stains were being stubborn and needed a little extra oomph, so I graduated to Bon Ami. Bon Ami dates back to 1886 and is a very mild abrasive that’s good for cleaning almost anything without dulling or scratching the surface, so it was perfect for this. By combining the Bon Ami powder with a little water, I made a paste that I used to scrub the surface some more.

Even though the rusty marks were about 50% gone at the this point, I still wanted to get the tray as shiny and rust-free as possible, so I reached for one of the most powerful, amazing things in my cleaning arsenal: Barkeeper’s Friend.

Established in 1882, Barkeeper’s Friend is a slightly more aggressive abrasive. What can I say? I like my cleaning products tried, true and Victorian, much like my manners. The label warns about the product’s potential to dull surfaces, and although I’ve never had this problem, I didn’t want to chance it unless I had to.

To minimize the amount of scrubbing, I sprinkled Barkeeper’s Friend all over the tray, added some water and used the soft side of a sponge to spread around the mixture and let it sit for about 10 minutes. When I came back to it, I just lightly scrubbed the scratches and the remaining rust disappeared! I don’t really know what’s in this stuff, but I’d venture to guess that its main active ingredient is magic.

After giving the whole thing a final rinse, I dried it off, set it out on my coffee table, corralled all my stuff on it and I was done! Now it’s clean, shiny and white, which was hard to imagine when I pulled it out of a pile of junk like an enamel-crazed psycho!

Daniel Kanter is a freelance writer and designer who blogs about his home at Manhattan Nest.

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  • Thanks for the tips! We recently bought a turn of the century farm house, and one of my favorite things we dug up (literally) is a vintage enabled cookpot. I’ve been trying to think of a good non cooking use for it and thought I’d store snacks in it. Do you know what kind of medium would work well to embellish it with some lettering? Also, I concur with your thoughts on camping, so toying with the idea of glamping on some of the acreage that came with the farmhouse.

  • Do you have any suggestions on how to protect the enamel once you have it clean and shiny? I would like to use mine as a sink and feel like I should do something to the areas that were once rusty. Any thoughts? Thanks!

  • I have an old enamel table top that I cleaned using your suggestions above. It came out great. However, the black edge still looks terrible but I’m really not concerned with that especially. Do you think it would work to use a wax on the top to help discourage scratching, etc? If so, what do you suggest for wax? Thanks so much!

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