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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  • That is amazing!!! I wouldn’t have believed it without the before photos! I collect granite enamelware and will give this a shot.

  • i have a serious love of all things enamel and thought that all the scratches and rust on older pieces were just to be accepted…now i know differently! you, sir, are brilliant! thanks for sharing…i have a feeling my love of thrifting just got a little bit more severe!

  • Thanks for these tips! Dirty, rusted enamel has always been really intimidating to me, so I’ve never picked any pieces up at thrift or antique stores, even though I like the idea of enamel. It doesn’t feel so intimidating anymore:)

  • I love reading anything Daniel writes. Always hilarious! Thanks for the tips.

  • What I have learned from your series is that anything can be cleaned with baking soda, lemons, soap, and vinegar, which is alright with me. I love enamelware. I have an enamel table addiction which is a problem since I live in a very small house. Need a new desk? Let’s get an enamel table! Need a microwave tray? Look, I happen to have this enamel table languishing outside. You get the idea.

  • This is by far my favorite design*sponge column series. I’m so glad someone else is as cleaning and restoration obsessed as I am! And yes, I’m 100% sure the main ingredient in barkeeper’s friend is magic. And awesome. And perhaps unicorns and rainbows. I highly recommend it for restoring anything copper as well!

  • The Magic Eraser product works very well on my vintage enamel tabletop and it works without scrubbing. Just a little water. Clean the enamel with soap and water first.

  • The main ingredient in Barkeeper’s Friend is oxcalic acid. I agree that it seems to be magic, but please know that it can be very harmful to your skin. I’m glad to see that you wore gloves while using it. I recently read about a woman who got into her tub and shower barefoot and without gloves, and scrubbed away for an hour or more. She had severe chemical burns and has had continuing health repercussions for a year or more afterwards! So please be careful with this stuff!

  • Love this post and your writing, Daniel. Share your sentiment. Once while laying in a tent in Hawaii, I felt the urge to scratch. An 8-inch centipede was tickling my back. Later that trip, I ventured off to answer nature’s call and stumbled upon a ginormous poop…not in a hole. An obviously human, not canine poop. Awesome.

    Q: I have some scratched and rusted vintage enamel trays with printed patterns. Can I clean them the same way w/o scrubbing off the print. Your tray looks unbelievably good, btw. Don’t believe you corralled ALL the stuff on your table tho. A whole 3 things, really?

  • Absolutely loving this column!

    Just had to stop by and profess my love for Barkeeper’s Friend too. My mother always has 2-3 canisters of it stashed away and now … so do I. People think I’m crazy until they see what it can do for a sad kitchen sink. It’s one of those things I hate running out of. Much like AA batteries and vodka.

    Keep up the amazing work, Daniel!

  • Hear! Hear! I also LOVE this column! I keep an arsenal of cleaning products and am laughed at by my friends (Note: same friends call me to ask how to clean or repair something… or for copies of the 400 European pics they taunted me about taking at the time…. hmmm….) Thank you for adding to my store of knowledge and, yes, pooping in a hole is very bad… even if it is an indoor lav just outside Charles De Gaulle airport!

  • Love enamel trays. I use them as paint palettes. They clean up great as most of the time you can let the paint soak a little and just peel it off!

  • Wow, I’m going to try this on our vintage enamel sink that is impossible to get all the way clean. Thanks!

  • Yes! I am going to try this this weekend. I really do love camping, but after watching Moonrise Kingdom, I am dreaming of all sorts of camping aesthetics. I want to go adventuring in a screen-printed tent and dance to records!

  • I bought a white enamel drafting stool – and got a little rough because the rust was fierce. I used Whink rust remover (wear gloves). It’s liquid and easy to control and worked BEAUTIFULLY!

  • @Lisa, That is such a good tip! I keep breaking my glass palettes and then I can’t find new ones by googling “Sheet of glass”.

    • Maybe the glass rounds from those non working or not used microwave ovens would work in place of a glass palette. Not sure possibly if not too heavy? Just a thought, mine have been sitting in the cupboard without much use. I think I’ll give it a try for my touch up paint jobs & craft items.

  • This is just what I needed! I recently bought an old enamel stool that is in terrible condition (it was only $1 at an auction) and thought I would likely have to just spray paint the entire thing. This gives me some hope that maybe I won’t have to go to such extremes.

  • Dear Daniel,
    will you please come over to my house? I am not a cleaning machine, and my 2 cats are hindrances, not helps (sigh).
    Or, perhaps you sell your genetic cleaning disposition somewhere? I’ll take the x-large package.

  • Your sink picture made me think of this but I have a random tip: dilute your dish soap with water and keep it in a spray bottle at the sink for hand washing dishes. It makes your soap last FOREVER, it’s easier to rinse your dishes and they clean like a dream.

  • I have a quick question… is there a likelihood that the rust will come back? Or does it not matter much as long as you don’t use it in a way where it comes in contact with water…? I’ve always wanted to get into enamelware, so this post is great!!

  • haha i’m the same – I always think that i am a country person, but then i remember that i hate uneven ground and hills. i think that being a dog owner in a city tricks you into thinking that you are somehow ‘outdoorsy’ because you are outside more than most people who spend 3 minutes outside per day, walking from home to the tube. but then, you go to the country and it’s awkward and slightly uncomfortable. at least in england there’s no real chance of life-threatening insects. so there’s that, i guess.

  • After undergoing this cleaning process, can you use the vintage enamelware for cooking? Is it safe?

  • Unbelievable, I never thought it was possible to restore enamel to such a great condition. I saw a lot of enamel pots in my grandma’s house, and a lot of them were scratched quite badly from regular cleaning… If only I knew how to clean this stuff then.

  • Because I spend a lot of time with my cast iron, two things:
    1) vinegar will remove rust. It will also eat metal, so don’t over do this, but you can soak things in half vinegar and half water for half an hour to an hour. It should help considerably. You could even do this with the seat of a stool (upside down in a large bowl). Rinse off afterward.

    2) things will re-rust if you don’t do something. With cast iron you can season it. For enamelware you aren’t going to cook with I would wipe it down with the oil of your choice. The layer of oil can be exceedingly thin, but it provides a moisture barrier. Wipe down whole thing, and wipe off again. Enough will remain.

    Just my two cents. :) love these columns.

  • I have an enamel tray that doesn’t sit flat – shame! Any solutions that may straighten it or do I have to continue using it as a display item? I shall be going at it with your solutions to getting it clean in the meantime!

  • Just a heads-up. While most of those products are safe and low-footprint, that BarKeeper’s Friend is definitely a little nasty. Use with thought.

    Next step…. I want to use my enamel pans. They stick. Today I rub them with cooking oil before I use them, but that does not always work!
    Any suggestions?

    • I use mine to make scrambled eggs. Yes they stick but not as much as stainless steel. I soak it for 20 minutes and used a sponge with dish soap to cleanup. I also use a wooden spoon.
      I usually cook with organic coconut oil. It takes the heat very well. All much simpler than stainless steel. And healthier than a non stick pan

  • I collect antique graniteware and use “Navel Jelly” to remove rust; from any hardware store. Follow the label directions and don’t use on painted surfaces. Wash, pat very dry and coat with mineral oil; it won’t spoil like cooking oil will and it’s food grade. Wooden cutting boards and utensils are treated with mineral. Items will be rust free and can can be used. Repeat when necessary. No abrasives or elbow grease needed.

  • To keep the sheen on enamelware that is NOT going to be used for cooking–use CAR WAX.. You know–the stuff you use on the OUTSIDE of your car? Rub it on with a clean lint free soft cloth; let it get hazy; and buff off with another soft cloth.

    For the uneven tray—I would not suggest trying to flex it back to straight–the enamel could crack off! I would get some of those cork or felt stick=-ons (the ones to prevent scratches from your display items) and useing a flat surface place them on the “high” sides to even it out. That way you can use it to serve or display stuff and if you lean it against a wall it won’t slide down or leave a mark! Bonus!

    For older cookware—I use both the thinner pots n pans and enameled cast iron and as long as they are not really rusty they are fine for cooking just don’t try these for anything real delicate– if deeply scratched as stuff might stick. If they are too badly scratched for cooking you can use them for display or plant pots or I have seen several cool “fountains” made with stacked enamel ware. Use a bucket or basin for the base; stack and glue/wire the other pieces and get a re-circulating pump from Harbor Freight or hardware store for about $15. Just don’t let it run dry and this should last you about forever. The hardware or any pet store that sells fish can sell you a long piece of tubing to run the water thru. I have my front steps lined with old enamel ware too rusty or with actual holes but work great for plants and branches etc—stick a solar light in there and you have solved the unlit step or balcony dilemma!

  • Any suggestions on how to bring back the sheen on enamelware that is used for cooking? We had an unfortunate run-in with Lemi Shine and an enameled pot. The inside is fine, but the exterior finish was eaten away. I am looking for a way to restore the finish that won’t catch on fire whenever I use the pot on the stove.

  • This was the ONLY helpful page I found on reviving enamelware. Today I bought a kettle and while the majority of the inside and out were a little dirty, I saw no reason not to take it home and give a bath. It wasn’t until I put it through the dishwasher that I noticed the spout has point of rusty grime. I have NO idea how I”m going to get it out – I’m sure the ingredients will work, but the kettle is basically a pot with teeeny tiny holes that go out to the spout… I don’t want this to be a shelf piece – not in a way too small apartment. Do you have any ideas that will clean this up? I’ll post a link to a similar posting to give you an idea…

  • Thank you for the great post! A question about vintage enamelware: Is it safe for eating? Mine is made in china, appears to be pretty old, and is the most adorable pale yellow. I am dying to use it while camping but am freaked out. I’ve googled it and most of what i have found says not to use it for eating. But i can’t find anything cuter. What do you think?

  • Thanks for this post! I bought a 40s green enamel topped table and tried your graduated technique to mild clean rust off. Unfortunately the last step, Bar Keeper’s Friend is no friend to me! The acid etched into the table removing the gloss and leaving lighter blotches in the color. When it is wet you cant see this, which led me to think car wax is a less temporary solution. Several layers later it has improved some, but not at all like it looks wet. Have you ever tried an enamel clear coat or something more permanent like that on your enamelware? Thanks again!

  • Thank you for this post! Lime and baking soda worked great on my Chatrineholm pots. Unfortunately I have som cracks in the enamel. Is there any way to repair the broken enamel in a way that I can still use the pots for cooking? Any tip is very much appreciated!

  • I was excited to try this because I recently bought a hutch with an enamel white top with rings on it. I tried all of these steps and it did not work, anything else I can try that won’t damage the top? Any tip would be great!

  • I good solution for rust is Naval Jelly. It’s used on boats to remove rust from metals, fiberglass, etc without messing with the paint. Side note, also works on rust stains you get on clothing. If you wan’t something a more abrasive, mix it with Oxalic Acid, aka Wood Bleach. You can get both at your local hardware store in the paint section.

  • Hi, thanks for all the tips. Any suggestions for polishing Cathrineholm enamel ware, cleaning it up and making it shinier.

  • Thank you so much for this! Have added this as a link to my vintage Scandi enamelware site.
    All the best!

  • hiya…i have an old vintage enamel wall sign that is now thick with yuk and grease after 15 years of being in a farmhouse kitchen…the edges are rusty but i want to bring it back to life without causing any more fading. I would be most grateful if you could give me advice… i have baking soda and lemon but not see some of the products you suggest in the Uk…I will wait to hear from you before i start!
    Great post…will follow you for sure! x

  • I moved in with my boyfriend, and he had 2 pieces that belonged to his mother(deceased) and they looked hideous. I found your site, and so far it is working wonderfully. I will send you the before and after when I am done. Right now I just want to say THANK YOU!!

  • Oh this is so helpful as I have some vintage enamelware that I have to put in my shop but they are not in the most presentable condition at the moment. I will definitely try this out as your before and after pics are quite a change. Thanks.

  • I know you posted this four years ago, but I wasn’t refinishing an antique Kitchen Queen then. Your site was the first one that came up when I queried “how to clean stains on white enamel.

    After washing the enamel counter surface, I was surprised how good it looked, just a few light stains here and there. I have no doubt the advice you have given will make it sparkle!

    Thank you so much!

  • 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!

  • I have an antique pin which is brass and enamel. How would I clean it without harming either element?

  • Bought the vintage white enamelware saucepan at the local thrift store. It was thoroughly stained so I washed it first with Mrs Meyer’s to get the cooties off, then read your wonderful suggestions. Already had Barkeeper’s Friend so used that and now the interior and exterior look pristine! Many thanks!!!

  • Is it safe to eat if vintage enamel ware? Or store fruit in it. I’m wanting to use my as a fruit bowl.

  • Great blog! Thanks! My mum recently purchased a vintage tray I suspect was used in hospitals. The surface is the same smooth enamel but its covered in brown stains the shape of whatever bottles were kept on it. I’m assuming the stains are from the substance in the bottles, which as sunk into the enamel itself. I’ve tried boiling water and baking soda in it, but haven’t had any luck. I’ll try these.