There are basically five categories of tin lining:
1. New hand wiped tin
2. New factory tin
3. Used tin darkened with age and wear
4. Seasoned tin with brown marks and darkening
5. Worn or missing tin
Many copper pans when they start out in life are incredibly shiny and have a silver colour - it can be quite intoxicating. These linings will change over time, the knack to a stress free life is to know what these changes are and to recognize them in your pans.
The trick is when buying a copper pan is to ascertain what state your tin lining is in before you buy and be prepared for what they will look like over time.
Good new hand wiped tin is not as prevalent as you might think - there are many artisans all over the world who make their living doing this - but to get a good tinner who is competent to do your pans is not as simple either. I have heard of a few horror stories from copper owners who have signed over their pans to tinners only to have their pans return with serious overspill, uneven or sparse tin and polished out manufacturers stamps!
So you have spotted a pan that has a new tin lining, it is shiny and good looking - what exactly should you be looking for? One of the major signs of good hand wiped tin is 'swirls'. These are marks where the tinner has smoothed over the tin onto the surface with his tinning cloth - this is a good sign! Some tinners are really expert and you have to search for the signs but they will be there. There is a depth to the tin, it covers thickly and can have an uneven shine.
2. New factory tin linings are generally thinner but then that is dependent on the factory - some use a spinning method to get the tin onto the surface of the copper pans, this is hand made too. Others use a hand wiped method. Generally speaking, if you have factory tin on a new pan it will be thinner and flatter than on an artisan repaired and hand wiped retinned pan.
Factory tin linings if looked after, can last for many years, they don't have the depth of hand wiped but are robust and fit for purpose. Factory tin is usually more flat with fewer if any, swirls or minor faults, it doesn't drag when being used and will usually season without incident.
3. Dark tin that has aged either by use or time can be a real find. Old tin has usually 'bedded in' and has a flatter quality - it still melts at 450 degrees though so never dry fry, leave a pan on a high heat or leave unattended - the tin will melt. This pan above shows what happens to tin over time and helpfully shows the factory tin rotation swirls caused by tin being put on mechanically using rotation and not by the hand wiped method. Many older manufacturers used this method as well as current ones.
The disadvantage of old tin is that no one can guarantee how long it will last, how the tin has been used (or abused) and whether there has been heat damaged causing bubbling or pooling. Some older and more expensive Hotel Ware pans can have 'Chef's tinning' where the Chef has retinned his own pans, these can have pools and lumps and bumps - well if it's good enough for a French Chef?......
If you have an old pan - especially one that has a bit of age and been heavily used by a Hotel or restaurant, then pitting in the base can be evident from being bashed over the years with heavy utensils. Rest assured when these pans have been given a hand wiped tin interior they will be ready to go again. You will never get rid of the pitting but a good wiped tin interior will give these pans a whole new lease on life and if you use soft utensils then this tin will last as well as any other.
If you use soft utensils, never use abrasives and gently soak pans that have baked on food residue and oil, then old tin is a great way to go.
4. Seasoned or 'brown tin' can be confused with copper losses and a general demise of the copper pan and it's tin lining. This is all a natural process, oils become stuck to the tin lining and caramelise, tin becomes discoloured due to different foods cooked - many colours can result and can be a real worry to the owner! This discolouration will not result in any problems and indeed is the normal ageing process of tin.
The tin lining above is a seasoned frying pan, expertly used by an artisan Chef, this is after the pan was serviced by us:
You can see that the tin underneath the seasoning, the pan is in almost perfect condition - so if you can bear to lose your shiny tin, season your pans gently and over time they will last many, many years.
5. Worn or missing tin. What should you do? Well firstly ask yourself is this pan worth retinning? Does the cost of retinning outweigh the cost of the pan? Would you only ever retin thick copper pans Hotel ware copper and not thinner more modern pans?
It is entirely up to you.
Some of the more expensive and thicker pans have been tinned possibly many times by their previous owners, used in pressurised, professional kitchens will be retinned many times and look perfect when they are, these I would suggest are a bit of a 'no brainer' for new tin.
What about your favourite pan, that flipping saute that fits nicely in your hand but is only 1mm thick? My answer is 'go for it'. For what it costs to refurbish your 'best friend in the kitchen' will possibly buy a nice enough skillet but not replace your 'go to' flipping pan!
The possibility of your copper pans to outlive us all is quite high, they are the heirlooms that will only increase in value and will ultimately help save the planet. By looking after your tin, by retinning your pans when needed you are doing the ultimate in recycling.
Whatever the age of tin, whether it is dark or shiny, pooled, swirled or lumpy - - that pan will need to be retinned, so factor that into the price you pay. If your pans are needing some new linings, treat yourself - it's like getting a whole new set of pans back from your tinner.
Of course, if you want a ready made heirloom, that is like new, then go for a reputable, provenance checked, artisan hand wiped tin, refurbished pan from Normandy Kitchen. They really don't make pans like these any more!