Telling tetsubins apart

Tetsubins come in all shapes and sizes. Here are three that I own, as well as the smaller, flatter hobnail one that I had trouble with trying to de-smell. Since switching to it, I’ve found it does help with the tea I brew — it’s gained a bit of a deeper flavour, and is probably especially suited to the types of tea I normally drink, which is mainly aged teas these days. It also gives Wuyi teas a nice aftertaste that is more pronounced than with my Braun kettle.

As you can see… they’re not the same at all.

I think when picking out a tetsubin, there are a few things to keep in mind, aside from the obvious question of cost. First — is it a used item or is it new? New ones tend to have enamel lining inside, which neutralizes any effect it might have on your water. The enamel will break off eventually, especially if you heat the pot on the stove directly. If it’s used — how much rust is there in the pot? Does it leak? When I bought my leftmost pot, that was the problem — there was a hole in it and it leaks. Then, I got the rightmost one, which was a newer make, and lightly used. A bit of rust (I’ve since added to it a little — iron will rust no matter what you do), but nothing problematic and makes nice water. Then, very recently, I acquired the middle one for a very low price (around $50). It’s a heavily used item, also not very well kept, thus the outer surface is rusty. You can see it clearly here

Not the prettiest, but I liked the shape of the thing. I also liked the minor details

Generally speaking, after having looked through many, many of these online, I’ve noted that the cheaper ones are the ones with the solid iron lids — lids that are made of the same cast iron as the kettle itself. Better ones will invariably have other kinds of lids, made of some sort of copper alloy usually, but very rarely also of silver (which sends the price of the tetsubin skyrocketing). Under the lid is sometimes written the name of the maker

In this case Ryubundo, a famous and also very prolific tetsubin maker that, I believe, got started in the Meiji period. They’re still making tetsubins today, I think, and although well known and famous, Ryubundo tetsubins are actually quite common — you can easily find one from Japan if you look. However, I’ve seen places that sell just lids for tetsubins by the dozen — of various kinds, usually, I’d imagine, from old rusted and broken tetsubins. The lids, however, are worth money, and a non-famous maker tetsubin can be made into something else with the addition of a nice (and hopefully fitting) lid.

I think my right hand one, i.e. the most often used one, is of the usual simple design — a plain pattern with some sort of uniform surface. These are quite common, and generally cheaper, especially if there’s no maker’s name, but even if there are they don’t exceed maybe $200 or so in price. The ones that are wholly iron are even cheaper.

Then, however, you get into more expensive territory when they start having designs on them. The left hand one is of a simpler form — some sort of relief pattern of whatever it is — ranging from animals to leaves to geometric patterns to flowers to VERY elaborate relief patterns of houses, rocks, etc. Some are tasteful, others are gaudy. Some also have old kamon, or family crests, of important families. Those can be quite nice and rustic, but those also tend to be expensive. Of course, these things depend on individual taste.

It’s worth keeping an eye out for the way the handle is made too — sometimes the handles are also elaborately designed, whether with some inlaid patterns, as my middle one does (though much faded), or in some cases, with detailed sculpted patterns and figures. Both the patterns on the handles and on the body itself can be highly decorative and sometimes made of other precious metals, usually silver, sometimes gold. Those, again, will drive the price of the items up into the stratosphere.

I sometimes see these tetsubins having a very shiny black surface with zero rust, which I find incredible because if you use it, it’s going to rust, in and out (slight rusting on the outside is hard to avoid when it deals with water all the time). So my guess is, they somehow rub it off or polish it with something, although I don’t know what. If anybody does know, please let me know 🙂

Find ones with original boxes — and make sure (if you can read Japanese — or ask friends who do) they’re the original, not some substitute. Of course, that’s not always possible, and if you just want function, ones without the original wood box work just as well, but the wood box cost money, and the value of your item is substantially lower to collectors if there’s no box that comes with it. My “new” one comes with a very nice weathered box. I don’t think it’s the original, but I wasn’t about to complain for the price I paid, flawed though the piece may be. The box, if nothing else, gives the item an extra air of history to it. I’m a sucker for those things.

Tetsubins are by no means rare, since the Japanese seemed to have produced them in prodigious quantities. A search on Trocadero will yield a number of fine ones, some of which I personally think are fairly reasonably priced (for the quality, anyway). One downside to these things — they’re heavy, so I think I’ll be capping my purchase of these things for now until I don’t have to move again any time soon, because otherwise, it’ll be hell to move.


Comments

Telling tetsubins apart — 18 Comments

  1. About the shiny black surface on some tetsubins- could it be an oil based seasoning?
    I have next to no experience with tetsubin, but I have a large collection of american cast iron skillets, dutch ovens and pots, some quite old.
    These are seasoned by rubbing them after each use with cooking oil or some other fat.

    If used regularly, simply polishing them with an oily rag is sufficient. If only used occasionally, the oily pot is then placed in a hot oven for a while to bake the oil on so it isn’t sticky.

    This finish is, on the outside of cast iron pots and such usually rough, but I have a few older pieces that have relatively smooth shiny finishes.
    The inside of well used and seasoned pieces are smooth, and either velvety black or oily, shiny black, depending on the types of oils uses and the amount of carbon vs oil in the seasoning.

    I believe, with regular polishing. (Similar to the polishing a Yixing teapot gets.) that you could develop a lovely patina on the outside of a tetsubin. I wouldn’t want to try oiling the inside, as that would almost certainly taint the water.

    If your old rusty tetsubin was a piece of cast Iron I’d found at a flea market, I would first take it to my local sandblaster and have him give it a gently sandblasting with fine, gentle blasting media to take off the rust. Then I would immediately take it home and coat it with a thin coating of the oil of my choice. Lard is Old school american, but I have found olive oil works well,and coconut oil based vegetable shortening is even better- it hardens into a firm durable coating that isn’t sticky or gummy. The pot is then placed into a 350-400 degree oven for at least a half hour. When hot the pot is repeatedly wiped down with an oily rag to recoat it and even out the oil and placed back into the oven to cure.

    Doing such a thing to a ‘good’ tetsubin is probably close to sacrelige, but if you were in the mood for experimentation it might be fun to try on a piece you aren’t attached to.

  2. It does seem like it could be an oil based seasoning, but I’m not sure if it’s really wise to use an oiled based thing on a tetsubin — at least on the interior. Exterior, ok, fine, I suppose 🙂

    I think I might try curing with oil for the cheap tetsubin that I have, in order to see what it does. Without having practiced on the cheap ones I’d be loathe to use such techniques on the better ones. But if I only coat something on the outer surface, would that work?

  3. Yes- I mentioned I wouldn’t try oiling the inside- some bits of oil are bound to contaminate the water and I believe it is the interaction between the water and the iron that gives it the desired quality.

    Go for many thin coatings of oil to develop a nice patina and polish it and use it in between seasonings. Part of the seasoning is carbon build up from use so take it slow and easy. If you really hate the effect, oven cleaner will take all the oil (And anything else like paint.) off.

  4. I remember the cheapish hobnail tetsubin that I got — when I first got it it was covered in something resembling goo. It was fine when left alone, but when I heated it up for water (even just over my alcohol burner) it would start melting a little — so it really turned gooey. I don’t think that’s the same as patina, since I don’t think patinas turn gooey…. never figured out what it was, but the oven cleaner did the job and everything was gone after that.

  5. My approach is to scrub off as much of the rust as possible, then cure with oil on the outside of the tetsubin. It works pretty well; seems to slow down (if not stop) the rusting, and it definitely improves the appearance. (Mind you, my collection of vintage tetsubin is nowhere near as nice as yours! I might feel reluctant to take liberties with such beauties!)

    You can cure with oil on the inside, too, but that’s not so great if you’re planning actually to make tea with it.

    By the way, the tetsubin in your second photo is really intriguing. Do you think it’s meant to look like a tawara (a straw bale, of the kind offered at shrines)? I have a tawara-shaped kougou, incense container for tea ceremony, that is very similar in design. Very appropriate for the Year of the Mouse, come to think of it 

  6. Yeah, it’s sort of a straw bale looking thing… I think I should at least try to do something to get rid of the accumulated rust. And then we’ll see what happens…

  7. Gooey finishes on cast iron cookware are caused by using innapproriate oils to season it. (I have had very bad results with corn oil.) or of trying to apply too thick a coating on at once.

    Make sure you get your surface really clean before trying to apply a new oil based finish otherwise it may peel and blister up from the iron.

  8. I have two Japanese tetsubin which I purchased new. Both came with an admonishment not to allow them to rust but no instructions on that except not to leave water standing in the boiled pot. So the only solution I see is to dry the pot as soon as one is finished with the boiling water either with a clean towel (but I worry about the addition of lint) or to place it back on the burner just long enough to dry it out. In this case, the pot needs to be watched but maybe for less than a minute. Neither of my tetsubins have an ooey-gooey or an oily finish, a shine perhaps but definitely a muted one. Eileen

  9. I think the best way is to heat it up so the water evaporates. Since cast iron is porous, wiping it dry won’t remove a lot of the moisture. Do you use them much? Are they lined inside with enamel?

  10. I have a tetsubin that I finally found out who’s signature is on the lid, it is Ryubundo. What I’m trying to find out is how common are the tetsubins that have gold & silver inlay. I’m not sure however, I think there is a cricket or grasshopper and what appears to be a crane.

    Can anyone help me?

  11. No, I haven’t used it yet mainly because it is rusty inside and I’m not sure what to clean it with both inside and out. It has been sitting on our sideboard for over 10 yrs and I know that once cleaned up everything will just shine! I got this at an auction and no one wanted this tiny “ugly” teapot because it was all rusty!! You could image our surprise when I got it home and carefully started to polish off the rust and saw the cricket! What would you suggest to clean it with?

  12. @Katedz – 

    I wouldn’t clean the exterior — it’s already good enough, and you might mess up the shine that’s already there.

    As for the inside — I’ve been told you can use, for example, a cut, raw potato and rub the inside of it thorougly to get rid of most of the loose rust. It will produce rust anyway when you use it, no matter how much you dry it out.

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