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How to Choose a Steam Iron

Sunday October 16, 2016

How do you choose the best steam iron? We spent weeks ironing every type of garment and fabric imaginable, essentially turning our office into a sauna, so that we could suss out all the little details you should consider when shopping for your next steam machine. We found that for irons the little details are the things that count. Overall performance is quite similar across brands and models, so the minute details can often make or break your ironing experience. Read on to figure out which details should matter to you, and which ones you can ignore.

In this article we present a step by step decision tree that will guide most people to their ideal iron. If the decision guide doesn't get you where you want to go, or you just want to learn more about irons and ironing, we also provide a slew of detailed background information and helpful tips.

Choosing the Right Steam Iron

Step 1: What Are Your Ironing Preferences?

Ironing is one of those activities where every person tends to have the one little thing that drives them crazy, the one little aspect of the chore that just drives them up a wall. Consequently, if there is a model that makes that one aspect you hate a bit easier, that may be the perfect model for you, regardless of anything else. This is especially true given that irons have discernable but relatively small differences in performance between models. If you know you have some strong ironing preferences read our list of some common preferences/pet peeves and which models work best for each. If you don't have any strong preferences, feel free to skip to Step 2.

-Tight maneuvering: Is the bane of your existence trying to weave through buttons and get all the little fiddly bits of a collar smooth? Rowenta offers a skinny nose that can get into all those tight spaces in both the DW5080 Focus and the DW7180 Everlast.
-Refilling the water tank: If awkwardly holding an iron over your sink or dealing with pouring water down a tiny fill hole is what drives you to procrastinate on your ironing duties, check out the Rowenta DW5080 Focus, the Rowenta DW7180 Everlast, or the Oliso TG1100. We found these models to be the easiest to refill.
-Glide: If a silky smooth glide can turn your mundane chore into a meditative experience, you'll appreciate the Rowenta DW5080 Focus. It had far and away the smoothest glide in our testing (you may be starting to realize that Rowenta makes some nice irons).

-Cord length: If you find yourself always tugging the cord out of the socket, think about the Shark Ultimate Professional, the Hamilton Beach 19900, or the Oliso TG1100. All of these models have cords that are 10+ feet, which is a full 2 feet longer than a standard cord.

Rowenta's soleplates are pointy at the front. This makes it easier to iron difficult areas like collars and around buttons.
Rowenta's soleplates are pointy at the front. This makes it easier to iron difficult areas like collars and around buttons.

Step 2: No Such Thing as too Much Power

Once you've used your preferences to narrow down your selection, think about power. Having that extra little oomf of steam is generally going to make ironing less unpleasant, as you'll be able to deal with stubborn wrinkles more efficiently. Powerful models are available even at low prices, so there is no reason to settle for a model that produces less than 20 g/min of steam , unless it has some unique feature that you just love (we're looking at you, Oliso).

Step 3: Consider Ease of Use

Ironing is an unpleasant chore, so a model that is a bit more pleasant to use is going to alleviate some of the drudgery of getting your work clothes looking all pressed and professional. We found that Rowenta, Shark, and Oliso are brands that are adept at creating intuitive interfaces and thoughtful, user friendly features.

An intuitive and clear user interface can make chores just a bit less unpleasant.
An intuitive and clear user interface can make chores just a bit less unpleasant.

Step 4: Make Sure It has the Essentials

There are a number of features you will definitely want on an iron. We put this as the last step in our buying guide because all of the models that made our selection cut have these features. But, if you do go with an iron that we didn't test, make sure it has:
  • An auto shut off feature
  • A burst of steam function to power through stubborn wrinkles (can also function as a self cleaning system to remove mineral build up)
  • Multiple temperature settings (ideally delineated by fabric type)

Types of Steam Irons

There are a number of different devices that produce steam to flatten clothing. Chances are you will be best served with the traditional models that are the focus of this review. However, you may have a special case where a more specialized machine would suit your needs, so we'll go through the most common types of steam machines.

Traditional Steam Iron

Traditional steam irons are the focus of this review and encompass the common designs found in most homes. They have a perforated soleplate that heats up and is placed directly on garments to relax fabrics, and a small water tank that shoots steam through the soleplate holes to blast wrinkles into submission. In recent years some cordless, battery powered traditional models have made their way into the market. However, early indications are that these models are heavy and lack the power and abilities of their corded brethren, so none of them made it through our rigorous product selection process.

Steam Generating Irons

These irons (which are sometimes called steam ironing systems) are heavier duty than normal models, and generally have a separate water tank that attaches to the iron via a hose. The big difference with these models is that the generated steam is pressurized, which adds a lot of power, can significantly reduce ironing time, and produces professional level results. All of this comes at a price, with most models costing between $200 and $600. If you have a house full of people that wear iron requiring clothes five days a week it may be a worthwhile investment, otherwise you're better off with a traditional model.

Garment Steamers

Garment steamers simply shoot steam at hanging clothes. This is far less effective than an actual iron, but if your clothes are only slightly wrinkled it can be all that is needed to make them look fresh again. Most traditional irons can work in this capacity if you just want to do a quick touch up. There are also travel sized garment steamers available, which are great if you're trying to make one pair of slacks last for your entire conference.

Soleplate Material

If you do any amount of research on ironing you'll quickly run into a myriad of opinions on soleplate material and how it affects glide and performance on various fabrics. Our testing indicated that you can't really go wrong with stainless steel, but we'd feel remiss if we didn't cover the other materials in our buying advice article.

Stainless Steel

Stainless steel dominates the market, and our testing indicated there is a good reason for that. It generally offered superior glide and allowed for the use of more steam holes, which translates to more wrinkle crushing power. To be fair most of the models we tested were stainless steel, but this is because it occupies such a large part of the market. Stainless also heats up fast, and is easy to clean and durable. The only possible downsides are that it could melt some logos when on a higher setting, and is not immune to static buildup. However, we did not run into either of these issues in our testing. Some manufacturers will advertise chromium soleplates, but this usually just means a stainless steel base with some sort of chromium treatment. Bottom line, chances are most irons you look at will have a stainless steel baseplate, and you can rest assured it will provide solid performance.


Some purists believe that ceramic is the best soleplate material because it offers very even heat and is resistant to static buildup. However, ceramic coatings tend to be less durable and can wear away over time. Ceramic soleplates are also somewhat uncommon in the united states. None of the models that made it through our selection process had ceramic soleplates.


Nonstick is a catchall term for a manufactured soleplate made from a conglomerate of materials. Specific constitutions and performance vary between manufacturers. Some soleplate material, such as Hamilton Beach's Durathon, are advertised as non-stick ceramic blends. We found these kinds of material to perform decently, but stainless was still slightly better overall.

Correct Technique Makes all the Difference

Buying a good iron is important, but how you iron will ultimately have more of an impact on the finished product than which model ends up atop your ironing board.

Read the Manual

We know that reading the manual is the bane of some people's existence, but in this case it really can be useful. Every iron is slightly different in design and thus each has its own little quirks and tricks for optimizing its performance. You could be amateur ironing champion of the world and it may still takes months for you to uncover all of your iron's idiosyncrasies, but chances are the engineers that designed it wrote all of those idiosyncrasies down in the manual. Give it a quick read through, you might learn something really useful.

Know the Fabric

Apart from knowing your iron, you'll want to make sure you have the skinny on the fabrics you're ironing. Most irons have temperature settings that are labeled by fabric type, so it's pretty easy to select the correct temperature. However, different fabrics respond better to different ironing techniques. For example, things like silk and satin yield better ironing results when the garment is turned inside out, and things that contain rayon tend to stretch, so you'll want to iron in short, quick passes. Expensive garments may have their own very specific care instructions. Make sure you know what your clothes are made of, and how best to iron those specific fabrics.

Patience is a Virtue: How to Prevent Leakage

A common user complaint about irons is that water leaks from the steam holes. Many frequent ironers may be wondering why we haven't confronted this issue up to this point. While this may be a pervasive issue in older irons, we found that it has been all but solved in modern irons. The only times that we had any issues with leakage was when acted like we were in a rush and used less than optimal ironing technique. For example, quickly flipping the iron form a vertical to a horizontal position tended to result in small amounts of water leaking from the steam holes. When handling the irons more gingerly and carefully, which is the prudent thing to do with an item the produces temperatures in excess of 400˚, we never experienced any sort of leakage.

Similarly, we were able to produce some leaks when using the 'burst of steam' functions with the irons on a low temperature setting, or before they had a chance to fully heat up. Again, this resulted from trying to cut corners and iron too quickly. Garments that requires lower ironing temperatures are not going to benefit from the added punch of 'burst of steam' functions, and trying to iron before it has gotten up to temperature is inevitably going to yield poor results or require more passes to actually get all the wrinkles flattened out. None of the irons we tested leaked when used properly, and all of them leaked when used improperly. We would implore you to take the extra minute or two to do the job right, as a bonus you'll avoid some annoying spills in the process.

A Good Board Goes a Long Way

The fact that using an ironing board is much better than not may seem like a no brainer, but we have run into a number of stories of people trying to save some money by laying a towel on their table and ironing on top of that. While this technically works, it is going to be much more difficult, less effective, and more dangerous than ironing on a dedicated ironing board. Ironing boards are flame retardant, which ups the safety factor, and allows the stream to pass through the garment and not condense and pool on the underside, like a towel would. It also removes the risk of scorching your nice kitchen table. While we would never advocate against saving a few bucks when you can, if you iron frequently enough to buy a steam iron, then an ironing board is a worthwhile and necessary additional investment.

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