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How to Choose a Steam Iron

Credit: Katherine Elliott
Monday April 8, 2019
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It's the little things that count when picking out a steam iron. If you thought all you needed with a hot piece of metal with steam holes and a handle, you would be wrong. Overall performance is similar among models, so details can often make or break your ironing experience. That's the lesson learned as we checked out the traditional irons on the market. By "traditional" we mean irons that plug into the wall. Some battery-powered irons are available, but they are too heavy, short on power and lack the features that plug-in irons have, so we left them out of the judging.

What follows are details that should matter to you, and which ones you can ignore.

Choosing the Right Steam Iron

Step 1: What Are Your Ironing Preferences?

Nearly everybody has an aspect of ironing that they genuinely dislike. Here are some of those aspects, and models of iron that handle them best.

-Tight maneuvering: If what bugs you is weaving through the tight spaces between buttons and working on collars, Rowenta offers a skinny nose that can gets into tight areas in both the DW5080 Focus and the DW7180 Everlast.

-Refilling the water tank: For some people it's no fun to awkwardly hold your iron over a sink or pour water down a tiny fill hole. Irons that make that easier are the Rowenta DW5080 Focus, the Rowenta DW7180 Everlast, and the Oliso TG1100.

-Glide: Ironing can be a meditative experience and if what works for you is a silky-smooth glide you'll appreciate the Rowenta DW5080 Focus. It had by far the smoothest glide in our test group (you may notice that Rowenta makes nice irons).

-Cord length: If short cord length can be a big problem for you, consider the Shark Ultimate Professional, the Hamilton Beach 19900, or the Oliso TG1100. They all have cords that are 10-plus feet; that's two feet longer than a standard cord.

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

Step 2: No Such Thing as Too Much Power

Having an extra oomf of steam can make ironing much more pleasant — for example, you can deal with stubborn wrinkles better. Powerful models are available even at low prices, so there is no reason to settle for a model that puts out less than 20 g/min of steam. About the only reason to do so would be to get a unique feature such as the Oliso offers.

Step 3: Consider Ease of Use

Rowenta, Shark, and Oliso are brands that offer intuitive interfaces and thoughtful, user friendly features.

An intuitive and clear user interface can make chores just a bit...
An intuitive and clear user interface can make chores just a bit less unpleasant.
Credit: Katherine Elliott

Step 4: Make Sure It has the Essentials

There are a number of features you will definitely want on an iron. All the models that made our selection cut have these features. However, if you pick 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 and can also function as a self-cleaning system to remove mineral buildup)
  • Multiple temperature settings (ideally marked by fabric type)

Types of Steam Irons

There are a number of different devices that produce steam to flatten clothing. Most people will prefer the traditional models covered in this review. However, specialized machines to suit particular needs. Here are the various types of steam machines.

Traditional Steam Iron

Traditional steam irons are the common irons found in most homes and are the focus of this review. 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.

Steam Generating Irons

These irons are sometimes called steam ironing systems and are heavier duty than normal models. They generally have a separate water tank that attaches to the iron with a hose. Their big difference is that the generated steam is pressurized, which adds a lot of power, can significantly reduce ironing time, and produces professional level results. This comes at a price, with most models costing between $200 and $600.

Garment Steamers

Garment steamers simply shoot steam at hanging clothes. This is far less effective than a traditional iron, but if your clothes are only slightly wrinkled this can do the job. There are also travel-size garment steamers available, which are great if you're trying to make one pair of slacks last for your entire conference.

Soleplate Material

You can't go wrong with stainless steel, but there are other materials some people prefer and we should cover.

Stainless Steel

Stainless steel dominates the market, and our testing indicated there is good reason for that. It usually offers superior glide and allows for more steam holes, which translates to more wrinkle crushing power. Most of the models we tested were stainless steel because it occupies such a large part of the market. Stainless also heats up fast and is easy to clean and is 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 encounter either of these issues in our testing. Some manufacturers advertise chromium soleplates, which usually means a stainless-steel base with some sort of chromium treatment.


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 soleplate made from a conglomerate of materials. Which vary among 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 you use.

Credit: Jenna Ammerman

Read the Manual

Most people hate to read manuals, but in this case it really can be useful. Every iron is slightly different in design and thus has its own little quirks and tricks for optimizing performance. Chances are the engineers that designed your iron wrote all of its idiosyncrasies down in the manual. Give it a quick read; you might learn something really useful.

Know the Fabric

Apart from knowing your iron, you'll want to know about the fabrics you're ironing. Most irons have temperature settings 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, 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 complaint about irons has been that water leaks from the steam holes. 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 issues with leakage was when we were in a rush and used less than optimal ironing technique. For example, quickly flipping the iron from a vertical to a horizontal position often caused small amounts of water to leak from the steam holes. When handling the irons more gingerly and carefully — the prudent practice with an item that produces temperatures in excess of 400˚, we never experienced leakage.

Also, we produced 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 require lower ironing temperatures will not benefit from "burst of steam" functions. Using your 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.

A Good Board Goes a Long Way

Using an ironing board may seem like a no brainer, but there are people who lay a towel on their table and iron on top of that. This technically works, it will 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 stream to pass through the garment and not condense and pool on the underside, as would be the case with a towel. If you iron frequently enough to buy a steam iron, an ironing board is a worthwhile and necessary additional investment.

Credit: Katherine Elliott