If I were buying an iron to smooth clothes a couple times a month and to tackle a duvet or tablecloth occasionally, I would pick up the Singer Expert Finish. It flattens fabric extremely quickly, shows temperature info on a nifty LCD and comes with a rare two-year warranty. You can’t spend less for an iron that’ll de-rumple a garment in one pass while guaranteed for years to come.
This might sound like a straightforward pick but it wasn’t. We sifted through a handful of newer irons, a bunch that were widely lauded, and plenty that proved to be dogs. I spent roughly 18 hours researching over 100 models, manhandled 30 in stores, and interviewed half a dozen experts. I built a spreadsheet comparing 24 key traits of 25 noteworthy models. Of those, we spent 11 hours familiarizing ourselves with—and testing—six.
Irons priced below $40 worked far slower than the Expert Finish. Irons priced $90 and up commanded their premiums by offering features aimed at quilters and pros. There was, and is, stiff competition in the mid-priced category, but the Singer clearly outshined the others.
An iron is a simple thing
An iron needs only two things to transform a crumpled heap into a natty buttondown—heat and pressure. 400 degrees Fahrenheit relax cotton’s fibers, for example, then the weight of the iron pushes yarns into place. Steam accelerates the process. Drying and cooling leaves the fabric semi-rigid. For touch-ups or full pressings, used between dry cleanings or after launderings, a good iron restores a proper fit and a crisp look to clothes. It helps us walk a little taller.
Of course it also sucks to use before rushing out the door, so we want it to work fast. The key to speedy ironing? Watts. How quickly the iron heats up, how hot it gets and how evenly it holds its temperature over time are all suggested by an iron’s wattage, which is commonly advertised. 1,800 watts is the upper limit for an iron. Irons costing less than $40 have around 1,300 watts. 1,600 watts is typical for a mid-priced iron.
The amount of steam wooshing out of an iron’s flat bottom, called the soleplate, also affects speed, especially with heavier fabrics. A cheap iron will exhale just a couple grams of water vapor per minute. A premium or mid-priced iron will spew closer to 30.
Frustratingly, many manufacturers won’t claim a steam rate, but both these specs really matter. “A good iron can cut ironing time in half,” says Pat Slaven, an engineer with a masters in textile chemistry and the project lead on Consumer Reports’ annual iron tests. “With a good iron, you could knock out a 60-inch by 90-inch linen table cloth in 12 minutes. With a not-so-good iron, 20 to 25 minutes.” Our tests support her conclusion. With a good iron, we were able to iron two dress shirts in 12 minutes. With a $20 iron, we needed 19 minutes to get the shirts looking new-ish.
An iron is a complex thing
Aside from watts and steam rate, virtually all mid-priced irons have the same basic features, as revealed by extensive shopping and spreadsheeting:
- stainless-steel soleplates
- a “burst of steam” option to flatten Himalayan wrinkles
- vertical steaming ability to relax drapes or clothes on a hanger
- water reservoirs that hold about eight ounces
- anti-drip and anti-calcification mechanisms that allow the use of tap water
- lights to signal the iron has reached its temperature
- automatic shut offs for safety
- a seven-foot-long cord
- inspection stamps such as “UL” or “ETL” that signify the manufacturer opted to pay for, and passed, rigorous third-party iron-safety tests
- a one-year warranty
Some mid-priced irons add features like…
- digital displays
- hind legs that cause the iron to automatically rear up like a bear when not in use (thus saving the ironer the effort of standing up the iron)
- exotic soleplate materials, unconventional soleplate shapes and atypical steam-hole patterns
- retractable cords or cordless battery power
- removable water reservoirs
- self-cleaning capabilities
What’s important and who you gonna trust?
It turns out that many people have strong opinions about irons and some even have educated ones. Real Simple, Good Housekeeping, Slate.com, and others have all tested or rounded up models from class-leading brands like Rowenta, Black & Decker, Hamilton Beach, T-fal, and Panasonic. Consumer Reports reigns, however.
They perform roughly a dozen blind tests on each of 63 models in their National Testing and Research Center. For example: “We’ve got a Rube Goldberg contraption that moves the iron back and forth about a foot and a half over the ironing board, and we’ve got it hooked up to a data collection system with a thermocouple built into the ironing board,” says Slaven. “We let an iron rip and I drop all the data into Excel graph and grab temp highs and lows at each fabric setting. We also use this gizmo to get steaming rate, which we can measure down to 1/10th of a gram.” In my quest to find the perfect iron, I figured CR’s meticulous tests were the best starting point.
The first thing CR helped appraise was those titillating bonus features. A cordless model? “The ones we’ve tested were only fair in performance and needed to be reheated in the base every few moments,” CR said. Ditto soleplates described as nonstick. “Nonstick models generally scored lower overall than models with other soleplate materials,” CR said. Even self-cleaning features, which are designed to flush out the waterborne gunk that builds up inside an iron, fell under suspicion. “They’re not always effective with prolonged use or with very hard water,” writes CR. “Try the burst-of-steam feature to clean vents.”
Reading expert feedback like this, I chose to focus on the basics. Most important to me was that the iron came with all the standard features and produced enough heat and steam to work excellently. Cost was important, partly because I asked a barista and a millionaire homemaker “What’s a reasonable amount to spend on an iron?” and both replied “$30.” But it wasn’t paramount. Given that professionally laundering a shirt costs about $2 and dry cleaning a shirt costs $5, a slightly higher upfront cost can be recouped over time.
A quick note on maintenance
I can’t believe I’m about to write something as pedantic as this, but here goes: whatever iron you end up with, take a minute to read the manual. According to Slaven, lots of frustration could be prevented if people emptied the water reservoirs when finished or used the burst-of-steam function to flush mineral deposits once a month (or otherwise followed the instructions). Failing to read the manual, Slaven insists, is why so many irons end up dripping, spitting or broken.
Water seems to cause most of the problems. Hard water leaves damaging calcium deposits on valves and materials intended for use with soft or distilled water, while distilled water strips essential minerals from internal bits designed for hard water. So if a manual asks about the mineral richness of your water and you don’t know, find out. (Here is a loose guide. This will test your tap water.) Then follow the instructions. Doing so could add years to the iron’s lifespan.
How many? Unfortunately no one tests longevity. And it was difficult to decipher the credibility of user posts about durability. More than one well-intentioned ironer griped when after using distilled water, his iron, designed for hard water, went kaput. My general sense was that an iron used according to its instructions should last about six years…and that warranties and reputation were also important criteria to consider.
A quick note on garment steamers
Home garment steamers are seductive. You just plug in a durable little base reservoir full of water and then use a hose to bathe your clothes in a hot cloud. Presto! Wrinkles gone.
But steamer are not always that useful. “For maintenance of my suits, which I wear every day, I would never ever use a steamer,” says Jeffery Diduch, a bespoke tailor and director of technical design at men’s clothier Hart Schaffner Marx. “People who don’t know what goes into making a suit will recommend a steamer, but the crease down the front of your trousers—if you steam that, it will go away. If you steam the seams, they’re going to puff up and look ugly. We don’t use two identical lengths of cloth in some places, so if you steam, you’ll get a pucker. A shirt is just not going to look crisp. And any kind of woolen garment—you’ll lose the form.” In other words, steamers are probably not what most people need most of the time.
So if you’ve already got an iron and are happy with it, great! Maybe you want a steamer for your luau attire. If you’re frustrated with your iron or don’t have one, then read on.
As mentioned, CR has performed thorough testing, most recently in December 2012. They ranked each iron with “poor” to “excellent” scores in three categories: “ease of use,” which assessed traits like leaking; “steaming rate,” which calculated how much steam the iron puts out over ten minutes; and “ironing fabric,” which focused on the heat of the soleplate.
Richard Baguley, a tech writer who has been designing test protocols for some 20 years, created our test as a light fact check and supplement—to get a feel for irons that weren’t in CR’s test, to make sure that our idea of “ease of use” matched CR’s, to put supposedly “excellent” and “poor” performance in our own perspective. Our 12 tests focused on questions related to setting up the iron, ironing a cotton sheet, ironing a delicate dress shirt and a thick dress shirt, vertical steaming, and safety.
Over eleven hours, we noted qualitative answers to questions like “How easy is it to fill the reservoir?” and “How easy is it to change temperature settings;” and quantitative answers to questions like “How long before the iron reaches maximum temperature?” and “How much steam does the iron put out?”
In the war on wrinkles, the 1,700-watt Singer Expert Finish is the iron I want on my side. It heats and steams superbly, comes with all the standard features and boasts a rare two-year warranty, double the typical length. At $50, it’s not just a bargain, but an anomaly.
Few professional reviewers mention the EF, but CR ranked it third out of the 63 irons tested, making it their “Best Buy.” It scored excellently in “steaming rate” and “ironing fabric” and was very good in “ease of use.” Slaven said it ends up a CR top pick year after year.
Our tests agreed. The EF reached “linen” temperature in a super-fast 45 seconds, glided over a cotton sheet, ironed two shirts in an impressive 12 minutes (and 20 seconds, for whatever that’s worth) from plug-in to completion, gushed steam (20 g/min), and prompted no safety concerns. In summary, it performed the best or just slightly worse than the best in each test.
The bright blue LCD, which showed the temperature and steam level, offered three tiny improvements over the typical temperature adjustment dial: Located on top of the handle, it was easier to read than under-handle dials, it adjusted via rubber buttons easily reached on either side of the handle, and it beeped and flashed whenever it achieved the selected temperature, whereas other irons only alerted me only when they heated up to the selected temperature. Starting with cooler settings is generally the way to iron, since irons heat up faster than they cool down, but the idiot-proof display was a nifty addition nonetheless.
189 Amazonians gave the EF an average score of 4 out of 5. Many described almost religious conversions.
“I’ve been using a junky ten dollar iron for most of my life and thought it was fine…until I bought this one. Holy cow! I had NO IDEA what I was missing!” says one.
“I iron (for my small business) everyday and have killed three cheaper irons in the last year. I decided to spend the extra money on a nice iron this time,” recounts another. “I was prepared to spend much more than I did for this one, but the reviews and warranty made me give it a shot. I am so glad I did. I just love it!”
“I am a sewer and quilter,” reads a third. “This iron beats the pants off my two previous expensive German brand irons!”
The EF is not perfect. Most notably, it’s a bit aggressive about preventing fires. After a minute of continuously smoothing a garment the iron beeped to signal that it was turning off unless I pressed one of the buttons or flipped it upright. Conversely, Singer doesn’t appear to be quite on its game as a company. The newer $67 Singer Expert Finish II looks like a lemon, with eight Amazon reviewers scoring it 1.8 out of 5, and my experience with customer service was flat-out horrible. I emailed a question and got no reply for two weeks. So I called, only to wait 40 minutes to speak with a (friendly and helpful) representative. Hopefully that’s not typical.
But whatever these potential annoyances amount to is diminished when considering the EF’s excellent performance and the peace of mind that comes from a long warranty.
The step up
Experts love the brand. Diduch uses a Rowenta at home. “One of New York’s premiere butlers” uses a Rowenta. A call placed to an arbitrary sewing superstore in the Midwest put me in touch with a randomly assigned customer service rep named Natalie M. who uses a Rowenta. Of the irons tested by CR, only Rowenta ended up with more than one iron in the top ten. Indeed, fully four out of Rowenta’s five models made the cut. Good Housekeeping chose a Rowenta as one of its three best irons. And Real Simple named a Rowenta “Best All-Around.”
In my hands, the Focus exhibited the kind of refinement you’d expect from a 129-year-old company (albeit one now part of a multinational conglomerate). It glided over a cotton sheet, ironed two shirts in an impressive 12 minutes (and 11 seconds) and prompted no safety concerns. It heated up from plug-in to linen setting in 1:20, slower than the EF but as fast or faster than other mid- and premium-priced irons. Most notably, the soleplate kicked out heaps of steam—30 grams per minute, the most of irons we tested. (The Panasonic came in second in our steam test, with 24.6 grams per minute, followed by our pick with 20.) Drenching a buttondown in this much steam just meant I had to wait longer for the thing to dry. But subjecting a pair of jeans to the hot fog saved real time and effort. (Unfortunately I didn’t measure exactly how much. I’ll update soon.)
Features and ergonomics followed the tried-and-true iron design. Burst-of-steam and spray buttons sit at the front of the handle, where I easily thumbed them and blasted away persnickety creases. The steam-volume slider is just in front of the buttons and I had no problem using my thumb to adjust it up and down. At the bow of the iron is the hatch to the reservoir, which stayed open during filling thanks to a little spring—a nice touch. Below the handle, on top of the reservoir, lies the large metal temperature-setting dial. It clicked easily through clear labels for the typical settings—Min, Nylon, Silk, Wool, Cotton, and Linen. Because more steam requires more water, Rowenta also thoughtfully outfitted the Focus with a generous ten-ounce reservoir. (For those who care about such things, the Focus was re-worked by Faltazi, a French design firm known for creating a modular kitchen that produces no trash or waste water.) The iron arrived packaged in recyclable cardboard instead of the more common styrofoam, the cord clipped to itself when not in use, and customer service answered my call within two minutes.
The cord stayed out of the way during ironing sessions thanks to the sturdiest swiveling attachment found on any iron. And a large orange light let me know when the iron had reached the desired temperature setting, while a conspicuous red one indicated that the iron had shut off automatically because I’d left it standing on its stable haunches for eight minutes. No beeps or surprise auto-shutoffs interrupted my work. Overall, ironing with the Focus felt less like painting and more like waving a wand over clothes.
Others agreed. 194 Amazon customers gave it an average score of 4.2. Calling the 5-star reviews enthusiastic would be an understatement.
“I have been sewing for 65 years and this is the best iron I have EVER had,” says one.
“I had to turn the steam down because it was obscuring my view of the ironing board!” says another.
“I have been using the Rowenta Irons since 1994,” says a third. “The one I just purchased is my third. The first one lasted 10 years, the second one 8 because I dropped it, not once, but twice before it gave out. Never have I had an iron last that long before replacing it. Never have I had the results I get with the Rowenta with any other iron.”
Lastly, I liked the Focus’s provenance. Knowing that Rowenta paid a living wage to workers in a humane factory in a country with a tradition of quality craftsmanship gave me peace of mind. I thought of that as a bonus feature.
A word of caution. Though CR ranked its predecessor fifth overall, this particular model doesn’t have any editorial reviews in its favor yet and it won’t be tested by CR until this fall or January. It also comes with only a typical one-year warranty. Anyone anxious about dropping roughly $80 on a small appliance that combines water and electricity might want to wait for more feedback.
If you’re on a budget
Amazonians currently rank it the best iron in the cyber bazaar, with 2,000 owners scoring it an average of 4.5 out of 5 stars. A reviewer who has used it for four years writes, “I LOVE to iron. I know that’s sickness but I don’t care…. People, the reviews just don’t lie. B&D made a brilliant iron when they made the D2030.”
Fifty-two reviewers at Bed Bath & Beyond also score it 4.5, saying things like this when comparing it to their old iron: “not only was the time it took to iron a shirt substantially reduced, I finally achieved that ‘crisp’ look–even on linen!!! I am thrilled!”
Good Housekeeping named it their “best bargain steam iron.” “The Black & Decker Digital Advantage D2030 was the second-least expensive iron in our test group, but you wouldn’t know it,” reads the review. “This capable iron performed as well as others more than triple its price, getting even tough wrinkles out of synthetics and wool.”
So what compromises were made to keep the price so low? The D2030 has 200 fewer watts and less steam than our other picks, so for longer ironing sessions—like one required to get a batch of button-downs ready for the work week or to get a family ready for Sunday service—the 2030 lags. And the fit and finish certainly doesn’t match the Rowenta. (The flimsy plastic hinge of the 2030’s water reservoir hatch is prone to breaking, for example.) It also comes with just the standard one-year warranty, which is a year shorter than the Singer’s. As such, Consumer Reports ranked the D2030 14th overall. But if those aren’t deal breakers, then the 2030 is a terrific pick.
There is plenty of close competition, but it is not too close to call.
Irons with innovative features rarely justify their high prices during typical use.
CR’s #1 pick, the $160 Panasonic W950A, bested the runner-up by an unprecedented five points. “The Panasonic is whizbang,” says Slaven. The most obvious improvement was the slightly convex, double-bowed soleplate. The two pointy ends prevented me, an easily distracted ironer, from pressing in lots of wrinkles. But I wouldn’t pay $100 extra for the feature no matter its brilliance.
CR‘s 9th place Reliable V50 is terrific for ironing batches of delicate silks or acrylics because a dedicate steamer pumps vapor into the clothes even at low temps. In our tests, the V50 ironed the delicate shirt some 20% (or one minute) faster than the EF. But the Reliable didn’t prove very reliable. A temperature-display light broke roughly 10 min into testing, a nonsensical downward-facing reservoir hatch made adding water difficult, heat-up time lagged, and the steam had to be switched off each time I sat it upright, unlike other irons which stopped automatically. It also requires distilled water, which is a bit of a pain.
Rowenta’s $105 Eco Intelligence uses 25 percent less electricity than a typical iron, which is super for quilters and costumers, but not such a boon to the rest of us. Used for an hour a week, it’ll save only about $10 per year. (The energy-cost estimate was calculated with this formula.)
The $76.15 Maytag Premium Analog claims to heat up very quickly but scored 25th on CR’s test, thanks primarily to a “fair” score on CR’s steam test. So any time saved is probably spent ironing.
The unranked Oliso TG1050 was a joy to use, primarily because it has a touch-sensitive handle that triggers retractable feet in the soleplate that remove the need to tip the iron upright. Let go and the iron raises a safe distance off the fabric. Grab the handle and it drops down. This proved surprisingly reliable—not once did it raise or lower at the wrong time—and genuinely fun. When switching between shirt sleeves I could just slide the iron off to the side without taking my eyes off the shirt. The TG1050 also has really nice build quality and a 15-month warranty. Unfortunately, none of this comes free. The TG1050 has a hefty price tag, steam power closer to that of a low-priced iron (12g/min) and shirt-ironing time that merely matched the EF and Focus.
Dismissing others in CR’s test is easy.
The #2 ranked, $72 Kenmore 80598 does many things right but didn’t score as well in “ironing fabric” and costs $20 more.
The $104.50 DeLonghi Easy Turbo, which originally tied with the EF for third overall, has since been discontinued.
The #4 Rowenta Effective Comfort scores lower than the EF. It is less refined and has 100 fewer watts than the Focus, nevermind that it lacks the Focus’ polish and trades “Made in Germany” for “Made in China.” $48.45.
The #5 was the old version of the Focus. In CR’s rankings, it lost ground in “ease of use,” but the new version improves markedly in that area. Specifically, it has bigger, clearer temperature and auto-shut-off lights; a water reservoir hatch that flips open and stays open instead of a sliding door; a temperature-select wheel that clicks helpfully when rotated instead of rotating silently; larger, more ergonomic burst-of-steam and spray buttons; and a cord that clips to itself.
Looking at Amazon, the $32, #1 rated Panasonic is probably a good little iron but the 1,200 watts of power will certainly fail to produce the steam or consistent temps of the EF or Focus.
And so on. Both Slaven and the Midwestern customer service rep agreed that there are no great surprises in the iron world. Paraphrasing: “You pretty much get what you pay for these days.”
Wrapping it up
The $50 Singer Expert Finish is an anomaly. Not only will it iron clothes as quickly and easily as just about any iron, it’s also the cheapest iron in Consumer Reports‘ top ten and it comes with the best warranty we’ve seen.
If design details, pedigree, and maximum steam matter to you, then opt for the Rowenta Focus. You’ll pay a bit more, but no iron is as refined and consistently satisfying.
Director of education and analysis at the Drycleaning and Laundry Institute trade association, Telephone Interview, 5/17/2013,“When a garment’s fabric gets damp, the fibers get very flexible and pliable. Then the heat dries that moisture, and whatever shape they dry in, that’s the shape they stay in. Heat will soften it, too. Cause in theory, the fabric is going to be cooler than the iron, so you get condensation of air, which will get a little water in the fabric.”
Associate director of textile programs at North Carolina State University, Telephone Interview, 5/22/2013,“What happens is the fabric becomes deformed and certain styles of fabrics don’t allow the yarns to move back to their original state. Moisture and heat tends to let the yarns and twists in the yarns relax, which gives them more freedom to move and return to their natural state.”
The Butler's Way: Just So, The New York Times, 3/28/2011,"He begins with his favorite iron, a Rowenta Pro Master DW-8080, which retails for about $100. He prefers a Teflon ironing board, rather than one with a cloth cover. He learned to iron from Mark Fairweather, a former footman who worked with Mr. Ely at Buckingham Palace, who himself learned from the great Stanley Ager, author of 'The Butler’s Guide to Clothes Care, Managing the Table, Running the Home, and Other Graces,' a bible for traditional butlers since 1981."
Project lead on Consumer Reports’ iron test, Telephone Interview, 5/3/2013,"I’ve run this project three times and at least one of the Rowentas is always in the lead pack. Folks that do a lot of ironing often use Rowentas. They do make decent irons. Every once in awhile they make something that doesn’t do too well and they have the good sense to pull it off market. Generally they have something that does real well and ends up at or near the top.”
Road Test: The Best Irons, Real Simple,Re: the Rowenta Steamium: "Best All-Around. Obliterates wrinkles with its 400 steam holes (other irons tested had from 30 to 100), spread across an extra-broad surface."
Steam Irons: Best of the Test, Good Housekeeping,Re: the Rowenta Advancer: "Sure, it's pricy, but this Rowenta model is the closest we've seen to hiring someone else to do the ironing for you. At the highest setting, an internal pump emits regular bursts of pressurized steam (you don't even have to press the button!). In our tests, it blasted away the competition, especially on cotton. All that power adds a bit to the weight, but the iron is easy to maneuver, and the controls are easy to access. Also, we liked the red, yellow, and green "traffic" lights that very clearly communicate whether or not the iron has reached a safe temperature for your fabric."
web research,"Minimum wages in China are set by province. According to the country’s Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security website, a typical minimum wage is the equivalent of $.80 per hour. No law protects a worker’s right to strike and unions are illegal. By contrast, more than half of the German workforce is paid wages set by collective bargaining agreements, according to the U.S. State Department’s Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 2012. Though no nationwide minimum wage exists in Germany, recent parliamentary proposals call for the equivalent of $11 per hour."