The Best Clothes Iron
If I were buying an iron to smooth wrinkled clothes or fabrics a few times a month, then I would pick up the new T-fal Ultraglide Easycord FV4495. It produces 35 percent more steam than any other similarly priced iron, which means it can flatten everything from a silk blouse to heavy denim jeans in just one pass. It also comes with perks like a long cord and a large, easy-to-fill reservoir, which are (surprisingly) not always common in irons. It’s not quite built like a $90 iron, but it performs like one, which makes it a steal for $45.
Reaching this conclusion might sound easy, 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 19 hours researching more than 100 models, manhandled 30 in stores, and interviewed half a dozen experts. I built a spreadsheet comparing 24 key traits of 27 noteworthy models. We then spent 12 hours familiarizing ourselves with—and testing—eight of those models.
Irons priced below $40 worked far slower than the Ultraglide. Irons priced $80 and up commanded their premiums by offering features aimed at quilters and pros, such as massive 13-ounce reservoirs, geyser-like bursts of steam, and electronic legs that automatically raise the iron off the fabric. There was stiff competition in the mid-priced category, but the Ultraglide 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 leave 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,” said 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
- an 8-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 performed 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,” said 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,” saID 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 12 hours, we noted qualitative answers to questions 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?”
This is far better than dozens of irons at any price. (A $20, 1,200-watt Black & Decker Light N Easy, for example, took 18:58. A $30, 1,400-watt Sunbeam 4268 took 15:45.) What sets the Ultraglide apart from the step-down picks is that it comes with serious headroom. If you decide to do something atypical like flatten a big, crumpled linen tablecloth, it’s up to the task.
The key to the Ultraglide’s flattening prowess is its exceptionally high steam rate. In our tests, it produced 27 grams of steam per minute—that’s 35 percent higher than our previous pick and Consumer Reports’ third place pick, the Singer EF.
Granted, that figure is noticeably lower than T-fal’s claim of 35 grams per minute, but it’s still impressive. The only iron we tested that produced more steam was the $80 Rowenta Focus, which measured 30 grams per minute. You can throw anything at this iron, from silk scarves to thick placemats.
The 9-ounce reservoir, slightly bigger than the median 8 ounces for a sub-$90 iron, matches the higher-than-normal steam rate. It’ll run for more than six minutes at full steam before going dry, which is plenty. (Bigger reservoirs, like the Rowenta Pro Master’s 12.7-ounce, mean you refill the iron less often during long ironing sessions but you push a heavier iron. Small reservoirs, ironically, often last long because they’re usually used in irons with weak steam. A sorry little $20 Black & Decker Light N Easy, for example, put out steam for more than 15 minutes because its steam rate was a wheezy 12.5 grams per minute, one-third of the Ultraglide’s.)
For what it’s worth, we found that the much-touted ceramic soleplate did make it glide ever so slightly more smoothly over some fabrics, but not enough to make a big difference. We could take it or leave it, really.
As far as controls go, if you’ve used an iron, you’ve used the Ultraglide. Spray and steam buttons and a steam-level slider were easily reached with a thumb. The iron rests on a large stable base when not in use, and the temperature setting adjusts via a standard, spinning rheostat under the handle. The rheostat was slightly less idiot-proof than a digital display like the one found on the EF and 2030, but anyone who has ironed in the last fifty years shouldn’t have a problem. The best perk of all: easy filling. A spring holds the sturdy water-reservoir hatch open, a quarter-sized opening easily accepts water straight from the faucet, and I could clearly see the water level rising through the tinted plastic.
The warranty is a standard one-year affair.
As far as the brand goes, T-fal, or Tefal in Europe, is best known for non-stick teflon-coated aluminum cookware, which it claims to have invented in the ’50s. But its kitchen appliances and irons, usually pretty good for the dollar, have also earned a good reputation in recent years.
Who else likes it
It was released in March, so few testers or users have put it through the paces. But its specs are fantastic and Consumer Reports ranked its weaker predecessor, the FV4379, an impressive seventh place overall out of a field of 63. We’d be surprised if this model didn’t score highly in future CR rankings.
Early Amazon reviews are highly flattering. Eleven Vine Program reviewers gave it 4.6 stars out of five.
Said one: “I’ve tried three different irons over the last year, prices ranging from $50 to $120 and I can honestly say that considering the price and overall quality, the Ultraglide wins my heart.”
“My old iron just doesn’t make enough steam so I spend a lot of precious time each morning trying to iron my clothes,” said another. “This iron heats up very quickly, cranks out a lot of steam and has a super slippery ironing surface. I can iron my clothes in 1/4 the time.”
Another summed it up: “With the FV4495, T-Fal has made a better iron in the low end price range than many premium irons.”
Flaws but not dealbreakers
It’s not perfect. Your hand can cover the Auto Off light at the front of the grip. This wasn’t a problem in testing, but if you iron for more than a minute without flipping the iron upright, you might not see that the light has started flashing red and the iron has turned itself off as a standard safety precaution.
The rheostat also leaves something to be desired. It’s only about an inch in diameter and tucked up toward the bow of the iron, and you have to bend down and look under the handle to see the selected temperature setting. And it has a lot of play in it, like the steering wheel of an old car, which undermines the overall impression of a high-quality product.
But those are quibbles. Unless you’re a quilter or laundress, there’s probably no iron at any price that does a better job at de-rumpling fabric.
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.”
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. 427 Amazon customers gave it an average score of 4.3. 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,” said one.
“I had to turn the steam down because it was obscuring my view of the ironing board!” said another.
“I have been using the Rowenta Irons since 1994,” said 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 has yet to be tested by CR. 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.
In case our main pick sells out
Few professional reviewers mention the Expert Finish (EF), but CR ranked it third out of the 63 irons tested, making it their “Best Buy.” (As mentioned, CR has yet to review the Ultraglide.) 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.
313 Amazonians gave the EF an average score of four out of five. Many described almost religious conversions.
“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,” recounted one review. “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 another. “This iron beats the pants off my two previous expensive German brand irons!”
However, 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 15 Amazon reviewers scoring it 2.2 out of five, 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 rare two-year warranty.
More uniquely, 2,311 Amazonians gave it an average of 4.4 stars. A reviewer who has used it for four years wrote, “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.” (Incidentally, B&D does not make the iron; a conglomerate called Spectrum Home Appliances does and B&D grants them a license to use the B&D name.)
Seventy reviewers at Bed Bath & Beyond also scored it 4.4 stars, 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!”
Our tests agreed. The 2030 reached “linen” temperature in a standard 1:20, but otherwise performed just as well as the EF, which is to say, slightly worse than the best in each test.
Both irons used bright LCDs to show the temperature and steam level, which offered three tiny improvements over the typical temperature-adjustment dial. The LCD location on the top of the handle makes it easier to read than under-handle dials, the buttons that adjust the temperature were easy to reach, and the irons beeped and flashed whenever they achieved the selected temperature. Starting with cooler settings is the way to iron, since irons heat up faster than they cool down, so a smart ironer doesn’t need all those alerts, but the display was a convenient addition nonetheless.
The 2030 isn’t without its drawbacks. Our two test samples didn’t exhibit the celebrated reliability. One sample smoked for a minute when first turned on, and the other seemed to have a faulty water reservoir. No matter how slowly we poured water into the reservoir, it backed up in the opening (the width of a pinky finger) and bubbled over, splashing onto the ironing board. Also, the 2030 has roughly 200 watts less power than the EF, Ultraglide, and Focus. 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 a Sunday service—the 2030 might lag. But all in all, this is a great performer, with easily the biggest crowd of online fans and a rare two-year warranty.
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 number one pick, the $160 Panasonic W950A, bested the runner-up by an unprecedented five points in CR’s tests. “The Panasonic is whizbang,” said 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.
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 (12 grams per minute) and shirt-ironing time that merely matched the Ultraglide, EF, 2030, and Focus.
Dismissing others in CR’s test is easy.
The second-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 number four, made-in-China Rowenta Effective Comfort scores lower than the EF, and therefore the Ultraglide, 2030, and Focus, too. $48.45.
The number five 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, number-one-rated Panasonic is probably a good little iron but the 1,200 watts of power won’t produce the steam or consistent temps of the Ultraglide, EF, 2030, 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
Early reviews and T-fal’s past performance in Consumer Reports rankings suggest that the recently released $45 T-fal Ultraglide Easycord FV4495 is a terrific iron. Our tests say it’s the best iron you can buy for less than $75.
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."