The Pressing Question

Which iron works best?

Ironing is the least popular of all household chores, according to a recent survey consisting solely of me.

But I’m not alone, am I? There must be others who regard ironing with the level of dread usually reserved for root canals or, say, death. Ironing is frustrating, time-consuming, and carries with it the genuine possibility of permanent disfigurement. Say what you want about dusting, but you’re unlikely to emerge horribly burned.

I have, on a few occasions, met people who claim to love ironing. They revel in the satisfaction of an extra-crisp collar or well-pressed sleeve. They contend that the very act of ironing, the repetitive back-and-forth motion, is a kind of meditation. While I do my best in life to be nonjudgmental, I am certain these people are crazy, lying, or both.

It is with this unabashedly bad attitude that I tested seven irons to find out which among them was the least objectionable. I tried out the irons on a variety of fabrics—cotton, silk, polyester blends. I used different temperature settings, with and without steam. I ironed until my wrist became tired, my back achy, my soul deadened. I also enlisted the help of an expert with more than four decades of ironing experience who, conveniently, happens to be my mother-in-law.


Ease of Use (10 possible points): Is the dial or screen clear and readable? Does it heat up quickly? Can it maneuver easily around buttons and seams? Are the controls intuitive? Because they should be: I do not, under any circumstances, want to consult the manual.

The Feel Factor (10 possible points): Two factors: 1) How does it feel in your hand? 2) How smoothly does it glide across the fabric?

Full Steam Ahead (10 possible points): The flow of steam needs to be reliable and more or less continuous. The “burst of steam” feature that some irons have is also handy, especially for vertical steaming (which is useful for drapes or clothes on a hanger). Also, if the water drips all over when you switch the steam on—sorry, that’s a deal-breaker.

ImPRESSive (20 possible points): It’s nice, too, if an iron gets rid of wrinkles and creases. In fact, it’s the only thing that matters, no? The key here is number of passes. One pass is ideal; two is passable. If I have to run the iron over the same area five or six times, we have a problem.

Here are the results, from rumpled to pressed:

Proctor Silex Mid-Size Iron, $22.50

The first time I tried to fill up the water tank on the Proctor Silex, I spilled water everywhere. This either means I’m an idiot or the water intake is poorly designed. I tried it a second time with similarly damp results, leading me to conclude that poor design is the culprit (the jury remains out on my idiocy).

While the Proctor Silex claims to be capable of vertical steaming, steam did not burst forth in my tests; it was more like a measly puff. Most damningly, the iron does not glide smoothly over a garment. It drags and sticks. Finally, it feels cheap. Happily, at $22.50, it is cheap. That’s a point in its favor, but not enough to make it a winner.

Ease of Use: 7
The Feel Factor: 3
Full Steam Ahead: 2
ImPRESSive: 8
Total: 20 (out of 50 possible)

Sunbeam Heritage Steam Iron, $48

The Sunbeam box features a short history of the company that says its mission is “to help moms everywhere.” What, us menfolk don’t iron? To go with its 1950s sexism, the Sunbeam has a retro, 1950s-inspired design (which I don’t like, either). What’s more, the Sunbeam is the worst steamer of the bunch. It’s perfectly competent at the “burst of steam,” but at some temperature settings you get no steam, even with the steam on and the water tank filled.

And—and!—it doesn’t get wrinkles out very well. It took several passes to do the job other irons did in one. This is unacceptable. The Sunbeam does have one redeeming feature: It’s the only iron I tested that tells you when it has cooled down and is ready to store. A strip on the side turns red when the iron is hot, black when it’s cool. This is a great idea and someone who makes a better iron should steal it.

Ease of Use: 6
The Feel Factor: 6
Full Steam Ahead: 3
ImPRESSive: 10
Total: 25

Oliso Touch & Glide Steam Iron, $89.99

I’m torn about Oliso. It is, without a doubt, the niftiest iron on the block thanks to its truly ingenious “auto-lift” system. The iron senses when you let go of the handle and two plastic feet emerge from the soleplate (the part you iron with), lifting it off the fabric. I’ve shown this to several friends, and it never fails to elicit appreciative “oohs” and “aahs.” How many irons can do that?

Also laudable is the thoughtful, easy-to-read temperature dial and the water intake, which is on the side of the iron rather than the front or back, making the iron much easier to fill.

But my Oliso has an almost-fatal flaw. When you turn the steam on, water drips everywhere. A lot of water. I tried this several times to make sure it wasn’t a fluke—it wasn’t. Also, the Oliso doesn’t glide as smoothly as some of the other irons and is bulkier than I would like. If you can cope with the occasional spillage and you want to impress friends/family/dates/passersby with the magical auto-lift system, then pick up the Oliso. If not, don’t.

Ease of Use: 8
The Feel Factor: 5
Full Steam Ahead: 5
ImPRESSive: 14
Total: 32

Reliable Digital Velocity, $129.00

The Reliable has something called a “compact vapor generator” that it claims delivers a steadier stream of steam than other irons. You know what? This seems true. It does not, however, offer the fun “burst of steam” capability. And the digital readout is crude and generally not pleasing. If you’re going to slap a fancy screen on there, rather than a plain old dial, at least make it cool.

This thing also feels like an anchor. Maybe you want a heavy iron, maybe you don’t.  My mother-in-law definitely does not. “No way,” was her verdict. “I wouldn’t use it on a dare.” If continuous steam is your priority, then the Reliable is for you. For the average ironer, I say look elsewhere.

Ease of Use: 5
The Feel Factor: 5
Full Steam Ahead: 8
ImPRESSive: 16
Total: 34

Black & Decker Digital Advantage, $49.99

Black & Decker’s tag reads as follows: “Ironing made easier with digital technology.”

I think trumpeting its “digital technology” is an attempt to make us think that the primary function of the iron is, in some way, digital—which, of course, it’s not. Misleading marketing aside, though, the digital readout is terrific, a hundred times better than the Reliable’s. Also, if you need to lower the temperature in the midst of ironing (going from cotton to silk, for instance), the iron will beep and flash “Ready” when the lower temperature has been reached. The burst of steam really bursts, and the iron has an attractive, sleek design. It performed third best but is still awfully good. You could do worse.

Ease of Use: 8
The Feel Factor: 7
Full Steam Ahead: 7
ImPRESSive: 14
Total: 36

Rowenta Advancer Iron, $129.95

This is the iron that serious ironers—the Ironistas, if you will—breathlessly recommend. “Have you tried a Rowenta?” they cry. “Oh, you simply must!”

I have to admit, it’s a top-notch iron. Steamwise, it can’t be beat. It has 400 tiny holes in the soleplate; most irons have only 15 or 20. It produces a burst of steam powerful enough to terrify my dog. And its tapered tip makes ironing around buttons a snap. I fully understand why iron snobs love Rowenta.

Like the Reliable, though, the Rowenta is a weighty beast. And the temperature dial is under the handle and therefore hard to access. (Several of the irons put their controls there. Why? Put it on top where I can see it!) Still, I don’t think you can go wrong with Rowenta, as long as you don’t mind dropping 130 bucks on an iron.

Ease of Use: 5
The Feel Factor: 7
Full Steam Ahead: 10
ImPRESSive: 20
Total: 42

T-Fal Aquaspeed, $69.95

The T-Fal is not without a few T-Flaws. Like the Rowenta, the T-Fal’s controls are under the handle and they’re not as intuitive and elegant as, for instance, the Oliso or the Black & Decker. 

But the T-Fal’s water tank can be filled in five seconds. My mother-in-law points out that when doing a lot of ironing, this is a real advantage. And its odd-looking but sturdy base makes it more stable than some of the other irons.

What’s absolutely killer about the T-Fal, though, and the reason it’s our overall winner, is how it moves over the fabric. The soleplate is coated with enamel and it glides like a dream, better than any of the other irons. Most wrinkles are gone in one pass. When you use it after using a lesser iron, the difference is dramatic.

My mother-in-law’s verdict: “Oh, yeah. I love this one.”

Love? I don’t know. But I certainly like-like the T-Fal. It almost makes ironing kind of, slightly, semi-enjoyable. Almost.

Ease of Use: 6
The Feel Factor: 8
Full Steam Ahead: 9
ImPRESSive: 20
Total: 43