The Care And Feeding Of Steam Irons

Most of us have at least one iron around the house. Some of us love ironing. Some of us only pull the iron out when it's absolutely necessary. For some of us, irons are an essential component of our work process. Whichever category you may fall into, there's nothing worse than turning on an iron and having it spew caclified water all over your fabric, or discover there's a huge scorch mark that you really, really, really don't want to transfer to that white shirt you're about to wear to an interview.

First, allow me to introduce you to my three irons:


Left to right: Rowenta Expert steam generator iron, Rowenta Effective Comfort, and Black and Decker Stowaway travel iron. (The handle on the last iron is intentionally tilted to show how it folds.) 

Each iron serves a different purpose. I take the travel iron to classes along with the portable ironing cloth these are displayed on. The Effective Comfort iron is a standard home steam iron. The steam generator is my "go to" iron for day-to-day work, and occasional clothes ironing. The steam generator gets hot. Plus, that green reservoir holds a lot of water. When I'm working with a regular steam iron for hat making, I'm constantly refilling the reservoir, and it seems there's never steam when I need it because the reservoir is empty. (And yes, I have a fancy garment steamer, too.)

Before I go on, I should note that I'm brand agnostic, but I did purchase the Rowenta in the center after I'd blown through two $20 steam irons in a few months. And really, if you don't use an iron a lot, there's nothing wrong with those $20 steam irons. That sounds blasphemous to some, but it's true. 

And if you don't take care of that iron, it's not going to matter what you paid for it. It's going to calcify up and ruin something down the road. See that steam generator iron? It probably cost someone $200 or so new. I picked it up in a thrift store for $20. It had one minor thing wrong that my husband fixed, but the biggest issue was that it was so clogged up with crud that the steam would barely get to the iron. That's probably why the owner got rid of it. The sole plate was also very nasty. You can still see some crud around the edge. Getting this thing totally clean has been an ongoing project. But hey, this is one $20 iron that's going to last me a good long time if I take care of it.

Before we start, a disclaimer:

These are general tips, and your iron may vary. Read your manual and follow the manufacturer's instructions FIRST. Use these other steps at your own risk.

So, let's look at what it takes to keep your iron running in good condition:

Read the manual

Yeah, no one wants to take the time to read the manual. Where's the fun in that? Your owner's manual will tell you exactly what you need to do to maintain your iron. And recommendations do vary by manufacturer. Some don't recommend vinegar for cleaning, for example. Some demand you use nothing but distilled water. Start with the right water in the reservoir. 

(Hint: If you're in the market for a new iron, do a little research online. If you're only going to use an iron occasionally, it may not make sense to use one that requires only distilled or purified water.)

Don't let the water sit for a long time

Empty it when you're finished, and while the iron is still warm. What's left should evaporate out.

Clean, baby, clean!

Here's where you really need to read the manual. Rowenta doesn't recommend vinegar in the steam generator iron, but most home steam irons do benefit from a vinegar/water mix. I usually go with no stronger than 50/50, but generally 1/4 to 1/3 vinegar. Hit the steam burst button (if you have one) a few times (I usually do this on and off for a minute), then empty the reservoir and refill with water, then hit the steam button a few times to finish cleaning out the vents. Always turn the iron off and unplug it when you fill/empty the reservoir. If you haven't done this in a while, keep pressing the steam burst button or let it run on high steam until you see the steam running as it should. Some irons have a self cleaning setting, and if you use it often you shouldn't have to run vinegar through it. If you only use your iron occasionally, use the self cleaning setting every time you use steam. It only takes a minute.

Cleaning agents for the sole

Ah, yes. The sole plate. If you use your iron a lot, it's gonna get dirty. If you iron-on interfacing, you'll get gunk on it. There are several things you can do:

  • Read the manual. If you have a non-stick coated sole plate, some of the tips here may ruin the coating. Follow the manufacturer's directions.
  • When the iron is hot, use a product such as Iron Off. I keep a couple of old washcloths around for just this purpose. Turn off the steam and use the product as directed. CAUTION! Your iron is very hot (duh!) and you need to take care that you don't burn yourself. Try putting the cleaner on the cloth and ironing over it. When you're finished, run the iron over an old, damp towel until it's polished. Keep the heat on high and the steam off. It doesn't take long.
  • When the iron is cold, there are several things you can do. Again, check your manual so you don't ruin a non-stick plate. Never use anything abrasive, though a green kitchen scrubber may work. Use caution. I've found that the cleaner for ceramic counter tops works fairly well on uncoated sole plates. A vinegar and baking soda paste should be safe for even coated plates. It may take a lot of elbow grease as well. Use cotton swabs on the vent holes if you have trouble cleaning those. When finished, run some steam through the iron to get any gunk out of the holes, then polish as above. 

(Tip: If you're working with iron-on interfacing or adhesives, lay an old towel down on the ironing board and one over your work. The adhesive will get on the towels and your iron and ironing board will stay clean. Don't have old towels? Go to the big box discount store or dollar store and get a few cheapies. Your good towels will thank you. So will your iron and ironing board cover.) 

Before you iron...

I always aim the iron away from the board and hit the steam button - even if the steam is turned off - before I iron. If the iron is going to spew crud, this is most likely when it will happen. Better to have crud drip on the floor than your best shirt or expensive fabric. 

There you have it. What do you do to keep your iron in good shape? Share your tips in the comments.

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