One of my enduring Seattle memories is walking past the Victrola Coffee Roasters café on Capitol Hill and noticing a woman inside staring at me. For a moment, I allowed it to inflate my ego until I remembered what a casually dressed city this is. She wasn’t checking me out. She was watching my freshly ironed shirt go by.
I don’t love ironing, but there’s a meditative aspect to it that I enjoy, an easy sartorial leg up, and the creation of order from disorder. Of course, very few of us have felt the need to iron our clothes over this past year, as our starched shirts and pleated skirts hang patiently in the closet while we scour the web for deals on track pants. But I look forward to resuming my biweekly ritual. I’ll turn on some late-night radio or a podcast, crack a beer, and transform wrinkled and rumpled into smooth and soft. Having been an ironer for a couple of decades, I have opinions about irons and care enough to own a well-rated Kenmore. I dread dealing with wobbly boards and junky irons when I travel, quietly resenting their lack of steam power.
So I was curious when I found an expert-looking iron tucked in among the smart home products at a Chicago trade show I attended in the Before Times. The man demonstrating it blasted steam across the aisle and showed off a fan built into the board that, like the offspring of an air-hockey table, could both suck a shirt on top of it and lift it off the board’s surface. I was fascinated, but the iron-and-board combo, dubbed the Smart U by Swiss manufacturer Laurastar, wouldn’t arrive in the United States for almost two years. I could wait.
Shipping in a box weighing a whopping 57 pounds, the Smart U is a combination iron and board with a water tank and “steam generator” nestled between two of the board’s legs. It’s heavier, but not that much bulkier than the iron-and-board combo that you may already own.
At home, I filled the tank, fired it up, watched a bunch of technique videos, and got cracking. For most people, it will be both familiar and a lot to get used to. Yes, it’s an iron and an ironing board. Whether you’re a regular ironer or only do it for weddings, you’ve been here before. But tap the steam button on the iron handle that sends steam shooting across the room, and you may let out a little yip of surprise.
I got to work, moving through shirt after shirt and, being an occasional Airbnb host, started working through piles of pillowcases. The whole fan routine—sucking, blowing, then turning it off—would take a while to figure out, but the ironing alone was a blast: fast and turbocharged. The first thing I ironed was the dress shirt I got married in several years ago, and when I held it up after finishing, it was backlit and looked like church cloth. I loved working on the rock-solid board. I’m just over 6 feet tall, so I appreciated how high I could set it, a strange shortcoming in many boards.
Differences between fabrics and how to deal with them revealed themselves slowly, shirt after shirt, pillowcase after pillowcase. Laurastar has a video of a hunky dude ironing a dress shirt in two minutes, and I came to realize that tight time frame is probably most realistic for newer shirts that have just come out of a not-too-crowded dryer. Yet this was clearly saving time—sometimes 30 seconds, sometimes a couple of minutes—over my trusty Kenmore.
I also had a funny feeling that my clothes were coming out smoother. After ironing a pillowcase and sliding my hand across the surface, I had a flashback to a fancy Swiss hotel I stayed at in high school, a feeling my “regular” iron had never elicited.
Curious, I took out my Kenmore, did a head-to-head on either side of a pillow case, and immediately noticed two things. One, the Kenmore now felt super clunky compared to the Laurastar, like I’d swapped from a sports car to a milk truck. Two, the pillowcase was notably smoother on the Laurastar side.
I kept going, now concentrating on learning how to use the board’s fan. While there’s a tiny chart in the manual for when to use which setting, it’s surprisingly basic. I also watched a set of older Laurastar videos in which an incredible expert plows through a host of clothes and fabrics. I noticed at the bottom of the screen a tiny graphic that showed how she used the steam, blower, and vacuum settings to work quickly.
Thanks to her, I came up with my own little chart, much of which might be summed up like this: if it might fall off, suck; if it’s draped over both sides, blow.
For instance, I used the vacuum on the sleeves, collar, and either side of the front of my dress shirts, and the blower on the back and shoulders. The blower is a particularly nice to keep you from ironing a crease into fabric. With the fan buttons within thumbs’ reach on the iron handle, you can toggle quickly between the two settings. It takes a while to get used to, but the more I used it, the more I found it helped speed things along.
As I worked, I could also see how someone who ironed a lot could make good use of it, so I took it to someone who irons for a living to make sure.
Clothing designer Shari Noble met me and my 50-pound ironing setup on the sidewalk in front of her workshop on Seattle’s First Avenue. Noble runs the La Macón label, and she spends a lot of time ironing. Currently she relies on a Black & Decker model she picked up at Goodwill for $10, following the untimely demise of her more industrial Sapporo SP-527 iron, which never recovered after a fall to the floor. She also has some clever ironing accessories, a skinny mini board that’s just for sleeves, a “mitt” to go over a hand, and a ham-shaped “ham” that allows you to work specific parts of a garment. (The existence of an ironing ham gave me the giggles for five minutes.)
Also off to the side was a Shark-brand steamer that she seemed to consider a necessary evil. “That thing’s a piece of crap,” she said, before turning an optimistic eye to the Laurastar.
She immediately appreciated the tall and sturdy board, along with the heft of the iron.
“I like a heavy iron,” she said. “Weight’s a huge deal. It helps you press down.”
She put a pillowcase with scissors printed on it on the board and hit the steam button.
“Whoa,” she yelped, smiling. “There’s a time and place for not using steam, but usually I want steam.”
Here, she had plenty and quickly drew a connection between the quality of the Laurastar and her dearly departed Sapporo. She liked the heat and the steam but was more skeptical about the fan, never completely embracing it in the time I was there.
One thing she was concerned about was delicate fabric. The iron comes with a protective soleplate, essentially a heat diffuser that still allows for the use of steam. Unlike most irons, there’s no temperature adjustment with the Laurastar, just the soleplate. In my testing, this surprising lack of options was surprisingly just fine, but Noble was more skeptical.
She pulled out a big square of $40-a-yard wool, hesitated a moment, pressed the soleplate onto the fabric for a moment, then winced.
“It scarred,” she said holding the wool in the air, revealing an iron-shaped footprint. “I’d still recommend using a press cloth.”
Back at home, I kept testing, ironing everything I could, getting better and more proficient. I learned that ironing some of my boxer shorts and T-shirts was quick, surprisingly pleasant, and worth the effort.
There were several other aspects I came to appreciate, most notably the quality of the whole setup. There’s a funny little graphic on the box the Laurastar comes in that says “Stop obsolescence. 10 years certified repairable,” and I like the commitment to quality that it implies. I also liked the way that not only can you use it as a steamer, but the consistent amount of steam it pumps out allowed me to do away with the spray bottle I use with my regular iron. If you do a lot of ironing, this saves a notable amount of time. Plus, the water tank is huge, meaning you don’t have to stop to refill it nearly as often.
I also found some surprising faults. First, it slightly favors righties, and I’m a lefty. This is due to where the steam hose emerges from the steam generator. A righty working at the tip of the board gets just enough slack, but a lefty with a mirrored version ends up needing to tug awkwardly at the setup. When I asked the team at Laurastar, they suggested that lefties use the righty setup but stand on the lefty side, but it’s still slightly clunky for southpaws. The peculiar thing is that with the easy fix of adding just a couple of extra inches of hose, everybody would be happy.
Also peculiar was the way the cord tucks up into the steam generator housing. In Europe, where a thinner cord is used, it retracts like it would on a corded vacuum cleaner. Here in the United States, the need for a thicker cord means you have to get down on your knees and just stuff it up in the hole. I cut a knuckle trying to ram it in there one evening. This might work with a countertop appliance, but it’s a half-assed solution for an otherwise highly refined tool.
Finally, the Laurastar Smart U I tested—with lots of bells and whistles like steam pulsing—costs a whopping $2,499, while the company’s more basic iron-and-table combo called the Go+ sells for $999, and a no-table version of the iron called the Lift goes for $799. It’s worth shopping the brand a bit. Regardless, it’s a boatload of money considering that an excellent high-end iron and board can be had for less than $150.
That said, if you iron a lot, have the dough, and would appreciate the kind of smoothness that might give you a flashback to the nicest sheets you’ve ever slept on, you’ll be very happy with whichever Laurastar you end up with for a long, long time.