How to select commercial pressing equipment

In response to Tuesday’s entry, Laura left some very good questions in her comment:

Thank you for writing about irons! Besides the teflon shoe, what do you look for when purchasing one? What’s the difference between your result with a steam generator and a gravity-feed iron? Why can you buy a gravity-fed industrial unit for $100 and another for $400? Is it best to get a heavier model? How about wattage? The industrial irons I’m looking at are from 800-1000 watts. My 13 year old Rowenta “Professional” is 1250 watts and quite heavy. Kathleen, why do you like the smaller profile? I was thinking “greater surface area” = good, and that the industrials looked small to my (limited) experience

At the same time Laura was asking her questions, I made the ecquaintance of Robert Kahn of Reliable Corporation, a Canadian manufacturer of irons, boilers, vacuum tables and even some sewing machines and he volunteered to respond to Laura’s questions in this guest entry starting with an introduction and a brief bio. But before I start Robert’s piece, two caveats. Like me, you may be dismayed to learn that gravity feed irons aren’t the best choice for a commercial sewing operation. Anywhere I’ve ever worked had boilers but when I priced them, the prices started at nearly $1,000. However, I note that Reliable sells a boiler and iron starting at $299 but I didn’t know about them before. I guess my next purchase will be a boiler set up (which is really what I wanted in the first place).

Also, before I invited Robert to write this entry, I called some of his dealers (Reliable also sells B2B) to ask about the brand (including his sewing machines; his overlock gets high marks over Singer) to get the heads up on what if any complaints there are from buyers. Reliable got high marks for timely shipping, customer service, dependability and high value. The only downside mentioned by one dealer with respect to the line of irons was the automatic shut-off. Canadian law requires that irons be equipped with this safety feature. This same dealer said that he thought this was a benefit in energy savings and that once restarted, the iron was fully heated to press inside of two minutes. Now onto Robert’s entry.

I am very proud of the work we do at Reliable Corporation. I run the company with my wife Alice and 20 other dedicated people. My grandfather was a tailor from the “old country” (I still have the 2×4 that he used to use to “whack” the steam out of fabric over 80 years ago) and my father was literally born on a cloth cutting table. Today we keep the tradition going on by focusing on quality products, attentive customer service and a whole lot of integrity. I am also very proud of the work we do in our community. My wife and I are involved in environmental issues, and we support a number of local and worldwide organizations that support and nurture mother earth. Locally, we donate service to the TFI, and try to give them a gift every year (see letter attached).

1. Please refer to the “Ironing 101” section in the 5 Reasons to love Ironing piece I sent you. I think it is informative for the lay person, as well as those that know something about ironing. [This brochure is intended mostly for laymen and household consumers; I’ve excerpted the salient portions at the close of this entry or you can download the pdf.]

2. Gravity feed irons are nothing more than glorified home irons. The advantage they have is the extra weight (to compensate for their average steam quality) and a large water supply. The disadvantage is that they don’t iron much better than a regular home iron, and they must use distilled water or the demineralizing crystal that is available to put into the water bottle. Pressurized steam is the key to professional pressing. The story begins with quality steam. Gravity irons are convenient for people that don’t want to deal with a steam boiler, or don’t want to spend the extra money. Frankly, a $49.00 iron at Wal-Mart will work pretty much as well (sorry, but it is true).

The difference between the $100.00 and the $400.00 irons is the quality of the materials and where it is made. Most gravity irons today are Made in Korea or China. Most of the production in Korea has been recently moved to China, and the quality from China has been a big problem so far, because the factories producing them are not “Tier 1” factories. This will certainly change over time, but right now it is hit and miss. The more expensive gravity irons are Made in Japan, but in my opinion if I was spending $400.00 on an iron, it would not be for a gravity feed.

3. You don’t need to have a heavy iron to iron efficiently. You do however, have to have quality pressurized steam. In the old days, irons used to be 9, 12 and 16 pounds or heavier. I used to think these people were nuts for insisting on such heavy irons. Today we have modern tools like vacuum & up-air pressing tables, which do a lot of the work that the heavy iron used to do. Fabric by nature does not like steam, so you want to get it in and out as soon as possible. “Ironing 101” teaches us that you want to soften the fibres quickly, shape the fabric, and then get the steam out of the fabric as quickly as possible. No meaningful discussion on professional finishing can take place without talking about a vacuum or a vacuum & up-air pressing table.

4. The wattage of the iron is almost meaningless by itself. You only need the iron to be hot enough that you don’t get water out of it. If the iron is designed to do that with an 800W element then that is great (like in a professional iron). On our Digital Velocity, we use 1500W, because we need to convert the water to steam inside the iron. But my point is that looking only at the wattage of the element in an iron is akin to only looking at the engine when you are looking to buy a car. If that was the case, everyone would be driving around in gas guzzling V8’s. Thank the lord that’s not the case.

5. The shape of an iron is an end result of the design of the iron. Some like it a bit bigger, some like it a bit smaller. Usually commercial irons have a smaller base (profile) than home irons – but there is no golden rule about this. Every company has their own design that works for them. [Personally, I weigh in heavily toward the smaller profile, home irons are worthless to me for that reason alone.]

One important question that wasn’t asked is about the number of steam holes in the iron. Some manufacturers would have you believe that the more the better. The latest from Europe is up to about 400 holes! You won’t find a professional iron with more than 25 at most, and they are all at the tip of the iron, so the steam is concentrated and more pressurized. There are no gimmicks in professional irons. There success is measured by how well they can take the daily pounding of 8-12 hour use. The base plate is always aluminum, never fancy coatings that could easily scratch off. If you need to reduce the heat that the fabric sees, you can install a solid Teflon® shoe that is inert, and does not become airborne (with all its health implications) when it is compromised (like the scratched surface of a sprayed on base). A professional iron should always have a stainless steel plate. The material for the steam boiler tank (in a steam iron station) should always be stainless steel, never aluminum (as aluminum doesn’t play nice with H2O).

Robert Kahn
Reliable Corporation

Below is the salient portions of the previously mentioned pdf. As I said, most of the brochure was intended for the average consumer but this excerpt is useful to your business.

It all begins with the iron.
Like so many things in life, the finished product is a direct result of the tools used to get the job done. Ironing is no different. Your experience will change dramatically when you choose the best tools for the job. For starters, we suggest an iron that produces steam like the ones used by the pros.

Why is steam so important?
Steam is what most garment factories and dry cleaners use to finish garments, so it’s nothing new to the fabric-care world. However, in countries like Italy, France, Germany and Spain, irons that produce an abundance of steam – like ones with a steam generator – are common household items. With a steam generator, large and dense volumes of steam are released in much greater quantities than with conventional irons where it’s likely necessary to pre-spray your fabric in order to soften the fibers. In some cases it’s even recommended to throw your clothes or linens into the dryer with a wet towel in order to “hydrate” the fabric. With an increased quantity of steam, time-consuming tricks are no longer necessary. The power of an iron with a steam generator puts enough moisture into the fabric so that it can be professionally finished.

How does steam affect clothing fibres?
Steam does the hard work for you. In the past, it was assumed that a heavy iron was best for finishing clothes; it wasn’t uncommon to see irons as heavy as bowling balls! With a high velocity of steam, moisture enters the fabric in a large quantity and effectively softens the fibers. When fibers are soft, they can be laid down flat by the plate on the iron.

Ironing 101 Do I really need an iron with high steam output?
The truth is that you don’t need to have a high volume of steam to iron but you do need it if you want to save time and have a professional finish. By getting more steam into fabric at a faster rate, it can reduce ironing time by as much as 50%. With the fabric properly hydrated, it’s easily shaped, wrinkles quickly flatten out and the whole process can be completed in a fraction of the time than if a conventional iron were used.

Is that it?
Now we have this beautifully hydrated and shaped fabric, lovingly treated by our iron with a velocity of steam, and you may be asking yourself, “Is that it?” Well, yes and no. There is the matter of an ironing table…and then there’s vacuum + blowing tables. If you really want professional results, we would like to introduce you to the iron’s best friend and accomplice – the vacuum + blowing table.

What does it do?
Remember all that fantastic steam we lovingly put into the fabric? Well guess what: to get true professional results, we need to get all that steam out. That’s where the vacuum part comes in. For a sharp, crisp finish you expect from the pros, the trick is to dry the fabric as a last step. A vacuum motor is literally built right into the ironing table so you can steam with the iron and dry with the vacuum at the same time; for lighter materials, you can steam first and then vacuum.
You think we’re kidding?

Nope. This is how the professionals do it. In fact, getting the steam out of the fabric is so important, that before the age of vacuum tables, professional ironers used to take a piece of wood and literally whack the steam out of the fabric. As for the blowing part, some fabric, like corduroy and velvet – literally anything with a nap – doesn’t respond well when pressed hard, so by floating the fabric on a layer of air, we can steam out the wrinkles without harming the nap.

Think that’s impressive? Well it gets better. Parts of garments benefit by being pressed out on a cushion of air; the area around a pant pocket is one great example. How many pants have you seen ruined by the mark of the lining showing on the outside of the pant? Have you ever seen a lining on a suit jacket that looks like the pocket flap from the other side is permanently imbedded into it? Not smooth. Literally. That’s because it wasn’t pressed out on a table quipped
with blowing. Did you know that all good suit makers press the linings of jackets with specially shaped blowing tables? They wouldn’t be without this essential tool.

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  1. J C Sprowls says:

    So funny you found Reliable, too. I just happened across their site, last night. The conversation on irons was too compelling. Thank you for having Robert share insights with us. I guess I need to rethink some of the things I thought I knew. Testing will soon be underway!

    FYI… Gutermann called me a few weeks ago to do something similar. The sales rep reviewed my order and took the time to call me before it shipped. I got a 20-minute primer on “over-engineering seams”, which was equally insightful. And, she saved me money by trimming un-necessary product off my order. I tested her recommendations, and she was spot-on!

    You gotta love having folks around you who love what they do!

  2. kathie says:

    wait… i want to hear more about what J C learned from gutermann!! AND now i need to decide if a vaccum table is a better investment for me right now than the chainstitch embroidery machine that i really WANT. oie.

  3. Gigi says:

    I’ve been using a gravity feed iron (Naomoto) for more than 15 years and wouldn’t trade it for the world. The problem with domestic irons is that they don’t last. You can spend over $100 on one that won’t last you a year if you use it daily as I do. If my Naomoto ever dies may be I will get a boiler system.

  4. Robert Kahn says:

    Quick note in reference to the auto-shut off feature on our irons.

    Auto shut off is only on one of our steam irons – the
    Digital Velocity V95 (which is a home or a “Prosumer” type
    iron that we produce). All of our irons on steam
    stations (i300, i500, i700, i702, J410, J450A) do not
    have auto-shut off.

    P.S. I am not aware that auto-shut off is a Canadian
    or a U.S. law. I think it is a feature that people
    who are NOT home sewers look for (so they don’t burn
    their homes down when the they have to run to change
    the kids diapers). As you know, most sewers find it a
    pain, which is why on the Digital Velocity, even when
    the auto-shut off is activated, it takes only a few
    seconds to get back to temperature.

  5. vespabelle says:

    This was super informative for a a home-sewer like me. Thanks so much. I’m going to be more vigilant about steaming (making sure I have water readily available for my iron) and using my clapper now (keeping it near the ironing board, not on the floor!)

  6. Steve Knapp says:

    Mr. Kahn,

    Thank you for the information. Your company makes the J410, J450A and i300 steam stations. What are their differences? Will one last longer than another for home use? Does the i300 have a better quality iron and steam cord? Is a vacuum table required for a steam station?


    Steve Knapp

  7. La BellaDonna says:

    Wow. Way back when the world was young and dinosaurs roamed the earth, I did a stint in a Church Supply factory. In the backroom where the pressers worked, there was a torso-shaped form that the finished shirts would be placed on. There would be a “foosh!” of steam, and the shirt would be pressed, without any weird creases anywhere. I wonder if that’s the sort of thing that presses jacket linings? (Or if it did, once upon a time – this really was years ago.)

    And ditto, JC; what did you learn about over-engineering seams and how not to? That sounds like something I probably do. :P I’d like not to, if I am.

  8. J C Sprowls says:

    I belive the term Kathleen used to describe that form you talk about, LaBellaDonna, is “blower”. Cissel and Hoffman are some of the big names in that particular equipment. My favorite, is the torso shaped buck, it’s a scissor-action press that closes the shaped heating plate onto a torso form, then ejects steam from the inside of the garment, outward. Those run about $13K, so I don’t have one.

    I’m chatting up one of the local dry cleaners to see if they’ll let me volunteer to work in the plant for a month of Saturdays. I’d like to familiarize myself with the pressing equipment, more.

    On the subject of over-engineering seams, check out my comments on thread types at skipped stitches, part 1. While you’re at it, download some of the brochures from the Gutermann site. It’s a bit of homework; but, I think it pays off in the long run, especially when you run up scrap samples to see what will work for your application.

    I’m still putting together some information for classes I’ve been asked to teach. And, I’m making up samples as time permits. I’m not quite ready to articulate the results in an intelligent format, just yet. But, I’ll share that part with Kathleen to see if it is worthy of a guest post.

  9. Doug says:

    I am new to gravity feed irons and was wondering what the meaning of ‘dry steam’ is. The iron I just purchased makes a sound that steam is coming out but I can’t see it unless I hold it against a glass. Is this normal? I was expecting to see a lot of steam with the gravity feed iron.

  10. Kim says:

    Does anyone out there know where I can get a replacement solenoid for my very old Sussman Gravity Iron? Thanks, Kim

  11. Valerie says:

    I don’t really buy the comment that gravity feed irons are “glorified home irons”. But my comment is probably most useful to people who want a great iron for heavy sewing but aren’t running an operation 24/7.

    Perhaps boilers are best used in commercial operations, but the experience I had using one in a costume shop wasn’t too impressive, either. It constantly ran out of water and was a pain to refill. We also ran the risk of burning or hands/wrists to refill it, since you have to slowly release steam from the tank before opening. I hated it. And I can’t say that it pressed better than the gravity feeds used at my school, either, which I love.

    The gravity feeds work remarkably well for the school setting and home sewing, and yes the high quality ones run at about $400. They’re on and being used 12 hours a day. We leave the iron on a middle setting and I’ve never melted synthetic fabric using it with a press cloth. As for the fancy vacuum table, it’s not needed if you have that “piece of wood to whack steam out”, called a clapper. It’s made of hardwood and all you need to do is let the wood absorb the steam and apply pressure. The trouble of course, if whether you can actually find one (I finally found one at the annual Sewing Expo in Puyallup,WA).

    So yes, you can get professional results with gravity feed irons. Maybe not for commercial production, but for heavy sewing, yes.

  12. Kathleen says:

    I don’t deny you had a bad experience with a boiler iron but it doesn’t mean they’re all bad either. I love the one I have and yes, you need to fill it everyday before you start work. I keep a gallon jug of water alongside. Previously (and I should have made this clearer in my post), the boiler irons I used in the factory were another class altogether. The boilers were very large (at least 8 feet high and just as big around) and fed all the pressing stations from there. Those are the best but that is out of the realm of possibility (and necessity) for most of us.

    I don’t have an issue with steam being a problem in fabrics like other people do, it is so dry here. That said, I would find a clapper awkward at best. Another gadget. I find the vacuum to be a cleaner solution, your mileage will obviously vary.

    I also have a gravity feed Sussman (I don’t think they make these anymore) and I’ve never had a problem with it, it works great and I’ve been very happy with it. I haven’t used it since I got the boiler iron but I plan to keep it in case I need to set up another pressing station.

  13. Sandi says:

    I bought about 2 years ago a industrial sewing machine and iron from a trailor shop that was closing down and as I was planning on getting in to sewing down the road I thought I would purchase it for later use.
    I have now got around to pulling it out and looking at it and wondering if it is just to far past its prime? Or if its worth its time, the tailor used it daily but I do not remember how to use it anymore and will have to research that.
    Can you give me any advice on this machine.
    It says on iron it is a FENTON CAT. C314 , SERIAL NO. 3349, VOLTS 120, WATTS 600, MFD BY STEAM IRON CO.MFG.
    CLASS 9012, TYPE FLG2, RANGE 10-75, DIFF’L 1-8, NO. W354-S7 G

  14. Raghu says:

    I planing to start a ironing company my expected business size is 50k per day and I going to have a chain of stores pls advice me what kind of iron infrastructure I need to have

  15. Jim Hahn says:

    I’d like to add a comment regarding the use of steam. This is something I mention in my classes as a quilt instructor (we use irons a lot and I usually burn up a household model in 18 to 36 months). When it comes to heat transfer from iron to cloth, steam is the best transfer agent possible. It is far more effective than air or fabric (thinking about how the heat actually flows from the iron into the fabric) as water holds infinitely more heat than air or fabric per unit of matter and is very effective at transferring heat to the parts of the fabric that don’t actually touch the metal of the plate.

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