Review: Boiler iron & vacuum ironing board

As I’d hinted before, I finally upgraded my ironing set up in the shop. After much trepidation (which proved to be for naught), I bought a Reliable brand boiler iron (i500 Iron Station) and vacuum board (C81 Vacuum & Up-Air Board). Here’s a photo of the iron.

I recommend two other accessory items. In the interests of full disclosure, I paid full price for everything but I got these two items free. I still recommend them. One was a C8SH sleeve board with mounting bracket (below) and the other was a i30T teflon shoe for the iron. If you have a sleeve board already, that’ll work just fine. However, a teflon shoe is not optional. Yes, I realize many home irons have a teflon plate but these are a world apart and probably the number one reason I love industrial irons. With a PFTE shoe, you will never need a pressing cloth again. Press directly on top of fusibles to your heart’s content. Anyway, I finally got the equipment set up and have tried it out with mostly great success.

Iron Features:
For the sake of brevity, read How to select commercial pressing equipment, the comments are educational too. There is also a short part two. Otherwise, the best way to start this off is with a comment left previously:

I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve never heard of a boiler iron. Can you explain why it’s better and also what “dry steam” is?

A boiler iron has a separate water tank (stainless is best) and heating element that heats water and pushes it out with pressure independent of the iron. The boiler is attached to the iron with a hose. Home and gravity feed irons produce steam using the heating element of the iron itself (this kind of steam is very wet, see below). One key advantage of boiler irons is that the quantity of steam is not limited by a low heat setting on the iron so you can press low temperature fabrics (like silks) using plenty of steam to remove wrinkles. Otherwise it’s hard to quantify the advantages of a boiler iron -as defined by pressing results- if you have only worked with home irons and gravity feeds. It’s something you have to experience for yourself.

Obviously steam has to involve water so dry steam is a comparative term. It refers to the ratio of pressure and vapor a piece of equipment generates. Something like a boiler puts out a lot of pressure along with vapor, so it is said to be “dry”. The steam from a home iron is “wet” because there’s very little pressure as compared to water. Before you start pressing for the day with a boiler iron, you have to bleed off any air that may be in the tank (because you opened it to fill it) for ten seconds or so to build up the pressure. If you forget to do that, your first pass will be a big wet spot. Don’t ask me how I know.

The disadvantage of a boiler iron is that you can’t add water mid process like you can with a home iron. You have to turn it off, wait a bit and release the pressure to add water. That’s why you need to check fluid levels before you use it each day. To prevent down time, you select the boiler iron based on the size of tank you’re likely to need. The one I bought has a 2 liter tank but there’s another version like this with a smaller 1.4 liter tank that costs about $200 less. By the way, these are significantly costlier than home irons. The one I bought was $600.

Ironing board features and set up
The ironing board is significantly heavier than your typical board. I was very pleased with the heft and larger diameter legs. Between the weight of it and the thick rubber tips on the leg ends, this board isn’t going to skate around on you like home ironing boards (and I had the top of the line of those). There’s not much set up to it beyond unfolding it and plugging it in. It has to be plugged in because it has a vacuum motor that can either pull air down through the board or up while you’re pressing. I realize this is a vast departure from home ironing boards because those often have a solid pressing surface with teflon covers to reflect heat. Ouch. That’ll leave a mark, literally as it happens. Here’s a photo of the board.

Vacuum is useful in two key ways. One, the most effective pressing is done by pulling the steam through the layers. Second, blowing up (via a readily accessible switch) reduces seam imprinting by the iron. This is particularly noticeable if you’re pressing several layers, the iron maps allowances underneath. This table is reported to be good for napped fabrics like corduroy and velvets because blowing up while pressing doesn’t crush the nap. The blow on this board is strong enough that your fabric will fly off the board if you’re not holding it down. I tried the blow up feature on a lined velvet top and it worked pretty well, better than I expected (I’d been dubious of this claim). I don’t know how you press velvet but I usually press on top of a scrap of velvet lain face up to prevent crushing the nap (iron applied to the wrong side of the velvet). In my experiment, I pressed the face side of the velvet with the iron.

In industry, the very best way to press anything is to “blow” it. The ideal situation is to put the garment on a specially made pressing form, hit the switch and the form expands like an overly exuberant blow up doll. It’s quite comical, like something in a cartoon. There’s so much pressure it looks as though it’ll explode or seams will split. Pressing from the inside out makes for incomparable results. In fact, I always recommend to home sewers, that if they make a tailored jacket, they take it to a dry cleaners to have it blown. This is an unusual request so they may be puzzled but they’ll often do it while you wait and in my experience, not even charge you for the service because they don’t have a price code for it.

The only surprise to me was that the board itself also heats up. I suppose this is also to get rid of steam quickly. I live in a very dry climate so this doesn’t concern me but it may you. The board gets pretty toasty so be careful of what you leave lying on it if it matters. In the interests of energy savings (heating elements draw a lot of power), the only modification I’d suggest is to make heating element on the board optional. I don’t imagine it’s enough of a priority to enough people for the manufacturer to justify rewiring the thing and adding another on/off button. The other thing that’s different about the board is that you use a foot pedal to operate the blowing mechanism. I wasn’t expecting that but I suppose it only makes sense. That will take some getting used to with regards to positioning. If your pressing floor is pile carpeted, this is could be a problem because you won’t easily be able to scoot the pedal around with the edge of your foot in the midst of repositioning the garment during pressing. Yet another reason to not have carpeting in your work areas. I understand some people working from home don’t have a choice but I’m always floored that people who can control this, carpet anyway. Silly silly.

If you get the add on sleeve board, you will have to mount the bracket before you set up the board and plug it in. Reliable mounted the bracket for me before they shipped but I don’t know if that was a special favor or if they do it for everyone. The only thing about the mounting bracket I didn’t like was that the ironing board cover doesn’t lie flat back there -but they told me it wouldn’t and that I would have to make an adjustment to the cover to permit that (below).

I haven’t done this modification yet. The cover fits tightly around the board but the mounting bracket gets in the way. The edge of the cover needs to be sandwiched in between piece 1 & 2 (see photo) to arrive at the solid/dotted line. I will need to unscrew the bracket, make three holes, finish those off, replace the cover and then remount the bracket once the cover is in place. I think button holes would be better than grommets.

Boiler Iron set up
I don’t know about you but I don’t like to read manuals, I’m strictly plug and play. Still, these are better than average. The only problem I had with it was item #4 which says to remove the cap and add water but then it doesn’t ever say to screw it back on. Reading that on the screen, I look like an idiot. But, I take things very literally especially when playing with something as potentially dangerous as pressurized steam. The only other disconcerting thing was the admonitions to not overfill the unit but there’s no visual cue to read the water level. Luckily for me, a one page addendum flew out on the floor which explained it all graphically. Reading it I discovered what that little plastic tube that was left over was for (to check water level obviously, another duh).

The boiler is designed to sit on the end of the ironing board on a mounting bracket (pre-attached). Somehow I thought it’d be on the floor. I thought that end bracket on the board (to the right in the photo) was for the iron itself. The iron is plugged into the boiler unit and then the boiler is plugged into the wall (110v). I don’t find the boiler is in the way but this may be an adjustment if you’ve never worked with commercial pressing equipment (the right side of the board is inaccessible).

Anyway, that’s about it. Feel free to ask questions and I’ll round this out some more.

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  1. LisaB says:

    Thanks for the review. I understand better what’s referred to as wet and dry steam now.

    Like you, I thought the iron would set on that end bracket. Instead, must you set the iron itself on the board with a silicone heat rest? I tend to use that end of the board to iron shirt yokes, so I’d have to modify my habit with a board like that.

  2. Valerie Burner says:

    I was waiting for this post to see what this unit was like. I saw the photos the other day, and wondered if the tube/hose was long enough to use on a larger surface (an old door covered with “ironing board cover” fabric) with fabric yardages.

    I was also of the opinion that the unit would sit on the floor. Do you find that it gets in your way? I love the vacuum board. I guess this means no more hams or rolls with which to fiddle!

  3. Clara Rico says:

    If the boiler sits on the platform at the end of the ironing board, what is the other platform for?

    How strong is the vacuum? Is it enough to lift a light fabric? Can you feel a breeze? I’ve seen, on a video, a machine that puffed out shirts instead of ironing them. I guess that is what I was thinking when you first mentioned a vacuum.

    Congratulations on your cool toys. Now Eric is going to send the ironing with you to work.

  4. Eric H says:

    Clara, perhaps we need to have a talk about the actual domestic arrangements ’round here. Take, for example, the laundry bag. It’s a simple thing, one sack with two straps. Developed a slight problem 3 months ago and wandered off to the shop. Haven’t seen it since. I assume that anything that gets sent to the shop ain’t comin’ back, so, … no, we’re not sending “the ironing” with anyone to work, unless it’s me on the way to a conference (because all hotel rooms are now equipped with irons).

    Besides that, we’re very diligent about shopping for clothing that requires ironing, as in, we never buy it. I have one shirt with a recalcitrant placket; so far, I have ironed it once, she has ironed it once, and I have been disinclined to wear it on all other occasions.

    Here’s the thing about ironing here: things are more likely to get ironed during the construction process than after.

  5. Lisa B. in Portland says:

    Heh heh heh. Eric, the way you wrote that is funny. :-)

    I’d like to have that same set up one day. It seems really awesome. I’m with Clara on wanting to know if it does lift a light fabric. At school we only had regular irons and ironing boards. Lame.

  6. Emily says:

    Thank Kathleen for the clear explanations. Like Lisa B. in Portland, I have gadget envy now. :( I thought I was cool for having my little steamer! Oh well.

    Ha! Eric! The “domestic arrangements” in my house are very much the same. My husband recently brought me a pair of his pants that needed mending with the saddest most forlorn face and said “so these have to go in the mending bag now? sigh. byebye pants!”

  7. andrea says:


    Thanks for the product review! I also went back and read the previous entry on Reliable. I am actually moving my studio out of my house in the next couple months and want to upgrade some of my equipment. I do a lot of fusing for my bags and I can’t tell you how annoying my iron is. I will be buying from Reliable.

  8. Tom Willmon says:

    Dry steam vs. wet steam as related to pressure:
    Wet steam is at a temperature near condensing/
    boiling, i.e. 212 deg. F at sea level (slightly below 200 up here at 6500 ft. altitude). Dry steam is at a higher temperature, will not immediately condense on your goods. You can produce dry steam by adding heat to the water vapor after boiling water (awkward to do, requires a superheater, common in old steam locomotives), or by raising the pressure, which raises the boiling temperature (same principle as the pressure cooker). Downside is the pressure and higher temperature adds to the burn hazard.
    Be sure to buy good stuff…
    (recovering engineer)

  9. Brenda P says:

    I have a gravity iron which I purchased over 25 years ago. Could not afford the pressure one and stretched for this one. Non-commercial irons are a disappointment after using a better iron. Yes, there is more moisture … had to replace my regular ironing board. It is not a heavy iron (perhaps 3 lb) but to me at the time it did feel heavier. Even with the limitations of a gravity iron that you mentioned, there are a few pluses that would justify a commercial iron to ANYONE who is responsible for the ironing chore in a household.

    First, a “regular” iron is wasted effort. When you use a commercial-type iron – it really does IRON! The clothes LOOK BETTER. They resist wrinkling when hanging in the closet. After a few washings and ironings, the garment will actually hold that press through a wash. The more detail you put into your garment when ironing, the better it will look. Shirt seams will start to stay flatter. Time spent doing the ironing will turn into time well spent because the garments will look much better and stay looking better during a wearing. In sewing, seams pressed with a commercial iron will end up looking better. You can actually SHAPE the seams as needed. Good pressing during construction makes a garment easier to work with.

    Commercial irons are a time-saving and money saving endeavor. I used to burn up at least one iron per year. For the 25 years I’ve used my gravity iron – the cost of it now is about $10.00 a year and the ironing results cannot be compared to regular irons. The new generation boiler irons are fantastic. They make it practicle for home use if you are willing to pay the money. Your ironing results will outdo those from a cleaner.

    I love to iron and always have. I earned spending money ironing the little dresses from our neighbor. Her girls got crisply ironed ruffles and I got spending money doing something that never seemed like work. We’re remodeling now and my ironing station is in the works. I still needed to press things so I purchased a TOL Rowenta. Good iron but the results cannot come close to what I am able to do with gravity iron. If I ever wear this one out I will be looking at a pressured iron now that the technology makes it practicle for home use as well as all phases of sewing.

  10. ClaireOKC says:

    I agree with Brenda – after using the boiler, I wouldn’t think of using anything else – and regular vs commercial – she’s right – don’t even consider regular irons. I had a gravity feed, and it did spit (although was guaranteed not to), which caused just a few anxious moments on my board with some of my white silk. But so far haven’t had that prob with my boiler.

    Now I do cheat (and I have the smaller model), when I run out of water, I turn it off (yes, I understand about steam burning), and then get the water in a spouted container, and slowly twist the knob to allow the steam to release a little at a time, but this usually doesn’t take more than about 30 seconds….then pour my new water in, and re-tighten the cap, and start it and usually I’m back in business. I realize this is probably breaking all the rules, but I’m not a person who likes to wait for these sorts of things.

    On the steam – it is considerably hotter…I’m not into self-torture, but as we all know, sometimes our fingers are out there doing their thing, when “poof” a shot of steam and it happens – a burn. Well, I guess I had gotten used to the gravity steam, and when I first started my new boiler, I had to be very careful about my fingers.

    OK – enough of the comments about pouring water out of a boot, and getting fingers out of the way of irons!!!

    But my fabrics and pressing is much better these days, and on drafting, designing or hand-working days, I’m better at keeping my iron off when I don’t need it.

  11. Liz Gerds says:

    When I worked in the UCLA Costume Shop I fell in love with the teflon shoes on the irons. You didn’t need to worry about anything sticking to the iron, or getting scorched. I keep forgetting to pick up one for my home machine!

  12. Robert Kahn says:

    I was about to call you Kathleen, to see how you were making out with your new ironing station and vacuum & up-air ironing board, and there was your review posted weeks ago.

    So I’m a little late, but still thank you very much for the detailed review. It’s not often that someone will really take the time to explain professional ironing products, and demystify it for all of us to read.

    I also wanted to make a couple of comments that hopefully will help your readers:

    1. Our portable ironing tables have a “shelf” for the ironing station always on the same side (let’s call it the right side). In this way, the tip is always on the left. If you are someone that wants the tip on the right side, we produce a portable stand (i24) that will hold the iron station (i500) and can be placed to the right of the tip. In the “old” factory days, when we had loads of garment factories here in Toronto, all of the dress factories set their irons up this way. How you press is probably more about what you are used to, but I wanted to let your readers know that you are not tied down to doing it just the one way.

    2. The heating element in the vacuum board is not there to dry the fabric (popular misconeption… the vacuum does that). It is there to keep the inside of the board dry. Since our boards are metal (not plastic) and you have condensation forming on the inside, the last thing we want to do is let the moisture sit there and rust out the inside of the board. Another note is that while it does get very warm, as soon as the vacuum is activated, the “cool” air that is pulled in cools the surface right down. I agree that a separate switch would be handy, but it would also probably get left off enough to risk damaging the inside of the board.

    Anyway, thanks again for the awesome review. I’ve been traveling a fair bit lately but I’m mostly in town over the next few weeks, so if anyone has any questions, I’d be happy to answer.

  13. Gigi says:

    Kathleen, this post is really helpful as I’ve been shopping for a boiler iron for the past few weeks. At this point, I am having a hard time deciding whether to buy the i300 unit or the i500 like yours. Of course, I want the more expensive one ;-) but I also don’t want to buy more iron than I really need. I did notice that the i300 does not have a pressure gauge which could be the deciding factor. If I could just make up my mind I’d be using it already!

  14. kathleen says:

    Well, why don’t you come by my place to try it and find out? Speaking of getting you out of FL, will you be meeting us in Atlanta in May for SPESA? Best place to look at the coolest toys.

    I overbought on this iron but didn’t want to regret underbuying down the road when it’d matter. I always do that. Too many or too much of everything.

  15. Robert Kahn says:

    Up to 20 hours per week, the i300 is a good, economical choice. More than 20 hours per week, I would definitely go with the i500. The i500 has a much larger water capacity (2.5 vs 1.4 L), has a larger, and more robust solenoid valve for heavy-duty use.

  16. Gigi says:

    I ended up buying the i500 – it arrived yesterday! (thank you, Santa) I’m sewing some samples this week so it got a good workout last night – I absolutely love it. Now I want a vacuum board and maybe an i300 for the other sewing room. It never ends!

  17. Beth says:

    Kathleen, I am able to buy either a i500 and C-81 vacuum table, or a gravity feed iron (Naomoto HYS58). I am an avid home sewer, and sew mostly for myself-silks, tailoring, pants, knits, blouses, etc. I would have my set-up in an apartment, so I don’t have room for both. How do the 2 systems compare for garment construction (I’ve never used a vacuum board)? I know the i500 would be awesome for steaming yardage, final pressing, and laundry pressing. Thank you for your review!

  18. Robert Kahn says:

    Beth, I’d be happy to give you my 0.2 cents worth on this one.

    A gravity feed iron and a steam iron station are two very different beasts. One is pressurized steam, the other is not. The amount of steam that is produced is in two different leagues. Many people who do a lot of ironing will find a benefit to having the steam iron station (i500) over a gravity feed iron. A gravity feed iron is really a glorified home iron with a large water tank. The steam it produces is much the same. The real benefit of a gravity iron is you don’t need to refill it as often as a home iron. So if you are looking for the best quality steam, go for the ironing station. If you are less concerned about the volume of steam, but looking for an iron with a larger water capacity than a home iron, go for the gravity feed system (BTW, the i500 is rated for up to 4 hours of use, so it does have a sizable water tank as well).

    The benefits of the C81 vacuum/up-air table are numerous. It really allows you to get a professional finish. It will also save you time, since you won’t need to pass over the fabric in an attempt to dry it.

    With the C81, you can also place the i500 right at the end of the board on the tray that’s provided. Space wise, the C81/i500 will take up the same space as a C81/gravity feed iron. We do make an optional swing arm for the C81 (see Kathleen’s review above) and we make a bottle holder option for those that already have a gravity iron.

    I hope that helps.

  19. Beth says:

    Robert, Thank you for your reply, it is very helpful. I have also looked at the C-88 vacuum board, and would appreciate a comparison between the C-88 and C-81. Thanks again!

  20. Robert Kahn says:

    Beth, my pleasure. The C81 is more versatile for a wide variety of garments. The C81 with the addition of the up-air (blowing) feature is great for ironing delicate garments, garments with construction (like jackets, pants) and any fabric with a nap. Having up-air is a real bonus for this type of work, because there are occasions when you can’t use vacuum because it will leave an impression.

    For ironing basic garments (dress shirts for example) the C88 is the best choice. While it doesn’t have the up-air feature, it does have a larger and more powerful vacuum motor, making drying time even faster.

    So if speed is your top priority, go for the C88. If you are looking for versatility, go for the C81.

    All the best.

  21. Emma says:

    I know this post was a while ago but I’m hoping someone will be able to answer my question. I would love to have the set-up that you have described but as I live in Australia I despair think that is impossible. I hope that someone will be able to recommend something which I can get here (whether by shipping it or actually purchasing it here.) Thank you for your time and any advice is welcome!

  22. mrs. u says:

    hi! Thank you so much for posting this and also to everyone who commented. It has really helped me understand and learn about these products. Although this post is from a while ago, I’m hoping someone can help me. I have a couple questions:

    1. Like Valerie B., after looking at the pictures, I also wondered if the hose was long enough to use on a larger surface.

    2. Also, how “portable” is the i300?

    Thank you so much in advance for answering my questions.

  23. Robert Kahn says:

    Mrs. U, yes, the i300 hose set should be long enough for most applications. It’s 6 feet in length. If you need a longer hose, you’ll need to move up to the i500. The i500 comes with a standard 7.2′ hose and an optional 11.5′ hose is available. All of these models are “portable”. They can be moved easily if the need arises. I hope that helps.

  24. Renee Corrick says:

    Hi Kathleen,
    I know this is a really old post, but I’m thinking of upgrading to something similar myself (have emailed Robert Kahn separately)… after my most recent “high end” home iron decided to gradually empty its own reservoir all over the carpet floor @ school. Nice. Anyway, my question for you is, now that you’ve had this set up for a while, do you wish you had’ve upgraded years earlier? Was the initial sticker shock what stopped you (I think I read somewhere that you’d looked at boiler irons before for ~$1000)? I’m wondering if I’m jumping the gun while I’m still learning / refining aesthetic etc… though I’d like to have my own in-house manufacturing (small scale) happening in the not too distant future.

  25. Elizabeth O says:

    I really enjoyed learning about boiler irons from you. I wish you wouldn’t have used the word “Engrish” though. It’s a microaggression and not really something you should perpetuate.

    • Avatar photo

      Agreed -altho there is a long back story that had been topical at the time. No malice was intended and I apologize if anyone was offended by my thoughtlessness . I have edited the post, and I thank you for bringing this to my attention.

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