I have always enjoyed going to a sauna and when I lived in Finland, I didn’t really think about all that so much: you just go to sauna very often. Like many Finns, I was also quite opinionated about sauna. We tend to comment on bad sauna builds and often rage when hotels abroad won’t let us pour water on the stove.
I moved to Dallas, TX in 2013 and didn’t really miss sauna at first. After all, I had a chance to go back to Finland four or five times a year for business and when I went back there, I got my dose of sauna for sure. I also visited Russian Banya close to my new home from time to time.
COVID really changed my lifestyle and put all my travel in halt. It was a dramatic change in many ways of course and, eventually I, like most of us, ended up spending a lot more time at home. Funny enough, me and my wife started looking at a bigger place to live and work in summer of 2020 and when looking at houses, I always looked at he backyards and patios and measured, where to fit a sauna. Our realtor probably had fun stories to tell at home because we went to see 20+ houses. Very honestly, we disqualified a few nice houses just because sauna would not fit anywhere. That said, gardens and backyards are often small in my area and HOAs are not thrilled about wood-burning heaters so the sauna options are often limited.
Choosing the sauna
In the U.S., you have all the same sauna options to choose from than anywhere else. I’m not sure though if anyone would approve a chimneyless traditional smoke sauna here but other than that, you can choose between barrel and cabin sauna kits, indoor saunas, infrared rooms, and anything in between – or build one from the scratch.
In my case, I could easily fit about 6 x 6 ft sauna on my patio. The HOA would not have approved a wood burner on my backyard anyway, so it was just better to go with an electric one. My friend Mo had buillt his barrel sauna from Almost Heaven Saunas a few years before. I had tried it a couple of times and was pleasantly surprised: barrel saunas have one obvious limitation, which is the height – you cannot really build the seats so that your feet would lay higher than the top of the stove. However, the steam was awesome. Maybe that has something to do with the barrel shape and relatively low volume of less than 4m3.
Barrel Sauna Assembly
The sauna comes as a kit. The assembly is very straight-forward and the instructions are clear. The only needed tools are an electric screwdriver/drill, hammer, rubber hammer and a level. I used a nail gun just because I had one but you can just use a regular hammer and nails too. You need two or preferably three persons because you want to be careful with the big glass door. It took us about a full day to assemble the sauna but we did not rush and we ended up building extra seats for better steam (löyly).
Naming the Sauna
Like ships, saunas should be named too. I did not smash a champagne bottle against the wall but my sauna was officially opened by attaching the name sign on the wall with the Finlandia hymn played on the background. I named my sauna as Pöllä 3. Pöllä is a name of an island in Punkaharju. My great grandfather had a summer place there and that place was somehow so Finnish. It was also a “project” with so much to do every time we went there. My uncle called his summer place project Pöllä 2, hence the number three.
I think it makes sense to pick a theme for your sauna. That helps you to make improvements that are consistent. For example, you might choose to emphasize natural tree colors. My goal was to build my own sanctuary where to rest after a busy day.
To emphasize tranquility, I chose to paint the interior walls black and the benches grey. Traditional Finnish chimneyless smoke saunas actually always had black walls because of the soot that was emitted from the burner. Sauna interior cannot be painted with regular paint because of the heat and humidity. The coating must be breathable. The availability of these special sauna waxes is quite limited in USA, so I had to ask my mom to ship me some Tikkurila Supi Sauna Wax from Finland. This wax also prevents molding.
I also decided to add some technology to my sauna. I had always been intrigued of better understanding the anatomy of perfect steam in a sauna so that required adding temperature and humidity sensors. I then realized that this information could be used real time in sauna to announce messages which inspired us to develop a sauna companion app.
So actually my sauna ended up being a hybrid of traditional values accompanied with technology. Early 1900’s combined with 2020’s and systematically avoiding the era between 1970 – 2020.
My sauna came with useful warning signs and rules that appropriately warn that the sauna might get hot and the hot stove is not among the best things to rest your hand on. If you get dizzy, it probably makes sense to leave the sauna. Two signs full of text but in my opinion, there are just one or two essential sauna rules: don’t talk too much and don’t leave the door open.
I won’t talk too much about talking too much but there is a reason why you have two ears, two eyes and only one mouth. Use these proportionally. I like to chat in sauna with friends though.
The other sauna rule not to break is the so called “Ovi kii!” rule.
The sauna kit came with a led strip that is installed behind the stove. I felt the light was too bright for me so I ordered waterproof led strips and ran them under the benches. These led lights came with an app that provides multiple nice effects. The aurora effect is very soothing an suitable for sauna. Govee can also be integrated with Home Assistant over WiFi. This enables automation based on the temperature, for example. In my case, the lights are illuminates when the sauna is ready to use and shut down automatically as the sauna cools down.
I also often put submersible led lights in buckets full of water. The water keeps the lights cooled down and the water surface creates nice light reflections. Outside the sauna, I use regular or led candles and lanterns to create natural dim light.
To finish up (or to Finnish up…), I added Finnish sauna seat covers from Lapuan Kankurit. They are one of the few textile manufacturers in Finland and they promote very nice Nordic designs that are very suitable to saunas. Using some cover on sauna benches makes sense in general and flax is a good material for these covers. These products are available via multiple webstores, including Finn Style.
Just remember to always check that the textiles won’t touch the heater before you switch the stove on.
Barrel saunas rely on gravity-based ventilation (fresh air in from the floor level and hot air out from the vent on the level of your head). This is not ideal for a good steam. To solve the issue and to reduce heat stratification between the toes and the head, I implemented mechanical ventilation in my sauna.
To promote the natural wood tones, I chose to burn the exterior with a torch. Another option would be to paint the walls but burned wood looks very cool. After a couple of months, I stained the exterior with linseed oil. Another option would have been to use “Roslag’s mahogany”, which is a mixture of tar, linseed oil and pine turpentine. This mixture would have changed the color darker and would have been a great option if I hadn’t already burned the walls.
My typical sauna routine is probably about 60-90 minutes unless my friends come over. I take maybe 3-4 sessions every time and the sauna session is 10 mins max. (I don’t have a clock in my sauna). Part of my routine is also to chill between the sessions so I added a cold plunge, hot tub, garden shower and a small corner with TV and speakers. I don’t always have to watch or listen to anything but it is nice to have those options. The hot tub has vinyl walls so I had to build a wooden cover/fence so that I’m not staring plastic when looking out from the steam room. Feng shui is important.
As mentioned above, me and my friend Mo developed a sauna companion app to keep you company during the sessions. It can compliment the steam, ask for more steam, and it obviously loses its s*** when someone leaves the door open for too long.
Gadgets and extras