Sauna Scene

Steam away your aches and pain.


A lake and a Finnish sauna make a priceless combination. Kauppinen

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When you make a sauna part of your daily routine, your muscles will relax in the moist heat; aches and pains will evaporate with the steam; and you’ll wind up limp, drowsy and mentally renewed.

The sauna, a traditional Finnish steam bath, has been part of my life since I was a child, and its history goes back much further than that. Cultural records indicate that Finns built the first wooden saunas somewhere between the 5th and 8th centuries. Most experts agree that some form of sweat bath always played a central role in Finnish culture, because it was the simplest and most efficient way to keep clean.

As recently as the 1940s, bathing by any other means was unknown in rural Finland, where 80 percent of the farms had their own saunas. Today an estimated 2 million saunas are installed in Finland, a country with a population of 5 million. As one might expect, Finnish immigrants to the United States gravitated to Northern Minnesota because of the homelike climate, and now saunas are a familiar part of that landscape as well.

An old Finnish proverb says, “If the bath house and brandy cannot cure a man, death is surely near at hand.” Another calls the sauna the “poor man’s apothecary.” First constructed by Finns as a savusauna or “smoke sauna” that had no chimney or windows, these steam baths have been modernized into small rooms heated with electric stoves, and they are often featured at luxury spas.

Fire, smoke and steam

The earliest saunas are reminiscent of the sweat lodges used by Native Americans. In these so-called smoke saunas, a fire was built in the center of the room to heat rocks until they were hot enough to vaporize water into steam. Once that happened, bathers removed the fire and opened the doors and roof vent to allow the smoke to escape. Next, they undressed and stacked their clothes in a corner, being careful not to touch the soot-covered walls. As water was splashed on the rocks, sauna-takers whipped themselves with fresh birch branches to increase circulation. After the sauna, participants often rolled in a snow bank or jumped into a lake to close their pores.

Later, saunas were modified to include two compartments – a steam room and a dressing room. Wood stoves, vented to the outside, replaced the open fire, and small stones replaced the rocks. As the stove heated the stones to more than 160 degrees Fahrenheit, bathers threw water on the stones to create a burst of heat called löyly, a Finnish word that translates to “part hot water vapor, part the spiritual essence of the sauna.” Combined with adequate air venting, the steam heats the room to temperatures that vary with the distance from the floor – the higher, the hotter. Modern saunas typically have two or three bench levels with the hardiest bathers heading for the top bench.

For centuries, the sauna was revered by Finns as a unique, nearly ritualistic place in which bathers were calm, did not swear, sing, speak loudly or exhibit rowdiness. An old Finnish saying, still heard in Finland today, says, “In the sauna, one must conduct himself as one would in church.”

More than a steam bath

Early saunas weren’t used only for bathing. They also served as laundry rooms, smokehouses, birthing chambers, threshing rooms, and places to wash and store a body when funeral services couldn’t be held immediately. Saunas also served as hospitals in several important ways. A Finnish masseuse applied her skill in the sauna if a bone was dislocated or a muscle strained. Finns routinely put tar in the hot water of the sauna and inhaled the fumes as a remedy for arthritis. The traditional Finnish custom of “cupping,” which involved the letting of blood to release noxious poisons, was practiced in the sauna.

Our sauna experiences

When my husband, Don, and I built our home on a northern Minnesota lake more than 30 years ago, we settled smack in the midst of a Finnish community. With neighbors named Lantinen, Kujala and Savaloja, we are surrounded by people with saunas. In years past, Wednesday and Saturday nights saw smoke streaming from sauna chimneys all over our neighborhood.

Our fathers helped construct our first sauna, built with lumber salvaged from a neighbor’s home. When our two children were toddlers, the four of us took saunas together. As they grew older, we separated the sexes at bath time. Later yet, as the children reached their teens, friends brought swimsuits to share communal baths, dashing down to dive off the dock between sessions baking on the bench.

It may have been a little rough around the edges, but that sauna served its purpose well enough until the night it burned to the ground – the cause, a faulty chimney thimble. When Don rebuilt, he changed the design and added several safety features, including a chimney of concrete blocks with a clay flue liner. Now the stovepipe goes directly into the concrete chimney. The new sauna is as sturdy as it is attractive, and guests find the dressing room to be a great place to spend the night on extended visits.

Electric-fired saunas

People who incorporate a sauna into their home today have many options, and they often prefer to use an electric sauna stove to avoid the expense and mess of wood inside the house. There are dozens of electric sauna stove models on the market.

Our son Tom added a sauna when he and his wife remodeled their older home. Tom’s sauna measures 7-by-9 feet, and it is located on the concrete floor in the basement. The sauna room is heated with a 6,000-watt Polar electric stove.

“When purchasing and mounting the stove, keep the level of the top of the rock bed as low as possible,” Tom says. “There is a large temperature gradient across the entire room below the level of the rocks, and I would try to keep the rock bed even with the bottom bench if I were to do it over again. That way your entire body is in the higher temperature area of the room.” He would also install the electrical outlet low enough to accommodate that stove position.
For those using an electric stove, Tom says the installation of a separate timer on the outside wall is ideal from both a convenience and safety standpoint.

To make the room easier to heat and to keep it dry, he suggests insulating all the walls and ceiling adequately and encasing the room in plastic. Installing an exhaust fan, such as a bathroom vent fan, in the ceiling, will allow the room to air out after use, preventing mold.

“Last, but not least,” Tom says, “mount an electric-actuated water valve in the ceiling – for example, a 110-volt dishwasher valve – a discharge pipe and small nozzle extending down directly over the stove with a push-button above the bench for ‘push-button steam.’”

Margaret Haapoja enjoys the good life, including routine trips to the sauna, at her home in Bovey, Minnesota.