The beneficial properties of steam were known to ancient cultures, long before scientists starting measuring and quantifying them. Throughout history and across the world, people have being using steam to improve their mental and physical health and what we now consider to be the traditional sauna is just one example of how this has been achieved. It’s also a good example of how established practices can be adapted for a modern world. Modern infrared saunas have taken the concept of the sauna and removed the steam for those who want to enjoy a heat treatment in a dry environment. Meanwhile, new technology has been incorporated into the traditional style of sauna to give people the best of both worlds. We’re big fans of the traditional saunas, partly because we love the positive emotional associations they trigger in us and partly because we appreciate everything steam can do for our bodies and our minds. With that in mind, here is a quick guide to buying a traditional sauna.
What’s outside matters as much as what’s inside
As adults we often learn to focus on what’s inside and come to understand the truth of the saying “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”. While this is generally very wise, there are always exceptions to every rule and when it comes to picking a traditional sauna, you should most definitely take a good, long and hard look at what’s outside before you take a decision on whether or not it’s worth looking any further. Here’s what you should be looking at (or for).
In short, we’d recommend you only look at saunas made of cedar or hemlock. If you want to know the logic behind this, read on.
The wood used for saunas has to meet five basic criteria to be a suitable choice.
It has to be non-toxic in a sauna environment. The wood in a sauna is exposed to heat without being burnt. Just as the heat opens the pores in human skin and aids in the detoxifying process, so it causes wood to expel any toxins which are on or in it. This could be anything from inappropriate chemical treatments to sap (which may sound innocuous but can cause serious burns).
It has to be light. Technically, you can use a heavy wood if you’re building your own sauna, but if you are buying one, the weight of the wood increases transportation costs and hence price.
It has to be able to withstand the changes in temperature, which are integral to a sauna. This is an argument for softwood from trees with minimal sap. There are two reasons for this. The first is that softwood is less influenced by temperature than hardwood. The second is that sap is denser than standard wood, which means it reacts to changes in temperature differently and over time this different behaviour will almost certainly cause structural damage to the wood and therefore to your sauna. Top manufacturers tend to prefer Canadian-grown wood since this comes from trees, which have been continually exposed, to extreme fluctuations in temperature.
It has to be able to withstand impact. You’re going to sit (or lie down on it) and walk on it. If it splits or splinters underneath you, you could be hurt. Also, having a robust floor simply helps to extend the usable life of the sauna.
It has to be workable. This is another argument for soft wood. It’s just easier to manage and that keeps manufacturing costs down and hence prices down.
NB: while there are other woods, which can, in theory, be used for saunas, there are usually very good reasons why these woods are, at best, used in niche markets, for example, even though aspen wood can work very well in saunas it tends to be expensive. More importantly, there are a lot of woods, which may seem like they should work perfectly well in saunas, or even be a great choice for them, but which are actually very poor choices and should be avoided. Pine, for example, is best avoided due to its high sap content and yet if you look around the internet, you will probably find it quite easy to find pine saunas because the cheap price of the wood makes it an attractive choice for certain manufacturers.
The size of the building
Before we get into discussing what makes a good sauna building, we’d just like to take some time out to suggest that you make a point of checking out the actual, stated dimensions of the building rather than going by descriptions such as “for two or three people”. Let’s just say that the manufacturer’s idea of the size of the average person may be rather different from yours.
The quality of the building
Using the right sort of wood is only the start of ensuring that your sauna has a realistic chance of standing up to long-term use. In very simple terms, build quality is paramount.
Your first clear indicator in terms of build quality is the mechanism by which the sauna is held together. Basically, you want either an interlocked connection, such as the invisible full interlocked EZ™ connection (or preferred choice) or a bolt and anchor system, which is robust, but in our opinion something of a pain to put together and a scratch-magnet during the installation process. If you see a sauna held together with the likes of buckles and clips, magnets or side clasp buckles then you should almost certainly move swiftly on to another option since none of these systems provides the level of robustness required for a sauna and all of them are generally a good indication that a manufacturer has been cutting corners during the manufacturing process. Speaking of robustness, you also want thick walls (double walls with a cavity are the perfect choice) and solid, robust floors, ideally raised off the ground for ventilation. We, personally, also consider it a must to use tempered and toughened safety glass for the windows. This point again goes back to the fluctuations in temperature which are integral to a sauna. Glass expands and contracts just like wood, unlike wood, however, it can literally explode under the stress (if you think we’re joking about this, head to YouTube and do a search on something like “glass exploding in freezer” and we’re sure you’ll find plenty of videos to demonstrate the point). This has obvious safety implications, hence the need for safety glass.
While wiring is technically an internal feature, we count it as part of the fabric of the building, so we’ll mention it here. You need safe wiring. This means heavy-duty wiring, with EMF shielding and prevented from coming into direct contact with the wood.
The internal set-up
High quality modern implementations on traditional saunas combine the best of the old with the best of the new. They have comfortable seating, lighting which is both safe and pleasant and safety features such as hygrothermometres, which keep track of both humidity and temperature. The very best of them will also support entertainment options such as music for total relaxation. Traditional saunas are also great places to use aromatherapy oils. The key feature, however, is a solid and reliable heater, without which the sauna effectively becomes a very expensive shed. With this in mind, in addition to looking at the headline KW rating, look for a quality brand of heater. As a final point, picking up on what we said earlier about the right choice of wood, make sure that the inside of your sauna is actually fitted in wood rather than the likes of MDF, which is very affordable but totally unsuitable for the environment inside a sauna.
A reputable supplier
Even though saunas are, in principle, very simple, getting a traditional sauna from a factory to a customer’s doorstep is actually rather more complicated than it sounds. In fact it’s far more complicated than just delivering a shed. It’s also more complicated to replace any parts which are damaged in transit. That being so, it’s definitely recommended to work with a supplier who has a proven track record of delivering high-quality saunas to happy customers. You also want to look for a long-term warranty (here at Poshh, we offer a 2 year electrical warranty together with a 5 year cabin warranty) and a brand which has demonstrated that this warranty actually means something in the real world. Harsh as this may sound, it’s very risky to go with “bright young brands”, particularly if they are offering “budget” saunas for the simple reason that it’s very hard to judge how much expertise they actually have in sauna manufacture and delivery or how able or willing they’ll be to put right any issues. That’s why here at Poshh, we only work with established brands such as SaunaMed and Vidalux, which have been in the business for many years and on whom we can rely to provide excellent customer care as well as to stand by their warranties.