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A neglected backyard shed gets made over into a Russian style wet sauna in Upstate New York

So, Jim, tell us a little about your sauna history:

Jim with his sauna build project
Jim with his sauna build project

I grew up in southern Ohio and during family vacations we would stay in hotels that occasionally had saunas in addition to swimming pools. Of course, these saunas provided nothing like the experience I came to appreciate when I got older. I married a girl from the former Soviet Union and got a proper introduction to sauna culture when I went there to visit family. After an exhilarating experience of hot sauna followed by cold plunge I was hooked. Since then we’ve been going to nearby Russian and Korean saunas occasionally from my home in the Hudson Valley of New York. After a while I got inspired to build my own and that’s when I found your page.

I see you’ve adapted your sauna in Russian style, ie a wet sauna, how did you build to allow for water in the hot room?

I wanted to have the flexibility to operate the sauna as a Russian Wet room, so I prepared the room for water by putting up cement board skirts around the base of the walls as shown in the photos. The cement board skirts, with the corners thoroughly sealed using the vinyl cement compound, give a nice depth to the ‘basin’ around the floor and wall edges that prevents water from seeping through into the stud frame of the shed floor. This, coupled with the drain, keeps it all dry underneath. I used common cement board webbing tape to mate the various floor and wall cement board pieces together and covered it all with the vinyl cement patching compound you recommended in your e-book. The walls have vapor foil bubblewrap applied underneath the cedar T&G planks as described in the book, so this provides waterproofing protection to the studs and insulation. The cedar itself is not treated. This approach is similar to what I’ve seen in the Russian saunas I frequent near NYC, specifically Russian Turkish Baths on 10th street in Manhattan and BRC Sauna in Fair Lawn, New Jersey. I’m a little concerned about warping/fatigue on my cedar planks near the nozzle, but so far so good. I will keep an eye on it.

What was your “tipping point” to pull the trigger and build your own sauna?

I found Saunatimes during my initial info quest after I decided to build my own sauna. I actually got the final inspiration to build my own after listening to a session of the Joe Rogan Experience podcast where he interviewed Dr. Rhonda Patrick. She conveyed some new research about the benefits of taking sauna multiple times per week in terms of not only cardiovascular benefits, but also neurological improvements that seem to be associated with temperature contrast specifically. The ebook gave me a good overview of the process and validated some assumptions I had been making previously, specifically regarding the type of insulation to use and how best to handle stove safety/fireproofing (critical) as well as the cement board and vapor barrier detail I went into a bit in Point #2 above.

What’s the status of your sauna now?  Any sauna parties?

I life in the Hudson Valley NY – between the City and Albany basically. I live in a rural area and have a decent plot of land so that neighbors aren’t prone to complain about my frequent stove fires :). I haven’t hosted a sauna party yet because the changing room isn’t finished, but I hope to be up and running by midSummer sometime. I just need to finish out the interior walls and insulation in the changing/tub room and paint it all before installing the tub and drain. I plan to use outdoor-rated durable glossy paint for the walls. The floor will get a deck paint treatment and this paint will be fortified with texture/sand material to help prevent slips and falls.

Any other tips or thoughts for other sauna builders?

Craigslist is very helpful – to echo a point you’ve made in the ebook and your posts. I got a free bathtub that I will be installing in the changing room served by hot and cold water plumbed in via PEX line from the house underground. I also obtained a free jacuzzi tub that I will be installing outside nearby to use as a cold plunge. On those hot summer days coming up soon I look forward to putting a couple of bags of ice in the jacuzzi to supercharge the contrast in my cold plunge. I also will hang a Yucatecan hammock between 2 trees – one of the ones with a fine mesh of strings to support one’s body. That promises to be a good way to relax after a nice thorough back-and-forth between sauna and cold plunge. I also plan to put a screen on the outside exit of the drain at the sauna floor to keep insects etc from getting into the sauna during summer. Finally, I got my stove from Craigslist – I paid about $350 for it and although it’s not specifically a sauna stove it does quite capably heat up the interior. I found that loading the stove firebox almost full of kindling-sized wood pieces to start with gets the fire going quickly so I can enjoy the heat sooner. After I get a good bed of coals going then I can put more conventionally sized firewood pieces on in order to maintain a nice burn.

Thanks again, Glenn for adding the details to my pipe dream. The ebook gave me some good ideas that I hadn’t thought of and verified some hunches that I had came up with before. That way I could move forward with sufficient confidence that I knew what I was doing (more or less)

Please let me know if I can elaborate further or format the above ramblings for the guest post – this is fun! Or feel free to edit this yourself if you prefer.

Best,
-Jim

I had just about given up on an old, damp, musty shed at the edge of the backyard when it occurred to me that I could reclaim it for use as a sauna if I were to replace the roof as well as otherwise shore up the superstructure. Here is a picture of the shed after the old roof was kicked off and several support ribs along the top were replaced as necessary:

sauna with new roof onI also supported the midpoint of the 20 foot length as shown above with a 2X4 sunk into the ground at an angle and surrounded by concrete to keep the walls from bowing out.  I then embarked upon installing new roofing:

saunanewroofingNote the window in place on the back wall. I promptly removed it to simplify the creation of a hermetically sealed sauna chamber.  Now my plan was to use the back 7 feet of shed length to house the sauna whereas the remaining ~13 feet were to be for an anteroom/changing room.  Next I installed the stove chimney and painted the outside walls:

IMG_2493On the inside, I prepared the cathedral ceiling of the sauna room by installing a second run of 2X4s to accommodate an extra layer of insulation between the cedar/cement board ceiling and the roof. Thus I ended up with 2 layers of R-13 along the cathedral ceiling:

framing for a sauna in backyardIn the following shot you can see the conventional wood burning stove I installed. I also show the framing used to close up the cavity where the back wall window used to be:

IMG_2452A closeup of the stove, where you can see also the cement board sheathing I installed behind and around it:

IMG_2618More detail around the chimney and cement board area is shown below. I used a chimney thermometer to help with fire control. This way I can get a good proxy readout of the intensity of the fire so that I avoid over-firing the stovepipe. I also loaded rocks on the stove to serve as heat sinks and steam generators when I splash camphor oil-infused water on them.  I used the recommended vinyl cement patching compound to mate in all the separate pieces of cement board used to create the stove environment. I made the walls and ceilings out of the cement board and I made standoff heat shields along the walls as recommended. The stovepipe was simple one-layer sheet metal up until the shiny piece close to the cathedral ceiling interface: this shiny piece is standard double-walled insulated chimney pipe to transition to the smokestack outside.

IMG_2620The next pic shows the cedar T&G boards used to line the rest of the sauna enclosure. Of course I put foil bubblewrap lining underneath it all as a vapor barrier.

IMG_2522The thermometer routinely reads temperatures ~ 240-260 degF during steady state use.  Along the wall opposite the stove, I installed a water spigot for use of the room as a Russian wet sauna. The floor in the corner shows the drain I installed to let water out. The natural slope and bow of the floor made this location ideal:

IMG_2626More detail of the drain corner:

IMG_2628There’s one final detail I want to add some color to. I faithfully adhered to most of your recommendations as outlined in your useful home sauna building guide, but I couldn’t reconcile the drip-edge integration into my plan. As the previous photo shows, I extend cedar planks down the walls until about 5 inches above the floor. This area is covered by planks of cementboard, taped in and covered with vinyl cement as shown. Now, how to tie in the vapor barrier to the cement board ‘skirt’ I had fashioned?  The photo below shows the cross-section of the skirt/bottom cedar plank, illuminating the overlap of the vapor barrier over the cement skirt. When looking closely at the vapor barrier extending down between the wall stud and cedar boards one observes the barrier crossing over to extend outside the cement board skirt:IMG_2577I borrowed a table saw to ripcut the cedar plank along the skirt bottom as shown. This way I was able to accommodate the extension of the vapor barrier behind the cedar and in front of the cement board skirt.  So far so good! I’m enjoying the sauna immensely and am looking forward to adding benches. I’m now using wooden logs for seating inside the sauna. Later I will add a cold plunge outside which consists of an old Jacuzzi filled with ice water as appropriate.

 

 

 

8 thoughts on “A neglected backyard shed gets made over into a Russian style wet sauna in Upstate New York”

  1. Very nice, I have about the exact project going on. It’s cool to see a new use for those old sheds.
    Someday I’ll send in my progress. Only trouble is that when I finished the hot room I’m using it more then working on it.

  2. Nice job! Where does your drain go? I am not planning on a lot of water use in my sauna, however enough to justify a drain. I’m thinking of building on gravel or maybe above ground with a french drain type system. I have multiple grades to deal with in my back yard so I’m still in the planning stage…..I want to make it right!

    Thanks, Rick

  3. Right on JAG! Building a sauna in stages, hot room first, allows the authentic sauna enthusiast to enjoy their sauna as a journey, not a finished destination. And there’s nothing better than hanging a sauna towel on a construction ladder in the changing room between rounds. This methodology helps one better define such things as lighting location and changing room bench ergonomics.

  4. Glenn, regarding the stove what is your experience on using old wood stoves made out of cast iron (as shown in the above post)? My experience is to have a stove made out of steel versus cast iron (which is more prone to crack). Steel is better able to withstand the temperature changes occurring when water is thrown on it than cast iron. Is 240-260 the temperature mentioned that of the stove pipe or the sauna? If it is the sauna, seems high for an ordinary wood stove to achieve, an actual sauna stove for sure. Heating the sauna to 300 and above increases the potential of burning it down as the spontaneous ignition temperature for wood is around 400 (depending on the species). Wood stove thermometers are calibrated for typical wood stove operation not sauna stoves; if I put a stove thermometer on the rocks (not the stove) it will bury the needle (>800) the stove is even hotter.

  5. Hi Rick N, I’m the sauna builder. I have the drain spilling out the downhill edge of the shed into no place in particular right now. The shed itself is raised on blocks high enough for the water to drip out and run downhill. I did insert a piece of pipe into the exit end of the drain outside, but it’s for insect control on the inside. I put a piece of aluminum window screen over the outside end of this pipe so that mosquitoes, etc couldn’t find their way inside the sauna up through the drain.

    It is nice to have a drain even though I’m not splashing a lot of water around inside the sauna. It will make it easier to clean the skirts and floor by just hosing it off with water.

    I concur with Glenn on the stagewise nature of the sauna progress. Once I finished the hot room all work on the changing room stopped while I enjoyed some nice heat.

  6. Hi Mika, the stove I used is an iron wood-burning stove, not an expensive stainless steel one. I got it from a guy on Craigslist for ~$350, which was quite a bit cheaper than the specialized sauna stoves that I know of. I put the rocks on the top to provide a surface to sprinkle the water onto, and I have to admit I didn’t think of the possibility of cold water cracking the cast iron beforehand. But I never pour large amounts of water on the rocks, I just sprinkle it on so it vaporizes on contact with the rocks.

    The temperatures I mentioned are room temps achieved when the sauna is in full-fire mode. I have an oven thermometer mounted near the apex of the ceiling along the wall. The other thermometer I use is the one mounted on the stovepipe above the rock pile; it’s visible in a couple of the stove photos above. I use it to monitor the intensity of the fire. I realize the temperature might not be strictly accurate since the room is a hot sauna and not an open-convection living room or garage, etc. that the thermometer might have been ideally intended for. But in any case this thermometer gives me a gauge of the intensity of the fire and has shown itself reactive to changes I make in the damper airflow. If anything, the temperature error due to it being used in a hot sauna is probably on the conservative side; the ‘redline’ defining the overfire condition is probably a cooler temperature in reality since the surroundings are so hot. In any case, so far so good. The room never goes above ~270 degF as measured with the apex-ceiling mounted thermometer and accordingly I don’t have any concerns about reaching the combustion temp of the cedar I use to line the enclosure.

  7. Hi Arnie, in your pictures it looks like you have a steel stove with cast iron doors. If it is steel I wouldn’t worry about it. If you see any welding on it, it’s steel. The doors might even be steel, can’t tell from the pictures.

  8. Thanks JAG. It’s hard for me to tell because the whole thing is painted black. I can tell you the metal pieces are a good 1/4 inch thick and the thing is very heavy – I used an engine-block lift to move it into place.

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