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Are your sauna benches knotty or nice?

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When planning and designing our own saunas, consider that nice sauna benches are a place for attention and investment.

Clear vs. knotty wood sauna benches

Knots are imperfections from branches that cause living wood grain to grow around them. This interwoven grain is tight grain. Tight grain is dense. Dense wood holds much more heat than straight grain. In a hot sauna, around 100°c. (212°f), clear sauna bench stock can be quite warm to the touch, but not intolerable. However, settle your bare ass down on a bench with a knot, and “youch!,” Never do that again!

Not all wood species for sauna benches are created equal

Soft grain wood is the key for building sauna benches. In North America, Western Red Cedar is the “go too” premium choice for making sauna benches. The wood is soft, relatively cool compared to other wood, and looks beautiful. Show me a premium sauna in North America, and chances are this sauna will be radiating coolness with clear cedar sauna benches.

There are a couple of other wood species for sauna benches coming into the fold. Namely Basswood and Aspen. Like cedar, these species are soft grain. Yet unlike cedar, these species grow fast and don’t hold up great to moisture. That said, those that practice the “bake and breathe method” for zen and the art of their sauna maintenance should have no longevity problem using these species for building their sauna benches.

Does wood thickness matter for sauna benches?

Absolutely! If you are purchasing pre made sauna benches from the open market, take note as to the “stock” or thickness of sauna benches. Most companies making sauna benches use “1x” material (eg. 3/4″ thick). Not cool! Defenders of using 1x stock for making sauna benches can tell you that it doesn’t matter, but i’m here to tell you that if your buttox region could talk it would tell you that it does matter.

What is the best width for making sauna benches?

I’ve sat on and built sauna benches from 2″ wide to 6″ wide. By FAR the best width for sauna benches is 2×4. Why? 2×4’s, with approximately 3/4″ gap between boards provides the perfect bench to air ratio. Benches made with too wide boards don’t breathe as well. Benches made with too narrow boards tend to be less comfy. It’s just the way it is. This may be subjective observation, but this fact has been confirmed by many a sauna nut.

When I built the 612 sauna benches in 2016, I commanded a team of enthusiastic volunteers (Rodsky, JP) to area Depot Menards to pick through piles and piles of 2×4 cedar bins in order to find runs of clear 2×4 cedar. This was a pain of the ass. The two of them needed a swig from the bottle in the photo below to get through the task.

But it was worth it.

Ask anyone who has sat on the sauna benches in the 612 Sauna. They may not know that these benches are made from clear 2×4 cedar, but their buttox sure knows. 1x stock gets hot. 2x not as hot. Why? 2×4 cedar is less dense. Sitting on a sauna bench made from 1x stock is that much closer to sitting on a tin can. Those that have sat on hundreds of different sauna benches (like I have) can tell the difference. And the difference is worth your consideration.

Check out the benches inside the 612 sauna:

JP in Mobile Sauna
JP overlooking the first light of 612 Mobile Sauna (photo: another co op volunteer).

Remember, we build our sauna benches one time, and we get to sit on them the rest of our lives.

Yes, clear cedar comes with a price. As of this writing, clear cedar wholesales for around $4.00/lineal foot. Ouch! that’s almost as painful as sitting your bare ass down on a big dark hot knot on a sauna bench.

This article is BS, just sit on a towel. No big deal.

Well, ok. You can do that. But some people think sweaty towels are janky. And trying to keep track of good towels vs. sweaty towels takes away from one of the freedoms of sauna, especially if a sauna guest goes to dry their eyes on a sweaty towel. And there are the sauna paddles, most often used in savusaunas where if you don’t sit on one of these, “your ass is black after this moment.”

And if we’re getting technical about sweat, good saunas, with good ventilation, take care of sweat in a safe, closed loop, hygienic way. (sweat evaporates, goes away, dries up).

A few tips for building our own sauna benches

Six is the magic number for the number of clear boards for building your sauna. As we see in this photo, a stout 24″: wide bench calls for 5 deck boards on long face, and two frame boards on short face. The back frame board can be knotty, as it is hidden along the sauna wall. And we save money by compromising and using semi knotty benches for our cooler, lower benches, where we sit less often.

2×4 cedar makes for ideal sauna benches

EDITORS NOTE: This sauna bench in the photo above was built in 1996. The cedar has developed an even softer, gentler patina. It shows no signs of stopping (and i’ve brought some corn for popping).

When I build sauna benches, I use the best board for the front face of the sauna bench. This is the “money board” which is seen and felt (behind the knees) by you, and everybody else that will come to your sauna every round, every moment.

The Sauna Build Start to Finnish ebook has very detailed plans on how to build really awesome sauna benches.

Is it time to treat yourself to a clear sauna bench upgrade?

The best saunas are those that get used. The best sauna benches are those that get sat on. For those of you who have built their benches using knotty stock, or 1x material or other compromises, so what? You built a sauna! And you built benches! Good on you.

clear cedar 2×4’s do not fit well under the Christmas tree, but this could be a motivational gift that will be remembered for a sauna lover for the rest of their lives.

This article brought to you by the Clear Wood Council, where we are learning from the Seedless Watermelon Society, looking to make the world a knot free and happier place.

Sauna benches basking in the sun prior to installation.
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8 thoughts on “Are your sauna benches knotty or nice?”

  1. well, i love the idea of that, luc. Live edge brings nature into the picture/hot room. And i’m that crazy that i’ve nuanced the gap/wood ratio to like very much 4″ wide material. it’s good butt to air ratio.

  2. Do your benches require a center support or are they just supported with rails along the wall? Is the long bench 8′?

  3. The bench design I like can span pretty close to 8′ without a triangle corbel support. I say roll with that. And if you have heavy guests and usage and things feel a bit dicey, well, it’s easy to build and set in place a triangle support.

    Hope this helps!

  4. I’ve got a source for poplar (aspen?) . Other than the “bake and breath” method
    Can you give me suggestions on how to get the most longevity out of this species? Thanks

  5. Hi Glenn,
    Maybe I need to expand my question further regarding my reluctance to use the bake and breath method. I’m (unfortunately) building an electric sauna, not wood fired. I’m hesitant to let the heater continue to run for an extended period of time,
    The sauna is located inside a pole barn on my property and am also reluctant to leave the door open because of rodent issues. So therefore are there measures I can take other than bake and breathe to extent the longevity of my aspen benches?
    Thanks, Dave.

  6. Hi Dave:

    Aspen, as you probably know, needs to dry out. It can mold and blacken and show affects of prolonged exposure to moisture. But you reference the bake and breathe method, and this is an excellent way to keep our aspen wood dry in sauna. I hear you about longevity and bake and breathe. I’d say just run your heater a little longer after your sauna session. And instead of propping open your hot room door, can you get a small bus driver type fan and just cycle that on for a few minutes? sister it up to your ventilation system. That’s what i’d be doing.

  7. Glenn,
    It just so happens I’m a substitute school bus driver so I’m very aware of the fan of which you speak, That’s an excellent idea ,so I’ll incorporate that into the plan.
    Many thanks.

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