Money Saving Tips for Building Your Own Sauna: Wood Paneling for Your Hot Room

We’ve had a few questions lately along these lines, so I thought i’d copy and paste this email.  I hope some of these tips can help you out.

“Love your website!!  We are building our own sauna and having a great time following along with your ebook.  We are hoping you could help us with ideas on how to save money with the wood paneling.  We’re doing good, but cedar is super expensive.  We’ve been able to save a lot building our own, many thanks for what you do!  – Charles and Diana.”

SPECIES:  Here in Minnesota, we use Western Red Cedar.  In Scandinavia, many saunas are paneled with White Spruce.  Both these species are not cheap, but definitely, definitely stay away from Pine.  I will fill you in why another day. Don’t be tempted with compromising on wood species. SHS Roofing, or any other home improvement experts for that matter, can help you understand the importance of using good and durable materials when building a structure. They can provide you fiscally responsible and good quality suggestions for construction. Focus more on reducing your required square footage instead of using cheap materials.

Tips on reducing the amount of premium paneling needed for your hot room (save cost):

  1. HOT ROOM SIZE:  Don’t make your hot room too big. 6’x8′ or 7’x7′ are ideal sizes for hot room.  Any larger and you’re just being American with a bigger car.  Bigger is not better.  I can fill you in why another day.
  2. DURAROCK AROUND STOVE:  Code requires non combustibles within a lot of inches around your sauna stove.  Applying durarock over studs and vapor barrier in the stove corner – plus on the ceiling around the chimney – helps reduce your wood paneling square footage.  I have tiled and I have skim coated on top of this.  Either way, it looks great and is safe and durarock is cheaper than wood paneling.
  3. CHEAPER WOOD UNDER BENCHES:  It’s darker and quiet down there.  You could screw in some primed plywood or get more creative if you need to.  It’s not the end of the world, few will see what’s going on down there.
  4. CANDLE WINDOW:  I am a huge fan of the candle window.  It creates collusion with your changing room, gives a feeling of openness, and as an added bonus: cost:  the glass window can be free or cheaper than wood paneling (recycled or surprisingly it’s not a rip off to get glass cut to size from a local glass company).
  5. TRANSOM WINDOW:  Lately, there’s been a sauna building trend towards putting windows in the hot room to the outdoors.  A transom window – a longer rectangular window set up higher along the wall – is the best option.  A transom window allows the sauna bather to have a more panoramic view of the outdoors.  Those outside peering in may only get a glimpse of the sauna bather’s head vs. *gasp* a pair of boobs or gosh knows what else!  (insert the horrors of nudity in American culture here).  Again, a custom piece of 1/4″ tempered glass can be cut for a surprisingly reasonable price from a glass company).
  6. #3 GRADE:  Because Western Red Cedar is a premium species, there is often lots of #3 grade product out there at lumber yards and wholesalers.  A guy can save some coin here.
  7. SHORTER RUNS:  The introduction of windows, doors, durarock cut down on the amount of wood needed for a sauna hot room.  What’s more, now you will be using lots more shorter boards to fill in.  Short runs means that a guy has lots of flexibility when using #3 grade or recycled product, cutting out bad areas, warped boards, etc.
  8. RECYCLED PRODUCT:  Out of all the ideas, using recycled cedar paneling is probably your best tip.  There’s Craigslist and there is a ton of remodeling going on right now.  It’s amazing how many thousands, millions of premium grade cedar board feet are being ripped out and tossed in dumpsters.  Don’t believe me?  Hop on a bike and cruise around a tony neighborhood in your town.  I literally cry when I see cedar tossed in construction dumpsters.  When I see or smell cedar, whether dressed in shorts or work attire, I will stop my car, put on my flashers, and am unabashed about climbing into the dumpster to get that beautiful wood out of there and into my car for reuse another day.  This ethos, I know, is shared by all reading this which is another reason why we are a tribe of kindred spirits.

And I predict a movement where all those lame ass infrared light bulb closets will be sledge hammered, bolstering the secondary market for cedar paneling for the benefit of all of us building authentic saunas.

These are my tips, and you may let us know if you have any more tips along these lines.  Just start typing below here.

It’s great to be resourceful, isn’t it?

A lively open hot room: sauna door, candle window and all cedar tongue and groove.
A lively open hot room: sauna door, candle window and all cedar tongue and groove.

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49 thoughts on “Money Saving Tips for Building Your Own Sauna: Wood Paneling for Your Hot Room”

  1. Hello,
    I am planning to convert a small shed on my Wisconsin property into a sauna. Your site has many helpful and resourceful ideas.

    I would be interested in learning the specifics of installing a wood burning stove to assure is is safe. For example, How far from the wall? Does the tile around it have to be coded for high heat? Are there special rules for the chimney placement or height?
    I have a Franklin Stove style of wood burner which I believe would produce an appropriate amount of heat for the size of the building as well as being quite attractive!

    Thanks for the advice in finding reasonably priced cedar paneling. I found a wonderful resource on Craigslist which will save me a lot of money!

    Thank you for your advice,
    Jeannie Abel

  2. Hi Jeannie: I can direct you to Silkerk. I use their chimney components. They are from Canada and distribute via some big box outlets including Menards, where one can save big money procuring when they do the 11% back offer. Your Franklin style stove probably has some uncharted, undocumented code, so I can suggest following building code and setbacks in place with existing sauna stove companies like Kuuma and Tylo/Helo. BOTTOM LINE: Keep your combustibles arms length and get used to Durarock, and spacers.

    THE BIG SELL: Installing wood sauna stoves and more are detailed in my Build your Own Sauna ebook. $20, and will save you mountains more in money saving tips.

  3. In my sauna, I used an old shower door mounted horizontally, it was tempered glass and frosted . Good thing too because I was running out of cedar siding. I also used a plywood door with an old truck slider window in it. With the metal around the stove, I saved getting wood I did not have.

  4. Great tips, Glenn. Thanks for all of your hard work. I had a question about door dimensions and construction — what is typical for hot room door widths? And do you like to make your own door with a foam core for insulation? Just curious to hear about some ideas here. Thank you for your time!

  5. Zig. Thanks. I like hot room door 24″ wide. 26″ Rough Opening. 6’4″ door height. 1/2-3/4″ gap below door for air flow. (gentle blowdryer). Door construction: Sandwich a 23 1/2″ x 6’4″ x 1/2″ piece of plywood with t&g cedar. BIG SELL: All this is detailed (with photos) in my ebook.

    It’s nICE to be able to make our own sauna doors.

  6. venting a sauna is a good thing. Especially electric stove. If a wood stove, you can have in inlet vent along the base of the sauna door (gentle blow dryer) as air gets sucked in to feed the stove. I like a vent opposite wall to the stove, but then again, I’ve built saunas without vents and they have been working fine for over 20 years as a guy can just crack the door open after sauna and to air things out.

  7. I’m curious. Does it matter if the wood has been treated our not? I don’t want to get midway with creating it and find out that there should be no chemicals on the wood.

  8. Aaron: You are a smart man. NO treated wood in our saunas. (exception: drip edge along bottom perimeter. Yet this piece gets buried by durarock and first course of t&g cedar as detailed in my ebook: Sauna Build: Start to Finnish.

  9. Hi! Thanks for all the great tips! We are building a sauna out of a garden shed and couldn’t find proper foil backed vapour barrier. We did find some reflective material but I don’t think it’s vapour barrier. We were going to poly behind it. Is poly a bad idea? My other plan is industrial strength aluminum foil with tuck tape….

  10. Finally installing a back yard sauna, price has gone up since last year as a result of US duties on cedar from Canada. Less expensive option is hemlock. Since I will only have one sauna, should I spend the extra $ on cedar or is performance/look not significant enough for incremental $2k? Thanks for help

  11. I am wanting to make a cinder block and concrete room into a sauna. Using an electric stove. Do I need a barrier between wall and stove. Thanks

  12. yes. stone walls will take a very long time to heat up. We’ll need a barrier to keep the heat isolated. In commercial saunas, they often have stone walls, but these saunas are always hot, so the walls (insulated from the outside) become a constant thermal mass and heat source for the hot room. Hope this helps!

  13. Hi Glenn,

    Your website is very helpful for somebody building a sauna in North America. I’m originally from Finland, transplanted to Canadian mid-west, and am finally building my own sauna and building materials has proven to be the biggest challenge. I’m building my sauna on a trailer, and in phases, so I have some additional challenges, but I’ve definitely picked your brain on some things, such as sloping the floor. While I got some advise on not needing insulation in a tiny trailer sauna, I decided otherwise as I want to use my sauna even when it dips down to -30. I ended up using Iko Enerfoil 1.5″ insulation in the cavities. Iko Enerfoil is really close to popular Finnish sauna insulation branded Sauna-Satu. You should look into it as it’s readily available in US and Canada, and similar price to bubble wrap stuff.

    Anyway…good site and much appreciated info.

  14. Olli: Very cool. Enerfoil. Yes, I have used it a couple times. I like it too. Ty for the idea and sharing your story.

    Insulation: Great move. Glad you did that.

    Sauna on a trailer: Love that. Send pics if inspired/able. Mebbe we do a guest post. Show others.

  15. I’ll send some pics your way once I get paint on and all the i’s dotted and t’s crossed. I was just doing the roofing and panelling this weekend and while I should have taken some photos, I was on overdrive to get as much accomplished as possible, so missed a whole bunch of “in progress” photos. But I built almost everything myself, including the trailer, so it was a long process of building, watching for sales and digging through scrap piles for usable materials.

  16. Use Pine if that’s all you got or can muster Yet we build our saunas once. A more premium species creates an “ahhh” that we will “ahhh” about for many years to come.

  17. We just bought a house in central new york. A local Amish guy build us a 12×14 workshop on skids that turned out great. Naturally, my mind turned to sauna. I can get an 8×10 shed very cheaply
    My question involves flooring. Can I do this on typical shed skids? What about drainage?

  18. you can do this sauna project on skids, yes. Drainage: If you dump water over your head in winter and go with an outdoor shower other seasons, you don’t have to worry too much about excess drainage. Lots more about drainage detailed in the ebook. And for more, you can search “drain” on right hand side here.

  19. I don’t want to go cheap on the hot room, but am looking to save money in changing room. Any ideas? How about 1/4″ t&g cedar, perhaps over wallboard? What have you seen that looks good, but isn’t full on t&g cedar like in the hot room?

  20. I went with pine 1×6 t&g. It’s beatiful and is almost 3 times cheaper than western red cedar. At least in Canada.

  21. Thanks. Will very seriously consider t&g pine for changing room. At Home Depot in Minnesota (on homedepot.com), a 1 in x 6 in x 8 ft t&g pine board is listed at $3.98, or $1.08 per square foot. The cheapest cedar I could fine was knotty 1 in x 4 in x 8 ft 6 packs for $43.23, or $3.09 per square foot. High grade cedar 1 in x 6 in x 8 ft 6 packs are $100.88 per 6 pack, or $5.05 per square foot. That’s a huge difference (and it might be caused by recent trade frictions with Canada.)

  22. Chris- Try calling a local sawmill and get them to price you your cedar you will need. I am in MN also and contacted a sawmill in the Duluth area and told them I am building a sauna, gave them the dimensions, and they gave me prices on different grade cedar. I went with white cedar kiln dried and got a better deal than going through the local big box stores.

  23. Great tip, David! Folks at local sawmills are generally great to deal with, especially when it comes to sauna building. Kindred appreciative spirits of the DIY ethos.

  24. Thanks for this guidance. I have a bunch of cedar planks leftover from a fence project. Do my boards need to be tongue and groove? Are there other tricks for using regular boards? I know exposed nails/screws will get hot. Thanks again!

  25. Mae: T&G is an aesthetic good thing in that as boards expand and contract, naturally from heat and moisture, they have tolerances for not exposing what’s underneath. (hopefully foil vapor barrier). If using regular boards, one trick is to season your wood well, in hot room, so when you apply they are contracted well. You could ship lap or run through table saw to bevel. Please consider listening to Steve’s Sauna Talk, where we review the cost saving virtues of putting cedar fence panels “in play.”

    note here:

    and here:

  26. I have built a 5×7 foot room in the back of a garage extension to hold a sauna. Since Cedar and almost all building supplies are expensive in NW Wyoming, I was planning on buying a kit to get all the parts delivered ready to go. I am a decent carpenter and electrician but still feel a kit will save me time and effort. I have a bid from a sauna supplier lined up but realize it did not include duckboards or any vents. I am now questioning if I have chosen the right sauna supplier. I want this done right.

    Do you have a recommended suppliers of ready to go kits?

  27. Jordan: Sending you a separate email. I hear you. I”ve gotten enough emails from folks “blah” about their sauna kits. I think we can help you out.

  28. Glenn–
    What do you know about using basswood in saunas? We are gearing up for our sauna build (thanks for re-sending the book, it’s great!). A small local sawmill can get us a great deal on basswood T&G, which has the benefits of 1) being locally sourced, 2) much less expensive than cedar, and 3) apparently is the most common wood used in Finland (along with spruce), as they don’t have access to reasonably priced cedar. It’s advertised in many of the dreaded infrared “saunas” because of its complete lack of odor which can be nice for people with allergies (not an important attribute in my case). Sounds like you recommend western red cedar (commonly found in big box stores, imported from Oregon/Washington)….any cedar locally grown in MN is white cedar, which is a bit softer and potentially lower strength ratio, also tends to be pretty expensive as the state has placed more restrictions on cutting in the last few years. Long story short–have you ever used basswood, and what are your thoughts?

  29. (I posted this on another page, but it seems more relevant here.)

    Hello, we found a great deal on some knotty cedar T&G and I am curious if you have recommendations to patch or seal the back side of the knots? In cases where they have a crack that goes all the way through I’d like to fill it a little to stop vapor from going through.

    I’ve looked at PC wood epoxy and Gorilla Glue Epoxy as options, but am also concerned about the VOC’s / off gassing of those products. Don’t want to turn the sauna into a toxic environment!


  30. AJ:

    This is a good one, and I don’t have a suggestion. Further, i’m not sure even who to ask. Half of me thinks the best option is to use no filler and avoid the t&g sections with really bad knot holes.

  31. AJ – think about a paste of water-based wood glue and wood flour (sawdust). I think that would present no problems. I’m thinking about it more from the perspective of keeping the knots intact with the rest of the board, so you don’t end up with holes over cycles of heating and cooling. I would think that in general a hot room will have more opportunities for vapor passing through the wood layer at joints and intersections than through some knots, and anyhow that’s what the foil vapor barrier layer is for.

  32. I wonder why you don’t consider aspen. I read that it is used in Finland where cedar is rare. I used for the walls of my sauna & it is holding up well after 2 years. Half the cost of cedar.

  33. Hi Joe:

    Aspen/poplar is indeed “poplar” in Finland (cough!). One downside potentially is that it is much more prone to rot when wet/moist vs., say, cedar. They used to build coffins out of aspen.

    Anyhow, i’m very much with you though, as our cabin is all local NE Minnesota aspen interior (walls and floors). We have had some minor wood rotting, but only where we had a water leak and that sucks, but them’s the breaks. Very pleased that your hot room walls have held up well. With a well ventilated hot room, you are getting no moisture hanging around and great to hear that life is good in your sauna. More songs about wood species in Finland here: https://www.saunatimes.com/sauna-culture/sauna-travel/sauna-talk-from-harvia-world-headquarters-central-finland/

  34. Here is a tip that literally saved hundreds of dollars on the western red cedar T+G wall panelling.

    The longer a board of cedar needs to be clear, the higher the price. So for example the price of a 2foot clear cedar board is very cheap, however a 10foot clear board ran about 50$ eachin my area.

    The longest walls were threatening to turn expensive, so I framed in a shadow box in each wall.
    As a result, I was able to use 3 foot pieces to the right and to the left of the boxes, still using clear cedar, horizontally installed. Into the shadow boxes, I will put an aroma light and a Himalayan salt lamp for that special ambience and atmosphere.

    That cut up the length of that awfully expensive clear cedar, into mostly reasonable cheap shorter pieces.

    Hope this helps someone

  35. Mike: Fabulous tip! Along these lines, if a sauna builder wants to use short cuts of cedar, it’s not out of line to line up the short cuts along the wall and bury the seam with a vertical firing strip, or racing stripe. Same concept as your great idea, above.

  36. Thank you, Glenn, for sharing the pictures and valuable tips. I would like to ask you two doubts – can we use untreated wood and is there any guide for placing the chimney. I found your site helpful and has many resourceful ideas. Thanks for the assistance in finding a reasonably priced cedar panel. Waiting for more tips and advice.

  37. Hi Donnie: Yes, always untreated wood in the sauna. yes, there is a detailed guide for placing the chimney in my ebook, Sauna Build, Start to Finnish..

    Happy to help, and the book has been refined over hundreds of sauna builds, folks just like you and me rolling up our sleeves.

  38. Glenn,

    I know you have discussed repurposing cedar siding for use in saunas, and there has been much talk of not allowing chemicals to leech in a hot room. I have not been able to find any information online about removing paint for the purpose of using the boards in a sauna. I have a large quantity of painted cedar siding, some T&G, some that I will rip. I plan on planing them down, as it seems to be easier than sanding. Is this a necessary course of action, or could the boards just be flipped around, with the unpainted side facing the room?

  39. Eric:

    My thinking is that if you’re at all concerned about chemicals and leeching (either actual or just perceived) from using repurposed cedar with paint on it, then i’d say that the labor/time to plane the paint off the cedar will allow for you to fully enjoy the atmosphere in your hot room forever.

    I am very familiar with this ethos. My wife is completely free range organic with everything. I don’t dare spray our lawn with anything even if she’s not around. Having weeds around is better than any of her angst.

    Same concept with your project. Even if flipped around, you’ll know there’s paint on the other side. So, plane it off, and you’re good to go.

    Wear a mask. 🙂

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