Six is the magic number for the number of clear 2×4 boards for building your sauna. As we see in the photo below, a stout 24″: wide bench calls for 5 deck boards on the long face, and two frame boards on the short face. Think picture frame.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.
IMG: 2×4 cedar makes for ideal sauna benches
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.
When planning and designing our own saunas, consider that building quality sauna benches with premium wood stock is an area for attention and investment.
Knots are imperfections from branches that cause living wood grain to grow around them. This interwoven grain is a 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!,” you’ll never do that again!
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 wood 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 well 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.
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 someone else’s 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).
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.
There are a few different ways to build sauna benches, and here’s a play by play on my favorite.
- Hide the knots
- Hide your screws
- Make your benches about 1/4″ less in length than your actual wall to wall dimensions, so you can get them in place.
- 2×4 cedar
- 2 3/4″” wood screws
- Table saw
- Miter saw
Build your frames using 2x4s. I like 24″ wide benches: two 2×4’s + five 2×4″s + spacing = 24”
Rip a 2×4, giving you a few 2″” x 21″” pieces to support your interior decking.
Screw in the cross supports from underneath, 1 1/2″” below the frame.
Cut and screw in a 2×3″ inside the two framed ends. Test the height against your inside decking so it lays flush to the outer frame.
Cut your 2×4 decking to length. You don’t have to wear shoes unless an OSHA inspector shows up.
Set and space your decking, screwing from underneath. Consider a bead of wood glue and 2 3/4″” screws. Don’t get glue on your feet.
Lay out all your decking so you can choose the better sides
In your hot room, screw in 2×4 headers along the back wall and 2 sides 28 1/2″ from the floor (note the location of your studs, screw through your t&g cedar and into the studs behind. Use 3 1/2″ screws). Set your upper bench on top of your header and secure underneath with a couple screws.
For your lower benches, make a couple sets of legs 12 1/2″ tall. Set your lower bench on your frame with a couple screws. Prevent wicking by screwing down spacers under your bench legs. Your lower benches will sit at 16″ (12 1/2″ + 3 1/2″) and your upper benches at 32″.
Guest post series continues. Enter Russ, with a triangle support system to hold up our sauna benches.
- Construct your bench, using 2” x 4” cross braces aligned with wall studs. You will need to offset these by ½” from the bottom edge of the bench’s perimeter.
- Make a 16” x 16” sandwich of ¾” cut-offs from a plywood sheet which provides the core of your sauna door. Glue and screw three thicknesses together, for an overall width of 2.25”.
- Bisect the square on the diagonal, and cut corbels, leaving 2” tails. Use the Selkirk decorator rim as your guide.
- Shape the corbels, rounding edges and recessing screws, as this will be in the hot room.
- Predrill, and drill two ½ inch holes in the vertical leg of each corbel. The holes should be at least 1.5” deep. Distance between holes should be at least 4”.
- Cut 1.5” sleeves from .5” outer diameter aluminum tubing, and at least 3/8” inner diameter. Drive into holes in corbels. These function as sockets, and guard against wear and tear on corbels.
- Insert bolt end of 3/8” hanger bolt into sleeve. Place into position on the back ledger, and mark holes with screw end on cedar over stud.
- Pre-drill and drill 3/16” holes through cedar and into stud, two for each corbel.
- Attach nut to bolt end of hanger bolt; use wrench to embed screw end through cedar and into stud.
- Repeat for each stud. Position each corbel on its two studs.
- Secure to wall and stud with one 6” screw on lower leg, and another with 6” screw into back ledger. These merely keep the corbels in position; the load they carry is on the studs.
The result is strong support for the upper bench, with minimal sacrificing of brace support between benches. In other words, a novice will still be able to recline on the lower bench, while a veteran reclines on the upper bench.
I’m not sure what it is, but architects and casual sauna hot room designers are quick to lay out their hot rooms to include L benches. And 90% of the time, at the point of construction, we realize that things are getting too tight.
Generally speaking: I’m not a fan of L benches in the sauna. Why? Three reasons:
- Corners benches are dead space. You can’t fit your butt in the corner. They do work for when you are laying down, however.
- Knees knock. Two people sitting in the corners, adjacent, need to put their feet somewhere, and they end up knocking knees.
- Standing around space is valuable. L benches take away from standing space. A more generous standing space gives a sauna hot room good flow. Anybody sitting on the benches can come and go without the “excuse me” or “Let me know when you’re ready to go” chatter. Also, it is beneficial to have space to stand and stretch in the hot room, or dump water over your head.
I’ve built over a dozen sauna benches- no, many more than that. I’ve sat on a bunch more. Do you drive yourself crazy sitting on a sauna bench trying to figure out how it was built? Well, this is a better sauna bench. All 2×4 clear material. All hidden screws (no branding on the butt). No exposed end grain. Super sturdy. Every board is reinforced from the sides, below, and by bracing underneath. Simple construction.
If you already have a sauna and your sauna bench isn’t like this, I’m sure it works just fine, and I’m not trying to get under your skin (there are sensitive sauna Joe’s out there). It’s fun grazing through the 2x4x8 woodpile at the lumber yard finding boards clear on one side (no knots to brand your butt). You need 7 boards at 8′ to make one of these 2′ wide benches. I love this bench. Seeing this sauna bench makes me want to go sauna. That’s it- I’m going.
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 a subjective observation, but this fact has been confirmed by many sauna nuts.
When I built the 612 Sauna Society 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. 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 surely 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. 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.
24″ is the magic width for sauna benches. Building 24″ wide benches allow us to lay down comfortably, and we have ergonomically happy depth for sitting. 24″ is especially valuable for our upper benches. We like 24″ for lower benches too, yet we tuck under the lower bench 4″ (to avoid ankle twisting when stepping up and down). The exposed bench width of our lower bench is 20.”
Many do better building stadium benches for their new sauna builds. Then we can field verify this preliminary layout over the course of a few of our first sauna sessions. When designing for our sauna bench layout, like with cowbell, we can always add more later.
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 am here to tell you that if your buttox region could talk it would tell you that it does matter.
When you set your butt down, do your sauna benches move and creak like an antique dining room chair? Maybe it’s time for new sauna benches.
I’ve sat on my share of sauna benches, and I can’t get over how this design kicks (cough) butt. And once installed, the upper bench triangle brackets keep things simple and sleek, underneath. This allows for the non-patentable “tuck under” lower bench so nobody can get their leg jammed as they climb down from the upper bench after a long hot sauna round.
Like with Google maps, we triangulate support underneath the upper bench. Same theory as Google maps, but different. Instead of showing us where we are on our phone, here we install triangulated supports underneath the upper bench to transfer the load down and to the back wall.
After a flurry of sauna bench construction for others, there I sat in my backyard outdoor sauna thinking “why don’t I change out my sauna benches?” Like the cobbler’s kids having holes in their shoes, I was thinking “man, these are lame.” In fairness, they worked great for 10 years. They showed a bit of novice design and construction, but it was time.
So I built new benches and a week later, there we sat, my friend Kirt and I, admiring the upgrade advantages:
- 2×4’s. More stout bench density.
- Wider. A 24″ wide sauna bench, at least the upper bench, is an ideal width.
- No legs. The stout construction of my improved bench system means no supports needed down to the floor. This sleek design makes it easier to clean the sauna and allows the lower bench to slide in and out, tucking under for more standing room or pulling out for more sitting space.
Before exiting the hot room, Kirt, of Finnish descent and demeanor, summed it up: “you got a thousand saunas out of those old benches.” Left alone, I began adding it up:
- 3 saunas per week
- 12 saunas per month
- 10 months per year (2 months at the cabin)
- 10 years
- 1,200 saunas minus a bunch for traveling, etc.
“Kirt, it took me all this math to come up with pretty much 1,000 saunas. How did you do that so quickly?
“Well, I was here for most of them.”