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Sauna build in Central Wisconsin comes off without a hitch

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Saunatimes guest post series continues.

Thanks to Miller for his detailing and documenting his awesome sauna build.  Miller followed my Build Your Own sauna plans and I’m proud to say my Build Your Own Sauna plans helped him complete his backyard health and wellness escape.

Enter Miller:

I had used saunas a few times growing up and always enjoyed them but was never ‘into’ the whole sauna experience.  It was more a less a nice comfort every few years.  This changed when I visited a friend in Seattle in early August of 2013.  Unbeknownst to me, he had recently built a sauna in his backyard.  Nothing super fancy, an electric unit that seats three comfortably (or four if you want to squeeze), a window view and an exterior shower.  My wife and I headed into the sauna, it felt great and said aloud ‘Man, I should build one of these at our place’.  She replied with ‘Then go for it!’  My mind started racing.  Could I really do this?  Where would I put it?  How long would it take?  I could barely sleep that night!

Upon returning to my home in central Wisconsin, I started some Internet research on saunas.

I initially planned for an indoor unit, to go in an unfinished area of the basement.  A prefab kit was affordable and would be easy to assemble.  But it would be located in an area where a future bathroom would be constructed and I couldn’t come up with a prefab kit that would mesh with a functional bathroom layout. And then I started thinking about stepping out of a hot sauna into…a bathroom.  Not nearly as enjoyable as stepping out into the cool Seattle air and looking up at the sky.  The outdoors were calling…

An outdoor unit would have location issues.

I had long term plans to build a rather large storage shed in the backyard and there wouldn’t be room for that and a sauna.  I toyed with the idea of a larger structure to house both but finally realized what do I need a shed for?  We had made it years without one.  And what fulfillment comes with building a shed?  The shed plan was scrapped and the outdoor sauna was a go.

The climate in central Wisconsin is quite different than that of Seattle.

How best to deal with the cold? Fortunately, I stumbled upon Saunatimes early in my research and it proved invaluable.  The concept of a changing room, an 8’x12’ structure to make use of standard construction material sizes, etc.  It was all gold.  As many before me, I got out a length of string and started laying out the building.  Some stakes in the ground and the project officially started.
Staking out the area
Staking out the area

I opted to build my own structure rather than have a pre-built shed or similar installed.

I wanted more control over the construction methods and also to get the full experience and fulfillment of building from the ground up.  ‘Real’ construction started August 24, 2013, with the first plunge of the shovel.  Work progressed naturally from there.

Having a full-time job with a fair amount of travel and two young children meant working on the sauna when I could.

8'x12' framing with 2x6 green
8’x12′ framing with 2×6 green

Lack of funds and storage space meant I had to purchase materials as I needed them.

My stall in the garage often existed as a warehouse for storing of lumber, sheathing, shingles and other construction materials until I could get to them.  The building really started to stand out once I got the walls up.
2x4 wall framing
2×4 wall framing

The process was slow.

I was essentially working on this project entirely by myself.  Carrying tools out to the sauna, carrying them back in the evening.  Running extension cords, coiling them back up.  Tensions with the wife, not spending enough time with the family.  At times I wanted to put the project on hold but with winter coming, I knew I had to at least get the structure sealed up for winter.  The temps were dropping and working light getting shorter…
Leaves falling off the trees, need to finish the exterior work.  Siding going up slowly.  Too cold to stain it once installed so I stained pieces individually in the garage, let them dry and then carried them out for installation.

The structure is looking great but not there yet.

The exterior is mostly buttoned up but not without some work having to be done in the snow.  That is no fun but the project had to move forward.  Once buttoned up, the plan was to take a break but with winter coming, it sure would be nice to have the sauna up and running.  There is still a few pieces of siding to put up but that will need to wait until spring, simply too cold to work outside.  So I pressed on with interior work: wiring and insulation.  Without really being able to work outside, the sauna is full of tools and building materials.  Not the best working environment.

It is now February and the light is at the end of the tunnel!

Rough construction is complete and it is time for tongue & groove siding, benches and all the finishing touches.  Due to the snow, tongue & grove is cut in the garage, carried through the house and then out to the sauna.

Compressor and tools are carried back and forth daily.

Cedar tongue & groove
Cedar tongue & groove
Finally, the sauna is ready for use.  First session was the evening of Thursday, February 6.  Temp outside is -5, temp inside is 170.  Yes, that is an electric heater you see.  Wrestled with the idea of a woodburner but for a variety of issues, electric made the most sense for me.

So there you have it, a backyard sauna from start to ‘Finnish’.

It took a long six months but with the consistent below zero temps here in central Wisconsin lately, it has been a blessing.  The wife has had a couple hectic weeks at work and she definitely appreciates taking a few rounds in the evening.  All the construction stress of the last several months is all but forgotten.  Moon is fairly full right now and the night skies are clear.  So cool to be able to step out of a 170 degree room into a -5 winter wonderland, steam rolling off the body.

Okay, getting cold, time to head back in for another round…20140209_165613



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13 thoughts on “Sauna build in Central Wisconsin comes off without a hitch”

  1. Great post, great sauna. I like the progress photos and narrative. Thanks for sharing your story. I give you a 9.8 out of a possible score of 10, with a two-tenths deduction for going electric. I know…Bob Dylan went electric and the world survived…I’m just biased towards my Kuuma wood burner. Enjoy it in good health and cheers!

  2. just enjoyed my 100th sauna session last night. 100 sessions, 299.5 rounds across 287 days, nearly 75 hours in the hot room (i’ve been keeping a log). reset my rocks about a month and a half ago and had to make a repair on the hot room light box last week but that’s about it for maintenance. only other work is a scrub down after each session and the occasional vacuuming. its amazing how much sand, grass clippings, leaves, etc. migrate their way into the sauna.

    next big task is re-sanding the interior, looking at doing that later this winter or possibly in spring. also going to re-stain the exterior next spring, maybe paint the exterior door a more interesting color.

  3. yes, insulation between the joists. i used 2″ xps rigid foam cut to width. check out the second photo, you can see the 2×4 ‘sleepers’ i installed to support the foam.

  4. Miller – excellent work. And an excellent post as well. Beautifully done and I think the choice of an electric heater was a good one. I liked Claudia’s post as well, using the beach rocks and driftwood as a door handle – and using a stove. But for yours, the electric heater fits the look of your sauna.

    Again, thanks for the effort on the pictures and story.

    I wish I was not suffering with the limitations that do not allow me to build my own and have a project. But I still get to look out my sauna windows and watch the deer and coyotes.


  5. Hi there, wondered about your floor? Did you put in a drain? Slant the floor towards a drain? I wondered if you hose it down to clean it and let the stove dry out the building.

  6. floor is treated plywood covered with exterior latex paint. no sloping, no drain. for cleaning, i scrub the benches and floor with a brush after each use, using leftover water in the loyly bucket. i don’t scrub everything, just the areas where people sat. then i leave the doors open for 10-15 minutes and everything naturally dries out.

    i’ve used this sauna a little over 400 times (over 1200 rounds) and floor is essentially good as new. a little discoloration/fading here and there but no paint peeling, wood warping/splitting or similar. of course, i’m not swinging water around like a wild man or hosing the whole thing down, ymmv.

  7. we are moving to Wisconsin again and my project is exactly the same what I would like to know is what kind of permit did you have to ask? thank you very much great project well made !!!!!

  8. Aly,

    We may here others’ input on this, but building permits vary from municipality. The general rule, my expanded experience, is that anything under 120 sf, and 1′ to side yard properly line don’t require a building permit.

  9. yes, permit requirements can vary wildly across different municipalities. some may not require anything, some may only require a building permit and some may require additional permits. for example, you may not need a building permit if the building is under a certain size but may need an electrical permit if you want to install lights/receptacles. same thing if you wanted to plumb a shower. and you may even need to go in front of the town/village/city board for a variance (e.g. only spot to locate the structure is within the setback distance from an adjoining property, zoning code would not allow you to build there unless the municipality gives you permission). the only real way to know the requirements is to check out the municipality website or better yet, give the building department a call, most of them are very friendly and helpful. for a sauna, permit fees are typically pretty small (i want to say mine was $75 for everything?) and it will likely be subject to inspection so you will need to be familiar with building codes. and you may need to draw up a plan for their review. it shouldn’t have to be anything fancy prepared by an architect but will likely need to include an interior floor plan with dimensions, some exterior elevation views and some general descriptions (e.g. asphalt shingle roof, wood siding, painted brown, etc.) also be aware that rules in certain municipalities may preclude you from personally constructing a portion (all?) of the structure. for example, a homeowner cannot do their own electrical work in chicago, it needs to be performed by a licensed electrician. wisconsin state code would allow a homeowner to build a sauna by themselves but certain municipalities may have some stricter rules.

    you can always skip the permit but that of course carries risks. the municipality may catch you building or a nosy neighbor might turn you in and now you have to pay fines and potentially even tear the thing down. it could burn down and your insurance company may not pay out since it is an unlicensed structure. for me personally, i had the financial means to pay for the permit and any potential property tax increases and am also familiar enough with building codes to know that what i was building would pass inspection. the peace of mind about not “getting caught” without a permit was worth it to me, ymmv.

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