Should I get a wood fired sauna stove or an electric sauna stove?

From the Mailbag:

Hi Glenn, I ordered your e-book a couple of years ago and am finally (hopefully) getting started on my sauna build. I am converting a stand alone shed that is on the edge of our yard. My question is on the use of an electric versus a wood sauna. Without a double I love the thought of a traditional wood fired sauna. My fear is that the time to build and tend the fire to get it up to temperature will be a deterrent from daily use.

I like to paddle on Puget Sound early in the morning and end my paddle with a swim in the cold sea water. I can’t think of a better way to end this ritual than with a sauna. My thought is that with an electric sauna, I could simply turn it on and have it be warm when I get back. With a wood fired I would have to spend some time tending the fire before I leave. The same would be true when I get home from work before bed.

With a wood fire, once I lay the fire and light it do I need to come back and damp everything down or can I light it and leave. Any thoughts in this?

Thanks for your help and your great site.

Good to hear from you.  I appreciate your situation and can relate.  The thought of a morning paddle and swim in cold sea water, then sauna: sign me up.  Wellbeing with a capital W.
I am pleased that you are advancing with your own sauna build.  Just because Dylan made the decision to go electric doesn’t mean you have to.
I have taken more than my share of saunas in both wood and electric, and I am awaiting the day when there is more “clinical evidence” as to the virtues of wood fired vs. electric.  I don’t prescribe to the theory that “heat is heat.” I am biased.

Let me share with you two equivalents to your Puget Sound paddle scenario.

At my cabin, on an island in Northern Minnesota, As afternoon settles in, I fire up the sauna stove then hike our island trails for an hour or so.  When I return, the stove is hungry for another log, and the temp is North of 140f.  I pull the coals forward, toss on a fresh log, tune down the damper, then head up to the cabin to change and grab a water, I come back to the sauna, and it is well up to serving temperature: 160f and climbing.
JP and Glenn talking mobile sauna during that magic time when the sauna heats up to temp (Photo: Garrett Conover)
At my house in Minneapolis, I have the virtue of working from home.  I am thinking fondly of those winter days when the local news is aghast with “a winter storm warning is in effect.”  It’s amazing how accurate weather forecasting has become.  I look out my office window and get giddy as the first snowflakes start to fall, right on time.  As I work away in my wool socks, outside is quickly turning into a winter wonderland: inches of fresh snow.  If I really want to rub it in, before closing down my work computer, I will make a quick visit to the Minneapolis/St. Paul traffic cam website, click on a couple live highway webcams just to see the mess on the roads.
I’ll change into my cross country ski gear, step outside into the winter wonderland, out to my backyard sauna/garage to fire up the sauna stove.  I may wax up the skis or shovel the sauna deck for a couple minutes.  Then, I will head back into the sauna, making sure that I have a good fire going in the sauna stove, adjust the damper to “stun” (80% open), click on my skis and venture out my backyard, down the unplowed streets into our neighborhood for a ski on fresh snow.  Those out shoveling always seem to give me a smile and a nod.  That affirmation of “when life gives you lemons..”
Snow emergency: a ski down the alley as the sauna stove heats to temp.
And this is what it is with firing up our own backyard saunas.
Returning from a ski, retracing my tracks back to my backyard, the vibe is not dissimilar to your vibe from paddling the Puget Sound.  We have created the endorphin rush and satisfaction of exercise.  We are cold and sweaty at the same time.  Our bodies are tired yet rejuvenated from our exercise in Nature.  It is hard to describe the added level of satisfaction from exercise in nature, especially knowing that our sauna stove is clicking away, rising to temperature, back at our ranch.
Knocking off the snow from my ski boots, I step into my sauna.  The stove is hungry for another log, and the temperature is North of 140f. I pull the coals forward, toss on a fresh log, tune down the damper, then head into the house to change and grab a water, I come back to the sauna and it is well up to serving temperature: 160f and rising.
It is one thing to “hit the sauna” after a work out at a health club, but it is an entirely different thing to settle into our own backyard sauna after a work out in Nature.
Everything is better.

The heat is better.

Heat is not heat.  Chefs use cast iron pans vs. aluminum pans.  Heavy wood fired sauna stoves create more thermal mass.  Those committed to 240v and a turn of a dial drink a different Kool-Ade, but as the heat starts to penetrate naturally into our bodies (unlike from *gasp* an infrared light bulb closet), blood starts flowing to all our extremities.  Natural wood heat envelopes us like a warm blanket.

The company is better.

Maybe we are alone, or maybe we have a friend or so join us.  Either way, we are miles beyond a dead beat health club sauna.  We have recreated in nature and we are taking a sauna in our sauna.  No yahoo’s join our hot room stretching in their work out gear with Lady Gaga blaring out of their headphones.  We set our own vibe. Maybe some music in the sauna to pour more into our “flow state.”

The steam is better.

We toss water on the rocks and take it in.  ‘ahhhhhhhhh.”  Could this be the greatest advantage of a wood burning sauna vs. electric?  Is steam steam?  Finns call steam from a wood burning sauna stove “soft loyly.”  Could this be the best moment of our sauna session?  It is hard to describe the feeling of good steam that is created from water being tossed on sauna rocks.  Soft steam, not spicy.  We understand how some people don’t like sauna, when their exposure to sauna is from a health club sauna after some yahoo douses the electric stove with water.  The steam bites and hurts.  Not so in own sauna.  We take in the steam.  When we surrender, we win.

The cool down is better.

Where do we go after a sauna round if our sauna is not in Nature?  With our own backyard sauna, nature follows us.  We see our own landscape from an entirely new light, as we exit the hot room, steam billowing off our bodies.  After a jump into a cold lake, a cold shower, snow angels, avanto, or a simple dump of ice cold water over our heads, we are hit head on with euphoria.  “Oh, I could never do that” is only something said by someone who has become a tropical fish in their own environment.  What a shame.  Temperature extremes open up all kinds of goodness.  Thanks to Wim Hof, studies are in the works providing the world the clinical proof that exposing ourselves to cold have major health benefits.  Until then, because we don’t have to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, we authentic sauna enthusiasts are left to our own empirical knowledge of how awesome it feels to hang out in the garden all misty wet with rain, after a cold plunge, between sauna rounds.
The best part?  We get to repeat this all again.  And again.  3 sauna rounds.
As we settle into round 3, we can pull the coals forward in our sauna stoves, harnessing all the BTUs from our burn.
Thanks to our consciousness and understanding of the principles of fire, we get to know our wood burning sauna stoves and maybe because we have taken ownership to the process of creating heat, we enjoy the heat that much more.  Maybe.

Is heat just heat?

I don’t think so.  Is wood heat better because we want it to be?  I don’t think so.  Does wood fired pizza taste better because we saw it being made by a pizza operator holding a long handled wood peel?  I don’t think so.
I will go down swinging promoting wood fired sauna stoves.  My sauna stoves get up to serving temperature just as fast as electric.  Faster in winter.  The trick, like with any fire, is honing a system that includes proper kindling and dry seasoned wood.  We ignite our wood fired sauna stoves, let them rage for 5 mins or so (as we lace up our hiking shoes or ski boots), close down the ash pan, and let the stove do its work.  The trick is to come back at the right time (when there is still fuel in the fire box) to pull our coals forward, reload, and let the stove do its work.  The trick is, like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, to understand our sauna stoves and appreciate their mechanics.
A wood fired sauna stove?  Yes.  Hands down.
Wood heat kicks ass

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24 thoughts on “Should I get a wood fired sauna stove or an electric sauna stove?”

  1. I am with you Glenn. I used your e-book to build my sauna and have the exact same stove as in your picture(Kumma). I love the wood heat. It has “soul”. The reflection of the flames on the walls only add to the feeling of warmth and relaxation.

    As far as how long it takes to heat up?…….I fire up the stove, which is a really “romantic” ritual in my book, I have a wireless barbecue thermometer that I hang inside the door and I bring the receiving end into the house and I deal up a game of cribbage.

    My wife and I can’t get through even half a game before it’s time to go out! The world is too fast paced to worry about the sauna heating up any faster than that!

  2. Hell of a post, Glenn. Two Dylan references, the “hungry for another log” statement, a Kuuma testimonial, and the written visuals make me want to play hooky and head North for some steam. Well done.

    And, yes to all of the above. I’ll allow that for some, an electric is the only option, but if you can make wood work, call Tower, MN and get your stove into production. You won’t be sorry. With dry, small pieces of split birch, one could argue that 45 minutes is enough time to be “at sauna temp.”


  3. The true test of wood vs. electric in terms of heat up times is best realized during a cold MN Winter’s night.

    Having taken literally thousands of saunas, i adhere to the 45 min. rule for getting my wood fired sauna up to “serving temp.” I have been in electric stove saunas that after 45 minutes feel hot to the skin but the walls are cold.

    One of these days, Upinor (Wirsbo) will join our ranks with a guest post on “thermal mass” and our debate will be put to rest. Until then, fire it up!

  4. one comment on wood is that there is a ‘learning curve’ to working a wood fire, for those that are not familiar with wood stoves. no doubt, the necessary skills can be acquired but it takes practice/experience to dial it in. wood type, size, moisture content, damper position, when to stoke, when to add, etc. all play a part in the equation. also, if you plan on letting others use your sauna when you are not around, consider their skill sets as well. this is one advantage with electric, it is somewhat idiot-proof to get the thing going and maintain temp.

    not at all trying to push electric over wood, just some food for thought…

  5. If you have access to firewood and there are no burn restrictions where you live, choose wood! You will not regret it.

    While it’s more “work” than the electric, for me the work is meditative and relaxing. Also, if you can afford it, get a stove with a window so you can look at the flames while you are sitting in the sauna. It is so amazing and relaxing to sit in a sauna at night where the sole source of light is your fire.


  6. I’m curious about the new Harvia Cilindro as it has 220 lbs of stones. Anyone have any experience with this?

  7. I also want to comment on fire limitations. While it may not apply to Puget Sound, down here in San Francisco Bay Area we have too many no burn days, especially, on the cold days, so electric sauna is way more practical. My electric sauna is at 180-190F in 25 minutes – it is a small 5’x7′ with 8kW heater. This simplicity and quickness allows me to use it without any preparation or planning.

  8. I’m with Miller, there is a learning curve with the type of stove and the wood you burn. Size of room, location, chimney, all have a small affect on it. I found that I enjoyed learning the in’s and out’s of what worked best. Now I can throw in two larger pieces and a few smalls, light it, set the drafts and walk away. Within three minutes it’s burning clear and 45 minutes later it’s sauna time. Of course if it’s 0 degrees in the sauna when you light it, it will take somewhat longer. I’ve been in some nice electric saunas before I was ever in a wood burner one and there is a difference, love the wood.

  9. I’m a fan of wood, and just completed the interior of a wood burning Sauna – exterior to be finished in the spring. We’ve been using it for a week. Love it.

    Having said that, a buddy of mine built a wood burning Sauna about five years ago. He kayaks on the lake for several hours before returning home. He wants to be able to jump right into the Sauna on returning, but feels that he can’t with a wood sauna. He wants to replace the wood stove with an electric one with a timer, so that he can get into a hot Sauna as soon as he gets back home.

  10. Sam Plett: I recently bought a Harvia Cilindro and am currently building a sauna with it but still have a month or so to go so can’t say how it works yet. The 10.5kW version was only $35 more than the 9kW version so I ended up going for that one– that one actually takes 260lbs of rocks as thermal mass. I am expecting good things.

    Regarding wood vs electric, honestly I think most of the discussion is convenience vs tradition. Those who find comfort in traditions or things they’re familiar with will never consider electric a superior option, because there is a “right way” to do everything. Those who value convenience and reliability will never consider wood a superior option. I find most of the arguments pretty weak for one over the other and a suspect it comes down to defending one’s own personal preference, whether or not it is held for rational or emotional reasons.

    The one advantage of wood I do really agree with is the magnetism of fire. Love the red flicker of flame. If you don’t get to have campfires or have a fireplace or wood stove to heat your house, then a wood-fired sauna is a great way to tick that box.

    Me, I heat my house pretty much exclusively with a wood stove for 4-5 months a year so get plenty of fire enjoyment (and/or drudgery), and I am really looking forward to setting a timer for 2 hours, going for a ski and coming back to a perfect temperature sauna waiting for me, even if I took a lot longer than I expected. Or if it’s 9:20pm and I had a busy day I can still get a decent sauna session in before 10…

  11. This kind of reminded me of a conversation I had with my mother several years ago. She was a lady who was in her 90’s and had been a school teacher in the one room school houses. She was always reading something and didn’t understand why people would read a book on a Kindle or table instead of holding a book. I finally had to tell her that the important thing is that they are reading. So weather we have electric or wood the important thing is that we sauna. Thank you Glenn for this website.

  12. re: “it comes down to defending one’s own personal preference, whether or not it is held for rational or emotional reasons.” i could not have said it better!

  13. After proof reading, I typed it from work and in a hurry, I see I screwed up tablet and whether. sorry

  14. The wood-heated sauna will help you revel in the real, actual Finnish sauna way of life. harvia combines the best steam of the wood-heated sauna variety to the all-embracing, uncompromising sauna know-how in the manner to make your sauna entire. harvia offers a complete range of merchandise for the wooden-heated sauna. the Harvia M3 comes equipped with a glass door, allowing the warm glow of the fireplace to supplement the sauna ecosystem. the shade of the range is fashionable graphite black and it has a chrome steel air-flow spoiler. the Harvia M3 stove may be ready with a pipe model water heater.

  15. Great info- thanks. I’m building a sauna near a cedar tub for cool dips between rounds, but will also use it as a hot tub on occasion. The Kuuma stoves have a copper coil option to heat water. Would that be effective for heating a 4’ deep 6’ wide tub? Likely take a long time, right? I’d like to go with a wood stove, and if it could serve as sauna and tub heater, that would be great. I imagine a ball valve in the copper line could block hot water circulation when you want to keep the tub cold and heat just the sauna. … Any insights on killing two birds with one stove? Thanks

  16. Joel: Applaud the thinking. I’ve often stared at the ceiling before bed, instead of counting sheep, conceptualizing how to utilize the Kuuma stove copper coil option (hint: radiant floor heat!). It would surely take a long time to try to heat your hot tub from the sauna stove My 40 gallon side tank takes about an hour or so. And then, it’d be difficult to control the temp. for when it’d get too hot, possibly. That said, I could see a T valve whereupon a guy could heat the hot tub via conventional external hot water heater, and toggle it over to the line from the Kuuma wood stove for supplemental action. This could work, but it’d take some engineering to have the system stop circulating if too hot. This is when we could divert that flow, via manifold, over to a radiant floor heat system for more recycling of BTUs. Hows all this for crazy (good) thinking?

  17. Glenn. I have read your response to Puget Sound several times now and you make one hell of a compelling argument pro woodstove. I simply love the narrative of your experience of skiing and sauna “…the stove is hungry for another log…” good stuff!

    I feel I have the perfect location to build my outdoor sauna building, with deck, not more then 15 feet from the back door of my house. This spot I rationalize is less distance to walk in depths of winter, close to bathroom, and can double as a guest suite of sorts from time to time. I figure i will use it more frequently if it is less work. That was until I read Puget Sound and your response. I am not shy about the great outdoors, in the winter time, as i have spent hundreds of hours tromping around in the woods as a land surveyor. I badly want a wood fired sauna. I relish the thought of splitting wood in preparation for winter sauna months. However fire code here in Ontario means i must site the sauna building a minimum of 30 feet from the main house. If i go with wood then I have to place sauna building somwhere between 50 to 80 feet further back in my yard due to obstacles and proximity of house.

    My wife has a disability which makes walking on snow and ice treacherous at times but she manages. This is certainly provides a strong argument to keep sauna close to house. She is definitely on board with the sauna building idea but I haven’t broached the idea of putting it much further back in yard. Possible strike 1 against wood sauna.

    At first I was convinced I had to let go of wood fired dream for reasons above, practical or otherwise, but I keep circling back to it over and over again. It seems I am becoming more energy conscious as I get older. The idea of forgoing a lovely natural fire for expensive Ontario hydro, to power an electric unit, simply makes me sick thinking about it. I feel I need to supply some heat to this building to make it comfortable for changing and/or lounging whether 15 feet or 70 feet from house. What do other people do? Do they keep external sauna building heated in depths of winter? Naturally, using electric base board heaters would run contrary to what i am trying to do here; cut down hydro use. That being said, I figure i want power to structure for basic lighting and safety so it would likely be in place no matter what. What do other people do? I suppose the very act of lighting stove begins warming of building but what about reezing and cooling of structure if zero heat?

    While taking a piddle at the side of my sauna building would be easy for me I know my wife would not appreciate this or take such barbaric actions. Possible strike 2 against wood sauna. Since she simply cannot physically make a dash for the house when nature calls I fear this might be a show stopper.

    I am fairly certain my wife would never bundle up, get the stove going, return to house and then go back out to sauna on her own. If she is going to use it, it will be with me which I would greatly look forward to. I can already picture us planning a whole Saturday evening around using the sauna on a 30 below night in January. I am concerned that the extra 50 to 70 feet to walk to sauna in -30c weather will mean she simply won’t want to use it. I would be hopeful that the experience would be so wonderful that she wouldn’t think twice about it again.

    I guess I am hoping that you, or some of the other contributors, can share some thoughts or experiences to settle my restless mind.


  18. Kevin:

    Very good of you to bare your sauna soul here, and i’ll to my best to offer thoughts of practical encouragement for a sauna build that makes sense with your situation. (and encourage input from others reading this). Lots to unpack,
    1) heat beyond the wood. I hear you about the feel good feeling of BTUs being provided by your own labor of wood production and burning. I have installed radiant heat systems, both electric and fluid. You could consider a small solar roof panel with 110v electric radiant heat system for your changing room. This could help create an ambient temp. in your cool down room, more pleasurable for your wife. And this could be off grid system.
    2) proximity to house. To be in compliance with wood, you’d be needing to be further from your house. Got that. Given your wife’s physical situation, maybe you could be bold and create a substantial walkway, LED lighting, motion sensed, that is the best walkway known to man. A show of love and appreciation and practicality.
    3) nature calls (peeing). Maybe with a little encouragement, in privacy of your own space, your wife could adapt to this freedom factor. I can’t speak for you or for her, so forgive, but I will say, peeing outside need not have to have just the male gender attached to it. I think that’s all I have for that point.
    4) general feeling: I often say, we build our saunas once. This is our chance to invest in our health, wellbeing, and create something worthy of our enthusiastic smiles for the rest of our lives. My general thought is to imagine you had unlimited resources, financially and otherwise, and ask yourself “what would I create?” Dream. Then work backwards to what is realistic.

    Along these lines, consider a mobile sauna with a dual heater, electric and wood. Consider being able to fire up the electric stove while tucked in tight to your house, then consider a simply powered system to extend the sauna out to the legal perimeters for when you choose to fire up your sauna in the wood heated realm. This is not too out of reach, nor opulent or crazy. Click here for a starting place for this idea, Kevin, and by all means, let’s document this wonderful project to share the celebration of your sauna dreams with others.

  19. Hi Glenn, thanks so much for the encouraging feedback and ideas. Will definitely track and share this sauna journey. Cheers K

  20. David:

    Respect to your question, yet, any stove that you can pick up with one or two hands, in my experience, is not a sauna stove. What makes a sauna a sauna is thermal mass. Otherwise it’s just a toaster oven.

    We build our saunas one time. We should invest in a sauna stove one time. We get to enjoy our decision every time we step into our hot rooms.

    A sauna stove is an area where you will get what you pay for. And consider how much that stove is per pound, compared to say, this stove, and you’ll see what I mean.*

    *DISCLAIMER: I now sell the Kuuma Stove. I have used this sauna stove for over 25 years. I have built many saunas using this stove. I have taken hundreds of saunas using other sauna stoves. Even in Finland, where I experienced 50 different saunas in 12 days, I can tell you that this is a kick ass sauna stove. My two Kuumas will outlive me, and I use the heck out of both of them (cabin and backyard sauna).

    Three times the price of a toaster oven, produces amazing heat, and will outlive you. This is value worth investing in.

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