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

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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.

Levon:
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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