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Straight scoop from a sauna builder who has built hundreds of saunas

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Guest post series continues.  Pleased to welcome Matt Bergstrom from Finnleo.  Matt has most certainly built more saunas than anyone in North America.  What comes forward is not just Matt’s knowledge of authentic sauna building, but a true joy and appreciation of his craft.  Within this post, we will follow along with a recent sauna build of Matt’s.  This sauna build was for renowned ex NHL player and current NHL Assistant Coach Darby Hendrickson.  Darby is an authentic sauna fan who understands the value of a backyard retreat, the virtues of wood burning, and the health and wellness of sauna – both physical and mental (mental in that after a tough Minnesota Wild loss, Darby can often be found with his eyes closed, sweating it out on the upper bench of his backyard sauna, in anticipation of a cold plunge and Wim Hof style control of his autonomic nervous system.

Enter Matt:

How long have you been building saunas?

Over 15 years now. Ever since I have worked at Finnleo.

How many saunas have you built?

Gosh, hundreds. We sell everything from simple Plug and Play saunas to custom sauna kits that are very complex. And I’ve done a little bit of everything.

What percent of the stoves you built are wood burning ?

Unfortunately, not a high percentage. But, I seem to get a lot of the jobs that involve wood stoves since I’m both an avid user and I have installed many wood stoves.

What’s a common misconception from folks wanting a sauna that they later come to appreciate ?

There are many!!! And, remember we sell an incredible variety of saunas across all categories. We won’t even go into infrared and all the misconceptions with that category. But, I think saunas in general have really gained acceptance. There’s been such an overwhelming amount of positive news about saunas lately. Whether it is the recent findings that regular sauna use will help you avoid early onset dementia, or, just the fact that sauna use boosts your immune system. It’s incredible what a sauna can do for your overall wellness. We both love the sauna tradition! The outdoor sauna that is heated with a wood fire. Many people see that as a hassle or a “big deal” to start a fire and wait for the sauna to warm up. As if it’s a lot of work and to be honest it isn’t. It’s relatively easy. I tell people all the time, the wood stove will heat up the sauna faster than the electric stove. I know, we had both a wood stove and an electric stove in one of my first saunas.

What do you think is an ideal hot room size ?

I just went thru this process with a customer. I think around 7×7 to 8×8 range is good. The sauna room doesn’t have to be square, but something like this in size. I’m building an outdoor sauna at home right now. It’s really big, 10×10 with a high ceiling. It is beautiful inside, but I just thought it’s way too big to be practical for everyday use. So, I framed up a wall to make a smaller sauna room that is about 6×9 and now I have the benefit of a small dressing room to change and hang towels etc. It should work out well. I will share photos of that process as well.

How critical is a changing room?

It’s not an absolute necessity but it sure is nice. I ask people how far the sauna will be from the house. If you have to walk a fair distance to get to the sauna, it’s really nice to have a dressing room so you can change out there. But, if the sauna is right outside on a patio or deck maybe they don’t need it. I think it depends on budget and distance from the house.

For most customers, how did they become interested in having their own sauna? Trip to Finland or ?

Yes, for many spending time in Finland or other parts of Europe makes them aware of the sauna culture. But, like I mentioned above, the good press that sauna has received lately has really driven a lot of interest from all over the US. When you think about it, there’s really no other product that does what sauna can. Other than diet and exercise, I can’t think of anything else that will benefit your life in a more positive way. And, that’s not just sales talk. It’s the truth. Ask anyone that owns a sauna and uses it regularly. They’ll share the same sentiment. They wouldn’t live without it!!

Do you see a rise in interest in sauna?

Absolutely, There’s more interest in sauna now than ever. And, customers are more informed too. There are still a lot of questions and still a lot of questions on Traditional Saunas vs Infrared. But, that’s a good thing. People know saunas will benefit them and they want to know more about them.

Tell us a little about some features you like to incorporate with your sauna builds.

Well, we sell such a wide variety of saunas that I don’t necessarily dictate what features are part of the saunas. But, maybe I could comment on what people do wrong with their sauna.

Sauna Stove: The most important part of the sauna is the heater you choose. If you’re going to spend any extra money, spend it on a good heater that is properly sized for the room you are heating. You wouldn’t put a 4 cylinder engine in your full sized truck!! Right.

Ceiling height: this is simple, lower is better! Heat rises and sometimes I scratch my head when I look at a plan and the sauna has a 9 or 10 foot ceiling? Where do you think the heat is going to be? Not where you are sitting I can tell you that. The ceiling in my indoor sauna is 80″. It’s great, heats up fast and efficiently.

Choose materials wisely: Everyone has a budget- Don’t skimp on the heater but also don’t use cheap wood. To me, the most important wood is the wood you come into contact with. The benches and backrests should be a high quality cedar or softwood. Knot free is best of course or minimal knots. And, don’t build benches with nails or screw heads exposed. Metal surfaces get hot in the sauna, you’ll find out the hard way!!

What size sauna building do you think is ideal?

The ideal sauna is like the one I sent you photos of. Something around 8 feet wide x maybe 10 feet deep. Room for a small dressing room and a sauna big enough for you and family or friends. It’s doesn’t have to be huge. Like discussed before. Anywhere in that 6×8 to 7×7 range is typically great for your own sauna.

Power. Have you done solar ?

No, but we have a family sauna that is off grid sort of. It’s a wood fired sauna next to a small cabin. No power so I have thought about adding a solar unit for some power for this cabin and sauna. Even just for lighting it would be great. Something I don’t know much about but I think it’s an awesome source of power for lights and other use. I’d like to hear what systems people are using with success. What is the cost?

What price ranges are you charging for your sauna builds?

We sell and I’ve built such a wide variety. Small kits for in home use can be as little as $2000 to maybe $2500. And, I’ve built large outdoor saunas that are well over $20,000. Just depends on the customer and what they want. Regardless of price, they all turn out great and people truly enjoy them. That’s what makes this fun.

Want to talk with Matt?  Contact  Tell them saunatimes sent you: the straight shooter when it comes to free sauna information.

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20 thoughts on “Straight scoop from a sauna builder who has built hundreds of saunas”

  1. Matt, thanks for sharing. I am building an outdoor sauna in central Oregon where we have wide temp ranges; 100 deg in the summer and below zero in the winter. Since I don’t have a changing room the heater control panel would need to be mounted outside and exposed to the elements. I am planning on purchasing the Havrio Cilindro 11 electric heater and it comes with either the F-2T manual control or the Xenio cx30 controller. I would prefer the Xenio controller and in reading the Xenio manual it says to locate the controller indoors (but not inside the sauna) or if outdoor, above 32deg F. My question is; what are my options on an outdoor capable control panel that can handle my temp swings and that works with the Cilindro heater? I would want it to also control the lights inside the sauna and potentially a fan?
    Question 2: I noticed that in the above photos you are attaching the exterior siding directly to the stud walls w/o any plywood or pb sheeting. Is that an acceptable practice in my area with the big temp swings?
    Any input or advice is appreciated.

  2. I’ll chime in before Matt: Re: control panel mounted outside. In the short term, I would build a milk box type extension to house your control panel, at the very least, giving it shelter from the storm. And if it’s not too late, i would orientate your roof line such that after sitting outside in the negative part of your 100 degree temperature swings between sauna rounds, your endorphin rushing will help you start conceptualizing a plan to extend your roof line to incorporate a “changing room” (for lack of better name) so you can hang out and cool down in a more temperate zone.


    Re #2, Matt will have to tackle that one. I can tell his building practice is to build panels offsite and transport and assemble. That’s not my wheelhouse.

  3. Thanks for the great info.
    Do you always ventilate your saunas? Mine will be 6’x6′. Any vent design ideas?

  4. it’s important to vent saunas, especially those heated by electric stoves (less air circulation). A simple vent about eye height opposite corner from stove is good. With wood burning saunas, there is much air flow, (and that’s a good thing). Best venting is to have a 3/4″ opening along the hot room door. This is an ideal air intake draw point for the wood stove. Also, acting as a gentle blow dryer which helps keep hot room floor dry.

    When we are done with our sauna rounds, we prop open our sauna doors as we towel off and remark out loud “damn that was a good sauna session” as our hot rooms de-steam-ify.

  5. Im a Real estate Investor and was curious how much and how difficult would it be to teach someone how to build a sauna?
    I dont have the time but would like to pay someone who does……What training materials would you recommend to them?

  6. hi Vincent, i’ll send you a separate email. Anything is possible with good sauna as the outcome. Happy to help.

  7. coming back to Dino’s comment about external controls when a changing room is not sufficient.
    I spoke to Finlandia this week and they said the big issue is keeping the F series controllers dry-cold shouldnt impact their functioning.
    I’m planning on my toaster box with the controller outside in a similar climate to Dino-90 plus summer heat and easily going down to 15f during the winter.
    The plan is to countersink the control unit into the wall and then enclose the face with a ‘nema’ style box (ugly) and waterproof the heck out of the thing. I did see that on some retailers they sell a little ‘birdhouse’ that can be used for an enclosure but i’m not paying 140 bucks for that.
    IF anyone has run the last mile with this situation-i know i’d love to hear their experience before I go and make any mistakes.

  8. Super helpful article!!
    Glenn, we are looking for someone to help us build or build an outdoor sauna for us- Can we contact Matt? Or would you consider consulting? we have been considering a site downwind from our cabin is this a bad idea? It’s just if not, then the trees would catch the sparks-
    Also do you have to have a concrete pad? Could we build a wooden platform? It’s on a steep hill- but such a sweet spot!

  9. I shot you an email Kristen. Regarding concrete pad or wooden platform, generally, I prefer a sauna be built on blocks, with air flow underneath. But this depends on your situation (pitch, etc.).

  10. Great article!
    Where is Matt currently building?
    Like Kristen, we are hoping to have a sauna either built for us, or get some help with design and build.

  11. Hi there,

    I want to buy an infrared sauna and convert it to a traditional sauna. This is because its a particularly beautiful sauna and fits into the very small space I have available in my bathroom.

    What do you advise about conversions ?

    My list of issues to address are:
    -make sure there is a vent
    -correctly size the heater
    -check if the wood is treated (does this matter?)

    Is there anything else I should consider ?


  12. Hi Hilary:

    Others may chime in but I am waving a big cautionary flag for you. Traditional saunas allow for steam. Steam creates lots of moisture. To my knowledge, infrared cabin walls are built without vapor barrier and not intended to take moisture.

    I’d consider retooling your thinking towards a “traditional sauna” solution, right out of the gate.

  13. Hello Glenn,
    First off, thank you very much for all the knowledge about sauna that you share. I wish I had done the proper research before buying he sauna kit we did.
    I am an home owner up in Winnipeg Manitoba, Canada. We have wide temp ranges; 30’c in the summer and -30’c in the winter. We purchased a sauna kit that is not not Insulated and was told that is does not need to be. It is made of 40mmx114mm (1.6”x4.5”) tongue and groove Nordic spruce boards. After he build and uses there operational window doesn’t seal properly and are some substantial gaps now between several boards which of course means all our wonderful steam and heat just escapes to the outside. Never mind that the heater we have works overtime (9kw electric).
    My partner and I should have dove way deeper into the research of saunas prior to purchasing of this kit. Our friends have the identical kit which we tried and we based some of our decision on their experience. I was skeptical of the supplier saying no insulation needed and insulated the inside of the roof anyway. Now with the inefficiency of the walls AND what I have learned from all my research, I feel it best to insulate the walls too. In order to do this, I will have to frame outside of the existing Nordic, spruce walls, insulate and then refinish the outside with siding.
    I came across this article while researching and the build here that Matt does is what I think I need to emulate with the reflective foil, the rockwool, and the siding. I have the same question regarding the exterior wall I will have to build outside the existing wall:

    Question 2: I noticed that in the above photos you are attaching the exterior siding directly to the stud walls w/o any plywood or pb sheeting. Is that an acceptable practice in my area with the big temp swings?

    Any advice or tips would be welcome


  14. Richard:

    Bummer on your one step forward two step back situation, but I like where you are going in terms of shoring up this sauna for your climate.

    1. I think I see your question in there, but let me take a swing at it this way. As this is already built and exterior and interior sheathing nailed on, I’m not sure how you’re going to get into the joist cavities. If you’ve got a way, by disassembling, then have at that. But the danger now lack of foil vapor barrier. Something critical as you know.

    2. You could envelop the outside of the hot room with polyiso,(rigid insulation) and then maybe firing strips or not, and face up some exterior siding.

    This is your decision. Work from the inside or work from the outside. I sense you have a better chance of insulating this sauna from the outside, and leave the joist cavities open and hollow, the way they are now.


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