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The definitive word on cedar for our saunas

As we plow forward expanding with building more kick ass authentic saunas in our world, the topic of what particular wood species for our hot rooms has become a “hot” topic.  And it is VERY important to use the right kind of wood in our hot rooms.

For example.  What is Eastern White Cedar?

I’m pleased to bring into the fold my friend Scott.  Scott comes to us with MANY years experience in the sauna industry.
here is Scott’s explanation of cedar.  Enter Scott:

I have never heard of Eastern White Cedar.

I wonder if it could be what is more commonly identified as Northern White Cedar? Or Eastern Red Cedar (aka Aromatic Cedar) is another one it could be and the only Cedar I’ve known to have the “eastern” name in it. If it is Eastern Red Cedar I would avoid it as this is the one that has the pungent smell (often associated w/ “Cedar Closets” and “Cedar Chests”), it reminds me of a hamster cage smell. The other downsides to ERC is that the boards tend to be very streaky and zebra like which I personally think looks bad.
The two “cedars” that I would strongly discourage using in a sauna application are Aromatic Cedar (Eastern Red Cedar) and Incense Cedar (sometimes called California Cedar). The article at the link below may help you in making your decision if you are considering Cedar for your sauna.
As always, I encourage the use of clear Cedar. If you are trying to keep costs down, knotty Cedar will work fine for walls but clear Cedar should be used for benches and backrests at a minimum.
Regards,
Scott
Making decent sauna benches require clear cedar stock. 2″x4″ material is solid. This design allows breathing.

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25 thoughts on “The definitive word on cedar for our saunas”

  1. Above photo is example of more reasonably priced (in North America) knotty t&g Western Red Cedar, of which I am a big fan. Regarding the sauna benches, a sauna enthusiast with keen eyes will note in the photo a few small knots on the lower benches, but clear 2×4 cedar used for upper benches.

    The double secret hot tip on how to purchase “clear” cedar at much less expensive non clear cedar prices can be found in the ebook Sauna Build: from start to Finnish. (at a cost of 1/100th the price of clear cedar vs. knotty cedar). The book is offered here

  2. I dare confess this here, but I built our first sauna with pine tongue and groove. I used much of the advice from Glenn’s e-book still, particularly regarding placement of lower quality materials in unused areas (i.e., placing knotty parts below benches, around stove, etc.). I reserved the clearest pieces for the seating areas and faced the backrests and bench tops with aspen. It took some extra planning and I do not disagree with the general recommendation that cedar is best, but it worked out for us. The hot room has a very pleasant smell and no weeping sap burns to report anyway. Perhaps we got lucky.

  3. What opinions and thoughts do you have on Abachi wood for the benches etc?
    I’m also considering Nordic Spurce for the roof and all paneling for an indoor sauna.

  4. Nordic Spruce is excellent.

    I’ve not sat on benches made from Abachi wood. The species may be good for sauna benches, or may be too hot.. let us know how it goes.

  5. We used a white cedar that looks very much like the cedar in the pics. The lite cedar smell at first was nice but became so strong once heated we could not use and will have to remove. Breathing issues. This common cedar board is sold at Home Depot or Lowes and is usually in stock. Careful.

  6. Hi- I bought your book and found it to be useful. However, I wasn’t able to find:
    “The double secret hot tip on how to purchase “clear” cedar at much less expensive non clear cedar prices can be found in the ebook Sauna Build: from start to Finnish. (at a cost of 1/100th the price of clear cedar vs. knotty cedar)”.
    What page is it on?
    Thanks
    Brian

  7. Brian: I’ll check on where the double secret hot tip resides within Sauna Build: Start to Finnish ebook. In the mean time, here’s the tip (and it’s a tip that i’ve executed many times at Home Depot / Menards / Lowes. As of this writing, a 2x4x8′ cedar board is/was $8.72. This is for #2 and better. A 2x4x8′ CLEAR cedar board is $32.45 (special order, lumber yard). So, the suggestion is to get your hunting gear on (gloves and a tape measurer is all you need) and head out to a big box lumber retailer and start picking through the stacks. Often, the 8′ bins do not offer much in terms of finding clear boards, so the additional tip is to head over to the 10′ or 12′ bins and start picking through there. As you know the length of your sauna benches, you’ll be able to seek out boards that contain clear sections long enough for your sauna benches. The remnant cuts will be used for framing underneath.

    I am never too proud to do this at a big box retailer locale. I always return unwanted stock to their proper bins and “leave no trace” for good sauna wood karma. If all this is too much for you, then here’s the double secret hot tip: pick through and purchase 2×2’s for your sauna bench. When they mill cedar, they are forced to use clear stock to make 2x2s (otherwise they’ll break if they have knots in them).

    I”ve built 30 plus sauna benches. I love the smell of cedar in the morning, it smells like victory. I get more enjoyment out of finding a clear cedar board than I do catching a fish. I think the hunt is rewarding. I feel that much closer to my sauna benches knowing how special it is to find clear cedar (and at a fraction of the price as clear cedar). Call me crazy, it’s ok.

  8. I love your website. I’m building a sauna inside my 32×40 steel shed. We logged downed windblown northern white cedar and had 850′ of 1″x 4,5&6″ boards sawn for only $80. Then had them planed and t&g for less than $300. I think Northern white cedar should work great. Sure looks good!

  9. Great work Mark! Take some pics. Northern White Cedar is about as good as it gets, especially windblown down trees (vs. clear cut/harvested). Love the random widths too: it shows the resourcefulness of using as much of the material as possible. Awesome.

  10. I’m about to panel my sauna. And i am deciding between grade A white cedar and grade A western red cedar. The white is 1.22 a Lineal Ft and western red is 1.55. That’s in Canada. Any experience using white cedar? Somebody said the smell becomes unbearable after a while…did anyone else have that experience?

  11. I BUILT A SAUNA OUT OF EASTERN RED CEDAR

    Howdy, just wanted to check back in and give you an update. I ended up NOT replacing my eastern red interior. I dug deep on the internet and ended up using two methods to help reduce the intense aroma of the eastern red cedar.

    1). Bake the living hell out of the hot room. I ran the stove SEVERAL days at high high heat. Intermittently, I would hose down the room and the stove to create a steam so hot that the devil himself couldn’t survive in.

    2). In the midst of some of these hot room baking sessions, I would dilute 1.0gal white vinegar to 2.5gal water into my Stihl backpack sprayer, and spray the whole interior down. This helped neutralize the intense aroma quite a bit.

    All that plus eventual frequent sauna use has released enough of the wood’s resin to make it so my hot room is very nice smelling and enjoyable. I had to give it my best shot; after all, I did plane and route every single one of those boards on that build. Would I use the proper cedar next time?? absolutely yes. I just wanted to let you know that there IS hope for anyone else who makes the same mistake.

    Thanks for writing me back so quickly amidst my sauna crisis.

    Here is to a great summer! Cheers.

  12. Hi Glenn, thanks for all the great advice! I’ve been learning a ton from your musings~

    I’m in Western Massachusetts and am currently creating a convertible closet/sauna (a sloset? clauna?), hopefully with some hinged, fold-out benches (assuming they’re strong enough lol). I bought a bunch of knotty western red cedar t&g for the walls and ceiling, and clear cedar for the benches, as per your recommendation.

    However, in the photos above, it looks like you have at least 4 clear wall panels directly above the upper bench. Is this correct? If so, I see the logic in that, as it would make those particular boards safer to lean on. I wonder if that’s your reasoning, and whether it’s worth the extra coin to do something similar. Otherwise, an alternative might be to install some clear backboards/headrests later? This would be a little cheaper, but not much…

    Welcome your thoughts and thanks again for this great resource!

  13. Hi Nick:

    Fab. Glad all is going well with your closet sauna build.

    Regarding what looks like at least 4 clear wall boards, very perceptive!

    Tip: cut all your wall boards and lay them out against a wall. Then pick the worst ones for under the benches, and the best ones, the mostly non knotty ones, for above your bench, where your apt to lean against. I think this is a better way to roll than purchasing clear boards. Going with the same stock is better as they all fit together and have the same profile.

    Those are my thoughts!

  14. Hi Glenn,

    Love the podcast. Question about wood species.

    I was able to get a hold of a LOT of Port Orford Cedar and built a barrel sauna. I’m in the PNW so heat retention is not an issue and I’m using a 6 KW heater in less than 6 feet and it gets really really hot. The issue is, the smell is incredibly pungent. WAY TOO pungent right now. Is there something I can do to reduce the smell from the wood? Possibly some sort of cleaner or something that can help to extract some of the natural ordors from the wood? Should I just run the sauna for a few weeks to help reduce the aroma? A little aroma is fine, but man-0-man it was way too intense the first time we used it lol.

  15. Hi Patrick:

    Glad you are enjoying Sauna Talk, and its affiliate partners in crime.

    I don’t know Port Orford Cedar. If it’s Western Red Cedar, you’re in luck. I’ve worked with this material for 30 years. I love the smell of cedar in the morning… it smells like… victory. And the smell does dissipate over time, whether it’s fences, benches, or sauna walls.

    If this species is Eastern Cedar, well that’s the stuff that gerbil cages and closets are made out of, and damn it’s heavy duty from an odiferous standpoint.

    Please keep us posted. Fingers crossed!

  16. Hi, I am new here. I am excited to poke around and see what knowledge I can pick up as I start this new hobby of Sauna. My question regarding cedar choices…My lumber yard has Incense Cedar only at this time. I have been reading everywhere to find out if it is appropriate to use to line my sauna. I have seen a review that it is similar to Western Red, just not as good. And also an expert who said avoid it, but didn’t give a reason.

    Can someone tell me if it is ok to use as a poor man’s Western Run, or will it be problematic (maybe too much aroma?) and for what reason. I do like the lower price per linear foot it sells for.

    Thanks!
    Michael

  17. Hi Michael:

    A simple cheat sheet on cedar:
    1. Western Red Cedar – this grows tall and mighty in Northwest part of North America. Wonderful and ideal.
    2. Eastern White Cedar – this grows in pockets around North America, and you guest it, mainly out East. Great for sauna, harder to find as clear.
    3. Eastern Red Cedar – also called aromatic cedar. Not good! This is gerbil cages and cedar closet stuff. Way too pungent. I think we should submit to the Cedar Trade Council to officially change the name of this away from Eastern Red (hugely confusing) and over to aromatic.

    Summary:
    #1 and #2 – very good for sauna.
    #3 – “run away” (like in the movie Monte Python and the Holy Grail).

  18. Hi Glenn,

    I am so grateful for your thorough explanations in your ebook, which was about the best return on investment ever.
    I am almost done with my 8 x 12 sauna build on our land by Yosemite, CA, and will share photos once I am done.
    A question I have about the Western Red Cedar benches:
    Do they have to be treated with any oil? A friend of mine suggested Pine Oil. But wouldn’t that affect how they transmit heat to your body? But, if untreated isn’t the sweat and water being absorbed by the wood and cause stains?
    In my home country of Germany where, as you probably know, sauna is a biiiig deal, we are religious about not letting anyone’s sweat get on the sauna benches and in public saunas there will be signs reminding you of that.

    Thanks, Roman

  19. Hi Roman:

    So glad my ebook has helped you out. And quite flattering about “best return on investment ever.” Appreciate the kind words.

    Treating cedar benches: I have never done this. And I recommend no treatment of sauna benches of any kind. I hear you about sweat on the benches, but my cabin sauna benches (built in 1996 and backyard sauna benches in 2003) have never been treated and they are totally nice looking and just fine “au naturalle” all these years.

    A side note on Germans and sweat on sauna benches. The President of the 612 Sauna Society is German. We were in the 612 sauna last year and I could tell she was getting a bit unnerved as I had no towel under me while sitting in the sauna. (And I am Vice President of the 612 Sauna Society!). A public sauna faux pas I now understand. For me, with sauna in the private domain, however, the no sitting on a towel program provides a hygienic closed loop. When I leave the hot room to cool down, a wet sweaty bench becomes bone dry by the time I return for next round. And I don’t have to worry about trying to remember which towel is the sweat towel or the clean towel.

    Happy for your sauna build Roman!

  20. Hi Glenn:

    Thank you for this article.

    I live in Louisiana (hot and humid) and am in the process of converting a portion of my shed (attached to home) into a 5x7x8 sauna.

    Clear cedar is too expensive for me at this time and I’m looking for alternatives. You say knotty (aka tight knot?) cedar will work for the budget-conscious builder? What is the major drawback here? Is it mostly aesthetics or is there a real issue with knots warping and popping out over time?

    Also, I have been told that Spanish Cedar (while apparently not a true cedar) has similar qualities to Western Red Cedar and in some cases might be a more affordable alternative to CLEAR WRC. Do you have any knowledge or experience with that species?

    Appreciate any guidance! – Max

  21. Hi Max:

    I actually like knotty more than clear. It’s very subjective to anybody, but for knotty connotes rustic bad ass nature sauna, which is my sauna DNA. The clear cedar sauna vibe, again to me, is like i’m at a fancy restaurant trying remember which fork to use for my salad.

    Spanish cedar: maybe others can chime in. in my book, Sauna Build Start to Finnish, I detail a lot of information about wood species. The cedar info. stops at Eastern Red Cedar (a hamster cage no no for sauna). I have used Japanese cedar, which is the species used to make cedar fence panels at Home Depot. This material works awesome. If it is related to or a step cousin of Spanish Cedar, well, I’d say you’re in business. Hope this helps and apologies to the dancing around to your question.

  22. Thank you Glenn! You’ve given me the confidence I needed.

    I got feedback from a local lumber supplier:
    1. Spanish Cedar is more expensive than tight-knot WRC.
    2. It has a distinctive odor.
    3. When cutting / working with, its particles are NOT good to breath. I would imagine this carries over to when you are trying to use your sauna (ie, taking deep breathes, etc.)

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