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Jason goes from skiing to building his own backyard wood burning sauna

Guest post series continues. Please welcome Jason to Saunatimes, as we follow along from Birkie skiing to building his own backyard wood burning sauna. Here, Jason shares his journey from a ski trip to conviction towards building his own authentic Finnish sauna. Before sending it over to Jason, keep in mind a word from our sponsors: this site has helped mountains of people build their own kick ass authentic saunas. Jason followed a familiar path. He invested the ebook Sauna Build, Start to Finnish, he researched further, using the search bar at the top of Saunatimes,com (just above these words to the right), and then he came back for more action, signing up for my one on one consultation plan. (set up not to fleece the sauna builder for more cash, but to keep my bandwidth in check).

Email exchanges started bouncing back and forth. Then he’d go quiet for a period. Then, just when I thought he moved on, his emails and questions would start up again. I could say that his tenacity was starting to drive me crazy. But the secret here is that as Jason was building his own sauna, I was in the thick of revising the 2nd edition of my build your own sauna ebook. Jason was gracious, appreciative, and respectful to my time, I helped him along his sauna building journey, and some of our dialogue helped me with the 2nd edition sauna writing journey.

Jason built a kick ass sauna. Can you feel the heat from here? Please give Jason a warm thumbs up welcome to Saunatimes!

Jason “thumbs up” while building his own backyard sauna

What compelled you to take on your backyard wood burning sauna building project?

In 2010, I moved up to the Twin Cities because my wife landed a job in Saint Paul. My sister came up to visit us shortly after we settled in, and she was telling me about some friends that were training for the American Birkebeiner ski race. The running joke in my family is that if you aren’t careful around my sister she’ll have you signed up for a marathon after a few beers. She gets a kick out of getting people motivated and setting goals. Well, when I woke up in the morning I was signed up for the Birkie and had 5 months to learn to ski.

I bought some skis the next day and patiently waited for the snow to fall.  It wasn’t long and winter came. I quickly realized that the Twin Cities are a XC skiing mecca (tons of trails). Skiing turned into an obsession for me and I began heading to the trails regularly after work to dial in my skiing technique. It was an incredibly positive force in my life, and I soon began venturing outside the Twin Cities to explore other trail systems.

Somehow, I came across ABR Trails in Ironwood, MI, which has 76KM’s of meticulously groomed ski trails and various lodging options. When we were booking our stay, we were asked if we’d like to reserve the wood fire sauna at the trail head. We did, and it turned out to be the most incredible part of the trip. I had always enjoyed saunas at hotels and resorts, but that remote wood fire sauna experience was like none other.
ABR became an annual trip for us, and while the skiing was the reason we started going, the sauna kept drawing us back. I knew I needed sauna to be a more regular part of my life.

Air guitar between sauna rounds at ABR Trails in Iron wood, Michigan

Picture is from 2012 at ABR trails, Jason is playing air guitar as he cools down from his first wood fire sauna experience.  This is what a future sauna builder looks like.  (Notice the skis in the snow, because the ski trails lead you right up to the sauna.)

In the fall of 2020 my dad, who’d joined me on the ABR trips, got a good deal on a Barrel Sauna. The price was surprisingly manageable, and I convinced my wife to buy the same sauna. However, by the time I got around to placing the order, the price had doubled (thanks coronavirus).

I started looking for other sauna options and I came across Saunatimes. The information on the blog convinced me that I could build a “real” sauna. Since I had limited construction background I was hesitant about my abilities and I still had a lot of questions. I found the consultation service on Glenn’s site and went for it. With some extra guidance and a lot of enthusiasm I was on my way.

Jason laying down 2×6 base for his backyard sauna

How did you find Saunatimes and give us a few examples where the DIY ebook helped you out.

I found Saunatimes through basic internet searches for information. The main thing Saunatimes did for me was give me the confidence and encouragement to believe that I could pull this off. It’s scary jumping into a project like this by yourself, however the Saunatimes community and resources make you feel supported. Without that, I don’t think I would have taken this on.

To get specific, I found a lot of value in the photos included in the ebook and the Sketchup model. I’m a very visual person, and usually if I see something I can pretty quickly understand the steps I need to take to accomplish it. Also, I followed the Sketchup model to a T as I was framing up my structure. That was incredibly helpful.

Finally, the book points out all the features you might not “need” but you’ll later “want”.  Example, why a change room is important, installing a drain, and wiring volume controls.  I haven’t once said to myself, I wish I would have thought of this or added that.

Jason’s son, asking his dad to toss more water on the rocks

What were the biggest 1-2 challenges for your backyard wood burning sauna building project?

General decision making – Throughout the build I had trouble making decisions regarding the design, materials or construction methods for fear that a wrong turn might derail the project. What helped, was coming to the realization that everything can be fixed (some fixes take longer and might cost more money, but in general there is a fix for everything). Also, I quit trying to plan too many steps ahead. I’d lay in bed pondering how I was going to pull off a certain phase of the build, but when I’d get to that stage of the project it would be clear there was only one viable solution.

Time – As a father of 2 small children it can be difficult to get uninterrupted time to bang away on the sauna. Or if you do, it means that you might be neglecting some of your dad duties. I ended up cutting things out of my normal routine to make time for the build, most significantly was ski/bike training. At first it was difficult to miss my long weekend bike rides, but I quickly settled into my new routine.

My wife and family were very generous throughout this process and the family really rallied around the build. I’m so happy it happened this way. The last thing I wanted was to have a building out back that created resentment and was looked at as “dad’s sauna” as opposed to the “Family’s sauna”

Jason’s family getting ready for sauna

What aspect of your backyard wood burning sauna building project are you most proud of?

I am most proud that I built the structure myself, with a little help from my Old Man, who made the trip up from Central Wisconsin on several weekends at critical points in the build. I was planning on doing a Tuff-Shed or contracting the structure, but quotes for the structure blew a hole in my tight budget. So I started building it from scratch. It was great to bond with my dad while lifting the walls into place as well as during the much-needed roofing tutorial he provided.  I learned so much about general building skills/techniques and I feel like I’m a more well-rounded person because of it.  Also, I added a scalloped bargeboard to give it a European vibe.  It only took a few minutes to cut out with a jig saw but I get lots of compliments on it.

Jason’s sauna changing room, with tongue and groove cear

What did you enjoy most about the build?

A few things come to mind:

  • When I finally got a roof on the structure there was a sense of comfort knowing the building was weatherproof.  I spent many evenings listening to music in the unfinished shed while I admired the progress, and I kept pinching myself as I realized my dream was coming true.  Also, the kids had a blast playing in their new “playhouse”.
  • installing the Tongue and groove Cedar.  I bought a new RYOBI cordless nailer for this job.  At first I was clumsy and unsure of myself, but by the end I was moving fast and finished the entire interior with confidence. I really got into the zone and time flew by.
  • Construction pencils – I bought a box of these on my first visit to Menards.  I always had one tucked into my hat during the build. It allowed me to get into character and pretend I was a real contractor. I know that sounds ridiculous, but there something satisfying about scribbling on your studs and marking your cuts with confident slashes of sturdy pencil. I still find myself using them around the house and my kids like to write with them too.

If you could have a mobile sauna anywhere in the world, where would you bring it and go sauna?

I would like to bring a mobile sauna to Lake Hayward during the Birkie. For those who don’t know, the last few miles of this iconic cross country ski marathon are crossing lake Hayward before finishing on main street in downtown Hayward, WI. 

There would be nothing better than to finish my race, and then walk back down to the lake and celebrate with a beer and a few sauna rounds. Between sauna rounds, I’d cool down on the ice and cheer on the finishers from the later waves.

Jason outside his backyard wood burning sauna

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12 thoughts on “Jason goes from skiing to building his own backyard wood burning sauna”

  1. Sauna looks great, Jason!
    I can’t agree more regarding making a backyard sauna family place. We have a portacrib under the bench in our cool down room that allows us to still enjoy with a wee one (rotating in hot room).
    Thanks for sharing. My favorite posts are seeing what people have built.

  2. Hey there, you’re contact page said I should post on a blog. Here I am! I run a new mobile sauna delivery in MN. Wondering how to connect, and how to get listed on your public sauna map. Thanks!

  3. Sweet build! My wife and I are building a sauna of our own and are taking some inspiration from your post! My question is about the tongue and groove cedar that lines the walls and ceiling. We found a guy that can hook us up with cedar that would be a lot cheaper than purchasing the tongue and groove from our local lumber yards. Is tongue and groove absolutely necessary? Should we attempt to turn the cedar boards into tongue and groove? Or should we just bite the bullet and purchase the togue and groove from the lumber yards?

  4. Hi Aaron:

    I recommend no no on butting cedar planks for hot room. The expansion and contraction is too great, and so you’ll see the foil between the boards. I’ve messed around with 45° miter joints, and even that creates separation, even buckling where the tip of the 45° cut waffles in the wind.

    So, my vote is to bite the bullet. And if you build it right, and purchase a kick ass sauna stove (like the you know what), you will be taking saunas in your sauna for the rest of your life, and you’ll always be able to look at your walls, your craftsmanship, and the clean clear lines of t&g and say to yourself “damn, that saunatimes guy was right, glad I used t&g.. What a dumb ass I was to think I could cut a corner back then… hey, throw some water on the rocks, will ya?!” Sauna on Aaron!

  5. Aaron,
    I built my sauna with finished 1×4’s that were butted together for budgetary reasons. Nice clear lumber that was kiln dried down to 11-13% (local eastern white pine, but don’t tell Glenn that… I love it though!). A few months later, foil was showing between the boards. Inevitable! Only the boards above at rock level and above (electric Harvia Verta heater, YMMV with wood fired) needed to be tightened up. I hung some extra 1x4s from the ceiling in the sauna for several sessions to dry them out, then ripped those boards down for spacers. It took two long afternoons to tighten up the panelling and insert the spacers. I was quite ornery doing the ceiling again for a second time, my shoulders were not happy with me. Since then, everything has stayed tight and is visually nice. If I build again in the future I’d probably spring for cheaper down low (pine planks), and then shell out for cedar T&G up high, but I’m a frugal, anachronistic Yankee.

  6. Jason,

    Sauna looks great. Hoping your enjoying it now that the project is complete, and I’m now ready to start my own and hoping to have it done by the holidays here in Green Bay, WI!

    Couple of quick questions for you and Glenn. Treated framing lumber throughout the structure or did you use standard pine? Also, in the Sauna E-Book I know Glenn you’ve mentioned that the gap under the sauna door and a great stove, (which I’m just about to place my order into Kuuma!) is about all the ventilation you need. That said, there’s quite a few blog posts about ventilation and you now have the vent cover available via the site here. I’d rather put the necessary pieces in place for a vent while I’m roughing in, especially since I’ll be going with metal siding, than wait till everything’s finished. Best to go with a vent or do you feel it’s not needed?

    Let me know whenever you’re able. Thanks!

    Sam

  7. Hi Sam:

    Yes, vents for sure. And Jeff (founder of the Pyzyk Plunge™) summarizes it well in that the topic of ventilation is often over complicated. What I suggest is:
    1. Vent down low fairly near to the Kuuma.
    2. One or two Vents up high, about a foot off the ceiling, opposite wall.

    All 2-3 vents with “chutes” so you can control the action. Low vent pretty much all the time open, and upper vent(s) pretty much all the time open during sauna action.

    There are schools of thoughts that there should be a vent about half way up the wall. The best saunas I have been in in Finland don’t have this.

    Sauna on Sam!

  8. Hi Glenn,

    I have an unfinished brick and stone potting shed in my yard and had a Eureka moment that I could convert it into a sauna. It’s 13″ deep, 9″ wide and 7″ height inside. Not sure if that height will work after insulation and framing. I can send some pics, I’m wondering if your eBook could be adapted to this project.

    Thanks!
    Brook

  9. Hi Brook,

    Yes, my ebook should be of great help for you and this project.

    The important thing for adapting an unfinished brick/stone potting shed is that you need to create a thermal envelope between the stone and the hot room. For this, I would glue and cement screw 2×2’s into the brick material 16″ oc. Then I would rip 1 1/2″ rigid insulation at 14 1/2″ to snugly fit between the cavities. Then foil, etc. as detailed in my ebook.

    That’s the key.

    Sauna on Brook!

  10. Hey Sam,

    I’m loving the sauna and can’t believe how awesome it is! I’ve been using it a ton, and it’s not even cold outside yet, I’m ready for winter!!

    Treated lumber, I only used it for the joists and platform of the build. I also used it for the sill/bottom plates of the walls. However any vertical studs or wall/ceiling framing was untreated.

    Don’t even think about venting until you have the sauna up and rolling. As long as you leave some gap under the hot room door you’re in good shape.

    From there you can use a 4” hole saw and punch in an intake vent and exhaust vent if needed. I got hung up in this too, but the reality is you can’t install it anyways until it’s finished. And you don’t even know what you need until you fire it up a few times.

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