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What I Learned from Building an Outdoor Sauna with a Wood Burning Stove

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Guest Post Series continues.  Part II with Russ, who first shared his corbel system to support sauna benches here.  And given his building skill and meticulous attention to detail, we thought it a good idea to bring Russ back to share:

What I Learned from Building an Outdoor Sauna with a Wood Burning Stove

  1. Plan the whole space, not just the sauna footprint. You’ll need a deck, patio or other lounging area to rest between rounds in the hot room. You may also want to install an outdoor shower of some sort – and that should be easily winterized if you live in a cold climate.
  2. Plan the interior of your sauna carefully, so that windows from the hot room see the outdoors directly, or indirectly through a window in the door to the hot room, which is aligned with a window on the world. Also consider cross ventilation in the changing room, including retractable screen doors that work well in confined spaces.
  3. Carefully consider whether you want to build an outdoor structure out of materials you procure, or hire a shed building company. There are many advantages to building your own structure, and much satisfaction from doing so. But it will take much longer than you think, if you aren’t a builder. Do-it-yourselfers will spend a lot of time seeking advice on materials and construction techniques, not to mention permitting issues and code requirements. They’ll also become very familiar with local lumber yards or big box stores, and they’ll need a truck to haul materials. Without a truck they may have to pay delivery fees for materials chosen by vendors, who may use this to dispose of materials no one would select for themselves.
    Would I built it again – YES! It was a lot of fun, and became a collaborative undertaking. Also, it justified purchasing new tools, e.g. a portable table saw for ripping. I already had a chop saw, but my executive committee readily conceded to my requests for new tools, and paid the freight.

    the principal Hanson Sauna builders: dad on the left, Russ in the center, and his son on the right.
  4. Whether you build a structure, or order one, site preparation is critical, especially – but not only – for the sauna structure itself. You need a site that will drain, but you also want one that is level for the structure itself. The right mix of gravel is the answer. Talk to locals who haul foundation gravel for a living. As for the sauna itself, I recommend installing a rodent screen of ½” x ½” wire mesh under the entire structure if you have woodchucks in the vicinity. Otherwise they will chuck all the wood a woodchuck can chuck, if a woodchuck could chuck wood. Your hot room may be too ventilated without this precaution.
  5. The pitch of your roof should be 6/12 or more. Otherwise you will be hard pressed to install the attic insulation shield that is a standard part of fireproofing for the chimney. The saving grace is that the AIS can protrude through the roof for a few inches, as the boot can accommodate it. FYI, with a steeper pitch the changing room can accommodate a loft, as Glenn shows in one of his designs.Russ’s 8×12 sauna ready for action on a late summer day.
  6. Before you panel inside the sauna – and before you insulate – settle on the location of light fixtures, switches, and outlets. Run the wire before you panel the inside of the sauna, even if your executive committee has not settled on exact locations, leaving enough wire to accommodate nearby locations. Do the same for speakers, although Bluetooth speakers make this optional.
    • More importantly, decide on a source of power. Solar and wind provide DC, which points in the direction of LED lighting, and more generally, DC appliances. This entails a controller and a battery, but no converter.
    • Solar or wind power can be run through a controller, and into a battery, and then be converted to AC. This is more expensive, and includes more parts that could fail.
    • AC power feed to the sauna is a third, and often the easiest, option – until you need to rent and operate a trencher, in order to comply with a dizzying array of codes for wiring detached structures. Note that detached structures may require their own load center, with 4-wire connections to a ground-fault breaker in the main box.

      Russ’s hot room interior.
      Note the meticulous bench construction.
  7. Within the sauna, make sure the hot room is only 7’ high, even if you double the top plate in order to interlock the wall corners. This will ensure good stapling surfaces for the foil, and nailing surfaces for cedar paneling. If you build your own structure, be sure to incorporate nailing surfaces for the ends of cedar panels.
    FYI, if possible, identify a local source of tongue and groove cedar, especially if that source allows you to pick your own boards. This is especially important for cedar 2” x4” lengths for your benches. You won’t find many knot-free 2”x4” at the big boxes.
  8. Record the location of your floor joists, so that you can avoid them when installing a floor drain in the hot room. A photo of the initial framing is helpful.
  9. Consider drip edges that cover the joint between wall and cement board for the flooring. This will require a slight bevel on the underside of the drip edge to accommodate the upward angle of floor boards sloping down to the drain.
  10. A squeegie is effective in leveling vinyl cement on horizontal surfaces, including cement floor boards, but also corner fireproofing before the cement boards are installed vertically.
  11. Don’t sweat the placement of the stove. Locate the chimney within the rafters, and then align the stove, having installed a pad of patio blocks broad enough to accommodate various stove placements. It is much easier to move the stove to the chimney than the chimney to the stove.
  12. Try to match the height of the duckboard flooring with the patio blocks under the stove and threshold into the hot room so as to minimize the chance of stubbing toes.
  13. Don’t sweat the elevation of the stove; it can always be blocked up on bricks or stone.
  14. Do sweat fire protection of the area around the stove. Two layers of cement board, separated by a gap of 1”, is recommended. Two layers separated by 2” on the ceiling is preferred. This is in addition to any heat shields on the stove.
  15. Burn oak, maple, and ash, if you can, in the sauna stove. Dispose of ashes responsibly. Some say ashes are good fertilizer for trees, but they also concentrate heavy minerals.
  16. Stack fire wood outside the sauna artistically, and preferably in the shape of fish, ships, or other nautical phenomenon. Give free reign to your artistic talents here, though you will have to take sides on fierce Scandinavian debates as to whether firewood should be stacked with bark side up or down!

    Russ’s 8×12 wood burning sauna stove almost completed and ready for action on a late summer day.
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26 Comments

26 thoughts on “What I Learned from Building an Outdoor Sauna with a Wood Burning Stove”

  1. I would be remiss if I didn’t thank Glenn for encouraging and advising me while I built our sauna. I bought Glenn’s e-book, and then learned that it came with rapid, thoughtful advice in response to questions about how I ought to proceed –and warnings about what to avoid, or how different challenges might be surmounted. We have the sauna of our dreams, thanks to Glenn’s plans and his real-time advice, which no one else offers. So, the most important lesson I learned from building an outdoor, wood-burning, sauna is : Ask Glenn! He’ll advise, and most of all encourage, you how to build your own sauna, even if you live far from Finland.

  2. Like a good tennis match, I enjoy engaging with folks who are engaged with the sauna building process. Every once in awhile, someone comes up with a decent question or two, which may lead to a point of clarification, or an idea which I can better clarify in my ebook, which improves the book for the next sauna enthusiast.

    Goal: More kick ass saunas in the world (like Russ’s).

    Is it your turn?

  3. Hi,
    I’m building my sauna right now and I intend to use a wood burning stove. However, I can’t seem to find a definitive answer on internal/external wood feed. I would prefer to do internal feed but do I need to connect an air intake from outside the hot room? I’d appreciate any assistance on this issue.

  4. I have limited yard space and am using electric heat (I live in a cloudy valley and we choke out with out wood-burning neighbors in the winters). For ease of electric lines and privacy from the apartments surrounding, I’d like to build it half under a 60 foot cedar tree. Anyone know whether it’s ok to have the sauna shaded and partly under a tree? There would be limbs close to it and above it with a foot or so of clearance. Will the heat affect the tree?
    Can’t find any info on line; help appreciated.

  5. If you’re using an electric sauna stove, tree limbs close to your sauna building will have no effect. Tuck it in there and go to town.

  6. Love this site! I’m building a 5’ x 7’ sauna in a 16’x16’ screened porch that I’m converting into a three seasons room. Due to the perimeter necessary for a Kuuma wood stove, the low bench on the long wall will have to be short, lest it run too close to the stove. I have to put the door on the short wall, opposite the stove. I was thinking maybe I could run the low bench in an L with the short wall section having a piece that can drop down in front of the door when in use (either on a hinge or just a removable insert). Is this ever done, or too much of a no no from a safety standpoint (blocking the door)? Also, it looks like a 7’ ceiling is 1.5” too low for the Kuuma’s required clearance (53.5” above 32” tall Kuuma is 85.5” and my ceiling is 84”). I’d hate to have to raise the ceiling if I don’t have too. Finally, is the small or medium Kuuma best for this size sauna, given that it will also serve to warm the larger room by leaving sauna door open on occasion? Thanks! Glenn, I’ll ship you some beer once this project is over.

  7. I have a workman build an outdor sauna but he didn’t bother to prepare and level the ground so he build a pier foundation with high studs. The result is a sauna that is too far off the ground, it looks ridiculous. Help! Can he cut the posts/studs and lower the sauna, suggestions on how to do it? He is still finishing building …

  8. For sure, Patricia!!

    Do it now, or forever you’ll be holding your peace. Get that structure down as close to grade as you can. You’ll be stepping up and down ever sauna round from here til kingdom come. He can get a couple car jacks and borrow a steel beam. Take a deep breath and a sawzall and go to town.

  9. Great to hear…the sauna looks more like a shrine or a sacrificial site…ugh!!! Can the sauna be lowered without weakening the structure? How many men are needed to do it….he doesn’t want to do of course, but I am thinking holding off the last check until he does…

    What is a steel beam….so I get hold of one….ready to do it and thanks the encouragement, I won’t be happy for sure!

  10. Ship lap cedar can work just fine. I built a sauna using cedar milled as ship lap. One suggestion, and it is detailed in my ebook: consider acclimating your cedar paneling. To do this, cut your paneling 1″ long, fire up your sauna stove, bring in your paneling, and take a sauna with your paneling. when you take a sauna with the wood, you don’t have to worry about it talking back to you. But it will acclimate to your hot room. Then next day, take out the paneling, make your final cuts and apply the paneling to your hot room.

  11. Do you think there would be any issues in just converting a regular wood stove, designed for small spaces, into a sauna stove? Ie – just placing rocks on top? Or is there something unique about stoves specifically marketed for sauna usage ? Thank you

  12. Ben:
    You can start with this, but investing in a quality – made for sauna – stove is really worth it, my opinion.

    The issue with regular wood stoves, not designed for sauna, is that they are vulnerable to cracking when water hits the metal, and they take a long time to heat rocks.

  13. Hi Glenn, So in your Ebook you show two ways of using cement board for finishing off the stove area. In one the skim coated cement board goes to the ceiling and covers the portion of the ceiling around the stove pipe. In the other images, the cement board stops halfway up the wall and is not on the ceiling. Just curious your thoughts on this as I’m currently at this point in my build.

    Thanks Ian

  14. Hi Ian:

    You’re quite observant! The difference here is about how close one wants to get to the super conservative UL setback and standards. I can send you photos of my cabin sauna (1996) and backyard sauna (2003) that are very much in non compliance with no (zero) cement board – all t&g cedar surround.

    When I build saunas for others, i run the cement board floor to ceiling, then a second dose with 1″ air gap 6″ or so off the floor. And also a 3’square piece around the ceiling stove pipe adapter. When I build my own saunas, well, I don’t go to that extreme.

    So, that’s the deal. My thoughts on this is how “safety first” you are comfy with. And another thing, I always use single wall stove pipe. More conservative sauna builders use double wall stove pipe.

    I know this doesn’t directly answer your question above, but hopefully it gives you a perspective on the gig.

  15. Any concerns with cement or stove board off gassing chemicals in the sauna? Trying to decide what is the best material for heat shield. Maybe a little over cautious on this but I know there’s a lot of nasty stuff in modern building materials. Thanks

  16. I know. It’s a battle out there. Aaron, maybe you could have a second career bringing to market an organic cement compound that is used to make organic natural cement board and skim coat material? It’s not that far fetched.

    I sleep better at night knowing that cement cures pretty damn hard and stable, but it’s not always a full nights sleep.

  17. Not sure if my questions came through, so disregard if I’m repeating info.
    Three questions:
    How are the spacers held in place while applying second layer of Durock?
    You mentioned installing a vent to the side of/behind the stove for air. If everything is covered in two layers of Durock (with 1″ spacer), how do you install that properly? The inside layer behind the stove will be 6-12″ from the floor, so do I just vent through the first layer where the inside layer is elevated? Do I raise it 6-12″ on the side wall, too, or is it fine just to double-layer behind the stove?
    Lastly, I’m definitely perplexed as to how the 2 layers of Durock on the ceiling with a 2″ spacer would work and wondering how that transitions butted up against 3/4″ T&G. You suggest one layer, so that’s what I was planning on.
    Thanks again. I appreciate you.

  18. Hi Jules:
    Spacers between 2 layers of durarock. Many cut copper pipe to act as washers. This is a good system.

    Double layer behind the stove. Yes, this is fine. But an air gap between the two layers, inner layer starting above the floor as you mention, allows for good action in terms of keeping intense heat from the wall.

    ceiling: 2″ is too much of an air gap. You really only need 3/4″ air gap. One layer in the ceiling is fine. The trick is non combustibles.

  19. I decided to build an 8×12 sauna June 16 and just completed it September 21
    It was my summer project and I loved it
    Would do it again no problem
    See pics on Facebook
    Merv Russell

  20. Right on Merv! As you know, your health and wellness backyard retreat will be starting to resonate even deeper as the weather cools. Thanks for chiming in.

  21. Hi Glenn,
    I have been following your ebook with great success! I currently am working on the stove corner. I have a double layer of Duraboard with 1″ of airspace between the two. I also have a Duraboard square on the ceiling above the stove. I have 56″ of clearance between stove and ceiling and plan on using single wall pipe. I can’t visualize how to install a Duraboard heat shield on the ceiling, if I even need one. Do I cut an opening in the Duraboard and feed the the stove pipe through it? Do I need a clearance of any kind between the pipe and opening? I am spinning my wheels and winter is coming! Any advice would be appreciated!
    Thanks,
    Kevin

  22. Kevin:

    I’ve spun the same wheels myself. For the ceiling, truth be told, both my cabin sauna, 1996 and backyard sauna, 2003, both have t&g ceiling above the stove, not cement board. When building saunas for others, i’ve always applied a 3’x3′ piece of cement board in the stove corner, and cutting out the 12″x12″ opening for ceiling adapter. It’s tried and true. and technically, no air gap up there where cement board screws to ceiling rafter.

  23. Not sure if this has been discussed, apologies in advance if so. I’m currently finishing up my 8×8 outdoor sauna It is constructed with 2×6 framing and I’ve insulated it with R22 Roxul. I have 1×6 t&g cedar to clad the inside with and also have foil vapour barrier.

    Do you recommend an air space between the vapour barrier and the backside of the cladding? I’m think i will apply the vapour barrier and then strap it out 3/8″ or so with cedar strips before cladding the inside.

    Thanks in advance

  24. Hi Jaron:

    No problem, and well communicated! The air gap topic is wrestled to the ground in my ebook. Bottom line: run an air gap if your cladding is non moisture happy species such as spruce, aspen, basswood. No air gap needed if cedar cladding.

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