Some back away from installing wood burning sauna stoves, in favor of the more convenient electric sauna stove option. And this is ok. But for those of us who choose the wood stove option, we:
- Enjoy tinkering with the fire. (much like making beer or cooking a meal from scratch).
- Appreciate knowing where our heat comes from (vs. plugged into an electric wire on the grid).
- Embrace the DIY aspect (cutting, splitting, stacking wood, is much like gardening).
Why does wood fired pizza taste better? Why does wood heat feel better? Why do all chefs use cast iron frying pans (vs thin metal). Why is the University of Minnesota collaborating to create SaunaShoes with thermal mass in the sole?
We ask ourselves these questions whilst “ember-izing” on the sauna bench.
If you see a wood pile, can you walk over and identify the species? Are you in tune to how different wood burns? Folks with saunas and wood burning fireplaces in cold climates like Alaska, Minnesota, Canada are in tune. These folks have to be in tune. Proper BTU management is pretty critical. Burn crappy wood, be cold. Burn good wood, stay warm.
- Birch – burns fairly fast, but hot. BONUS: birch bark is nature’s gasoline.
- Red Oak – a great winter burning wood. Long lasting, compact fire, clean hot burn.
- Maple – not as intense as oak, yet similar properties.
- 2nd LAST PLACE: Jack Pine – takes up space in the fire box and emits little in return.
- 1st LAST PLACE: Wet wood, or unseasoned wood, or dried out lifeless wood.
Ever poke your head in construction dumpsters or those haul away green bags? Almost always, they’ve got construction wood in them. Sure, some 2x4s may have nails, but for the most part, there’s tons of potential BTUs heading right for landfills.
Grazing in dumpsters may be below most of us, but a secret pleasure for wood burning sauna enthusiasts is our ability to burn scrap wood material from our building projects. Isn’t it a great feeling to clean up a wood pile and stack it up in the changing room, ready for action? After building this 8×12 sauna, this wood pile is what was left over. That’s a good dozen saunas, gratis.
I love this product. These fire starters are environmentally sound, inexpensive (27 cents each), and they work fantastic. They are simply candle wax and sawdust, wrapped in paper. I put Lifeworks Fire Starters to the test one day this winter: it was 10 below zero. The water in my sauna bucket was frozen brick solid. My wood was ice cold, my sauna stove as cold as the air outside. I lit a fire starter with a match, put it in my sauna stove, added a couple logs, then ran in the house for 1/2 an hour or so (stationary bike). Upon my return, the sauna was 130 degrees and hungry for more wood. I shuffled the coals, threw on another log, then a Rhapsody music playlist, and my sauna was 145 and climbing. I don’t know why folks think wood sauna stoves are a lot of work. Fire starters take the effort out of starting a wood burning sauna stove.
They sell versions of these at Home Depots and hardware stores, where you’d find charcoal and grills and such. I’m not sure if they are as natural and environmentally sound as the ones I use, but I’ve ordered these ‘organic’ ones online here. I don’t use them at my lake cabin sauna, as birch bark is known as nature’s gasoline. At the cabin, with a quick light, I get some birch bark going then add a bit more/thicker birch bark, throw in a couple logs and the Kuuma stove is barking within a couple minutes. In Minneapolis though, in winter especially,
Usually, I’ll start my sauna with a couple pieces of newspaper and some kindling, but damn, when you’re in a hurry or it’s friggin’ cold outside, or you’re getting ready for a sauna party, these fire starters are hard to beat!
When building a sauna, there are three ways to consider setting up your sauna stove:
- Load wood from the outside
- Load wood from the changing room
- Load wood from inside the hot room
Options #1 and #2 involve using a ”throat” add-on to a wood burning sauna stove. Also, one needs to brick around the throat and sauna, usually a three foot border, for fire retardant. In the old days, most saunas were built #1, loading wood from the outside. The main reason for this is that old saunas were inefficient, basically homemade iron boxes that burned hot and fast, requiring a pretty much constant supply of firewood. Finnish ingenuity gave way to the idea that the door to the sauna stove could be steps away from an outdoor wood pile.
As stoves became a bit smaller and somewhat more efficient, people began building wood burning saunas to feed from the changing room. The theory here is that a small amount of firewood could be kept dry in the changing room and added to the stove from there. The main advantage to #2 is that the sauna stove can provide some heat to the changing room. It is estimated that between 10-15% of a sauna stove’s heat comes from the front of the stove.
#3- loading wood from inside the hot room- is my choice. Today’s sauna stoves are very efficient. The Kuuma Stove is so efficient that I can take a sauna with 4 pieces of firewood. By feeding from inside the hot room, I capture 100% of the heat in the hot room, and don’t have to mess around with extensive brick framing. Also, I can monitor the fire from the sauna bench.
We wood burning sauna enthusiasts have to be careful. We can start waving our flag high and mighty about the virtues of a wood stove (vs, electric and especially *gasp* anything to do with an infrared light bulb). But we get it. We understand that heat isn’t heat. Yes, those hell bent on an electric stove can try to tell us that all that matters is a sauna stove’s ability to heat rocks. But we know there is more to it than just heating rocks.
We may be psychosomatic. We may just be hell bent on the awesomeness of chopping wood and carrying water as part of sauna therapy because we are crazy. That feeling we get, in nature, of producing our own fuel in terms of harvested wood from our land may just be a misfire in our brains somewhere. A caveman gene resurfaced because of a bad Leave it to Beaver episode from our youth. So, we overcompensate with a plaid shirt and an axe. Maybe.
We may have a higher than average pyrotechnic tendency. Perhaps we were denied matches in our childhood, so we are driven to making our own free range organic fire starters from candle wax, recycled burlap and sawdust from cabinet makers. We marvel at birch bark, nature’s gasoline, and its ability to get a roaring fire going in our sauna firebox. A quick light and “whoof.” We smile wryly as our sauna stove fire takes hold. tick, tick, tick goes the metal.
We may, if only for a moment, think about the experience of other sauna enthusiasts – those with electric stoves – who at this same moment may be “firing up” their own saunas, yet doing so with just the turn of the dial. Or flick of the switch. Or even a clever app on their smartphone. Aren’t buttons and dials fun? No, we say. They suck. We push buttons and dials all day long.
Try buying airline tickets, for example. Logins and passwords and fill out forms. Hit enter and find the red exclamation points for the boxes you missed. Try renting a car, for example. Try to get into the mindset of a new team of engineers hell bent on adding new buttons, new screens and functions just to make themselves look clever. All at the expense of us users who just want to play the radio. And how about the wood burning sauna stove enthusiast who had to abandon his rental car last week, because the parking brake button wouldn’t shut off. It took 3 drivers from the warehouse and half an hour to throw their arms up and say “it’s broken” with latino accent. And here I thought I was the crazy one who couldn’t find the button to turn off the emergency brake.
But watching flames dance inside our sauna fire box, we are a million miles away from buttons and technology and apps and engineers. We adjust a manual lever that controls the amount of air that feeds the fire in our sauna stove. We reach our hand out and move this lever. Manually. We are in control of our sauna stoves.
We are cavemen who murmur “fire good.” When we sauna, we feel better being far away from screens and apps. Buttons and dials. controls and sensors. We may wear birkenstocks and say “natural heat, man.” We may be told that electric coils produce heat through an electrical current that makes a wire glow and this, in turn, heats our sauna rocks and all is well. But something doesn’t connect us with this formula. Just as “off gassing” is presenting new concerns, beyond too much grain in the gorillas diet at the zoo, we can get worked up with the idea of electric stoves emitting positive ions as a less than natural way to heat our sauna stoves. We don’t throw water on our toaster or toaster oven.
We chuckle at the Electric Appliance Action Committee smear campaign against wood stoves. Asthma suffers on a rampage. Yet none of these folks have ever stepped outside and looked at the chimney of a well built wood fired sauna stove and could tell whether the stove was burning or not. Gasification isn’t just a term for too many beans at dinner. Thanks to decades of tinkering, at least one kick ass sauna stove manufacturer has been able to engineer a sauna stove that burns virtually 100% of all smoke and gasses through the burning process. And all this without any buttons or fancy dials.
But we wood burning sauna stove enthusiasts are just Kool-aid drinkers. What do we know about clean burning electric vs. wood heat? Why do we toss a log into our sauna stove and idle down our burn with a smile? We are just immersed in our own dogma. We feel the wood heat warming our sauna hot rooms and we believe that this heat is a better heat. We can feel wood heat in our bones. We don’t just feel it on our skins.
Electric coils vs. a raging fire. hmm. One produces a deep heat that heats through metal. And rocks. One heat penetrates through the skin and into the core of our bodies. One heat penetrates our tongue and groove paneling, hits foil bubble wrap reflective insulation and penetrates back out into our hot room. One heat produces hot rocks on top of a stove that create steam (löyly) that is different from another- steam that is heavy, soft, and rich.
We’ve taken thousands of saunas, and we could be let into a sauna blindfolded and though we could tell the difference between a sauna heated with a wood stove vs. a sauna heated with an electric stove, we still don’t get it. “All that matters is heating the rocks” we are told. Ok, sorry. We got it all wrong. All our years taking saunas and appreciating the subtle, optimal differences of heat are totally false. We are crazy, we are psychosomatic.
We wood burning sauna stove enthusiasts must be like those vegetarians who won’t eat anything that casts a shadow. We have brainwashed ourselves to believe a myth. Wood heat is the same as electric heat? You sure? I’m sorry! We got it all wrong after all these years! All these thousands of saunas! What do we know about wood heat vs. electric heat, anyway?
God bless electric sauna stoves for allowing us to enjoy sauna wherever OSHA regulations prohibit a wood burning sauna stove. God bless all sauna enthusiasts who have run 240v to their saunas and sauna with health and wellness enthusiasm.
But we wood sauna stove enthusiasts are just crazy. That’s all. We don’t know what we are talking about. We are psychosomatic. We have all drunk too much Kool-aid.
Is heat just heat? No. Heat is not just heat. Wood heat is our heat.
SaunaTimes reader says: I am building a wood sauna stove to place in a barrel sauna. Half will be inside and half out. The insulated chimney will be placed outside top between the end where the feeder door is and the sauna wall. What do you recommend in inches should the chimney be placed away from the sauna wall?
I say: This is a bit of uncharted waters for me. I always build a sauna with stove feed from the hot room. The method of feeding the sauna stove fire box from the outside or from the changing room is a traditional way to go. Traditional in that all old school sauna stoves were built inefficiently. They burned a shit load of wood and most of the heat went up the chimney in the form of smoke. As up to 70% of the BTUs in a stick of firewood is contained within the burning gasses (ie smoke), old school wood burning sauna stoves required constant feeding.
Today, thanks to technology, and the tenacious tinkering of third generation Finns, most wood burning sauna stoves are built much more efficiently. How do we know? Just go outside and look up at the chimney of a quality built wood burning sauna stove in action. After you light a wood burning sauna stove, with dry kindling or a Nate’s Firestarter, you will see smoke coming out of the chimney. But after 5-10 minutes, you won’t see any smoke. “Did the fire go out?” No! What you are NOT seeing is smoke. But if you look carefully you will see the invisible heat trails.
What’s going on here? Because of gasification, all the smoke is burning within the heat chamber. This is the significant reason why a guy can take a sauna using only an armful of firewood. This is the significant reason why anal retentive sauna envious neighbors are not going to freak out when you make the commitment to build your very own AUTHENTIC sauna in your backyard. In cities, a 1′ side yard setback requirement is building code for external structures. This goes for pretty much any urban building planning rule book, but call innocently – without tipping your sauna building hat – for the ruling in your area.
Stove pipes require non-combustible material around them. So, as far as non combustible material adjacent to chimneys? If you are running your chimney to the outside and feeding your stove from the outside, you will need that entire wall to be block, ie. non combustible material. Also, keep in mind, whatever percent of your stove and stove pipe surface area is NOT going to be in your hot room will reduce the efficiency of your heating by that exact percent. In different words, stoves that feed from the hot room capture all the heat potential of the stove.
What materials are conductors and what are insulators? Cement is a heat conductor. Wood is a heat insulator. Conductors take away heat. This is why your bare feet freeze when standing on a cement patio between sauna rounds. Insulators hold heat. This is why your bare feet want to be on a wood deck between sauna rounds.
Your cement block wall is a conductor of heat, not an insulator. This means your block wall is going to suck the heat out of the hot room like crazy until the cement block is hot. Then, your cement block is going to want to cool your hot room because the other side of the block is cold as hell. Hate to be such a downer, but all these are important considerations.
SaunaTimes reader says: I’m in the process of building my outdoor sauna. Do you have any experience or knowledge of the Harvia legend 150 Stoves? Also, what is your experience with municipalities in general bylaws surrounding outdoor wood burning stoves in Canada or the US? I tried doing some research even called the fire department and the district and nobody could give me the bylaw. They all defaulted to the standard, you can’t burn on an open stove or fire pit etc but when pressed on a sauna they weren’t sure?
I’m wondering what happens if my neighbor calls the district by laws to complain, unlikely but just wondering what other people experience has been.
I say: Harvia 150 may be a decent stove. It is imported (hopefully) from Finland and is well road tested over there. I like how it is made with sauna rocks surrounding the heat chamber. Lots of thermal mass and Löyly potential.
Municipalities/laws: I hear you. Outdoor saunas fall into a gray area and authorities shrug their shoulders. My approach (too loosey goosey for many) is don’t ask, don’t tell. I appreciate your concern of neighbor whistle blowing and complaining, yet, what’s to complain about?
The only possible neighbor issue besides “they’re having more fun than us” is a complaint about smoke from the wood stove.
The cool thing is that modern wood stoves are (or should be) engineered for gasification – the burning off of the smoke gasses during combustion.
I have built a bunch of saunas, two for myself, all using the Kuuma Wood Stove from Tower, MN. Daryl’s stoves are all UL approved. This alone may placate some nosey neighbor or city inspector. More practically, after lighting the Kuuma stove, smoke will appear out the chimney for five minutes or so, then it will disappear completely, when the fire box becomes hot enough for gasification to kick in.
Looking out a backyard window, I will have to stare awhile at my sauna stove chimney, looking for those Sahara desert type heat waves, to make sure the sauna stove is still going.
Anyhow, big tangent there. Long story short: build it. If neighbors don’t wander over in their bathrobes with towel and nICE mug in hand, they should have nothing to complain about if you use a well made wood burning sauna stove.