Have you ever cooked with a cast iron pan vs. a thin teflon pan? All quality restaurants use thick heavy cast iron pans. The food cooks evenly. The heat is more controlled. “The food tastes better.” Those into food can tell the difference.
For those of us in cold climates, we know the difference in our homes. Baseboard electric can heat a room, but it’s a different type of heat than, say, heat created by radiators. Why? Radiators radiate heat, baseboards heat air. WTF does this mean?
Why is it that when your feet are cold as you get into a cold car in Minneapolis, your feet are still cold by the time you get to Duluth, but the inside car thermometer says 70 degrees the whole way?
For those of us fortunate enough to have radiant floor heating in our homes, we understand that when we put our shoes on, our shoes are warm. And we understand that we are benefiting from an “even heat.” Everything is warm, not just the air. We feel this kind of heat in our bones, not just on our skin.
Uponor, inc. is probably the leading international provider of radiant heat products in the World. Their North American headquarters is in Apple Valley, Minnesota. Though they purchased the Swedish company Wirsbo, they smartly keep the name as Wirsbo as known as radiant heat much like Kleenex is known as bathroom tissue. Uponor is traded on the Finnish stock exchange. If their corporate headquarters has a sauna, I’ll bet their sauna stove is a wood burning sauna stove, and that senior executives sit on the bench with staff employees and discuss the advantages of radiant heat through thermal mass.
Installing radiant heat is a big deal, and costs more. Running PEX pipe and pouring over with concrete is the “A” job. The cement slab becomes the radiator. (Thermal mass).
But those on a budget usually cross this option off and go with forced air. Ductwork is cheap, after all. But the homeowner will feel the compromise of their decision every day thereafter. Same with sauna.
Installing a sauna stove, an electric sauna stove heater can be pulled out from the box and carried into position with one hand. An electric sauna stove heater can be hung on the wall with two screws. A wood burning sauna stove, however, is a beast. The Kuuma stove needs to be wheeled into position on a cart, and with two people. A wood burning sauna stove needs to sit on a patio block. The Kuuma stove is a beast and this is before installing the 100 pounds of firebrick that come in a cardboard box that can easily rip apart (but Daryl Lamppa reinforces the cardboard box with duct tape). And don’t forget the 100 pounds of sauna rocks collected along the way.
But those that “don’t want to mess with wood” usually cross this option out and go with an electric stove. Flipping a switch is easy, after all. But the sauna user will feel the compromise of their decision every day thereafter.
I know. I know. This is dangerous territory. An electric sauna stove heats rocks. Rocks create thermal mass. Löyly (steam created from water being tossed on sauna rocks) is nice, you get a good sweat, so what’s the big deal? Well, those that are WAY into sauna understand their bodies throughout the sauna process. We feel the heat warm our bodies, not just our skin. We understand that the time to leave the hot room is when the thought of a cold plunge or an ice cold shower is “about the best idea you’ve ever heard.” (copyright, Clint).
The positive effects of sauna are greater realized when the entire body is heated. Evenly. Throughout. Thermal mass makes this happen. Folks can publish studies on the positive effects of sauna, and this is wonderful, yet the positive effects of sauna are improved with a better hot room experience and better cool down. The rubber band theory of sauna is realized through this process.
Some of us have taken sledge hammers to their infrared light bulb closets, at best a gateway drug to good heat. In places where wood burning sauna stoves are not practical, we understand. There are decent electric sauna stoves. Ones that do a good job of heating rocks, creating thermal mass. That said, as you consider your own sauna build, think again about a wood fired sauna stove.
You build your sauna one time. Most people cook with teflon frying pans. Most people heat their homes with forced air. And most people want to flip a switch with an electric sauna stove. Are you most people? That’s ok.
- Easy to use: Flip a switch, or use the programming device.
- Easier to install, no chimney stack.
- No red tape with insurance company or fidgety building inspector.
- Sauna stoves heat rocks, who cares how they’re heated?
- Cleaner, easier to maintain.
- Authentic, natural way to heat.
- Brings forward the ‘up north’ cabin vibe.
- Promotes the outdoor experience and the concept of escape.
- Negative ions are realized through wood burning.
- Wood burning saunas vent better, more naturally.
- More radiant heat for better “ahhhh” loyly production.
I didn’t list that electric sauna stoves heat quicker, as I can personally attest that my wood burning saunas (all three) heat up about the same time as electric sauna stoves, maybe even less time. Nate’s Firestarters help, custom made by a Barton School student. They are so easy, an 11 year old can do it.
There is a whole pile of opinion both ways on this subject but here’s the bottom line: a wood heated sauna stove makes for a better sauna than an electric sauna. Why?
- Wood heat penetrates deeper, electric heat can feel like sitting in a toaster oven. (my opinion, supported by others).
- Wood heat offers a fresher sauna. A fire needs oxygen to burn. As a wood fired sauna burns, it cycles fresh air into the sauna room.
- Wood fired sauna stove accepts water on the rocks (löyly) better than an electric stove. Wood heats with thermal mass, where electric coils in an electric stove tend to burn hot and thin (see toaster oven, above).
- Wood heat contains negative ions. This is mumbo jumbo for some future post/discussion.
- Wood heat is free and off the grid. Plus, with an efficient wood burning sauna stove like a Kuuma Stove, you can burn efficiently and clean.
For many, the decision whether to go with a wood fired sauna or electric heated sauna comes down to a simple preference: Dials or draft?
Dials refer to the control panel mounted on the outside of our hot room, similar to a control panel for heating our house. Newer technology allows for wifi access, such that one can “fire up” their sauna remotely. Some take great satisfaction with their sauna heater “app:” being able to tell their sauna stove to heat up while driving home from work, or out at a bar. “Who wants to take a sauna?” and with a couple swipes, viola, sauna is heating.
Draft refers to the manual damper on a wood fired sauna stove, a simple manual lever that controls the amount of air entering the fire box which allows the user to control the burn rate of the fire in the firebox. The physical, tactile control of the burn offers many a joyous feeling (in an ever increasing tech driven world).
As sauna becomes more popular, it is interesting to see people’s preferences – dial or draft – as a representation of one’s values and lifestyle. Those into “apps” and gadget technology take comfort and pleasure in looking at a screen when it comes to thinking about their upcoming sauna session. Those more into axes and analog technology take comfort and pleasure in looking at their woodpile when it comes to thinking about their upcoming sauna session.
In rural areas, like island cabins or rural hunting retreats, wood fired saunas are the essential choice. On the edges of the grid, wood is plentiful, electricity is still relatively novel and often is still unreliable, as it comes and goes with the wind. In urban areas, like apartment buildings and rooftop hotels, electric sauna heaters are preferred.
Serious sauna enthusiasts will “wrestle to the ground” rationale as to why wood heat as a better heat than electric heat. Regular listeners to the podcast Sauna Talk have heard this sentiment from the voices of sauna experts like Risto Elomaa, President of the International Sauna Association and Jarmo Lehtola, a lifelong sauna enthusiast. Those that have taken thousands of saunas in hundreds of different saunas develop a deeper understanding of how heat works as a function of raising body temperature to induce sweat. Good sweat not from toaster oven heat, but dense penetrating heat.
There are technological implications such as negative ions and fresh air ventilation that come into play via different heat sources to heat our sauna hot rooms. And we aren’t talking infrared light bulbs, we are talking about sauna: an external heat source that heats stones which allow for water to be tossed on these stones to create steam.
Some like the tactile, analog relationship with cutting, splitting, stacking wood. Others consider this drudgery and would rather flip a switch. Some can be blindfolded and let into a sauna hot room and can immediately feel the difference of wood heat vs. electric heat (thermal mass via radiant heat). Good heat is easily felt, but harder to understand because Lampömassa can be subtle yet very powerful. Others may think this is gibberish.
Finally, there is a deal breaker for many who choose to go with a wood burning sauna heater for their sauna project. The traditional “old school” consideration is that sauna is both a noun (the place) as well as a verb (the experience). Sauna (the place) is often a separate structure, no electricity whatsoever. When we sauna (the experience), a simple candle illuminates the room, and we welcome the warm dancing flame across the wood lined walls and the crackling of fire from the sauna stove, which we created ourselves from firewood, the heat source harvested and created ourselves with our own two hands. This contributes to the relaxing nature of sauna, a place to completely reset, restore and rejuvenate.
For many, the chopping of wood for fueling our sauna heaters and the carrying of water to our sauna for bathing and löyly (steam) is an indescribable benefit to enjoyment and fulfillment. The health benefits of sauna, from the experience of making heat as much as the practice of enjoying heat.
SaunaTimes reader says: Hi Glenn, I ordered your e-book a couple of years ago and am finally (hopefully) getting started on my sauna build. I am converting a stand alone shed that is on the edge of our yard. My question is on the use of an electric versus a wood sauna. Without a double I love the thought of a traditional wood fired sauna. My fear is that the time to build and tend the fire to get it up to temperature will be a deterrent from daily use.
I like to paddle on Puget Sound early in the morning and end my paddle with a swim in the cold sea water. I can’t think of a better way to end this ritual than with a sauna. My thought is that with an electric sauna, I could simply turn it on and have it be warm when I get back. With a wood fired I would have to spend some time tending the fire before I leave. The same would be true when I get home from work before bed.
With a wood fire, once I lay the fire and light it, do I need to come back and damp everything down or can I light it and leave. Any thoughts on this?
I say: I appreciate your situation and can relate. The thought of a morning paddle and swim in cold sea water, then sauna: sign me up. Wellbeing with a capital W. I am pleased that you are advancing with your own sauna build. Just because Dylan made the decision to go electric doesn’t mean you have to.
I have taken more than my share of saunas in both wood and electric, and I am awaiting the day when there is more “clinical evidence” as to the virtues of wood fired vs. electric. I don’t subscribe to the theory that “heat is heat.” I am biased.
Let me share with you two equivalents to your Puget Sound paddle scenario. At my cabin, on an island in Northern Minnesota, as afternoon settles in, I fire up the sauna stove then hike our island trails for an hour or so. When I return, the stove is hungry for another log, and the temp is North of 140f. I pull the coals forward, toss on a fresh log, tune down the damper, then head up to the cabin to change and grab a water, I come back to the sauna, and it is well up to serving temperature: 160f and climbing.
At my house in Minneapolis, I have the virtue of working from home. I am thinking fondly of those winter days when the local news is aghast with “a winter storm warning is in effect.” It’s amazing how accurate weather forecasting has become. I look out my office window and get giddy as the first snowflakes start to fall, right on time.
As I work away in my wool socks, outside is quickly turning into a winter wonderland: inches of fresh snow. If I really want to rub it in, before closing down my work computer, I will make a quick visit to the Minneapolis/St. Paul traffic cam website, click on a couple live highway webcams just to see the mess on the roads.
I’ll change into my cross country ski gear, step outside into the winter wonderland, out to my backyard sauna/garage to fire up the sauna stove. I may wax up the skis or shovel the sauna deck for a couple minutes. Then, I will head back into the sauna, making sure that I have a good fire going in the sauna stove, adjust the damper to “stun” (80% open), click on my skis and venture out my backyard, down the unplowed streets into our neighborhood for a ski on fresh snow. Those out snow shoveling always seem to give me a smile and a nod. That affirmation of “when life gives you lemons..”
Returning from a ski, retracing my tracks back to my backyard, the vibe is not dissimilar to your vibe from paddling the Puget Sound. We have created the endorphin rush and satisfaction of exercise. We are cold and sweaty at the same time. Our bodies are tired yet rejuvenated from our exercise in Nature. It is hard to describe the added level of satisfaction from exercise in nature, especially knowing that our sauna stove is clicking away, rising to temperature, back at our ranch.
Knocking off the snow from my ski boots, I step into my sauna. The stove is hungry for another log, and the temperature is North of 140f. I pull the coals forward, toss on a fresh log, tune down the damper, then head into the house to change and grab a water, I come back to the sauna and it is well up to serving temperature: 160f and rising. It is one thing to “hit the sauna” after a workout at a health club, but it is an entirely different thing to settle into our own backyard sauna after a workout in nature. Everything is better. The heat is better.
Chefs use cast iron pans vs. aluminum pans. Heavy wood fired sauna stoves create more thermal mass. Those committed to 240v and a turn of a dial drink a different Kool-Ade, but as the heat starts to penetrate naturally into our bodies (unlike from *gasp* an infrared light bulb closet), blood starts flowing to all our extremities. Natural wood heat envelopes us like a warm blanket.
Maybe we are alone, or maybe we have a friend or so join us. Either way, we are miles beyond a deadbeat health club sauna. We have recreated nature and we are taking a sauna in our sauna. No yahoos join our hot room stretching in their work out gear with Lady Gaga blaring out of their headphones. We set our own vibe. Maybe some music in the sauna to pour more into our “flow state.”
We toss water on the rocks and take it in. ‘ahhhhhhhhh.” Could this be the greatest advantage of a wood burning sauna vs. electric? Is steam steam? Finns call steam from a wood burning sauna stove “soft löyly.” Could this be the best moment of our sauna session? It is hard to describe the feeling of good steam that is created from water being tossed on sauna rocks. Soft steam, not spicy. We understand how some people don’t like sauna, when their exposure to sauna is from a health club sauna after some yahoo douses the electric stove with water. The steam bites and hurts. Not so in my own sauna. We take in the steam. When we surrender, we win.
Where do we go after a sauna round if our sauna is not in nature? With our own backyard sauna, nature follows us. We see our own landscape from an entirely new light, as we exit the hot room, steam billowing off our bodies. After a jump into a cold lake, a cold shower, snow angels, avanto, or a simple dump of ice cold water over our heads, we are hit head on with euphoria.
“Oh, I could never do that” is only something said by someone who has become a tropical fish in their own environment. What a shame.
Temperature extremes open up all kinds of goodness. Thanks to Wim Hof, studies are in the works providing the world the clinical proof that exposing ourselves to cold has major health benefits. Until then, because we don’t have to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, we authentic sauna enthusiasts are left to our own empirical knowledge of how awesome it feels to hang out in the garden all misty wet with rain, after a cold plunge, between sauna rounds. The best part? We get to repeat this all again. And again. 3 sauna rounds. As we settle into round 3, we can pull the coals forward in our sauna stoves, harnessing all the BTUs from our burn.
Thanks to our consciousness and understanding of the principles of fire, we get to know our wood burning sauna stoves and maybe because we have taken ownership to the process of creating heat, we enjoy the heat that much more. Maybe.
I don’t think so. Is wood heat better because we want it to be? I don’t think so. Does wood fired pizza taste better because we saw it being made by a pizza operator holding a long handled wood peel? I don’t think so.
I will go down swinging promoting wood fired sauna stoves. My sauna stoves get up to serving temperature just as fast as electric. Faster in winter. The trick, like with any fire, is honing a system that includes proper kindling and dry seasoned wood. We ignite our wood fired sauna stoves, let them rage for 5 mins or so (as we lace up our hiking shoes or ski boots), close down the ash pan, and let the stove do its work. The trick is to come back at the right time (when there is still fuel in the fire box) to pull our coals forward, reload, and let the stove do its work. The trick is, like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, to understand our sauna stoves and appreciate their mechanics.
A wood fired sauna stove? Yes. Hands down.