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Good sauna vs. bad sauna: one simple way to tell the difference

light steam graphic

Around the world, and in North America particularly, sauna is becoming exceedingly popular.

As with anything that becomes popular, there becomes a race to the bottom in terms of compromised quality, suspect claims, louder marketing, etc.

More than ever, we can benefit from a simple objective standard as to what is a good sauna. And we think we’ve found it.

When one tosses water on the rocks, if the feeling is:

  • “aaaaahhhh” = you are in a good sauna.
  • “eeeewwww” = you are in a bad sauna.

Careful note: If you are not allowed to toss water on the rocks, you are not in a sauna.*

How is “aaaahhh” the ultimate gauge of a good sauna?

The steam from water being tossed on sauna rocks (löyly) is not just an integral component of good sauna. Löyly is how we connect to the deep, resonating physical and spiritual experience of sauna.

When we toss water on the rocks, close our eyes, and take in the wave of steam, we are listening to the soul of the sauna.

The critical elements of a good sauna speak to us.

  1. Ventilation – Steam mixes with the fresh air circulating. We breathe deep and feel the oxygenization and thermal quantum negative ionization of water vapor in a way similar only to standing under a waterfall. Very special.
  2. Construction – Steam interacts with the components and mechanics of our sauna. Are we feeling the interaction of quality wood paneling or cheap ass paneling? Do we have walls reflecting heat back into the room, or some lame cardboard effort? Is our hot room well proportioned relative to our sauna stove, or are we waiting for steam as if it were a pizza delivery? (finally showing up cold and clammy).
  3. Lämpömqssa – Steam resonates with density and mass. A sauna stove with a ton of rock, HOT rock, acts differently than a sauna stove with a small amount of rock. Some new style sauna stoves that come with a lot of rock surrounding the stove are there mainly for show, giving the psychological benefit of mass. If all the rocks aren’t able to produce steam, well, those rocks are useless. Lämpömassa extends to the stove surround. A good sauna extends heat beyond the stove to the surround, building density. Solid benches create lämpömassa.

These three elements are the foundation for good sauna. And a good sauna is determined by the feeling we get when tossing water on the rocks.

  • “aaaaahhhh” = you are in a good sauna.
  • “eeeewwww” = you are in a bad sauna.

Every sauna has its own soul. The soul of a sauna speaks through löyly. When tossing water on the rocks, a good sauna rewards you with “aaaahhhh.”

Good sauna thoughts written on birch bark (between sauna rounds).

*there are marketing hucksters selling “saunas” that are not saunas. A sauna, by definition and centuries old practice:

Mariam Webster Dictionary definition of sauna
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8 thoughts on “Good sauna vs. bad sauna: one simple way to tell the difference”

  1. Hi Glenn – we spoke about a year ago, I sent you pics of the large basement sauna in our 1960’s house where the previous owners got rid of the benches and stove, and installed a steam shower in one corner. We are interested in hiring someone to convert it back before this winter, please let me know if you have any recommendations!

  2. Hi Glenn

    I am building a stand alone outdoor sauna that will have a 6×5 hot room with 6×3 change room attached. Our climate can get to below -35 c in the winter. I was thinking of venting in and out of the change room to avoid venting to the extreme cold we will see outside. Walls will be R20, floor is also insulated and ceiling with R40.

    The intake venting will be low by the heater with a sizable gap below the door per your book I just purchased but what about the exhaust vent? I plan on putting the hot room exhaust in the back corner opposite the heater to ensure air circulation and then using a cedar conduit to get it back to the change room.

    If I vent back to the change room to avoid barometric pressure differences and reverse cold air drafts from outside through my exhaust what should I do to get fresh air into the change room? Do I need to put a louvered intake from outside in the change room?

    Would love to hear your thoughts on this.

    Cheers from Canada!

  3. Lee: I’m right there with you on with your thinking. It gets colder than a well diggers you know what here in Minnesota as well, so I feel where you’re coming from.

    Venting to changing room is fine.

    And for sure a fresh air vent In changing room, allowing for fresh air, is key. I’d consider this vent down low. Open it during sauna and it can act as a gentle blow dryer keeping changing room floor dry.

    Vent controls are easy to build and give you total control of air flow.

    With this in mind, I’d consider an air intake in hot room down low also to the outside. You can open and close this as you experiment with good air flow.

    The stove needs lots of oxygen to burn well. This is a good thing as it’ll encourage circulation.

    Your sauna : those are inside dimensions? My backyard sauna is about 6’4” square and I like the size for efficient cold climate awesome heat hot room. I wouldn’t go any smaller. And I’m not big on big hot rooms. (here’s more on hot room size).

  4. We just bought a barrel sauna right now and it’s only -4c but January will bring on -40 this sauna is not insulated I’m worried the door might freeze any ideas

  5. I’ve learned that for me the best löyly is to pour the water slowly into a single spot on the rocks and let if gurgle down through to produce a deeply satisfying and slowly spreading löyly. Sometimes I still toss the water across the top of the rocks to get that intense and wave of löyly though.

    Thanks for your website and the podcasts. Enjoying them immensely from NZ, before and now during these interesting times.

  6. Right on, Jeff. As you know, the Finns often get quite spiritual about their saunas (every sauna has its own soul) and löyly (the sauna’s breath) and I get the idea that you’re right there with this thinking. My interview with Saara from Kaurilan Sauna in Helsinki brings out some of these elements.

    I can’t help but think about the juxtaposition of these type of saunas compared to the sweat factory produced China boxes and toaster ovens being shipped out all over, where the user sits on the bench in stinging pain, and has to decide which of the 10 stones to add their thimble of water to, but that’s only the kind of negatron thinking we encounter when it’s a non sauna day in the time of corona! :).

    Sauna on Jeff!

  7. Hi Glen, I have just completed my 6x8x7 outdoor sauna room. I am using hard rocks from a landscaping company but they are not generating a steam effect. I do feel the moist air when adding a ladle full of water but the room never gets steamy. Right now we are in -C temperatures but the room is built to your specifications that I downloaded thru your website. Any advice would be appreciated.

  8. Robert,

    There’s a lot to diagnose beyond the rocks. Wood burning stove vs. electric? If wood burning try this post here ..if electric, there’s a chance that wiring may not be correct.

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