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A handcrafted log house builder extends his craft to smoke sauna construction

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Glenn from saunatimes met Jarmo Hiltunen on the sauna bench late one night at Uusi Sauna in Helsinki, Finland. Their commonalities were quickly discovered: each build saunas, each built saunas at their island cabins, each ski out to their island cabins in Winter, each have written a how to book about sauna building, and each preferred water tossed on the sauna rocks at about the same time.

Jarmo and Glenn have remained in close contact since their first meeting. Let’s welcome Jarmo and learn more about smoke sauna building, and the revitalization of the long history of savusaunas (smoke saunas).

Hi Jarmo, so when did you first become interested in traditional log sauna building, how many different build projects have you undertaken?

I have been building a dozen handcrafted log houses and saunas here in Finland. Because labor cost are high, customers usually are willing to find out other ways to build as cheap as possible. Cutting corners means buying the cheapest imported windows and doors and so on. I hated this and wanted to do something else.

First, it was just a crazy idea. Then it become a curse that was preventing thinking anything else. I even tried to escape to Egypt on holiday, but it didn’t work. Lying on the beach while hot African sun was shining, I was constantly planning and thinking the details of my sauna in the north. In the end there was just one way to get rid of this obsession.

Traditional building methods and modern day requirements doesn’t like each other. Because of this background I wanted to build my own 19th century style sauna without thinking how long it will take. After making this decision I was able to reserve the midwinter to begin this work. And what happens next: a day after Christmas a massive storm felled down several pines near to the place where I was planning to build my sauna.

It was like someone saying: “Here you are, just go ahead my friend”.

Jarmo hewing logs for his savusauna

You and I each have an island cabin with sauna, yet yours is a savusauna (smoke sauna). Tell us about your savusauna. Size? How long does it take to get hot? Is your fire area custom built? Are you burning more wood than a conventional sauna?

My sauna in sized 9,9m2 with 3m2 open terrace. To get it warm takes normally six hours, no matter how many people are coming. And I have to be around all the time carrying more wood to the stove, which is custom build, like everything else. Some 0.3 m3 of Grey alder wood is needed every time when heating the sauna.

Is it rare in Finland to have a cottage savusauna? Do you know others, or is this fairly unique given the more conventional wood and electric sauna stove options?

There are 5.5. million people living in Finland and it’s estimated that there are some 2.6 million saunas altogether, but only 30.000 smoke saunas. According to architect Risto Vuolle-Apiala, there was only 10.000 left a few decades ago. Most of these new ones are near cottages, but it still is something special to have a cottage smoke sauna. I know many builders who are specialized on handcrafted log buildings. All of them either a) have a smoke sauna, b) are planning to build a smoke sauna or c) their own smoke sauna is not yet ready.

Jarmo’s hand hewn logs

Speaking of conventional wood sauna stoves, what’s your take on Narvi’s Aitokiuas?

The dual capability of savu and conventional single burn seems to resonate with many users. Personally I haven’t been in Sauna with Narvi’s Aitokiuas. But in many other saunas there are large single burn stoves with the same idea and they are usually pretty good. Almost as good “löyly” as with the real thing. The common drawback of Aitokiuas is the time needed to make it warm. Maybe this is one reason that you can buy them easily second-hand.

If you were blindfolded and led into two identical sized saunas, one log built and the other conventional stick frame built, could you tell a difference? One does take longer to heat correct?

I have to think about this question a while, but I finally figured out the answer. It’s thermal mass and moisture level. Logs around you will balance the moisture and the air is never too dry like what is the case sometimes with stick frame build sauna. Logs around you will also get somewhat warm and you feel it especially when the stove is getting a little cooler and moisture level is getting higher. This is quite difficult to explain, but the heat is somehow different when it comes around you.

Of course it takes a longer time to heat a sauna during winter when the wooden walls are as cold as the air around them. But in my own smoke sauna the heating process is always the same and the walls will get warm too. Every time there’s this period when the hot stove without fire inside heats the whole sauna.

Heating Jarmo’s savusauna

Anything else you’d like readers to saunatimes be aware of?

When I was collecting the information about how to build smoke sauna, it was quite difficult task. Besides this, there were different opinions about several details. After I finished my own sauna, there are new books available about smoke sauna published in Finnish. With this new information and my personal experiences as builder and user, I am already planning to write a book in English telling how to build an authentic smoke sauna for yourself.

You need some previous experience on woodworking or log construction, but if I could learn it, so can you! I have already published in Amazon an ebook telling how to make a notch type called Cross Notch. This basic notch is quite easy to do and I used it in my own sauna. Which these instructions you can build a log shell needed for smoke sauna. There’s not enough for information to make a complete sauna, but how to make this essential part of it.

What compelled you to build your own sauna?

I wanted to learn some special skill related to traditional building methods, such as different way to use an axe for log construction. And I knew a smoke sauna was far better than any other sauna, I just got to make one for myself too.

Jarmo Hiltunen’s book on how to build a log home using cross notch timber framing

How did you find saunatimes and give us a few examples where the DIY ebook helped you

I met Glenn when he was sitting alone in dark public sauna in Helsinki while I was waiting for my flight to Prague next morning. We had such an interesting conversation during our meeting and after this I become a Saunatimes reader.

What 1-2 challenges were biggest for your sauna build?

As said before, the lack of knowledge. Building a smoke sauna was common knowledge a century ago, but now most of this is forgotten. This is something I am going to change. The second challenge was to build a sauna alone to an island in the middle of winter. There’s was no electricity and when there was snowing, there was no signal in my phone. I loved every hour, no matter how cold it was.

What aspect of your sauna are you most proud of?

Many of my friends have visited in my sauna. When they see it for the first time, they always ask: “you made this by yourself?” After this there’s few seconds silent period. After this peculiar conversation, meeting old friends and inviting them to my cabin and sauna is the best thing to do during summertime. Another thing that makes me proud is to see a traditional wooden building that took long time to build. Especially the marks of axe work made me happy. When the light shines from certain direction, I can clearly see the beautiful patterns made by hand tools. After few years the whole building looks like it’s always been there.

Jarmo’s hand built savusauna

Any regrets or do overs?

I wanted to do everything alone, even the masonry work. Everything went well at first, but the stove has been a nightmare later. The first version broke down after a year and the second one will collapse any day. I should make completely new plans for the stove and hire some professional help to make a third version. The stove I have now has excellent “löyly”, but it takes a lot wood to for heating. Maybe a professional mason could help me with this problem too. Also the water heating tank is too small and I have to change the boiling water couple of times while heating the sauna. Somehow I understand why there are only a few smoke saunas around.

Jarmo’s handmade savusauna stove

And there were quite a few problem with the authorities. I made foundations for my sauna just before winter and before getting the construction permit. Well, I didn’t get the permit later, because the foundations already finished were too close to the property border, even I had an written approval signed by my neighbors. Because of this, I had to make temporary wooden foundations 4.5 meters from the original site and replace them on the next spring under just finished building. Needless to say, this extra work took me at least 1.5 months. It’s a good idea to get permit before you start building.

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

I have seen small saunas build high in the mountains. It would be interesting to sit outside for a while and then go back to the sauna. But there has to be water around, which could be a problem. Maybe a there is a place like this somewhere in the northern Scandinavia or Alaska.

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5 thoughts on “A handcrafted log house builder extends his craft to smoke sauna construction”

  1. Beautiful sauna, mainly nice article but few things I do not endorse.

    “The common drawback of Aitokiuas is the time needed to make it warm”. Says guy who has not ever used one. Common misunderstanding and/or lack of knowledge.

    “Of course it takes a longer time to heat a sauna during winter when the wooden walls are as cold as the air around them. But in my own smoke sauna the heating process is always the same and the walls will get warm too”. This I do not get… ‘longer time but heating process is the same’…

  2. In a smoke sauna we do heat the stones not the walls. The walls are then heated by the heat t from the stones.

    I agree also with Kimmo´s comments.

  3. Kimmo, re: ““The common drawback of Aitokiuas is the time needed to make it warm”, could this be in comparison to conventional, continuous burn stoves? As experienced with Jess at Narvi, we had 4 hrs. of fire in AK-95 (from memory) to heat rocks to serving temp. (albeit many more rocks, and very awesome lämpömassa).

  4. Great article! But after reading two times, I still don’t understand the difference between a smoke sauna and a wood fired sauna using rocks to heat the space. Does smoke mean steam? I am making plans to build a log cabin sauna house with wood stove topped with 100-200kg of rocks. Is this a smoke sauna?

  5. Hi John:

    Fair question! A smoke sauna has no chimney. It’s as basic as it gets.

    Centuries old, before the iron age. Imagine a log structure with an opening down low on one side, where we have access to a fire chamber surrounded by rock, piled atop, within the log structure. The fire is fed from the outside, and for a few hours minimum. The fire heats the rock piled above. Fire goes through the rock, and smoke goes into the building. Once stones are glowing fucking hot (600 degrees c.1100 degress f.), the fire is allowed to burn out and all embers and ash removed from the fire chamber.

    The vents in the room allow for all the smoke to exit. There is soot all over the walls and benches, of course, but no smoke. For sitting on the benches inside, there are wooden paddles available otherwise “your ass is black after this moment.”

    You’ve got a mass of heat, good for several hours of “aaaahhh” and enough for a small village of hunters and gatherers, or former Nokia employees to rest, restore, and rejuvenate.

    We non Finns will probably never fully grasp the resonating spiritual significance of savusauna, and i’m partially embarrassed to have tried with above, as it’s much like a soybean farmer from Dubuque, drawling on at the local cafe, trying to explain his daughter in law’s pranayama breathing.

    “ye’all inhale, and ye’all exhale, far as I can tell.”

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