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A lukewarm stone gathers no steam

light steam graphic

Guest post series continues. Please welcome Jeff Pyzyk to SaunaTimes. He saunas everyday and has done so for years now.

Jeff began doing “real sauna” over 25 years ago at his lake home which he built 17 years ago. He then built his wood burner at home in 2015. Jeff is owner of three saunas. He may prefer his wood fired sauna steps out his backdoor outside of Milwaukee, WI, yet is known to have magical experiences in and out of his electric heated sauna by the shores of his cabin in Northern Wisconsin. His third sauna is a tent sauna and is ready for deployment between either of these other two. Welcome Jeff:

Do more stones mean better steam?

There is a recent trend and interest in sauna stoves with a large mass of rocks. They look really cool and give the impression that they produce a huge amount of löyly (the Finnish word for steam). These stoves may come in the form of a “rock tower” or “hive” or “drop” where the electrical elements (or in the case of a wood-burning stove, the firebox – and even a portion of the chimney) are buried in a mass of stones. The question is: do more stones mean more and better löyly

Empirical research (by those who sauna daily) says it ain’t necessarily so!

Factors to consider:

  • Do stones placed along the sides of the stove even get hot enough to convert water to steam?
  • To make good löyly, stones need to be superheated, ie 350f. (177c.) or higher!
  • Löyly  moves upward, not laterally.  So what good are stones on the sides of a stove?
  • At what point do more stones act as an “insulator” becoming further and further removed from the heat source and thereby no longer able to conduct heat?

But radiant heat is bad right?

Whether heat is radiating from heated rocks, as in a savusauna, or from the heated brick walls of a stove, as in a banya, or from heated firebrick surrounded by metal walls, as in a Kuuma or a Narvi AK stove, it is mainly radiant heat. Radiant heat is required to get any sauna up to temperature. For some, that may mean 160°f and for others it may mean 220°f.

Factors to consider:

  • Rock tower stoves can be wimpy when it comes to heat-up time. They sometimes take longer to get up to operating temperature, and tend not to hold temperature over time compared to traditional Finnish-American made stoves such as Nippa and Kuuma. The wood-fired rock tower stoves that I have experienced are much more finicky when it comes to size of firewood and dryness of wood, and require much more fire tending.
  • If you like a “low and wet” sauna, rock tower stoves may be a good option for you. I call this kind of sauna environment “St. Louis in the summertime”. To me, it’s miserably wet and requires constant fire tending and addiction to pouring water on the rocks to make löyly as the only means of experiencing appreciable heat.  A low and wet environment is the result of insufficient lateral radiant heat.
  • “High and dry” is the type of ambient environment I prefer, meaning a higher ambient temperature coupled with a lower ambient humidity. Humidity rises when löyly is created. A high and dry environment requires a powerful stove, with high thermal mass that generates good radiant heat (from the fire and into the room – heating all the mass, not just the steel of the stove, of course).

Bench Height and the Law of Löyly

Lack of lateral radiant heat results in a much steeper heat gradient from ceiling to floor. The Law of  löylyis meant to save mankind from the sin of having cold feet in the sauna. Thus the “law” specifies that the lower bench must be above the top of the sauna stove. The “law” is meant to place the bather’s entire body within the convective heat pocket. 

Factors to consider:

  • A heavy stove having high thermal mass, coupled with a stone or masonry backsplash will create a “wall of heat”.  Like Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” created in the 1960’s, the “wall of heat” incorporates and overlays all the elements of heat transmission including conduction (fire to steel and stone), radiation (steel and stone to backsplash, benches, walls, and bathers), and convection (air currents carrying heat from stones upward throughout the sauna, and löyly !)
  • Violations of the “Law of  löyly” are much less egregious when your sauna creates a wall of heat because the temperature gradient from ceiling to floor is not as dramatic.
  • Just because the sides of a sauna stove are covered with stones doesn’t mean it will create a wall of heat – it is actually likely to be quite to the contrary. If the stones aren’t superheated they will not radiate heat and will not generate löyly when confronted with water.

Comments from others:

Diminishing negative return

Whether wood fired or electric, at any moment, there are only so many BTU’s pushing heat into sauna rocks. With a shit ton of rock, could we be falling off the ledge?

Comments from a Finn: (fewer words)

“Over marketed. Rocks on the edges are just warm. I don’t get claimed horizontal heat. Raising heat makes sense.  
Besides stove style was common in Russia way before xxxxxx. (brand name withheld). I have seen with my own eyes. I suspect xxxxxx’s are least efficient stoves. “

Kimmo Ratio, Sauna Sherpa

Comments from a Brit (Note: British diplomacy):

I think its convenience versus heat/steam quality. More stones, better steam/heat but longer heat up, fewer stones faster heat up but sharper heater and less pleasant steam.

I think it depends on your use case and desired experience as to what is right for you, but my opinion is the sweet spot for most users is somewhere in the 60-100 kg (130-220lb) range. Good every day heat up time, but still a good steam/heat.

If you have a busy life and want sauna because of the health benefits of daily sauna and cold plunge, fewer stones are going to speed up heat up time, if sauna is part of your weekend disconnect, to enjoy as an experience, a decent wood burner with a good heat and steam will be right.

In most places you cannot justify firing up a savusauna every day for you to have your sauna session (other than Finland). Thus, there is certainly a place for use-case specific recommendation bands for the lämpömassa of your kiuas.

Jake Newport, Finnmark Sauna, UK
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5 thoughts on “A lukewarm stone gathers no steam”

  1. I was just in my friend’s sauna in Finland a couple of weeks ago, and he has KIVI-IKI stove in there. That stove has over 260kg (570#) of stone in it. First night the stove was little cool in my opinion, and the löyly got weak pretty quick. Second night I heated it little more, and the löyly was really good. I’d say I’m a firm believer of more is better now (assuming the stove is designed to handle more stone). It didn’t take longer to heat, and it was just 5-6 more logs to get it heated. But this stove is probably one of the higher end commercially available stoves, and the cost is quite high.

  2. Your comment about Radiant heat will be provocative to some but spot on. Sometimes people overthink that heat is heat. We recently developed a tower heater with 200 pounds of rocks which definitely does give a kick in the backside when water is applied but as was well pointed out it actually is the top layer of rocks that give that effect not the rock wall that you see. We decided to build a protective inner chamber where the heat from the elements can better flow into the rocks and subsequently into the sauna room for several reasons
    1) Better air flow from the main heating source (elements) will better heat up the sauna room and rocks
    2) Protecting the elements for longevity of life
    3) Because it never made sense to pack rocks as tightly as possible to restrict proper flow.

    I believe, depending on the sauna user, that different heaters will offer different benefits etc.

  3. Scribblings From a Junkies Pen

    “Sauna is a collection of contradictions.
    We enter a tiny box, to be free. To expand our universe.
    We build fires. Upside down.
    We pour water on rocks, on TOP of our stoves,
    to make more heat.
    When our bodies reach a temperature so high that sweat is streaming out of every pore of our bodies, we exclaim, “I have never felt better!”
    Then, we go outside in blizzards and sub-freezing temperatures and either pour ice cold water over our bodies, or immerse ourselves in an icy lake or tub and exclaim,
    “I have never felt better!”
    Sauna life. Get it!

  4. right on to this Robert!!

    I sense you had these observations while sitting on the sauna bench…and possibly wrote it all down in the cool down room… steam billowing.

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