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10 things you may want to know about barrel saunas

Check out this New Hampshire surf posse here: http://www.surfsauna.net/
  1. Simple Assembly. Barrel saunas are a clever design. They require no major tools for cutting or assembly. Barrel saunas are “built” on site by placing the milled 2×4 cedar boards along the circumference of the two circular end walls, then strapping everything in place with the set of locking rings provided.  One need not be handy to assemble a barrel sauna.
  2. Ships easy. Barrel saunas ship unassembled. There’s a pallet stack of 2x4s, door, stove, benches and a set of circular end rings. This is a key reason why Costco can shrink wrap, sell, and distribute the Almost Heaven barrel sauna nationally.
  3. No vapor barrier or insulation. Yes, barrel saunas ship and assemble easily, but because the walls are not insulated and don’t have a vapor barrier, some sauna users will notice a substantial compromise in heat. A round wood wall made from 2×4’s is often not enough of a barrier from hot to cold. Imagine cold blowing snow hitting one side of the wood, and a sauna stove firing heat against the other side of the wood. That’s a lot of temperature extreme.
  4. Changing room? Because most barrel saunas have no changing room, the sauna bather steps from the sauna hot room directly outside. And that can be a mighty cold wind. Further, without a changing room, the sauna regimen is severely compromised. A sauna session works when one is able to properly cool their entire body down, back to a normal temperature, before enjoying another session in the hot room. This process only works when we can chill out in a cool temperate area, sipping a beverage of choice with that smile of “damn this feels good.” Having to rush from sub freezing temps outside directly back into the hot room is too big of a compromise in climates that are great for sauna.
  5. Close the Door!  In cold climates “close the door” becomes an even louder command in a barrel sauna. Imagine if you worked as a check out clerk in a Northern Minnesota grocery store without a double set of doors, trying to maintain a comfortable existence with blowing wind from outside.  Yuck!  Sauna parties with a barrel sauna can devolve into blasts of cold air frustration, trying to maintain good heat as folks develop their own version of temperature ADD discomfort due to the sauna door opening and closing.
  6. Maintenance. Because of their design (milled 2×4’s), barrel saunas can often develop leaks between the milled cedar boards from rain and snow melt. (freezing, melting, expanding contracting at the seams).  Often times, a barrel sauna owner may have to cover their barrel sauna when not in use or build a secondary roof on top of their barrel sauna.  Barrel saunas in four season climates are prone to maintenance issues.
  7. No upper bench. Barrel saunas are compromised because they have only one bench height. Conventional saunas work well as the sauna bather can choose to sit on an upper bench for good heat, or sit on the lower bench where the heat is less intense. Further, the introduction of loly (steam from water on the rocks) is more intense up high. Often this is desired, but some folks, especially children, do better on the lower bench. There’s no flexibility here with a barrel sauna.  It’s ok to be a low bench Larry when you have two levels of sauna benches.
  8. Cramped space? With the circular sauna design, with no corners, barrel sauna companies can rightly boast the benefit of a rolling heat. Yet because of this design, some sauna bathers can feel cramped in a barrel sauna.
  9. Safety clearances: Conventional sauna manufacturers can point out that barrel saunas may not be meeting any of the safety clearances for UL when using electric heaters. When using wood, barrel saunas also do not meet the clearances that stove manufacturers recommend. We’d like to think that barrel stove companies have this figured out and accounted for, but it may be worth mentioning.
  10. Backyard escape:  Creating a dedicated space for the sauna experience is a huge plus.  Because barrel saunas can assemble anywhere and are their own structure, separate from a primary dwelling, the sauna bather can better experience a health and wellness regimen which includes an infusion of fresh air and nature while chilling out between rounds in the garden all misty wet with rain.

BOTTOM LINE:

  • Barrel saunas can perform pretty well in temperate climates, where it doesn’t get much below freezing (California, etc.).
  • Barrel saunas will reveal shortcomings in climates with real winters such as Alaska, Montana, Upper Midwest, New England, most of Canada, and higher elevations in Colorado, Washington, Oregon, California.

EDITORS NOTE:

I tried to be fair and factual, based on interviews and discussions with folks who own barrel saunas as well as my own experiences with barrel saunas.  It deserves note that I am in no way looking to throw barrel saunas under the bus.  However, I am tainted towards a stick framed insulated sauna building vs. a barrel sauna.  That said, The rising sauna tide is lifting all boats.  For those that own a barrel sauna or are wishing to purchase one, my vote is that whatever direction brings you closer to the experience of a good sauna session, keep going down that path.

FURTHER REVIEW:

Here’s a New Hampshire posse who have applied a mobile barrel sauna for surfing season extension:

Surf sauna
Surf sauna firing up to extend the surfing season

 

Check out this Canadian posse who illustrate the easy assembly of barrel saunas

(and may motivate you to want to go visit these guys with a welcome gift, ready for sauna, while wearing a pair of Troxers).

25 thoughts on “10 things you may want to know about barrel saunas”

  1. Having built my sauna a little bigger than norm 🙂 I find that the changing room gets the most use. From snacking between rounds to enjoying a beer or hot tea, there’s always someone in the changing room while people rotate in and out of the hot room.

  2. I own a barrel sauna and I have to say this is a very complete and accurate summary of the pro’s and cons.

    I have a wood heated barrel sauna, which I love. We live in California and we have the sauna at our cabin property in the foothills of the Sierras.

    I went back and forth between the idea of a barrel sauna and building my own (using Glenn’s plans, even bought his book!). In the end, it came down to time — we put the sauna at our cabin and it would have taken several years for me to build something there, given all my other commitments. I could have paid someone to build it for me but that would have been a lot more expensive than the barrel sauna. (Not that the barrel sauna is cheap, a good one costs several thousand dollars . . . ) In the end, I wanted something that could be bought and put together by me in less than a year.

    We have not owned it for a long time but we love it. The climate is temperate — it can get into the low 30’s sometimes at night during the winter but is usually in the 40’s at night. We get out of the hot sauna, take a dunk in the cold plunge (a converted animal stock tank) and then sit outside in the cool air — feels great.

    You do have to be careful when you go in, there can be some heat loss. If we have a group, we have the group enter all at once. Also, it would be nice to do a tall bench but that’s just not practical.

    My manufacturer actually created the kit so that (with one exception) the woodstove tolerances were all respected. I will be using special insulating tape to deal with that one exception.

    So I agree with Glenn — barrels work great in temperate weather — not sure I would want to use one in the winter in Minnesota but it would be better than nothing.

  3. Right on Rick. So glad you are enjoying your barrel sauna. It’s great to be outside between sauna rounds, and a barrel sauna allows for this. If you get a work assignment in Minneapolis this winter, come on by, and we’ll experience the benefit of a changing room when it’s zero degrees outside.

    Thanks for your testimonial.

  4. question from a sauna lover and first time home sauna buyer.. I read your review and the part where you talked about barrel saunas not having a vapor barrier or insulation intuitively makes sense. Especially since I will be putting this at a mtn house in one of the coldest cities in Colorado. But then I saw the PDF for finnleos outdoor patio series sauna and it appears that there is no insulation or vapor barier in the walls of those either. The roof is insulated though. I may be over analyzing this a bit but I feel like I may be able to get a home outdoor barrel sauna for $2-3K less than a box type sauna and if needed insulate the top of the barrel sauna. Be gentle on the new guy but what am I missing?

  5. I leave in Canada, cold during winter 6 month eh, summer hot around 90’s. I own barrel wood burning 12 ft sauna, 8 ft steam room and 4 ft change room. You are right change room is a must, you can relax at winter, have two doors, no heat escape. I did put shingles on top so it would not leak. The design of the stove is that it is fed from outside so there are no mess with wood inside. I can make it 200F no problem for 2-3 hours. barrel design makes it easy since no corners heat distributes evenly. I did not noticed problems with heat escape at cold winter windy days. love it hot (I am crazy Russian :))
    Yes stove clearance is an issue, I had to build brick/concrete barrier between stove and wooden benches.

  6. Jonathan: i’ll look to get some input from Finnleo folks on this one. I will say, if I had a choice of two different saunas: 1) a sauna with marginal insulation all the way around or 2) a sauna with excellent insulation on the ceiling and no insulation on the walls, ….. I think i’d choose #2. It’s all a matter of “heat rises.” Conversely, this is the same principle of why it’s not necessary to insulate the hot room floor. It’s not just a good spot to set your beer to keep cold (if drinking in the hot room is your choice) but it’s all about a hot room building layers of heat.. pushing Down, Down, Down… (a principle of heat as well as a great Tom Waits song).

  7. Finnleo Outdoor Saunas are fully insulated ceiling and wall panels. And, both the ceiling and wall panels have a foil barrier on the inside. You don’t see the foil layer, it’s below the wood paneling. But, it’s there and it works. If you install correctly, you won’t lose any heat!!!
    Changing room- it’s a must have for me! I’m literally modifying a beautiful sauna right now. Adding a wall to create a smaller sauna so I can have a small dressing room. It doesn’t need to be big. Just a place to hang clothes/towel and sit to cool off without getting windchill. To me, an essential part of the sauna experience!

  8. I have an Almost Heaven Barrel sauna in Truckee/Tahoe area of the Sierra Nevada. Extreme winter weather, lots of snow and cold temps. I have the 8kw heater and have no trouble with getting to and keeping the temp. Only issue is dripping when I don’t clear the snow.

  9. While all that was mentioned in the article is very relevant with a little extra consideration, materials, time, and money to do so one can really step the game up for Barrel Saunas. For instance, I installed a lifetime metal roof with a layer of 30 pound felt under it.on my barrel. This helps tremendously to keep the heat from escaping. My barrel is waterproof. I also included the foil vapor barrier and installed 1×4 tongue and groove western red cedar over that on the inside of the barrel. My total wall thickness is 2 1/4 inches all the way around. Since i used 2×6 for the exterior barrel and 1×4 for the interior my seams are overlapping creating a tight assembly and absolutely no separating of mill seams occurs. Remember there is foil between the two layers of wood allowing for heat reflection into the sauna room. I chose wood heat. I often need to open the door to cool the room down as heat loss is never an issue. I took the time to build an 8 foot diameter barrel allowing for a high bench at 36 inches and a low bench. I also built my barrel 12 feet long. I have an 8 foot sauna room and a 4 foot covered sitting porch. I often hang heavy curtains in the front to create a changing and sitting area. Did I mention my barrel sauna is on a 20′ trailer, mobile and ready to sauna at all times. I have built many of these. People buy them from me. Thanks from Arcat aCa.

  10. I have an 8’ barrel sauna from Almost Heaven. It was easy to install and being that I live in Nothern Utah, I made a necessary adjustment for the roof. I installed a heavy roofing felt and covered over half of the sauna with stainless corrugated sheets that fit perfectly. The roof matches the large water trough to cool off in between sessions.
    I was introduced to Finnish Saunas while living in Oregon. There is nothing better than cooling down in the rain or snow.
    I’ve never had problems with heat loss and have to leave the door open between some sessions to cool it off slightly before we enter again (that is w the 8kw heater not turned up high). I have my guests wear flip flops so their feet don’t freeze during winter while we hang out in the cool/cold/freezing temperatures under the covered porch.

  11. Great to hear Scott! Flip flops: I hear you. As here in MN it gets and stays below freezing for months on end. We are working on the invention of SaunaShoes (because your feet get cold first) and will be pleased to keep you in the mix on product development and early iterations.

  12. Hey Glenn,

    I’m considering getting a barrel sauna from almost heaven and assembling it on floating docks for my floating sauna dream. It looks like almost heaven includes an electric sauna heater, but I of course want the wood burning stove. What type of wood stove should I get for a 6 person barrel sauna from almost heaven? Also, is almost heaven the best deal for barrel saunas? They have a holiday special of 50% off at the moment… so I’m thinking I might jump on it.

    Any and all advice for a new saunas enthusiast is appreciated!

  13. Jack: Regarding wood fired sauna stove for your floating sauna, I am quick to recommend the Kuuma stove as it is built like a tank and is engineered like a spacecraft. That said, a Tylo/Helo wood stove will work just fine for this application as I think either way, you will have decent enough clearances after you pull out the mfr. provided electro toaster sauna stove.

    Almost Heaven seems like about the best deal around for barrel saunas, and I am impressed by their ability to keep prices down, providing a wonderful gateway drug for the North American authentic sauna enthusiast.

  14. I am considering placing an outdoor barrel Almost Heaven Sauna inside an insulated outside shed – 9,700 ft elevation in Northern New Mexico. Without other heat in shed, was wondering how effective adding extra insulation would work around sauna exterior? Does it need to breathe in some way? Does moisture need to escape?

  15. I know some barrel sauna customers who, in cold climates, have added after market insulation roof. I would support this move. As far as too much moisture, cedar can handle it. Further, popping open the hot room door helps de moisturize your hot room. Please see “bake and breathe” post on saunatimes.com. Thanks!

  16. The barrel sauna we got from Northern Lights hot tub and saunas (Canada) leaks like crazy in the rain here in Oregon. We think it is because they instructed to put silicone sealant between the staves but we did not finish in one day and the subsequent adjustments probably made little silicone boogies and gaps. To anyone assembling this per instructions, we recommend being sure you can complete the stave fitting and tightening in one go with no overnight break. Or perhaps don’t even use the caulk?

    I have a question about putting a roof on it. We are considering one of two options: A) trucking tarp roof, with twist lock connectors through the rivets, i.e. the ones used on yurts, B) one large piece of sheet metal, C) some form of engineered shingle, like imitation slate

    Our considerations: it will be mobile and move at highway speeds; I am concerned about moisture/ condensation sitting under the roof and rotting the staves; we want it to be as light as possible.

    Should a membrane or layer or something be between the staves and the roofing material?
    Would you recommend installing furring strips between the sauna and the roofing material if it would require fasteners?

    Any wisdom from your own mobile barrel roof building experience would be greatly appreciated. Thanks everyone!

  17. Do barrel saunas get hot enough when temperature is 5 degrees? (I live in Minnesota) Is 8 kw big enough for a 8 ft by 6 ft diameter Almost Heaven barrel sauna? Some of the previous posts suggest it is ok. Almost Heaven suggested I get the 9kw heater.

  18. i have an almost heaven sauna and i love it. but it only gets to about 65 deg C, at sitting head level. so i have to stay in 30 minutes to really get a good session in because there are so many leaks on the top that all the heat just leaks out. if i were in ireland, i would put some peat moss on the roof and it would work and look awesome, but thats not an option in the dry climate i live in. does anyone have any recommendations for a cover that wont turn to dust or create a toxic fumes in the heat?

  19. I also have an almost heaven barrel sauna and live in Lake Tahoe. I had to play with the extra stays and make sure I was on top of tightening the straps. It took awhile but i have eliminated the drips, just weeps whe snow is melting. I also lowered the temp sensor to just above the middle of the barrel and mine gets to 80c which is about all I feel I need. My family and I use the sauna year round.

  20. I have an Almost Heaven barrel sauna which I have not used yet as I am waiting for my electrician to install the 220v power source. It was super easy to put together, but I can’t seem to get rid of that last sliver of light I can see in the filler staves. Just re-installed the staves and installed more. In the rain, there was a lot of water inside, so I am hoping this time it will be better. Is the only way to deal with this, is to cover with sort of roof – either on it or over it? Has anyone been able to get a complete seal between the staves? I assume I will have maintenance as time goes on, but I was hoping to have no light peaking in at all. Please let me know if there are any tips to tightening, hammering, aside from rooftops.

  21. Fantastic article, thank you.

    I have been a master custom deck builder for the past 30 years, and just 2 weeks ago decided to build a barrel sauna from scratch for our home in Southern California, using a 6kw electric wet/dry heater. The sauna is small, 6′ diameter, 6′ long. It took me 30 labor hours to pre-cut/route and assemble and stain the exterior.

    This weekend we will fire it up…so to speak. I can’t wait.

    Thanks again!

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