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Shawshank Sauna

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 Guest post series continues. Please welcome back one of Saunatimes’ frequent contributors of kindred spirits. This contributor is on a witness relocation program and prefers to remain under the Google radar.

In 1966, Andy Dufresne escaped from Shawshank prison. All they found of him was a muddy set of prison clothes, a bar of soap, and an old rock hammer, damn near worn down to the nub. I remember thinking it would take a man six hundred years to tunnel through the wall with it. Old Andy did it in less than twenty. Oh, Andy loved geology.

Shawshank Redemption, 1994

Who doesn’t love the Movie Shawshank Redemption? Well, Shawshank Sauna is the story of a man turning a Gym Sauna into a very good sauna experience and forming a social network over 20 years.

Twenty years ago I joined a new health club with locations throughout the Midwest.  Very good facilities, classes, and amenities of pool, jacuzzi, and sauna had me convinced.  Originally I was not into sauna like I am now. I was like a variety of people who sauna, stretch, do yoga, and some exercise in the sauna. As I learned and appreciated a good sauna so did those around me.  Many in my social network now are health club sauna disciples. 

It starts with a good sauna room (well ventilated) 2 large electric stoves, and cedar walls. Most health clubs do not set the heat very high. My club was no exception with 150-175f being a normal setting.  Almost all gym and hotel saunas have a thermostat connected to the heater. Learning to adjust this and have the heater kick in was as simple as placing a cold wet towel over the thermostat. With very little effort the sauna would heat up to 190-200F

Be careful with 200F For some reason this is the number that makes inexperienced users freak out!! Maybe because water boils at 212F and they think their blood is going to boil.  Or maybe it is just the number 200?   Over the years I have seen people walk in and see 200 and immediately run out without even trying the sauna. 

What about Leil or Löyly? A majority of gyms and hotels have a sign saying do not pour water on the rocks.  I try to abide by this rule!  I never POUR water on the rocks!  Is there a difference between pouring and sprinkling??  Yes!  I lightly sprinkle water to get a nice leil or löyly.                                                                                    

Shawshank and Rocks

A recent saga started about a year ago with new management and the smell of sewer gas in the sauna. It was a problem I have seen occur many times over the years, when the drain trap in the sauna dries out.  Simple solution is water in the drain and voila it is fixed.  For some reason the facility manager believed the rocks smelled and removed the rocks from the stove. After repeated e-mails, comments and letters explaining the importance of rocks for a more effective sauna nothing was done!! Rocks play a huge role in the movie Shawshank Redemption and represent spirit and hope. In the sauna, rocks play a similar role and become the spirit of the sauna. Could someone rock by rock return rocks to the stoves Andy Dufresne style? How long would it take?  As it turns out not nearly as long as it took Andy! Geology is the study of pressure and time. That’s all it takes, really. Pressure and time.

What was it like taking a sauna without rocks? did you feel as if you were in the penalty box? 

It was like you were a piece of toast sitting between the two heating elements of the toaster.  You would still get hot and sweat but it was all hot air.  You could get the temp up to 200 but as soon as the door would open you would lose a lot of the heat. Water on the cedar walls had a decent effect of bringing up the humidity up with an added bonus of bringing out a nice cedar smell.

What compelled you to bring in your own rocks?

Part frustration, looking at the empty stove. Part opportunity, knowing I had a very large supply of free granite landscape rocks waiting for a nice warm home.

Where did you source the rocks?

How’s this for serendipity? There are ideal landscape rocks just outside the health club, in the parking lot, that I noticed were mostly baseball sized granite rocks, perfect for sauna use.

The Rock Fairy, choosing rocks from the health club parking lot (no cracks or fissures).

How many rocks would you bring in each time you went to the health club?

First,  I tested the rocks on my own fire pit and then sauna.  Then knowing the abundance good quality rocks.  I would bring on or two in at a time wrapped in a towel and carefully placed in the sauna when nobody else was around.

Over how long did it take to add rocks?

There are two stoves with about a 2’x2′ surface area, one stove is pretty full after 30days the other is about 1/2 full.

How long has it been since the rocks have been replenished?  

Prior to the action of “the Rock Fairy”  the club had not replenished the rocks for over a year.  

Shawshank health club sauna stove with added rocks from the parking lot

Editor’s note: this article is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to promote or support the rebel behavior of adding sauna rocks to health club sauna stoves. We live in a litigious time, where safety is first, and liability is walking right behind it. Should you wish to add sauna rocks to your health club sauna, refer to Section B, Subheading 14 of the Health Club Sauna Maintenance Manual, which was written by health club maintenance staff, who have not been educated about how sauna stoves are meant to take water. So they think by removing rocks, they get rid of the “problem” of people tossing water on sauna rocks.

Well, in defense of maintenance staff, there are many yahoos at health clubs. Dumb asses who wring out their bathing suits on the sauna rocks, or toss chlorinated water on the sauna rocks. This is reason #7 why many sauna enthusiasts say “fuck it” and build their own health and wellness backyard sauna retreats.

Health clubs are ripe to start recognizing how a kick ass authentic sauna can be a valued attribute for their guests, The Sauna Map at the top of this page is a good intention to help promote the authentic.

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6 thoughts on “Shawshank Sauna”

  1. hello, i just purchases the ebook and found it very helpful. I do have a couple of questions still that perhaps you could answer? first- I am building my sauna in a corner in my basement utilizing two existing finished walls that will be foil wrapped with cedar over top, do I need to remove the drywall from these walls? is it safe to leave the drywall in place because it will have the foil bubble wrap? thank you in advance

  2. yes, for sure remove the drywall. that stuff is yucky anywhere near sauna, as the moisture will find the sheetrock and that won’t be good. You’ll be happy with getting that out of there, even with the foil vapor barrier, because you know Murphy’s Law…

  3. My favorite “yahoo” scenario is the signs some hotels will place above the sauna heater. “Do not pour water on the rocks. This is a dry sauna.” Hahahaha.

  4. Hi Glenn and sauna friends,
    I used your e book and all the comments, advice, and photos from your website and podcast to build our outdoor sauna in Adelaide, Australia. At first I wanted wood fired, but in suburbia just metres from neighbours it would likely smoke them out. Also wanted convenience for frequent use. Still have 80kg rocks. Door opens straight to the outside. Not a problem here.

    Power point to run led lights is safely protected. Green glow looks fantastic.

    Sauna heater cut out a few times on hot days before I realised I needed to have the bottom vent open.

    It’s a great family experience, this I didn’t expect.

    Thanks for all the information and comments!


  5. Has anyone found a way to use 1 heater for a combination garage heater AND sauna heater? I would like to heat my garage in Minnesota some winter days while working in the garage on projects. AND I would like to install a corner sauna in my garage, but really want to use ONE heater. Any ideas?

  6. Dale:

    I installed my small wood fired Kuuma in my garage sauna in 2003. It’s super awesome to be able to multi purpose the BTU’s. My priority is a kick ass sauna stove that can also heat the garage, vs. a garage heater that tries to be a sauna stove. So I very much suggest going with a kick ass sauna stove.

    Here’s more about my “primitive” garage sauna.

    BONUS: You’ll take more saunas.

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