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Michigan Saunas, how it all began

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Please welcome Daniel to Saunatimes! Like many who have the bug to offer “sauna in the public domain,” Daniel got the itch while spending time in Northern Europe, and Finland specifically. Then, returning home, many start scratching the itch to provide sauna to their community.So, let’s here it from Daniel and Michigan Saunas!

What compelled you to build your own sauna?

My family history would basically be what inspired me to build MI Sauna… and the pandemic. I built an electric sauna in our house in 2005, but the idea of building a mobile sauna began really in the summer of 2018 eating at the tower in Tampere, Näsinneula. I am third generation Finnish-American meaning all of my great grandparents emigrated to the United States from Finland. We still actually keep in close contact with our distant relatives in the homeland thanks to my grandparents and parents maintaining connections to them throughout the generations.

Ironically, the relatives with whom we keep in contact are the branch of the family that started with the Savunen household. I say it that way because people’s names were derived from the house where they lived and with the root of the name, Savu which means smoke, they were the house with the community smoke sauna that they operated for many generations in the community. The stories I have been told were that people would watch from miles away for the smoke to die down in the sky and that was when they knew the sauna was ready.

When my great grandparents came to the U.S. they of course built a sauna in/at their houses. The grandparents didn’t all have saunas in their houses but would do gatherings at houses that did every Saturday (My mother told me stories about going to the Aho’s house in South Dakota when she was young). When they moved to Detroit, sauna time was infrequent at best. Upon moving to Traverse City, MI, my patients wanted to rekindle the Finnish heritage and after researching sauna builds in Kaleva Michigan they built one of the first saunas in the city. Family sauna time was a weekly event from the time I was born until the age of 14 when we moved and didn’t have a sauna in our new house.

After that, the only sauna’s I was exposed to were at gyms or public saunas in the U.P., in other words, not many. But, we did keep in close contact throughout the years with our Finnish family and friends which ultimately resulted in me living and working in Finland during the summer of 1990. It was then that I personally started to understand more of what the sauna culture meant to me beyond what I already knew.

Fast forward now to my wife and I moving back to Traverse City; I knew I wanted a sauna so of course, the first remodel we did to our house was to add the electric sauna. But after going back to Finland in 2015 I realized that my personal sauna was not what I was experiencing there. In 2018 after swimming in the Baltic Sea between sessions at Löyly in Helsinki and experiencing multiple public saunas in Tampere Finland we thought a saunalautta (sauna boat) would be great so we could access all the beautiful waters Michigan has to offer. The problem with that idea was that we would not be able to use it in the winter and therefore it was decided to build a sauna trailer.

The final ‘research trip’ to Finland in New Years 2020 brought return trips to the Finnish Sauna Society and to Sompa Sauna. It was these two places that were the final inspiration for the design.

How did you find Saunatimes and give us a few examples where the DIY ebook helped you out?

Once it was decided to build a mobile sauna the research phase began and lasted almost 2 years. During that time any and all sauna building resources were sought. I discovered some facebook pages and through them I heard about Sauna Times and bought the ebook. Although many of the concepts were learned with my first sauna build I found the entire book to be a good refresher course for the buildout. I must say that I would not have done a candle window if it wasn’t for the book and I am very glad we did.

It is also great to hear what/how others did with their build. The history of sauna goes back thousands of years and there are many ways to go about building one and it helps to get other perspectives. 

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

Since it is a mobile sauna that we built, the first challenge was the size of the trailer. I wanted it large enough to have a decent changing area and I wanted to also have it tall enough to allow for multiple levels of benches so the feet could be above the stove. So instead of buying an enclosed trailer, we did a deck-over trailer and built upwards; with that, we had to make sure we were within the Department of Transportation limits.

Having driven RV’s for 15 years, I also knew that if something was nailed in or glued on that eventually those fastenings would fail; therefore, all boards were screwed into place and the supporting structure was welded for durability. After putting all the time, effort and planning into a project I wanted it to endure the tests of time and travel, that’s why we made the trailer so we could go many places for many years.

Also, we started the process before the pandemic but when everything shut down, even the builders, so my son, my nephew and I became the primary builders. Our limited experience was a challenge because we simply weren’t as efficient, but that also allowed us to make modifications on the fly to our specifications.

Flexing on the bench in the Michigan sauna

Tell us something specific about your sauna that makes you especially proud.

When people first walk into the sauna for the first time they predictably say how great it smells and since I didn’t use cedar which is very pungent and a traditional scent of a sauna in North America, that always makes me smile

Personally, since we built everything except the metal framework (that was done by professionals), the pride we have in doing the rest is unmeasurable. However, the single thing that we love most is the Sho Sugi Ban wood on the benches and the trim work. It takes a lot of time and effort but is very much worth the outcome. 

Another aspect we love is that we used locally sourced products throughout the interior and also used reclaimed old school bus windows to keep costs down. Simple things but these saved a lot of money and helped keep our local economy going during tough times.

Some other things we love are the dry wood storage and the storage under the benches that we can access from the outside. Sticking with the locally sourced/repurposing mindset, Traverse City’s cherry industry provides us with a lot of scrap wood to use as fuel for our stove.

Daniel, loading scrap oak, from a broken down crate used to pack and ship local cherries.

Any regrets or do overs?

As for any regrets: None!

Do overs: I would use lighter siding materials and would also change how we did the water intake a bit. Also, we will be modifying the benches slightly but minimal changes.

As for the ultimate do over, I have always referred to this build out as the prototype so we plan on making the changes in our next mobile sauna which we plan on starting the construction in the Fall of 2022.

If you bring a mobile sauna anywhere in the world, where would you like to go and sauna?

Well, since this is a mobile sauna, we are taking it to any cold water location we can find. Also, we take it to curling tournaments to keep loose between games. I would love to take it to every Great Lake.

If people are interested in learning more about the MI Sauna project that they can visit their website or social media pages: Facebook: MI Sauna Instagram: @mi_sauna

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1 thought on “Michigan Saunas, how it all began”

  1. Awesome site, thanks for sharing so much. Is there anyone in northwest Michigan that you can recommend t me, to build me an outdoor, wood-fired sauna? I live about 30 min north of Traverse City. I have talked with builders, but have not found one that has built more than zero outdoor saunas. Thank you!

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