The Art and Craft of the Backyard DIY Sauna

words & photos :: Colin Field.

As my social media feed fills with people preaching their adherence to Wim Hof, all I can think is: Hell no. Plunging myself into a bucket of cold water is not happening. I’m sure it would make me feel good, but so would giving up cheese, bread and beer. Also not happening. The only way I’m jumping into a bucket of cold water is if there’s a raging-hot sauna happening beforehand.

And being the cheap, crafty guy I am, it got me thinking: DIY?

 

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“I got this half-round lumber from a sawmill—all for $25—and it gave me that kind of tree-fort vibe.” Scott Brown’s sauna.

 

Apparently I’m not alone. A quick call out to a couple of sauna-addicted friends and I’d locked into a small community of DIY sauna builders. And their construction techniques were all completely different, each one a project of “active design,” my favourite way to work: Sketch out a rough idea, start building and solve the problems as you go.

As far as structure goes, saunas are pretty simple. Throw a heater into just about any building and it’ll get hot. Insulation and vapor barriers are the next big hassle and expense of construction.

For Scott Brown, one of the owners of Collingwood’s Black Bellows Brewing Company, the COVID-19 lockdown was the perfect time to build a sauna. And with a tiny budget, he had to get creative:  “It’s just a shed, essentially,” he says.

 

The construction techniques were all completely different, each one a project of “active design,” my favourite way to work: Sketch out a rough idea, start building and solve the problems as you go.

 

Using non-kilned cedar from a Mennonite mill for the interior walls and an electric Harvia stove, he managed to keep costs down and construction simple. For the exterior he got creative. “I had to find something very inexpensive,” he says. “I got this half-round lumber from a sawmill—all for $25—and it gave me that kind of tree-fort vibe.”

With the electric stove, it’s a simple push of a button to get it heated up. “We use it every day,” he says. “We’re still in the honeymoon phase. We’re in there once, if not twice a day.”

 

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Mike Wheatcroft’s sauna. “I’ve always said that if we move, I want to strap it and crane it out of here.”

 

From the outside, this sauna looks awesome. From the inside, it’s beautiful and hot. What else do you need? “I have an idea for the door,” he says, “some sort of a heavy-metal album cover with some kind of evil imagery on it. But that’ll have to wait.”

Aaron Roininen, who built his sauna from a Home Hardware garden shed, didn’t worry about finishing touches with his project. “The instant you heat the sauna and get a good steam from the rocks, the sauna is done,” says Roininen. “The fine details can wait. I think mine is nine years old—and still not done!”

All humans build and progress from others before us. For his DIY project Mike Wheatcroft used a model—what his circle of friends refer to as “The Mothership,” a sauna in Moose Lake, Haliburton, built in 1975.

“I didn’t invent this building style,” says Wheatcroft. “I just copied it.” Getting 400 8-foot boards and 80 16-foot boards milled by a local Mennonite, he Lincoln-Logged it, stacking the boards similar to a log cabin. It’s simple, solid and the real bonus? You don’t have to insulate or vapor-barrier the building. “Buying the wood was the commitment,” he says. “Once I committed, it was pretty simple.”

 

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 Scott Brown’s sauna exterior.

 

It took six months to build and it’s heated with a wood-fired sauna stove. At 8-by-8 feet and complete with an 8-by-8-foot change room, this thing is luxurious and seriously solid. With enough room for eight adults, the Wheatcrofts use it at least once a week. They love it. “I’ve always said that if we move, I want to strap it and crane it out of here.”

They can crank up the sauna to more than 200 degrees Fahrenheit. Of course they’ve got a giant tub nearby for a cold plunge. And that’s something I can actually get behind.

From ML Blue Mountains, spring ’21.

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