Recently, I was called upon by a couple who had bought a property with an existing sauna that needed some professional help. The structure was a cordwood affair: a building method where timber framed walls are in-filled with short logs, stacked like firewood, with mortar between them. It looked like it came right out of the pages of Rob Roy’s classic how-to book: The Sauna. The exterior was fairly solid and quaint in a hobbit kind of way, but the interior, in terms of functionality, had some serious flaws. The timber frame and log and mortar walls looked pretty good, but it is obvious that the project was a classic DIY affair: a case of a homeowner taking on a project that looks easy, but with complex details that get skipped due to a lack of knowledge, funds or basic skill.
There are elements to a sauna that are essential: such as a welded steel stove that will not crack or explode when doused with water and the installation of that stove that conforms to the NFPA 311 guidelines. Insulation must be able take the heat, provide proper moisture retention, not attract rodents and not become a health hazard. Doors must open out and have non metal, non-latching hardware and be self closing (ever try to turn a 200° doorknob with sweaty hands?) There must be no varnish or paint in the sauna room; it will only off gas or worse, burn.
This sauna missed all of these points and more. From the pile of starling skeletons in the stove, I can only guess that it has not been used in a very long time (another detail: birds will fly down the chimney only to find themselves in a death trap.) From the lack of tell-tale scorching or smoking of the wood, I could also tell it had not had been used much. In fact, if it had been fired to a decent, Finnish-approved temperature, I am sure it would have either caught on fire or sent it users scrambling to get out as all of the varnished wood off-gassed.
It is a classic example of a DIY affair: started with good intentions but never finished properly. When I went into the house with the owners to discuss my plans for bringing it back to life, they brought out a book that had been left with the house: a dog eared and highlighted copy of Rob Roy’s: The Sauna