Finnish Sauna Culture - Page 2


Updated July 11, 2016
"Happiness is summer and a lakefront sauna"
"Onnea on kesä ja rantasauna."

The Real Finnish Sauna.

    This is what the Finns do with their beer barrels when they're empty - they turn them into saunas. Now you know why there are so many saunas in Finland. Actually this is a unique, innovative sauna design that resembles a beer barrel.

    Savusauna Smoke sauna at Salmenranta resort

    The original Finnish Sauna was a smoke sauna. The fire was lit under stones in the sauna room, and the smoke went out a hole in the wall. When the room was hot and the fire was out, the hole was shut, the room was filled with fresh air and in an hour or so you could go in and have a great sauna. This was a truly bacteria free place and some say it is the best sauna.

    The Finnish Sauna

    The sauna is generally considered to be invented in Finland. But Finns don't want all the credit, just what is due. Who made the first sauna is not as important as who developed it to the high standards of the culture we see today. In Finland, almost every home has a sauna. At least no other country can claim that, not even the other Scandinavian countries. There are at least three things, besides the language, that distinguish Finns from other Scandinavians: the sauna, Tango and sisu (a form of internal tenacity that Finns possess). Today, when one thinks of Finland, one of the first things that comes to mind is the sauna. If you have ever been to Finland or know some Finns, you might also think about the associated enjoyment of cooling off in a lake or maybe rolling in the snow. Nudity is part of the sauna tradition and has nothing to do with sex. Some people are offended by pictures of nude people in sauna books, because they think it is pornographic. It is simply showing the correct way to enjoy the sauna. The Finns used the sauna to combat the harsh realities of climate, for the enjoyment of the social tradition, and its physical, mental and even spiritual benefits. They even recommend it to prevent transmission of diseases such as Bird Flu. The modern sauna movement in the world originated in Finland during the 1952 Helsinki Olympics where the secret of the Finns' stamina was revealed.

    Both Russians and Swedes made attempts to highjack the credit for the sauna, but that honor belongs to the Finns, who are masters of sauna culture, having developed it to its present level, and are proper sauna fanatics. Is there English sushi, Russian Ouzo? Of course not. Neither is there a Swedish or even Russian sauna. The Swedes even go so far as to market saunas all over the world as "Finnish" saunas. And the term "Scandinavian" sauna has also popped up, propagated by those who want the world to think there is no such thing as a "Finnish" sauna, or that there is really no difference. Where else but Finland would you find over 1 million saunas in a country of 5.2 million people? The author spent some time in Sweden as a boy, in the country, and can assure you that there were no saunas at that time. When the author visits the family farm in Northern Finland, the wood heated sauna is one of the main attractions.

    Finns have a unique contact with nature, being one of the countries where most of the people lived in the country, and nature, until the middle of 1800's. To survive, the Finns had to use what they found in nature, then develop and refine it. This is their nature - a stubborn desire to do something really well. So it is no wonder that some of the best stoves, sauna and otherwise, come from Finland. Sauna is one of the important links to that nature, which is a very healthy thing, both physically, mentally and spiritually. To be disconnected from nature means you will eventually join the forces that destroy it. This is why Finns still today maintain this contact consciously and want to preserve their country as it always has been. So it is no surprise that a Finn is probably more comfortable in a sauna than in his own home.

    Sauna, as used by the Finns, has certain rules of conduct which everyone usually observes. Tom-foolery, shouting and swearing - every Finn knows should be left outside the sauna room. To the Finns, sauna has special meaning, a spiritual connection through the peace within a sauna and the natural world around them. The experience is perhaps very symbolic too: like a womb, and when you come out, you are as if reborn. In the old days you had to bow to even get into the sauna because the top of the door in a savusauna was lower than normal. This too was symbolic of the reverence of nature with which the Finns still approach the sauna ritual. And of course the sauna itself is a symbol for every Finn, a part of their identity. It reduces every person to the lowest common denominator when the worldly front represented by clothing is shed, which is very natural and pure.

    Like a spiritual experience, the sauna experience is something that cannot be described by words, but has to be experienced. But by using a little imagination, you can try. Imagine a beautiful lake, a forest, the elements, the universe - now you are getting close.

    Sauna Culture to Finns is the exact opposite of the way the sauna is used in some European/western countries where it has found its way back to the old central European immoral traditions. You see, in Europe there were all kinds of baths, some resembled saunas, but due to improper use, disease spread quickly and soon they became outlawed. These saunas are not saunas at all but breeding grounds for disease.

    The sauna survived and developed in Finland because the Finns were people of the forest and nature, and never deviated from the proper way to use the sauna in daily life. This attitude is partly due to tradition and the Finns' historically healthy attitude toward the human body, which has acquired a taboo connotation in many countries. That is why the Finns even today are the keepers of the sauna culture - the right, clean way to sauna enjoyment.

    In times past, women and men bathed together, and you can still find places where the tradition continues but without the problems such conduct would elicit in other countries.

    In the old days, Finnish saunas did not have separate washrooms, and the inside dimensions were therefore larger. The major "improvement" in Finnish saunas came with the separate washroom, although many sauna purists dispute this. Another improvement was the heater. Early saunas were smoke saunas, that is they did not have a chimney. Here is an overview of heater development.

    The older sauna heater models were larger wood heated stoves that were fired up once and took a long time to reach full temperature. Even though we get steam from throwing water on the rocks, we can't call the sauna room a "steam room" because the actual relative humidity is quite low. Also, the purpose of throwing water on the rocks is not to create a steam environment within the sauna; it is for the enjoyment of its transitory effects which result in longer lasting feeling of well-being. Today,  factory made constant heat (which means there is fire burning all the time) models are used because they take up less space and in many ways are handier than the old ones.

    A recent innovation in sauna heaters is of a type which stores heat in an insulated container that can be opened for "instant" sauna. (...just add water...) This might prove to be a good sauna heater for some applications.

    Your best source for sauna heaters is from a highly trusted site.

    Kastor Wood and Electric heaters (above) were made in Finland, but markets change and companies with them.

    The oldest sauna heater manufacturer, Kastor has been bought by the Swedish company Tylö

    From a construction point of view, many believe that a good sauna should be built with logs. Finnish manufacturers supply kits of prefabricated log saunas in either hand-hewn, planed, or turned logs which can easily be setup on a lake-front property. City saunas in America are often paneled in redwood or cedar and Finnish saunas are generally paneled in spruce, or knotless pine. Attention should be paid to the interior sauna dimensions, placement of benches and how high they are in relation to the floor and the kiuas, or stove. The upper surface of the stones should be lower than the benches. And by the way, the stones you use are of no small importance and should be replaced once in a while because they tend to lose their ability to store heat. Natural hard stones no less than 35 millimeters in diameter will do nicely. Some use broken stones, but hard river-bed or sea-shore stones are even better because they are more stable. The stones should be igneous, not sedimentary such as shale or sandstone. Replace the stones every year or two and definitely if there is evidence of crumbling. Finnish sauna stone supplier "best löyly"

    On a concrete floor, you should place non slip wooden gratings which can be easily lifted up for cleaning fairly regularly. One interesting way to do it is by drilling three holes through the wood and stringing nylon or polypropylene rope through, and putting a spacer or knot between if desired, and at either counter-sunk ends. These roll ups are easier to handle, and theoretically can be made in any dimension.
    Finnish engineers claim that saunas should never be varnished or painted under any circumstances. The only interior surface that can be treated is the floor, to which one can apply a special mold prevention agent, which is colorless and odorless. And one does not wear anything in a sauna. One generally sits on a towel or a specially shaped sheet of plywood placed on the bench. The bench and interior surfaces should be scrubbed thoroughly every time the sauna is used. It isn't as much trouble as it seems. It is pleasant to have something to do while waiting for the sauna to heat up, especially if one is alone. A properly built sauna is a good bacteria free (relatively speaking) environment. Good ventilation is essential for a really clean sauna.

    Air Exchange

    Air exchange is the most important factor in a sauna. If it is not in order, there is no point in using the sauna at all. Constant heat sauna stoves draw used air into the stove for combustion and exhaust it through the chimney. This is replaced by new, fresh air, which flows in continuously through the vent near the floor in the same wall as the door. The vent is 15 centimeters in diameter and has a shutter to regulate the air flow and leads to the washroom wall. Another vent high in the washroom wall, about eye level, lets fresh air in. Thus oxygen rich air is constantly moving through the whole system. In city saunas, an improvement in ventilation could be a larger gap under the door, or alternately, a vent under the top bench. To conserve heat, the exhaust vent should not be near the ceiling since it is better to exhaust the sinking, cooling air at a lower level. The upper vent can be opened at the end of the sauna session. Regardless of the system you use, the end result must be a plentiful oxygen supply. This will result in a feeling of well-being rather than exhaustion, which too many non Finns complain about. Air has a natural oxygen content of 21%, which must be maintained inside the sauna. Alternate air circulating systems . (see diagram)

    Sauna Tales from the Finland Woods:
    Part 1 - smoke sauna


    Most savusaunas (smoke saunas) were built more than 50 years ago. The new generation is still at the age where they don't appreciate the sauvusauna. Juhani is a second generation owner of a savusauna. "The first löyly (hot moist air from throwing water on the hot rocks) swirl around the sauna-goers like a firey lover. The second caresses like a gentle wife. The third, you sit as in the lap of your dear mother."

    "My sweetest löyly is grandmother löyly" says Juhani. After supper, and sitting for awhile enjoying nature's beauty, you could sneak over to the sauna around midnight and have an after-löyly. Grandmother comes to mind then."

    The heating of the savusauna is a ritual at Juhani's family. Some families consider it a woman's job to keep the sauna clean, but Juhani believes that it's the job of whoever heats the sauna."

    Although some people think the savusauna is a needless consumer of forests it is still the best sauna claims Juhani whose sauna is situated on the shores of a picturesque lake. When is a sauna heated? Whenever you feel like it. The old savusauna is part of the unhurried holiday lifestyle.

    Heating a Savusauna

    First, the ashes are cleaned out of the stove. Then you place a full container of water on an old stool and a few others on the benches for heating. It's also good to have the water around in case of fire.

    You get all your wood ready and pile them on the lower benches. Alder or birch without the bark is best. You set about six pieces in the stove and with the help of birch bark, you start the fire burning happily with one match. The draft is set open slightly to the firebox and the sauna door is left ajar about an inch. There is no stovepipe so you have to open the ceiling and wall vents. Warming the sauna starts anytime in the afternoon, at which time Juhani likes to smoke a nice lahna (bream).

    The second addition of wood to the fire is preceded by leveling the ashes of the first batch of embers. Now you have to use smaller sticks to get a hotter flame to burn off the soot from the kiuas stove which is mostly rocks. When there is just a small blue flame left in the fire, the draft is shut, (embers can be swept out as well) and the vents and door are closed for awhile, then the door and vents are opened, and the benches and railings are washed with a rag and cold water. The wood chips are broomed under the benches down to the earth floor beneath. Water is thrown on the rocks (häkä löylyt) to drive off any carbon monoxide and residual smoke in the sauna. After that the sauna is left for at least one hour to settle with vents and door closed, especially to ensure no carbon monoxide is left. (Countless Finns have died from carbon monoxide poisoning from carelessness. You are entering a room where there may have been incomplete combustion and perhaps incandescent rocks. Carbon monoxide caution, and steps to avoid it, is well ingrained in the culture but it still happens the odd time when people forget, which is human.) It can take 3 to 6 hours to properly heat a savusauna, after which there is still one more thing to do, clean the windows. After that there is nothing more to do but enjoy the oxygen rich savusauna atmosphere and mellow heat given to the air within by the dark walls and stones.

    "You don't speak in a sauna."

    Eva likes to sit in the sauna quietly and look out at the nature. Sometimes you can see birds picking at blueberries, an otter or other animals such as mink. Loons land on the quiet lake. Animals are not afraid to come close when you sit quietly in the sauna. You don't carry on a lively conversation in a sauna, but you can quietly whisper if necessary while bent over meditatively, according to Juhani. This is an old custom and it is carried forward in Finland to a great extent but it is also a good place to communicate when necessary because outside distractions are left behind.

    Communication Finnish Style, in the Sauna

    The most famous sauna communicator was former president Urho Kekkonen, who brought his American and communist counterparts and foreign ministers to the sauna, and it is said he would not let them out until a deal had been hammered out. He was famous for holding sensitive foreign policy discussions with Soviet leaders in the relaxed and private environment of his estate's sauna.

    US foreign minister Dean Rusk was coming for a visit to Finland. The Finnish foreign ministry had made a program schedule for the visit which included of course a trip to the sauna. Rusk drew a line through that part. He had written O.K. on the other parts and returned it back to Finland. However, Kekkonen was not about to forsake his Saturday sauna ritual and promptly returned it to the schedule. When Rusk arrived, Kekkonen showed off Tamminiemi to the guests, and...the sauna. There they sat, Kekkonen, Rusk, Ahti Karjalainen and ambassadors from both countries, having a discussion. When the sauna had warmed up enough, Kekkonen took off his coat. The ambassador of USA politely followed suit. Kekkonen whipped off his tie in the same movement, then his shirt, and pants etc. The foreign minister of Finland of course followed his boss. After all the president is the leader of foreign affairs. The Finnish ambassador in Washington followed. The US ambassador was stumpped. What does the protocol say about this? Finally he started taking off his clothes like everyone else. The US foreign minister looked surprised, hesitated, but since the president of Finland was standing there already in his underwear, he gave up and went along with this strange ritual. So they bathed, drank beer and everyone had a good time.

    A few years later Karjalainen met Rusk in different circumstances and asked why Rusk had resisted the sauna so much even though he enjoyed it. "Well, nobody had told me what that strange word sauna meant. That is why I struck it out, just to be on the safe side," admitted Rusk.

    Story to be continued

    War Saunas

    Wherever a Finn goes he sets up a sauna, even in war time. Of course they build trenches, dugouts, fortifications, field hospitals and all the other structures that go with warfare. But there will always be a sauna there too, even in forward positions. Finnish soldiers went to the sauna very often, particularly during the static phase of the war. But is it wise in these circumstances? What if the enemy launches a surprise attack? How can naked soldiers defend themselves if they are caught by surprise in the sauna, and has that ever happened? True, many a Finn has made the supreme sacrifice on the benches of a sauna, but nevertheless the sauna was of great value in strengthening morale and creating a sense of cohesion among the troops.


    Naked Warriors

    A story comes out of Eastern Karelia where a group of soldiers had been forgotten in a field sauna. Finnish forces were on the retreat at the time, but the enemy was not thought to be very close. While one group of men were enjoying the löyly, the front line moved, the guards retreated and the sauna and those in it were suddenly in enemy territory. When the men came out to cool off, they saw that the line had been breached and that they had been left behind the Soviet front, without weapons nor equipment, completely naked. There were forty or so of them, without so much as a pair of trousers between them.

    The dugout in which they left their equipment had been destroyed. Somewhere in the distance they heard the clank and roar of tanks. It had been a tight spot. So, perhaps all these men were taken prisoner? It makes sense, but no. First they went back into the sauna and had a good hit of löyly for the road. Then they split up into small groups and disappeared into the forest, re-crossing the front line wherever they could, during the night. They were naked and scratched when they got caught up to their main group, because they had struggled through peat bogs and thickets for the best part of two days. But finally the group was all together again, and when it was seen what condition they were in, they were promptly ordered off to the sauna for yet another good taste of löyly. (Story adapted from Businessman's guide to the Finnish Sauna)

    Some researchers claim that sitting in a sauna could aggravate heart conditions, according to The American Journal of Medicine . However, it does not state whether the same would occur in a hot tub, nor if the air circulation was adequate in the test sauna. It is well known to the writer that standard American saunas have poor air flow and therefore the oxygen probably falls (within fifteen minutes) from the normal 21% to 17% or less. The writer performed a test in his apartment/hotel sauna with two people in Victoria B.C., Canada (Chateau Victoria). The observed decreased oxygen would certainly be a health hazard for older people, and one could not stay in for more than 5 minutes comfortably. This underlines the need to have good air circulation. A quick fix that is better than nothing: cut a piece off the bottom of the door.

      Two nude women were in a sauna. One said: "my husband will be here soon." The other answered: "then I have to leave." "No, don't leave." she said, "His brother is with him."

      In Finland there are in some places, men and women's saunas. Well, what would you do if you accidentally entered the women's sauna? It happened to a fellow in Finland. Asked what he did, he answered: "It was nothing really, I just composed myself and asked: "have any of you gentlemen seen my glasses?"

    RV Sauna

    Since nobody advised me that one cannot build a sauna in my trailer, I have done just that. After all, is not a trailer just a small house on wheels? And wouldn't it be nice to camp by a lake of your choice and warm up after a swim, or the other way around? How about those cold evenings after a camping, fishing or hunting trip? While frying up some catch, have the sauna warming up. Have a sauna, then eat...Of course there are some things that would make the job challenging, such as lack of space. RV-Sauna.



    Majava Sauna
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    Saunasite, lots of information
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    Suomen Sauna Seura/Finnish Sauna Society
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    International Movie Database
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    Page 3: More Finnish Sauna
    (Warning: sauna scene Finnish style)

    © 1998 - 2016 Osmo Joronen

    Lähteet - Bibliography

    Virtanen, John, O, The Finnish Sauna, Peace of Mind, Body and Soul, Continental Publishing House, Portland, Oregon 1974
    Tommila, Pekka, Rakennan Saunan, Suomalainen Sauna Opas, Rakentajain Kustannus Oy, 1986

    Miracle II soap (green) - body and shampoo - safest soap in the world.