Many peoples throughout history - most notably, the Finns - have known the pleasures and rejuvenating effects of the sauna. One version or another has existed for over 2,000 years amongst such diverse cultures as the Native Americans, Mayans, Eskimos, Russians, Romans and Greeks. The heavy perspiration induced by dry heat deeply cleanses the skin, increases circulation, and soothes muscular tension. We can use sauna bathing to sweat impurities out of our bodies, cleanse our sinuses, relieve lung ailments, and even treat acne by softening our skin and opening its pores.
By simplest definition, a sauna is an insulated wooden room that is heated, generally from 160 to 195 degrees Fahrenheit. Rectangular boxes, with two or three tiers of wooden benches, tend to work best for seating. The interior panels of a sauna are made of low-density softwoods - such as redwood, Alaskan yellow cedar, spruce, and eastern white pine - that resist heat instead of absorbing it and so remain comfortable to the touch amidst high temperatures.
The heat is provided by rocks, which distribute it evenly and gently throughout the enclosed room. Fist-sized pieces of igneous granite work best. Such stones are originally formed by intense heat and pressure, so they can easily absorb extreme temperatures without cracking. Sauna rocks can be heated by electric, gas, or wood stoves. Wood stoves are the cheapest method, and for many people they provide the most authentic sauna experience. They generally take longest to heat the room, however, and the ashes left behind have to be periodically removed. Gas stoves can be less expensive both to install and use than electrical ones, though a gas line will have to be run to the stove. Electric stoves, the most costly option, are also the most compact, efficient, and easy to install.
Building a sauna from scratch can be an ambitious proposition. However, there are various kits available that can simplify the job. Prefabricated saunas are complete kits - some can be assembled in an afternoon, and all hardware, sauna stoves, benches, doors, and wood for panels, frame and ceiling are included. Prefabricated kits are available for almost any size room, and many are adaptable to the outdoors. Sauna manufacturers also offer precut saunas built to customers' specifications. Again, all materials are included, but more assembly is required in these cases.
Many people like to complete their ritual of heat bathing in a sauna by quickly cooling off, either in the open air or in cool water. If you're fortunate enough to own a pool, or if you have a pond or stream on your property, then you might want to build your sauna in close proximity to these water sources. Another option is to install the sauna near a dressing room and shower. The opportunity to heat up, cool off, and then rest in quick succession brings us closer to the refreshing and healing ritual that the people of Finland have known for millennia.