Sensational reporting of court cases and dingy first-floor premises in the seedy part of town do nothing to improve the image of sauna in the UK. Yet in Scandinavia and Germany, sauna is seen as a healthy family activity. Let's ignore the sniggers of the tabloid press and investigate.
Sauna is a bath in hot dry air. There are many variations on this theme in cultures around the world but the Scandinavian model is the best-known in Britain. Dry heat is much more comfortably bearable than moist heat, such as the steam or "Turkish" bath. For those unacquainted with sauna, I recommend a trial session to experience the pleasures. If you're uncertain about visiting the place over the take-away kebab joint, there are plenty of saunas to be found in respectable sports centres and health clubs.
Enter the sauna cabin and take your place on a bench, sitting or lying down according to preference and available space. It's a good idea to take a towel in with you as the wooden slats of the benches can get uncomfortable and leave marks. Novices often ask what they should wear in the sauna. There's no firm rule on this. In the Nordic countries the answer is likely to be nothing, though nobody will mind if you prefer to sport swim-wear. In the UK it's more usual for public saunas to have separate cabins for male and female bathers or to have separate sessions at advertised times. In any case it's a good idea to check the house rules.
To start, you shouldn't spend too long on any one sauna session. It's far better to spend 5-10 minutes in the cabin, take a shower followed by a swim or plunge in the pool, then take a rest. You can repeat the process as many times as you wish or for as long as you are allowed. Aficionados can spend hours in the cabin, though my preference is for about 20 minutes. If there is any doubt about your health, seek your doctor's advice before taking sauna.
Temperatures in public saunas tend to be around the 80s and 90s centigrade in Britain but in the 100s in Scandinavia. People are often incredulous of these temperatures but dry heat is much more bearable than moist heat - as anyone will confirm who has visited California and Florida.
I was bitten by the sauna bug during a visit to Sweden in 1981 and, returning home, set about having my own personal sauna cabin built. It's certainly no harder to install a sauna than to refit a kitchen. Suitable places for a cabin include a box-room or spare bedroom, an attic or even that odd-shaped space under the stairs - according to how many people are to be accommodated.
You may prefer to have your sauna cabin outdoors. I have known people to convert the garage of their 1930s semi (big enough for an Austin Seven but hopeless for any serious contractor's car) or an old garden shed. If your lawn still covers a war-time Anderson shelter (and you don't already use it for growing mushrooms), there could be possibilities for an installation there. By far the best solution - space permitting - is to make a feature of your sauna cabin in the garden.
Log saunas are built of solid timber, 3-4 inches thick. Panel saunas are made of 2 layers of pine boards on a stud frame, filled with fibreglass insulation. The simplest and quickest way to have your own cabin is to buy one ready-made in kit form from one of the many suppliers who advertise in the press. These tend to have a range of stock sizes but most are able to supply to the customer's specification. This is particularly useful if you want to put your sauna into an odd-shaped room. Check whether the price includes delivery and assembly. As a busy contractor, it's probably better for the suppliers to assemble the sauna - unless you're an expert joiner they'll make a better job of it.
Alternatively, you can design a sauna building to your own requirements. You can incorporate a shower cubicle, toilet, plunge pool, rest area or anything else - limited only by your means and your imagination. If you're clever enough you can build some or all of it yourself, otherwise employ a skilled carpenter. It's possible to buy plans ready-drawn but much more satisfying to design your own layout.
There's also the matter of electricity. Nearly all saunas in the UK have electric stoves, ranging from 2½ kilowatt mini-stoves to the 20 kilowatt jobs found in commercial saunas. Suitable stoves are generally supplied with kit saunas - check the power requirements before you commit yourself to buy. My 7ft square sauna cabin has an 8 kilowatt stove, about the most powerful rating available for a normal domestic single-phase power supply. Buy a more powerful stove and you'll have to get your electricity supplier to put in a three-phase power supply - not cheap to install or run. I strongly recommend using a qualified electrician to provide the supply to the sauna stove, especially if you are having your cabin in the garden. Armoured cabling is essential, as are proper earthing and safety switching devices.
Running costs may be reduced by using an "Economy 7" power supply with time-switches and taking your sauna before going to work. If you live in a country area this may be a good way of avoiding your neighbours' wrath. Drawing 8 kilowatts from some small village sub-stations could ruin somebody's Sunday lunch or dim the lights!
Nothing can touch sauna for the exhilaration and feeling of well-being, even THAT! Socially, it's excellent for entertaining, day or night. And afterwards? I recommend a long, cold drink - such as a beer or a margarita - and a light meal, followed by an evening of relaxation with music and good conversation. Then if anything else takes your fancy, do it!
© Brian Smith 1995
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