Two years ago, Minna’s parents and our newest FAHS members, Nelly (the Finn) and Jerry (galvanized), gifted us their sauna. Stacked neatly in a pile, off in the dark recesses of our basement collecting dust it sat.In the second week of lock down, we (the whole family) decided it was time to build this sauna. We worked for hours on a Saturday and a Sunday setting it up. Once the Finnishing (deliberate spelling) touches were completed and the sauna was operational, we began our COVID-19 sauna odyssey.
It was a Saturday morning, only a few days since the governor ordered the lockdown across Connecticut. After several decades of military service, sleeping-in meant waking up at 0630 on this day. Because of this, I have specific orders to quietly go to the basement to get readied for the day. Normally, I would catch the local news with a cup of coffee. While I did have a cup-o-joe, my mind was preoccupied with being productive. Just a few days before, C, my 16 year old son, and I were discussing what to do now that we were spending much more time at home. As a slew of house projects raced in my head, C had something more specific in mind. “Dad, what are you gonna do with that sauna kit in the basement?” Having returned from Finland only 3 months prior, and sensing some interest from my eldest, I immediately thought building the sauna would be a good “family” project. So there I was that morning, feeling productive, and a sauna kit in front of me.
At first, I tinkered. I reorganized the pile of wooden parts and boxes of hardware. Soon, I found the instructions, a combination of building plans from the manufacturer and hand-written notes by my father-in-law, Jerry. With these in hand, I started to put together the pieces. It was 0700. At this point, I wasn’t truly committed to the project. While I consider myself “handy” around the house, I had never constructed a sauna before. So I continued to tinker with the parts and pieces, trying to understand the instructions and those hand-written notes. It wasn’t long before I had the sauna footprint measured and outlined. We had already moved one HVAC duct to accommodate the sauna, so I knew my space was large enough. Within an hour, I had the back wall erected. It was at about this time, M came down with a fresh cup of kahvi and joined in on the project. Before long, C joined as well, quickening our pace further. By 10am, all but the ceiling was complete. I was able to connect power to the interior sauna light, but the 220V required for the heater was beyond my skill set, and since electricity is magic to me, it was time to call the electrician. The rest of the day would be spent cleaning and designing the sitting area or “sanctuary” on the side of the sauna, in the exact place the sauna kit formerly sat in storage. The electrician came within two days and safely installed the sauna heater and some other light fixtures. With the electricity installed, it was time for C and I to install the ceiling, which took about an hour. We now had an operational sauna! Of course, we were going to take a sauna that day, but we had some accoutrements to add. For starters, we hung pictures of our family and a reindeer hide. We also added the sofa table, which displays my “puukko” and the sauna’s original kirja (book) and our new sauna kirja, and some other Finnish decor. The remaining construction of our sauna progressed over the next few months, and to some extent, continues to this day.
The sanctuary is located inside a 10’ diameter rounded feature of our house that on the main floor was part of the dining area. This feature is repeated in the basement and gives a half-moon shape to our sitting area, with the flat-side of the half moon made up by the sauna wall. The floors and walls in this area were all cement, which Minna later primed and painted white. This area is very secluded and well-suited for our breaks in between sauna sessions, as well as relaxing after our sauna is complete, enhancing our own personal routine and sauna culture. How you equip or decorate your sanctuary up to you. I added a bluetooth speaker, a couple of folding chairs and a small table at this point. As you can probably imagine, this area would evolve over the next 9 months.
As the days progressed into weeks and months, Minna and I spent a lot of time in the sanctuary. This “downtime” helped us clear our minds while the sauna cleaned our bodies. It was also the perfect time to reflect on our days (now spent at home), discuss family issues, and of course develop plans regarding this new favorite area of our home. As I mentioned above, this area was primitive and unfinished at the outset of the project, bare cement floors and walls, and a couple of folding chairs. Over the next couple of months, we added wireless sound, paint, shelves, flooring, lighting, and Finnish-inspired decor.
Not mentioned yet are the contributions of my daughter, E (14). She’s the artist of the family and she put her talents to work over the summer giving this space a true personal touch. The first of her projects was transforming the red support poles that outlined this area, which did not fit into the look we were trying to achieve. M and I had settled to just paint them white or blue. E suggested painting them to look like birch tree trunks. We loved the idea, but questioned if either of us could paint what she had suggested. Then E said, “I’ll do it!” She painted the two poles in the sanctuary, and they came out incredible (see picture). She is also working on three canvas paintings that will eventually hang in the space. She has completed one which features the Lapland night with ribbons of aurora borealis silhouetting a lone reindeer stag under the forest canopy (top left in the sanctuary picture below). She is nearly finished with her second painting which features a mökki, or a Finnish cottage, in the forest. Her third design in the series is in the works, but we anticipate that it will feature some of the special landmarks and buildings of Helsinki, which she visited in the summer of 2019.
Finally, we added shelves, finished the ceiling, installed artificial grass for flooring. For the ceiling, we used simple fabric with a design of our liking. In the other spaces, garden burlap was hung to serve this purpose. To give the floor a more finished look, I thought installing a pine or cedar baseboard would be too complicated given the rounded nature of the space. I had just purchased replacement rocks for the sauna stove, which inspired how we could overcome this dilemma while adding a light feature. I laid wifi-enabled LED lighting strips behind a layer of sauna rocks in place of base trim. To finish the space, we added many of the artifacts we have gathered from our trips to Finland or have received from family. M's grandmother’s ryijy (roughly pronounced rew-yew) proudly hangs next to M's chair. Lastly, we added a couple of dried vitha which compliment the birch poles nicely and add a nice natural scent to the space. We had a couple of Ikea chairs that fit perfectly. The sanctuary was 99% complete. In our opinion, this space is just as important to the ‘sauna routine’ as the sauna itself. We have built this area in such a way that is conducive to our relaxation and health. The sights, sounds, smells, and feel of the sanctuary do just that. While we have the option to play music, it is never played loudly. This space is extremely important to our sauna culture, which we will explain in a future episode.
Day 1: Walls up, but no ceiling