At ACMEFinns, we have never been shy about talking about our sauna and how we built, maintained, or how to use it. This year for sauna-week, we will share one of our favorite sauna accessories and how we adapted it from our Connecticut surroundings. Read on below...
We learned and used the vihta while visiting our family in Finland. In eastern regions of Finland, the Vihta may be called “Vasta” but for this writing, I will refer to it as vihta. For those who have never heard of a vihta, it is a kind of whisk made of birch branches used in a sauna to stimulate circulation by beating oneself (or your sauna mate) with it. The vihta also emotes a pleasant fragrance to the bather, which I would describe as fresh and earthy.
You see, white or silver birch trees are plentiful in the lake regions of Finland. All these birch trees mean that birch branches are easily gathered to construct many vihta to be used in the sauna and are considered the gold standard for vihta. While white birch can be found in Connecticut, they can’t be found in our yard, although we planted six new white birch trees 18 months ago, they’re just not big enough to use yet. What we have is a bounty of black birch trees, which offer similar pliability and leaf size, but differ in fragrance compared to the white birch. The black birch fragrance is similar to that of licorice, which has its own ties to Finnish culture.
Start by gathering fresh and healthy tree branch ends that are 20-25 inches long. You have enough branches gathered when you feel like you are holding a bouquet of a dozen roses. Try other tree species based on your preference. We have provided a list of their benefits below. Strip the bottom 6 inches of the branches of all leaves and twigs. Make sure you play with the order of the branches, layering them for both robustness and attractiveness.
There are several ways to tie the whisk together, the traditional way is to use a stripped birch branch to tie the base of the whisk. This is accomplished by twisting the branch so to expose its fibers. When you release the twist, the branch will be pliable like a rope or string. You then use this to tie the base of the whisk into a nice hand grip.
If you have twine or even zip ties, the end result is the same albeit without the traditional craftsmanship. Be sure to constantly adjust the whisk to create a good look and a comfortable grip. Don’t forget to trim the branch ends evenly.
The best time of year to pick birch leaves for a vihta is around midsummer (June-July). But what if you want to use a vihta later in the summer or even in winter, what do you do? Making several vihta during the long days of summer and preserving them will ensure you have a vihta during next year’s sauna week in February. That is exactly what we did this year and it only takes a few more steps and maybe some freezer space to do so.
This fresh vihta is ready for use.
ACMEFinns (adapted from a Chinese proverb)
Short-term preservation: If you plan to use your vihta later in the summer, you may want to consider drying them. This can be accomplished by simply hanging them upside down (leaves down) in a dry, airy, and shady place such as a barn, garage, or basement. To reinvigorate your vihta for use, soak it in hot water for 10-20 minutes. It should be ready for the sauna at that point.
For longer periods, we recommend freezing your vihta. Just wrap your fresh vihta in plastic wrap, stack it in a quiet spot in your freezer and forget about it. When you are ready to use your frozen vihta, take it out of the freezer. You can defrost it to room temperature naturally or soak it in lukewarm water to speed up the process. Your vihta is ready for sauna now.
Drying a vihta in our basement
Life is full of complex things, but this ain’t one of them. Grab your vihta by the handle, soak it in your sauna bucket of cold water and whip yourself to health. Better yet, use it on your sauna partner! We like to use our vihta soon after putting water on the sauna rocks thereby creating a löyly (sauna steam). The movement of the vihta spreads the löyly around the sauna, creating a truly Finnish sauna experience.
More on the “life force” of löyly in a future ACMEFinns article as has fascinating origins from ancient Finnic mythology and the Kalevala.
Left: Thawing a preserved vihta with warm water
As you will see below, different leaves have different health benefits. In addition to those, whipping with the vihta helps remove dead skin cells, stimulates your circulations, and promotes metabolism. Feel a cold coming on, get in the sauna. Feeling stuffy, make it a eucalyptus vihta. Got mosquitos? There’s nothing better than a birch vihta in the sauna for those bug bites. With the size of the mosquitos in Finland, it is no wonder they have a terrific natural remedy for when those pests start biting.
You can make sauna whisks from many trees and plants. Every tree has its own unique health benefits.
Try mixing a some of the above species in your vihta for more aroma or for your desired effect.
On my first trip to Finland 20 some years ago, I was introduced to a “proper sauna”, complete with a wood-burning stove, vihta, and a trip down to the joki or river. We were visiting Minna’s family and friends and I was a “new American” in Finland. I had fancied myself as a somewhat traveled individual, but Finland was different. The language, the food, and personalities, and the traditions were as foreign to me as I had experienced up to that point. And while I have a speck of Finnish in my DNA, I was not brought up on anything close to Finnish tradition. But I was willing to try everything our hosts put to me: Salmiakki, muikku, Koskenkorva, etc. It was when I was told that I would go into the sauna and beat myself with sticks that I thought I was the subject of a Finnish prank. I even thought Minna was in on it. Well, I hesitantly trusted my host, Kai, even though he had a sheepish grin on his face as I entered the sauna with my bundle of tree branches. Minna and I exchange whippings, and I was hooked. I loved the sauna, but vihta, löyly, and a swim in the cool river took it to a whole other level.
Vihta is a staple in our sauna today. We use the black birch trees on our property, which there are plenty of. As it pertains to sauna, the best time to plant a (white) birch tree was 10 years ago, the second-best time is now. So in November of 2020, we planted white, silver, and paper birch trees throughout the property. They have tripled in size since then, but are still a couple of years from producing enough branches to make vihta. Until then, we will use the black birch and the cedar trees (also aplenty where we live). We used a frozen vihta during this sauna week and it worked as if we had cut it from the tree that afternoon.