FROM THE ANCIENT TRADITION TO MODERN TECHNOLOGY
The Finns have had saunas as long they have lived in Finland. In the beginning, their dwellings were holes in the ground covered with turf. This kind of an abode was a necessity of the circumstances: the cold climate and the lack of knowledge to build a house of timber.
In the abode there was a heap of stones with a hollow hearth for the fire to heat up the stones. The hot stones were the only way to store the heat without having to tend the fire all night.
As there was no chimney, the stove was located at the doorway, so that one could insert more firewood without having to enter the dwelling full of smoke. After heating up the stones, the dwelling was ventilated to get the smoke out. The hot stones kept the housing dry and warm during the long cold nights.
Eventually, it was found out that by throwing water on the hot stones, one could get the dwelling even warmer when needed. It was also soon discovered that the heat rises up and the dwellers built a "laude", a wide platform near the ceiling for taking "löyly," as they called this action of throwing water on the stones. They learned to control the feel of warmth - they had invented the Finnish Sauna. Even these oldest saunas had already the main idea of the Finnish Sauna: there was stove with plenty of stones and a laude for taking löyly.
There is no word in English for the Finnish word "löyly" [loew-lew]. Löyly is a sauna-specific word meaning the steam rising from the hot stones, and more importantly, the feeling of the warmth. To take löyly means to bathe in a sauna. The löyly can be mild dry, hot dry, mild wet, hot wet, and everything between. By throwing water on the stones one can regulate the feeling of warmth. A mild, kind löyly can change to a skin-burning hell in seconds. In the original Finnish Sauna one can decide what kind of löyly to take.
Without löyly each sauna can be described in concrete terms: how it is built and heated, but by regulating the löyly, a Finn becomes the master of his sauna. When the Finns judge a sauna, they evaluate the löyly. The looks and the quality of construction and materials have a minor value. They feel sorry for a luxurious sauna, which does not have a good löyly. There is more about löyly in the chapter Temperature and Löyly.
When the Finns learned to work timber, the sauna got up from ground but it still was without a chimney. This kind of a smoke sauna takes 2 to 5 hours to warm up. It takes plenty of work to clean up the sauna before the löyly. As it is also quite dangerous to burn an almost open fire in the sauna, it was officially forbidden, as early as in 17th century, to build a sauna too close to other buildings.
In the 19th century the chimney was added to the stove. With the chimney, the danger for fire was diminished and construction of saunas spread rapidly. In the beginning of 20th century, the stoves were made of steel. The most popular stoves were enclosed barrel-like stoves, where there was a lid for löyly. These stoves were common until the World War II, and had the nature of the ancient Finnish Sauna. The stove was preheated before opening the lid and taking löyly. There were plenty of stones in the stove and the temperature in the sauna was quite low. The heat was developed by löyly. These saunas were excellent because of plenty of löyly.
An invention of the thirties allowed for continuous wood burning in the sauna heater. These continuos-burning heaters took over after the World War II. With this kind of a heater the wood is burned also while taking löyly. This kind of a heater was easier to use. It was fast, 20-40 minutes instead of 1-2 hours for the barrel stove. It was inexpensive. It was a heater for small saunas, for which the barrel stoves were too big. The continuous-burning heaters are very effective and can very easily heat up the sauna too hot. If a sauna is too hot, there is not space for löyly, and the sauna is dry and hot.
Electric heaters took over in the seventies and eighties. They were the product for the urban population. They were inexpensive. They were easy to use and most importantly, they made it possible to build a sauna almost anywhere. Until the 1970´s, saunas had been relatively rare outside Finland but the electricity made it possible to build saunas in the cities, in places where the handling of open fire was strictly forbidden. It also made it possible to build saunas in flats.
The amount of stones was reduced to 15-20 kg in small heaters and to 60-120 kg in larger heaters. The löyly became drier. Because of the small amount of heat stored in the stones, the sauna must be heated quite hot, and one cannot throw as much löyly as to cool off the stones. It was still a Finnish sauna, but much was lost. It was still possible to regulate the löyly, but at a narrow hot range, see Temperature and Löyly for more information.
Funny products and habits appeared outside Finland, some which are almost ridiculous in a Finns eyes. There are heaters with very few stones or without any stones at all, and throwing löyly is totally forbidden. These are not saunas, these may be called hot rooms, but not saunas.
There appeared also many "Masters" who "know" how long you should be in the sauna and how hot the sauna should be. They do not have the slightest idea of the original Finnish Sauna, where you should stay as long as it feels good and you should throw löyly just as much as it feels comfortable. For the Finnish people the sauna is almost a holy place where they brood their individual thoughts, powered not by Pentium but sometimes a drop of Koskenkorva vodka and they do just as they please without any rules or regulations.
The triumph of the electric heater was a nightmare for Finnish sauna lovers. In the cities they were obliged to use electric sauna but they did not resign. They bought a place on the shore of an isolated lake where they built their saunas that were heated with wood. Currently, there are 5 million people in Finland, and about 1.7 million saunas, of which about 600.000 on lakeshores. The huge number of saunas in Finland can be explained with the following: there is a sauna in every single-family house; there is a common sauna in almost every apartment building; and during the last ten years small apartment saunas have become very popular.
The old smoke-sauna almost disappeared. At its lowest, the amount of smoke saunas was in hundreds. In the eighties, the smoke sauna became a hobby of the ultimate sauna purists and the number has grown to about 5,000.
For a long time, the wood-burning barrel stove was the only factory-made stove, which had the ability to produce a whole variety of löyly, like the original Finnish Sauna. It was difficult to construct a good electric stove, because of the thermal elements burned up easily. In a regular electric heater, the elements are cooled by the air flowing through the heater. In a closed stove, there is no air going through the stove, as the heat must be stored inside the stove.
The first solution against the burning up of the heating elements was circulating the air inside the stove with a fan. The first electric stove of this kind was the Magic Stove, which was introduced in 1990. The Magic Stove is like a convection oven filled with stones. The circulating air cools the heating elements and spreads the heat from the heating elements to all the stones inside the stove. Another invention in the Magic Stove is using the fan also for circulating the air of the sauna trough the stove.
The use of a fan made it possible to warm up the sauna almost instantly after opening the lid of the stove. Adjusting the temperature in the sauna is also fast and easy. The stove has 100-400 kg of stones and 4-30 kW in capacity. It takes 30 - 90 minutes to heat up a cold stove depending on the capacity of the heating elements and the amount of stones. The stove can be ready for löyly at any time. The stand-by energy consumption is only 1,5 kW even for the biggest stove.
Soon thereafter, another improvement was introduced: a stove that is ready for löyly all the time. The burning of the heating elements is avoided by using very effective insulation in the casing of the stove and a very small capacity of 250-400 W in heating elements. The small capacity is absorbed by the stones and the surface temperature of the heating elements is low enough to avoid burning. There is about 100 kg of stones in this kind of stove. When the lid is opened, an additional capacity of 3-6 kW is turned on to help warming up the sauna and keeping the stones hot when throwing löyly. For family use, the sauna is ready after opening the lid. For a group or for long lasting bathing, the lid should be opened 5 to 30 minutes before entering the sauna in order warm up the sauna to 50-60 ºC. This kind of stove must be on all the time, because it takes a day to get the cold stove hot. The stove is suitable for family use, where the low effect does not cause a lack of löyly.
Both of these electric stoves support the spirit of the original Finnish Sauna. The temperature in the sauna is relatively low and the feel of warmth is regulated by throwing löyly. In general, the stoves are far better but also far more expensive than heaters.
© Saunasite, 1997