Wellness How-To: Our DIY Sauna

Of all the raised eyebrows we garnered from our former HGTV.com show, the DIY sauna brought forth the most questions, hands down. Where’d you put it? How big is it? How does it work? And mostly: Why on earth?

I’ll tell you Why on Earth: bliss. As it turns out, if you spend a mere twenty minutes in a hot cedar box with Chopin on repeat, you are anew. Transformed. Ready and able to take on the world yet again, or at least flip the pancakes.

Early flu symptoms? Sauna. Allergies? Sauna. An overwhelmed mind? Underwhelmed heart? Sauna, sauna.

When Ken drew up the plans for our master bath renovation years ago, he knew he could knock out a weird corner linen closet and the better part of the existing bath/shower combo to create a sauna and shower duo. But he also knew we’d need to forgo two things: storage and a bathtub.

You won’t miss the tub, he promised, and there wasn’t an ounce of me that believed him.

The thing is this: Ken’s definition of a sauna conjured memories of his family’s upper Michigan cabin, of a rich and vibrant Finnish community where everyone owned a sauna, where it was perfectly normal to sneak away for a half hour in the middle of the day to ladle fresh water onto hot rocks, take deep breaths until your mind clears, then roll in the snow and do it all over again.  Me? My definition of a sauna was the tiled, slightly mildewing steam shower at the Y.

I’ll miss the tub, I promised.

(I do not miss the tub.)

diy sauna

I suppose this is why I’m such a big proponent of thinking deeply about the things we keep. Of re-imagining the way we live, of what surrounds us, of asking ourselves if there’s a better solution for you and the people who live alongside of you. Could the garage be an art studio? The attic a writer’s room?

The closet a sauna?

Yes, yes, yes.

And so, if you’re itching to get creative in your own space, to ditch the rules or the tub, here’s how we (ahem, Ken) built a DIY sauna in our master bath:


1. Frame out the space with 16″ on center 2×4 (at minimum) stud walls and whatever appropriate sized dimensional lumber for your ceiling joists. The shorter the ceiling height, the better/easier it is to heat. In our space, there is at least a 40º temperature swing from our floor to our ceiling (the ceiling is 7.5′ high). So the lower the ceiling, the more heat is at the bench. However, if the ceiling height is higher, a person has the option to build multilevel bench seating, which is a nice perk. More the merrier, and all that.

2. Decide if you prefer a wet* or dry sauna. If wet, plumb for the water spigot accordingly (for us, this meant both hot and cold, in addition to a floor drain and concrete shower pan).

3. Run the proper gauge electrical wire for the sauna stove you choose. We ran the wire all the way from the electrical box to the sauna stove, no splices.

4. Insulate each stud cavity completely with the least toxic insulation available (we used pink fiberglass batt).

5. Use a foil vapor barrier, not a plastic vapor barrier. Run barrier horizontally on the walls, starting at the rim of shower pan. Then, the next layer above it will overlap the first layer by 6″, and so on. Try not to cut (vertically) any of the horizontal runs, but if you have to for some reason, overlap the cut by one whole stud bay (at minimum 6″). When standing in the sauna after finishing the foil vapor barrier, you should be able to see nothing but the shower pan under your feet, the foil vapor barrier on the walls, and plumbing pipes (if you have chosen to go the direction of a wet sauna).

6. Use 100% silicone caulk generously. Seal between the concrete and the foil vapor barrier and run a bead of caulk horizontally around the walls at the edge between the vapor barrier layers. Caulk around any plumbing sticking through your vapor barrier, and also around all electrical wire for the sauna stove.

7. Use 16 gauge stainless steal finishing nails to hang tongue and groove cedar boards on the walls, starting with the bottom row, keeping each board level all the way around the sauna. If desired, add a small piece of cedar trim (basically a baseboard) to meet the concrete at the bottom. (Note: when hanging cedar tongue and groove, make sure the tongue is facing up and the groove is facing down. This will ensure proper shedding of water if/when splashed. Also, you can hide the stainless finishing nails if you shoot down at a 45º angle through the cedar where the tongue meets the thicker part of the board. This fastens it to the wall, while still allowing the groove of the piece above to fully swallow the tongue.)

8. Use cedar board to finish trimming out the inside of the sauna. Use that same trim board to frame all the way around what will be the door.

9. Choose your door design. While you can certainly go with a traditional insulated sauna door, they can get pricey, so we opted for a custom-cut shower door normally used for steam rooms. (Pro: This way, because our sauna is right next to our shower, the design feels more symmetrical and cohesive than a traditional sauna door.) We chose a manufactured door from Basco, then a local company measured, cut and installed the door.

10. Purchase your sauna heater. We used a Tylo Super Sport 2/4 wired 240v for a 4.5kw output (and highly recommend any Tylo heater — the customer service and quality is impeccable.

11. Build a bench. We used 2×4 cedar boards on their edge with about 1.5″ between each board to make a 2 person bench, but the possibilities are endless here!

*One note about wet saunas:  Using municipal water on your hot stones is not a good idea. Instead, buy a few gallons of distilled water at your local grocery — they’ll last weeks at a time and you’ll steer clear from  inhaling vaporized chlorine, fluoride, etc. from city water chemicals.


Once the 2×4 framing is up, the total cost was about $1350, and it costs roughly $.45 to take a 40 minute sauna (including 20 minutes to heat completely up to temp).

diy sauna tutorial design for mankind 3

Tell me: what’s something out-of-the-box you’ve made in your own home lately? I’d love to hear! And if you have any sauna questions, I’m happy to wrangle my own resident renaissance Ken to answer them in the comment section!

  • Oh my goodness, a sauna is my dream and I’m totally gong to make this happen! I have a cupboard laundry that backs into my ensuite, we are currently making a bigger laundry, so helllooooo sauna!!

  • This sauna sounds wonderful and nothing I could acheive in this lifetime or two! The most interesting thing I’ve “made” recently is a s’mores bar for a graduation party. Does that count? Resting three Sterno cans in tin buckets, using shish kabob sticks to roast the marshmallows, and placing grahams and Hershey pieces in containers all on a tray, filled with yellow decorative stones from a dollar store, worked quite nicely!

  • In the process of convincing my husband to convert my screened in porch (that currently serves no purpose but to house discarded items) into a potted zen garden with some soft seating (think minimalist jungalow style). Needing a neutral area that is NOT inside my tiny house for a comfortable reading area early in the morning or in the evening surrounded by beautiful plants.

  • Out of the box: I have a porcelain drinking fountain(scavenged from a church that was being torn down) waiting to be put in my kitchen…when we finish renovating it. My husband shakes his head, I am still holding out. My thinking is with 8 children in this old farm house there will be less cups to wash….but there could be a water puddle on the floor. A trade off I am willing to make. : )

  • We have a funny handmade (by the previous owner) gardening shed in the backyard. It happens to have been wired for electrical so I convinced my husband to drywall, help me hang wallpaper, and turn it into a writing room. Plus there’s a lock on the door in mama needs a quick “time out”!

  • We decided to transform my formal living room that was never used and turn it into my art studio. I have a beautiful wire mesh door cabinet that looks like a cabinet of curiosities. It contains my art supplies as well as skulls and rocks and other fossils. People that come in get a glimpse of the latest canvas setting in the easel. It is the best light in the house and my friends think it’s a great use for a formal space. I am a believer in using all the rooms in a home. I think formal rooms are a waste of space.

  • Ok, your comment about your husband’s fond memories of sauna in Upper Michigan make me feel like he must be family. I live in the Upper Peninsula, small town, and yes, I’m of Finnish descent. We do love our saunas. So glad you have one to enjoy!!

  • We have an old playhouse that became a chicken shed and now my husband has turned it into a meditation room. We do have a wood fired dry sauna up at our cabin and it is lovely!

  • Oh Erin, All those months in Bible Study with you and I took away one thing from knowing you in LA. You have vision! You have an canning perspective that helps us all sharpen our WHY’s?

    • Oh goodness, Sheri – thank you for such kindness and encouragement today. And it’s so so good to hear from you! :)

Comments are closed.