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Yukoners turning up the heat with unique DIY sauna builds

Do-it-yourselfers say a sauna built with salvaged materials is a great winter project

If you’re feeling overwhelmed with pandemic stress (or this year’s amount of shovelling) then sweating away your problems by languishing in a hot sauna might be the perfect way to wind down.

If only they weren’t closed.

Those who enjoy a steam room or dry sauna have been out of luck since the start of the pandemic when the Canada Games Centre closed its facilities and post-ski socializing was officially cancelled at Mount McIntyre.

Sales for commercial saunas have tripled nationally since the start of the pandemic, but for those with some construction experience, do-it-yourself saunas designed and built from scratch offer one more way to enjoy winter.

“There’s definitely a sauna boom happening right now. I know so many people that have built saunas or have been very interested in doing since COVID started,” said Whitehorse resident Colin Abbott, who built his own portable sauna three years ago.

Abbott’s portable sauna is built on a 12-foot-long covered trailer that looks like a normal utility trailer from the outside. Open the doors and the interior is a pine and cedar sauna that he can tow to community events and parking lot après-ski.

The exterior of Calvin Delwisch's DIY sauna at Marsh Lake on Feb. 18, 2021. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

“My friends and I talked for years about how sweet it would be to have a portable sauna. So that got into my head and after talking about it for a while I finally decided like okay, I’m going to figure it out,” he said.

That was in winter 2018. But now that people aren’t able to access public facilities many in the Yukon are thinking about buying or building their own.

Saunas have been used for hundreds of years for relaxation and health benefits. Modern saunas are strongly associated with nordic countries, but cultures all over the world have similar sweaty traditions.

Small structures can be quickly heated with stoves. Saunas can be used dry or users can create steam by pouring water on hot rocks for a wet sauna. Sauna proponents say sweating in the sauna has health benefits and studies suggest their use can reduce inflammation, promote cardiovascular health and ease muscle aches.

Calvin Delwisch, another DIY sauna builder, works in mineral exploration where large camps will often build saunas for workers to relax after a long day of physical labour.

“Everybody loves it. Everybody is working at least 12 hours a day. It’s a lot of sort of muscles so it gets used a lot,” he said.

Inspired by those work saunas, Delwisch built his own sauna on his family’s property in Marsh Lake. The structure can fit five or six people at one time and there’s a small entryway separating the entrance from the main room.

“We’ve spent quite a bit of time out there this winter,” he said.

“For me, personally, I like it to get rid of sore muscles. It’s also for quality family time. It’s nice and quiet. We don’t have any technology in there other than a rope lighting just for a little bit of light. No cell phones, no computers, everything’s turned off or left in the cabin,” he said.

There’s no better time for a sauna than the dead of winter, so Nicole Jahraus took on her DIY sauna build in December, teaming up with a friend who had a vision for a small tow-able backyard sauna.

Building a sauna from scratch does take some construction know-how. Jahraus has an architecture background while Delwisch had built saunas before and had building experience.

It’s also important to research materials ahead of time that will hold up to the heat and conditions and to make sure the sauna is well-insulated and fire-safe, Jahraus suggested.

Nicole Jahraus pulls together some corrugated metal at the Mt. Lorne dump on December 6. Jahraus used reclaimed and recycled materials in her DIY sauna build. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)

“A little bit of planning ahead of time is useful if you don’t want to get in over your head. But there’s a lot of community resources around so you don’t need to be an expert to build one. Ask other people when you don’t know and have fun, because it’s a great project. It’s small enough that it’s very doable,” she said.

Buying a prefabricated sauna kit is a good option for those with no experience with construction. But all three builders explained the advantages of a DIY sauna is designing something completely unique with custom touches.

For Jahraus, that includes hand-carved door handles. The interior of her sauna build — which is constructed on top of a small trailer and can comfortably fit around three people — has a gentle curve through the top of the structure, providing a perfect backrest on a nook beside the front door.

The benches where people normally sit to sauna can also be converted to a platform for a small mattress, allowing the trailer sauna to become a sleeping shelter in the summer.

While it was more of a conventional build, Delwisch’s structure is also unique. He ended up buying rough cut cedar and planing it down himself to make a custom tongue and groove interior.

Both Jahraus and Abbott said taking a DIY approach can also mean getting a community of friends involved and recycling old materials. Both deliberately set out to salvage materials wherever possible.

Jahraus was able to find panes of glass for the sauna windows at the Mount Lorne dump, along with salvaged scrap metal to protect the structure from the heat of the stove and salvaged wood to create the frame of the structure.

“We picked up a bunch of two-by-twos and that’s a lot of material that usually would have been quite expensive. That formed the basis of a lot of the structure, which was great.,” said Jahraus.

Not only are reused materials more environmentally friendly — a major draw for both Jahraus and Abbott — found materials naturally influence the design.

“The nice thing about going to the dump is that you don’t know what you’re gonna find. It really starts to influence your design. It’s kind of almost like a co-creative process when you’re reusing materials. Which is inspiring and just a lot of fun,” Jahraus said.

Abbott built his sauna three years ago and using salvaged materials was a big part of the project. He incorporated deck boards from neighbours into the design and was able to salvage wood from a person doing a basement renovation.

“It all kind of came together to build a really awesome space,” he said.

Even the woodstove is a salvage project — Abbott had a friend in a welding program at Yukon College who designed the stove from a propane tank. The sauna rocks are basalt gathered from the Miles Canyon.

Nicole Jahraus works on the frame of a trailer sauna in Whitehorse on December 6. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)

“Make it your own project and use local materials whenever you can,” he said. “There’s all kinds of waste that can be useful in building a small project like a sauna. If you are interested and you have a bit of time on your hands I highly recommend looking around and salvaging stuff for it, because I think it can be a more rewarding process that way and reduces our dependence on new materials.

As long as pandemic distancing rules remain in place, neighbours might have to settle for just being hot with envy. But hopefully, next season will see more friends able to come together to enjoy a social sweat.

Contact Haley Ritchie at