In this blog post I will talk about infrared sauna wood choices. These choices include cedar, hemlock, basswood, and other frequently used types. I’ll also consider the benefits and downsides of each wood type and tell you why building materials are used the way they are.
But first up, let’s start with a definition:
Definition: Differences Between Wood Vs. Timber Vs. Lumber
But let’s start with a definition:
In British English, there’s a difference between the words “timber”, “lumber”, and “wood”. The Cambridge dictionary - a quintessential British development - defines the words as such:
- Wood: “a hard substance that forms the branches and trunks of trees and can be used as a building material, for making things, or as a fuel” (1).
- Timber: “trees that are grown so that the wood from them can be used for building” (2).
- Lumber: “to move slowly and awkwardly” - this word has an entirely different meaning for our American neighbours across the ocean (3).
So, in Britain, wood that’s intentionally grown for building purposes (like saunas) is called timber. In the US, that same wood is called “lumber”. I will use the former term in this blog post. And, now that this definitional issue has gotten out of the way, let’s explore the different wood types in the next section:
Sauna Wood Type: Why The Topic Matters A Lot
I get it. You’re reading people saying online that “cedar wood is the best sauna wood type” or that “there’s no need to overpay for sauna wood, just use inexpensive materials”. Both statements are oversimplifying and misleading, unfortunately.
So, in the next section, I’m giving you a crash course about the sauna wood type market. First, I’ll have to explain to you why sauna wood types matter. So, in a way, I’m creating a sauna wood type customer guide first. That way, you can later understand why some wood choices are better than others, depending on your unique situation.
So let’s explore different factors that help you determine why you would want one wood type rather than another:
- Well-insulated. You’ll want a wood type that keeps the hot air trapped inside the sauna, and doesn’t allow for cold air to enter the sauna. For this reason, ticker woods generally work best. If you’d create a sauna of very thin woods, such as with cheap plywood, the sauna would lose lots of heat to the outside environment.
- Structural integrity. Some timber is better suited to construct saunas from than others. If you’ve got a knotted wood like pine, the durability of your sauna might be lower in the long run because of that knotting. Cedar wood - which is one of our choices at Clearlight Infrared Saunas - has amazing durability and strength. For that reason we can offer a lifetime warranty for residential saunas, which is almost unparalleled in the industry.
- Hypoallergenic. Some people have difficulty spending time near Hemlock or pine, for different reasons (4; 5; 6; 7). Such allergies are hard to determine upfront. What is known is that some wood types have a lower propensity to cause allergic reactions than others. Eucalyptus is one example of a wood type that’s more likely to cause an allergic reaction in a higher percentage of individuals. Of course, if you’re not allergic, there’s no problem. Finding out whether you’re allergic in the first place requires functional medicine testing, and for that reason, most people will opt for choosing hypoallergenic woods in the first place.
- Toxicity. Some woods are simply more prone to be toxic in general. For instance, a wood might contain resins. These resins are heated and emitted into the atmosphere when you’re sitting inside the sauna. Many people buy an infrared sauna because they want to improve their detoxification in the first place. Hence, adding to your toxic load will negate some of the health benefits from spending time inside a sauna.
- Beautiful aesthetic. If you’re spending several thousand GBP on a sauna and you want the best, you might as well choose an option that’s aesthetically pleasing. Just imagine the difference between a sauna that’s made from inexpensive plywood and one made from Canadian red cedar. The difference is night and day. And, of course, if you exclusively buy a sauna for health benefits, less expensive woods are a great option. However, if you want the best sauna that impresses your friends and family and looks amazing in your bathroom, aesthetically pleasing and more expensive woods will enter the equation.
- Retains beauty over time. Sure, it’s amazing your sauna looks good when you buy it. But what about five or fifteen years down the road? Some wood types are simply easier to damage, such as by scratching or other means. For that reason, you’ll want a wood type that retains its beauty over time because it doesn’t damage easily. The hardness of a wood can be measured with the “Janka Hardness Scale”. That hardness determines how easily a wood scratches or dents.
- Heat and water resistance. Some woods simply do much better under higher temperatures or higher humidity than others. And, if your sauna doesn’t deal with higher temperatures well - because it changes shape under heating - then the wood type isn’t great. This characteristic of heating eliminates many wood types from being great sauna options. Also, water resistance, which is more of an issue with traditional saunas, affects timber choice as well.
- Cost. Of course, the cost of a wood type is probably the most important factor for many people. If you cannot afford the more expensive Canadian cedar or popular, you’ll end up with other options on the market. The problem here is that some of the best sauna wood choices, such as cedar and popular, are also the most expensive. So there’s often a tradeoff between toxic exposure, durability, aesthetics, and other factors on the one hand, and costs on the other hand.
- Design. Sure, you might choose a very nice timber type, but, if the timber isn’t used properly for optimal design then the end result isn’t great. Some saunas simply look much better than others, and often, by paying a little bit more you’re getting a wonderful design. That well-designed infrared sauna then looks wonderfully in your bathroom or garden, and will solicit the compliments of friends and family.
- The type of sauna you use. As I’ve written in the past, there’s a huge difference in the temperatures that are used in a traditional sauna like a Finnish sauna and an infrared sauna. Traditional saunas use temperatures of up to 110 degrees Celsius, while that’s only 60 degrees at the maximum for infrared saunas. Also, traditional saunas use higher levels of humidity, therefore placing different demands upon the wood.
- The part of the sauna. If you want to go really extreme, you could design different parts of the sauna from different timber. For instance, you could make the cladding of the sauna from the very strong and structurally sound popular while designing the backrests from softer materials such as cedar.
So, hopefully I’ve convinced you now that the sauna wood type matters a lot, not only in the short term but especially in the long term as well. Many woods are simply not great choices for making saunas, because they don’t retain their aesthetic appeal or cannot deal with temperature fluctuations over time. For that reason, I’ll explore different wood types in the next section and tell you why they might be a good or not so good choice:
The Best Wood For Infrared Sauna Options
In this section, I will look at twelve different types of wood for infrared sauna options. I’ll also identify the best wood for infrared sauna choices that you may want to consider, and their benefits and downsides.
Let’s start exploring:
1. Aspen (Populus tremula)
Aspen is a subspecies of popular (8). The species is mostly found in northern Eurasia. Aspen is now often intentionally cultivated for timber for many different purposes, including as a basis for building saunas.
Aspen is a much more expensive timber type that gives your sauna a very luxurious feeling. The wood type also has a high hardness, at 240 kilograms on the Janka hardness scale, which is about 50% higher than other common wood types like Canadian cedar.
And, the best part about aspen is that it’s hypoallergenic. Aspen saunas generally don’t emit much if any smell and don’t contain inherent toxins, making it the perfect choice for people with chronic health conditions or allergies.
Also, because aspen is naturally knot-free - unlike some other wood types - it’s structurally very sound. The prohibitive costs are a frequent issue for many people though.
2. Basswood (Tilia americana)
This timber type is called “American basswood” or “American Linden” (9). And, true to its namesake, it’s found mainly in the USA - the northeath of the USA specifically. The wood is cultivated in the USA for different purposes, not just for infrared saunas but also for furniture and other goals.
Generally, basswood has a light color. For that reason, basswood is often sold under the name of “white wood” as well. The hardness of basswood is lower than that of popular but slightly higher than that of cedar. And, generally, basswood is odorless, meaning that it’s hypoallergenic.
The structural integrity of basswood is great, splitting, warping and bending, ensuring that your infrared sauna stays beautiful over time. Also, fortunately, basswood is more affordable than popular, making it an excellent infrared sauna wood type.
Due to this combination of factors and its presence in the USA, our USA Clearlight Infrared Sauna counterpart uses basswood as their main hypoallergenic option.
3. Spruce (Picea abies)
“European spruce” or “Nordic Spruce” was originally found in different parts of Europe (10). Contrary to its name though, it’s only found in part of Norway but almost in the entirety of Sweden, Finland, Western Russia, and in small parts of Central Europe. Nowadays, however, spruce has been introduced into most of Northern Europe.
This proximal availability makes spruce one of the choices of our British Clearlight Infrared Saunas. Specifically, our Essential Collection of far infrared saunas use spruce.
Just like basswood, spruce has a lighter colour. Spruce is also strong and has structural integrity, making it a perfect choice for a long-lasting sauna. For that very easy, we offer lifetime warranty on infrared saunas for residential purposes, including the ones built with Nordic spruce. Spruce is also easy to clean, making it an excellent all-round infrared sauna wood type choice.
Lastly, just like the cedarwood that I’ll cover soon, spruce has an extremely pleasant and beautiful aroma (11; 12). These compounds are biologically active and somewhat akin to using essential oils in your sauna.
4. Cedarwoods (Thuja plicata)
Not all cedarwood is created equal. In this blog post, I’m mainly considering the “Western red cedar (13). That cedarwood is mainly found in the Canadian west - hence its name. And, Western red cedar can be considered the “queen” of infrared sauna timber and in a way the best infrared sauna wood type.
Why? Here’s an analogy:
In the same way a luxurious sports car impresses your senses, the same is true for a Western red cedar wood infrared sauna. The aesthetic appeal and distinctive smell are truly unparalleled. And, additionally, cedarwood is structurally sound and lasting so that you can enjoy the experience for a lifetime. According to many experts, cedarwood is the longest-lasting sauna timber type.
For that reason, Western red cedar is our main choice for many of our sauna types, including our full-spectrum saunas, Premier far infrared saunas, and our outdoor saunas. You will immediately distinguish the colour of this Western red cedar by its reddish nut-like appearance that’s very different from its lighter whitish counterparts.
And, just like most people love the smell of a new car, cedarwood gives you a similar experience. Because it releases essential oils into the air, you’ll always be met with the very meditative and calming cedarwood sensation. People frequently use cedarwood essential oils for the very same reason, sometimes even inside a sauna.
And, your sauna will remain beautiful with cedar, due to its natural antibacterial and anti mould properties. Cedar wood is also insect repellent, which is yet another factor improving its durability. Next up, let’s consider another popular sauna wood type:
5. Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis)
Different types of hemlock exist (14). And, not all types of hemlock are ideal timbers for an infrared sauna. The hemlock we’re talking about today, called “Eastern hemlock” or “Canadian hemlock”, originates from the eastern USA - contrary to its name.
Opinions differ on whether hemlock is really hypoallergenic. If you really want to be safe, then options like aspen or basswood are generally better options. Hemlock has even built its classical potential for toxicity due to it being the poison of choice of the Athenian people to kill the philosopher Socrates in antiquity.
Overall, the structural integrity of this wood type is great though. The colour is white-ish and is easy to maintain. And, best, hemlock isn’t expensive, making it a frequently used choice as an infrared sauna wood type.
6. Alder (Alnus glutinosa)
Different types of alder exist, such as black alder or common alder (15). Black alder is found in most of Europe, except for the most northern and southern extremities. And, contrary to many of the sauna wood types, it has a darker, more nutty appearance. Overall, the structural integrity of this wood is quite decent as well. The hardness of this wood type, moreover, is one of the highest that I consider in this blog post, at ~270 kilograms.
One downside of this wood type is that it’s more prone to be affected by insects and pests. Therefore, if you wish ultimate durability, alder might not be your prime option. Some sources disagree about this property, though.
Another downside is that for people who have pollen allergy, alder might be a suboptimal choice. The typical smell of alder is similar to that of hay, in fact, which many people love but people with pollen allergies will naturally dislike. Alder is cheap though, making it a frequent choice for non-premium sauna companies.
7. Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera)
Tulip tree - also called “magnolia” - is another wood that’s sourced from North America (16). However, it’s easy to remember due to its tulip name because of the flowers it creates. The wood type has a dark golden colour that gives this wood type a luxurious appearance.
Tulip tree doesn’t have great durability as it’s not resistant to decay and doesn’t fare well when exposed to humidity. Opinions differ about this quality though, but overall, we wouldn’t recommend using Tulip Tree as your primary sauna wood type as other more reliable options are available. You can still use magnolia for some parts of a sauna though, such as the exterior paneling that doesn’t heat up so much, and bring the cost of a sauna down.
8. Scots Pine or Baltic Pine (Pinus sylvestris)
Scots or Balic Pine is spread through the middle of Europe all the way to almost the Eastern end of Asia (17). As the name already suggests, this is the classical pine tree. While it was found in the UK and Western Europe as well, it went extinct but has later been re-introduced to this area. Different types of Pinus sylvestris exist, all of which have different properties for building saunas.
And, just like you remember the smell of your Christmas tree, building a sauna with Pinus sylvestris will expose you to a similar experience. And, as the Scots pine has a natural smell, it means you’re being exposed to the essential oils and other compounds that are subsumed in the air during a sauna session.
For some people, those biologically active compounds are a benefit, while for others, it’s a downside. Obviously, if you’re allergic to pine or have an intolerance, you’ll have a problem here, but in other cases, it’s a wonderful experience. In the natural health and wellness space, pine is not only used as an essential oil but also as a supplement for countering skin problems, lowering inflammation, and impeding breathing problems. You’ll receive some of these benefits through aromatherapy in a Scots Pine sauna.
The look of this infrared sauna wood type is also wonderful but it’s structurally less sound. The problem with the pine is the heavy knotting of this wood. The durability of the wood is good overall though, so there’s a tradeoff here. But, due to the structural integrity because of knotting, I wouldn’t recommend this wood type.
9. Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus)
Just like the previous pine sauna wood type, eucalyptus also has aromatherapy properties that many are aware of. I’ve written an extensive blog post about the meditative properties of eucalyptus oil for aromatherapy inside a sauna in the past.
By selecting an eucalyptus wood type, you’re naturally exposing yourself to these properties, although the experience will be a lot more intense with essential oils because the wood itself doesn’t have a very strong smell (18;19). For that reason, eucalyptus can be a decent choice if you’re allergic or intolerant, although more neutral options like popular are even better.
Overall, eucalyptus also has great durability, not great risk for pests, mold, and rot. Eucalyptus also has great structural integrity and lasts well when exposed to the elements such as heat and water, although it fares less well with cold temperatures. Most eucalyptus is found around the Australian continent though, limiting its natural adaptation greatly within the sauna industry. Eucalyptus is also relatively expensive, limiting its adaptability even further.
10. Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii)
“Douglas fir” is yet another pine, but unlike the previous Scots Pine, Douglas fir originates from the eastern USA, not Eurasia (20). Different types of Douglas fir exist. And, centuries ago, this wood was used for its aromatherapy qualities.
Nonetheless, when used in a sauna, Douglas fir has no natural scent - like popular. The durability of this wood type is also wonderful. The downside, however, is that from an aesthetical standpoint, you can easily damage the wood, so you’ll have to be careful not to dent the wood with any blunt or sharp objects. Many people do love the way Douglas fir looks though, so overall this infrared sauna wood type is wonderful if it’s available to you.
Lastly, you might have one more question about saunas - “why not use other materials?”
Why Are Saunas Made Of Wood?
The answer to this question is simple: wood has low thermal conductivity, meaning you can sit against it without burning your buttocks or back. And, wood is also very pleasing, making it an excellent material for saunas for that matter.
Just imagine if you were sitting against metal that’s hot - you’d not like the experience. From an aesthetic standpoint, the same is true. And, other materials like plastics will off-gas toxic chemicals into the air if they’re heated up, countering the reason you have an infrared sauna in the first place.
Lastly, if you source a wood locally, it’s often possible to get a reasonably high-quality sauna wood type for a great price. So overall, wood is an excellent choice for looking and performing good during your sauna visits while not costing too much.
And, with that being said, let’s conclude:
Conclusion: The Best Wood For An Infrared Sauna - It Depends
No matter what option you choose, whether it’s an infrared sauna cedar option or from basswood, each wood type has its benefits and downsides. There’s thus no universally best wood for sauna - all depends on your requirements, budget, and so forth.
And, the question “why are saunas made of wood” is very simple to answer: wood is affordable, often durable, and structurally integer, making it ideal for constructing a sauna in your house. Of course, what kind of wood is used in a sauna all depends on you. For the infrared saunas we sell in the UK, Nordic Spruce and Canadian Red Cedar are the options we offer because of their extremely good benefit to downside profile.