Adding Scandinavian warmth to Ontario

Updated: July 31, 2019

“It’s vital to have a sauna once a month,” says Hemmo Hakkarainen, a 44-year-old contractor with an island cottage in Haliburton, Ont. His love of a good steam runs deep. “My mother and all her sisters were born in a sauna. Back in the day, in rural Finland, the doctor would come and deliver babies in your sauna, because it’s the most sterile environment possible.” So he built his own, inspired by a book on 300-year-old Scandinavian wood-notching techniques given to him by a friend. He worked mostly on weekends for just over a year to finish it in time for his wedding, in 2016, to his wife, Shasta. “I had to steam the sins out of her before we could marry,” Hemmo says, laughing.

Out of the woods

“I built with what I had,” says Hemmo (right, with Shasta), and he means it. He felled 19 trees on his property and milled the wood himself to build the sauna: poplar for the exterior (“it won’t split as the weather changes”), ash for the rafters (“it’s incredibly strong—overkill, but it was there”), and cedar for the 6×6 timber beams (“the smell is mind-blowing”). “All the trees had a bug in them or they had some other defect,” says Hemmo. “You either use it before it’s dead, or you let it fall and turn into forest floor. I would never take down a healthy tree.” To make the wood feature wall from cedar rounds took five months of weekends with Shasta’s help. “We’d boil the wood, peel the bark by hand, then bring the wood into the sauna with us that night to dry.” He cut 3″ rounds with his chainsaw, then glued and toenailed them to the plywood wall, starting with the bigger pieces and filling in the gaps with smaller ones. He used a grinder to smooth it all down.

Turn up the heat

The only wood Hemmo didn’t mill himself is the tongue-and-groove cedar that lines the sauna. “The wedding was fast- approaching and it was crunch time,” he says. By then, he had already painstakingly bent one long cedar branch into a safety railing for the woodstove. “I cut it a bit longer than I needed, then put a ratchet strap on both ends, and hung it off the dock, in the water, like a hunter’s bow,” he says. “Every morning for two weeks I’d go out and tighten it up a bit. You have to bend it past the curve you need, because it’ll have some springback. Then I let it dry in the sun for a few days, cut the notches, forced it into place, and held it there with dowels.” His family bought him the purpose-built stove, called a kiaus, which heats the sauna to 80°C, the magic number, in about 40 minutes. Hemmo built the L-shaped benches so they can slide up and out for an annual scrubbing. Now, all that’s left to do is enjoy the sauna. “When I go up to the cottage, I have a hard time relaxing,” he says. “I’m always doing something. So after a long day, there’s nothing I love more than going for a steam…then a swim, another steam, maybe a beer in the recovery room, and repeat.”

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