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Today I would like to talk about sauna benches. In villages they are sometimes called ‘roosts’. I have noticed quite some time ago that in the ‘roosts’ sometimes consist of 3 levels, high and very narrow, while in other places they  can be relatively wide and low. An experienced bath master will reject both options. The layout of the benches in a sauna room is as important as the body of a car, which determines if we can use it comfortably. That is why a sauna in a small hotel visited mostly by romantic couples (various age) can have one type of bench layout, and the sauna of a contemporary farmer raising 3 children can have a different one. The needs are different.

The importance of the bench

A bench is the only stationary furniture in the steam room. Its direct function is to lift the human body way above the floor, to the level where the hot steam is, where it is possible to sweat intensively and perform sauna procedures. However this is not everything, a bench also performs these functions:

  • Helps to warm up the body of a lying or sitting person
  • Creates a space for comfortable communication
  • Serves as a massage and whisking table, the working object for a sauna attendant
  • A place to comfortably put sauna bowls, whisks and other tools
  • A place for washing yourself while sitting
  • It is also a step up in order to whisk higher, or a support for ones legs
  • Represents the steam room, demonstrates the status of the master
  • Serves as a dryer of sauna tools or dehydrator for the garden and forest harvest

So benches are very complex and multifunctional devices and their adequate layout determines how comfortably the sauna can be used. If you would compare the sauna benches with a gun barrel, they would be like the buttstock. Even a good sauna oven loses its purpose if the benches in the steam room fail to meet the needs of the sauna attendants. Let’s discuss these needs more explicitly.

Up, follow the steam

The steam always goes up and we always follow it. In contrast to this, the floor is a cool zone where the body does not warm up, but cools down. That is why in the steam room the platform for warming up and sweating must be at least as high as half of the sauna’s room height. The simplest option is a basic wide and high table on which all the sauna procedures can be performed. In old Finnish saunas the platform used to be almost as wide as the width of the steam room and it was used to place water buckets on and low benches for sitting. People used to whisk and wash themselves while lying on those benches or while sitting on benches. I have seen a similar bench-platform in Lithuania as well, in an old smoke sauna in Musteika village.

It is better when this platform-table is wide, so that all the attendants could lie down at the same time. If whisking is to be expected, then it is important to leave enough leg room for a whisker to move. In that case the height of the bench should not exceed 70 cm starting from the whisker’s standing point. It is still convenient to get on a bench that is 70 cm in height without any additional lower benchs. Recently these whisking bench-tables have become popular in Lithuanian saunas. If the whisker’s height is more than 175 cm, the bench has to be placed at 80 cm height, which means that it will be necessary to use a middle step. This middle step should not be wider than 25 cm, otherwise it will be uncomfortable for the whisker.

Down, follow the water

Once we enter the steam room, we climb up. However, once we get tired of the heat, we move down with great pleasure. After a whisking procedure, a person must go down, sit and rest until his heartbeat normalizes and dizziness goes away. That is why a bench-bench in the steam room is necessary. It is best to place it at a height of 40-50 cm and it should at least 60 cm wide. This low bench serves as a place to rest and wash yourself. On it, body scrubbing and soaping procedures can be performed, which are as pleasant as whisking. That’s why a wide, lower bench is a great joy for women who like home SPA procedures. Also, this bench is necessary if the steam room is going to be attended by children, elderly people or people with disabilities. The top bench is for heating up and whisking, while the bottom one is for cooling down and washing.

The attitude of a whisker towards the lower bench is not one sided. If a whisking person is standing on the floor, then a wide lower bench might obstruct his reach to the client lying on the top bench. If its function is only as a middle step, then it is all fine. However, in the latter case there is a lack of room to place whisks and other tools. This contradiction led to a variety of innovative solutions regarding the lower bench, such as temporarily foldable or movable bench constructions. These can be somewhat more convenient, but the stability, design and reliability suffer.

The layout of the benches

There are several typical schemas of bench layouts in the steam room. In all the sauna rooms the benches are placed along the walls while leaving space for an oven, the door and sometimes even a cold water bucket with a tap above it. Upper benches are always seen as the main ones and their number and position hints to their type.

I benches

This is the only option if the steam room is small and narrow, like a ‘wagon’. It usually accommodates one lying person (for whisking) and 4-5 sitting people. There is only one lower bench, which is often below the upper one, but it is perfectly fine to place it along the opposite wall. It is common in saunas to install 3 bench layers, however, these are suitable only for passive sitting, because typically they are too narrow due to a lack of space. I do not recommend this bench layout for individual sauna owners, unless the middle bench is sliding.

L benches

This is the most common bench layout, which is suitable for almost all steam rooms. Two people can lie down at the same time. There is a variety of options for the instalment of lower benchs, in order to make use of the space. For the sake of space, sometimes one of the upper benchs is installed without a lower one (‘hanging’).

U benches

This is a great choice for spacious steam rooms. Three people can lie at the same time. Ambitious sauna owners squeeze in some place even for four people, just more compressed. It is an ideal schema for group and representation procedures conducted by a sauna attendant. I am sure that in this case it is best to make the benchs at least one meter in width, as for the lower benches, the sauna benches will do just fine. It is very convenient to have one very wide bench in the middle of the steam room. This option is too expensive for individual saunas, but it is suitable for clubs or professional saunas.

H benches

This is not a bad alternative to the ‘L’ scheme, especially when a steam room is spacious and square. Two people can lie down at the same time. The main advantage of this kind of steam room is good conditions for socializing. The oven is often placed in the back in between the benches. Due to a lack of space this steam room is less suitable for sauna procedures, unless both benches are wide as tables.

Bench construction

Benches are typically made by professional firms. The benches they make are nice, but quite expensive and often not very comfortable, because they are designed for ‘collective sitting’ and representation, but not for various sauna procedures. The attention is focused on the quality of timber (level, no branches) and quality of assembling, German and Finnish design prevails, which are really nice to look at, but do not have a direct influence on the quality of bathing. Companies do not even hide that their focus is on orders for representation saunas.

I do not know a better option than ‘hanging’ benches for a personal sauna. Their construction is very simple; the surface of the bench is formed out of several planks, resembling floor boards, placed on two parallel beams. The ends of the beams are attached to the opposite walls at the same height. We get this ‘hanging’ bench (bench) which is very easily attended (cleaned, dried and if necessary fixed). benches like that do not have any support (legs), so to sweep and mop the floor of the steam room becomes very easy, also the wooden bench does not touch the wet floor. I do not have to prove to you why this is good.

However, there are also plenty of nuances, which can be understood only after building several saunas, but generally this type of bench construction has not yet disappointed anybody. It could also work as a representative sauna, if the proportions are well chosen.

Timber for the benches

There is a myth that hard and conifer timber cannot be used for the benchs. It can be used in a soft sauna room where the temperature never exceeds 80°C. At a higher temperature the harder surfaces of timber scald, but at lower temperatures they pleasantly warm you. Conifers also can be used, but the timber has to be resin free, high quality and dried. However, most commonly soft and medium soft timber of deciduous trees is used. Let’s discuss this further.

Linden tree

This is a very soft and light timber. Easily processed, with a light yellow colour, however it poorly holds covered screws. It emits a very pleasant scent in the steam room; it emits aromatic components rich in anti-inflammatory functions. During the drying process it shrinks significantly (tangential shrinkage up to 9%), deforms, but once it is well dried it remains stable. It is easily carved and processed. The disadvantage of linden is that in humid places it is rapidly damaged by fungi and mould, which is why it is not suitable for bench beams or any kind of supporting. Moreover, nails hammered into linden boards leave grey stains.

Aspen tree

Light as a linden, but once dried and old it is difficult to cut and polish, because it gains the qualities of monolith. It deforms little while drying. Its structure is even, soft, full of pores and does not overheat in the steam room. Interestingly, once it is damaged by fungi it emits a wonderful vanilla smell and it gains a nice, decorative appeal. This quality can be used in the sauna.
The healing properties of aspen are well known and undisputed. Aspen alleviates pain, has anti-inflammatory functions and according to esoterists it absorbs negative energy from a human being’s aura.

Black alder

This combines aspen’s resistance to water with a pleasant smell and it looks very interestingly, especially a so called ‘second class’, which due to its amazing properties as timber is even more appreciated than the ‘first class’ by some. It is quite fissile, which is why it is not convenient to hammer nails into it, however, it holds cowered screws well. It deforms little while drying, so it is quite suitable for ‘home construction’, where it is common to use poorly dried timber. The colour of timber is influenced by sour materials and tannins, which also give bactericidal qualities to the timber. Alder benches are very suitable for those who suffer from joint pain.

Bench maintenance and coating

No lacquer, no ‘sauna oil’. Any use of these creates an artificial, slippery and dead surface, onto which harmful microbes multiply more easily, because these are no longer affected by natural bactericidal timber materials. A polished (lacquered) and impregnated bench is not compatible with a healthy sauna.
As for maintenance after sauna procedures; wash it off with hot water and a brush and leave it to dry well. Once a year you can scrub it with sandpaper or sharp paint remover. The bench will be as new. By the way, if you are to use the sauna room, then the innocent white colour of the benchs will disappear for all. After two years they will be black, brown or darker. You need to accept that. Use of chemical bleachers takes your attention and money where it is not necessary and unhealthy. Remember, the sauna room, even though it is black, washes you white.

A few more tips

Gaps between bench boards have to be 8-12 mm, if they are narrower leaves get stuck in them.
A good width for the upper bench is 120-150 cm, so you can lie down diagonally and with bended legs.
A single wide bench is better than 2 narrow benches.
The use of benches can be improved by adding small benches, support and other accessories which we can discuss later.

I wish you good bathing on comfortable benches!

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