30th July 2020

Craft / Olly Davey

Heartwood Saunas: An Original Interview with Some Good Ideas

12 15 mins 0

HHeartwood Saunas Founder and Director, Oliver Davey grew up surrounded by woodland in the heart of wild Wales. Combining his passion for an outdoor lifestyle and his craft, he hand-built his first sauna from a design he had imagined. Fast forward to the summer of 2020 and Olly would be installing one of his exceptional saunas in The Walled Garden at Hawarden, and it's safe to safe The Good Life Society Team (that's us) can't wait to try it out.

This long read dives into the thought and technical process behind the construction of Olly's beautiful saunas. And it's a great excuse to see one in the beautiful surroundings of Hawarden Castle's Walled Garden, too.

Some Good Ideas: How did you come to make and sell saunas?

Olly Davey: Heartwood Saunas was born out of my own desire for a good quality outdoor sauna. It all started about 7 years ago, while I was living on an old Welsh hill farm in North Wales. 

I have a very active outdoor lifestyle – mountain biking, climbing, and kayaking – which involves getting out in all weathers, long days being out in the cold, wet and wind, often coming back chilled to the bone to a freezing farmhouse and trying to warm-up by sitting in front of a fire.

I began looking into the Finnish culture of sauna bathing and read a lot about the health benefits of regular sauna use. My housemate and I started using the closest public sauna to us, which was still a forty-minute drive away, in a local hotel resort. It was a very basic sauna, tucked into a dark corner of a tiled indoor pool room and we found it never got quite hot enough for us, but it sort of did the job at the time. 

Back at home, I would day-dream about what it’d be like to own an outdoor sauna overlooking the mountains, with a big glass window so you could see the view and watch the weather as it moved up the valley and then run outside into the rain or snow.

I searched online for a personal outdoor sauna and found that there were loads of imported kit-saunas available (often in a barrel shape) which looked okay, however, you could tell by the close-up images that they were basic and built cheaply, with little or no insulation. My thoughts were: “that would blow away up here”. To my surprise, nothing appeared in the searches that seemed remotely well-made or had any ‘built to last’ qualities.

I’ve always been a maker, so I felt if I wanted something I should make it, and whatever I have set myself the task to make, I aim to make it the best quality possible with no compromise, something that works and lasts a long time. 

I started researching the techniques and materials used for sauna building, such as how to introduce the ventilation effectively and which materials were the most suitable for a traditional sauna. After over a year of researching and making a significant effort to try as many different saunas as possible to see which designs I thought worked, I began to put pencil to paper and draw up our first home sauna. 

One of the things I wanted to make sure of was that it heated up as fast as possible, as we were living off-grid with just a generator and small windmill for electricity. A wood-fired sauna was our only option but I had read online about some wood-fired saunas taking over two hours to reach the desired sauna room temperature, which isn’t very practical if you want a hot sauna as soon as possible when you arrive home from some outdoor activity, feeling chilled to the bone. So, I had a mission in mind, to get this down to sub-one hour and up to eighty degrees. 

Another important factor I had to consider was that weather. The farm could see some pretty extreme weather, with high winds and torrential rain, so the sauna had to be made to withstand this weather for many years to come. 

One thing led to another and before long I had built our own private sauna up on the farm, it worked very well, it heated up very quickly and had a big glass window, which really opened up the space. 

Friends and family came to use it over the next winter, and things sort of went from there. Eventually, I made a couple of portable smaller saunas, which were built into trailers, enabling us to take them around the country for private hire and that really let people experience our saunas. 

We hired out to a few smaller events that summer, and eventually, someone asked if we could make them one for their home, which we did, so things kind of went from there and have grown organically. One after another, I was making saunas for people. It wasn’t easy and took a really long time to gain regular orders but eventually making saunas was taking up all of my time and I was working late evenings and weekends to build up the business.

We upscaled, took on staff, and moved to a new workshop in the middle of a huge forest, where the majority of our timber comes from. 

There is a small bespoke sawmill based in the forest too. It’s pretty special to be able to drive out into the forest, select a tree you want to use, fell it, and mill it and then in time build almost the entire sauna out of it. To be able to see this process gives me a lot of satisfaction – knowing that the timbers we use are growing locally and most of them just a few hundred meters away, and every step has been carried out by us (and the sawmill).

Being able to manage the whole process means we can really manage the waste element, cutting trees into specific lengths for what we need, as well as utilising the offcuts and sawdust or shavings for heat fuel. 

I’ve always been really driven to doing something as well as possible, so the saunas perform extremely well, are beautiful to look at and they are built to last a lifetime. Having our workshop based in the middle of the forest has created the environment for us to do our best work yet. 

We are now working as a small, close-knit team making saunas for private and commercial use all over the UK and have a reputation for handcrafting great quality outdoor saunas that look and, more importantly, work exceptionally well, using the best quality materials possible. We are often asked to create bespoke designs for our clients which is a lot of fun and means that each sauna is as different and unique as its owner.

SGI: How important is the setting of a sauna?

OD: It’s all about the experience!

The setting of the sauna and the way the sauna looks and feels can really impact the way you feel in that moment. 

Traditionally, Scandinavian saunas are situated in a beautiful setting, a lake side or forest or river, and it is about the whole sauna experience and ritual. They take their time and enjoy the complete experience for many hours, whilst in this country, I have used so many public saunas where the door is barely hanging on, doesn’t close properly and it’s clunky with a loose handle. A poor quality build detracts from the experience. On the flip side, stepping inside a good quality sauna will heighten the feeling that you’re treating yourself, looking after yourself and as a result, offers greater benefits! This is a big part of what we focus on as sauna makers.

All of our saunas have our own unique style, often featuring large glass windows or walls for letting in plenty of natural light to help you to feel like you’re immersed in nature but while still providing the intense heat and humidity of a traditional sauna. 

A natural vista always increases the amount you relax in the sauna – gazing up at the full moon and standing under the starry night’s sky, or running out into the pouring rain and storms, is guaranteed to make you feel alive!

We try and make our saunas look visibly attractive without compromising on the performance of the sauna experience. I believe it’s not just the heat or humidity levels that create a great sauna experience; knowing that you’re in a beautiful, safe, well-built environment, surrounded by thoughtful details, heightens the enjoyment of the sauna experience and makes it easier to switch off and relax.

We focus on the big, but also the little details, such as the feel of the door handles, the shape of the bench timbers, the way the light enhances the wood grain, the way a window frames a certain horizon, or sunset…

The layout of the room is quite important to how the sauna can feel, as is the depth and height of benches. The stove for the sauna is often a dominant focal point, so having that positioned right makes a difference. How the wood feels on your skin and the way the door opens… the sounds it makes when you close it… it needs to sound solid and satisfying to use. All of these details added together really enhance the traditional sauna experience!

Purely from a visual perspective, we try to make the saunas fit in with their natural surroundings, in matching the materials but also in contrast as well, to really highlight both elements, be it the trees surrounding it or the stone walls or green hedges – the sauna needs to work visually both internally and externally, it needs to look like it belongs there, so each sauna is unique to its placement in a client’s outdoor space.

So many things out there are mass produced to a low quality so that one day you have to replace it – This is something I really wanted to try to change. Heartwood Saunas are making outdoor saunas that work very well and have longevity, using as many local and sustainable materials as possible. Outdoor saunas with no compromise, that make you feel great with long lasting effects. 

SGI: Where do you source your wood? And how do you choose it?

OD: Our workshop is located in the middle of a 700 acre woodland, where we get the majority of the timber from to make the saunas.  

To aid the forest management there is a small bespoke sawmill business there next to our workshop, this really gives us flexibility to really manage the waste aspects and get the most out of each tree. On a practical and ethical level, making our saunas in this location means we can carry out every stage of the build in one place, knowing that the majority of the wood we use comes from within five square miles of our workshop is quite special! 

We can drive out into the forest to select a tree, fell it, mill it and dry it ready to be used in our workshop and eventually be turned into one of our saunas, cutting wood in this way allows us to efficiently manage the waste aspects of forestry, cutting the tree into specific lengths for the end use with any offcuts being used for heating fuel. We also have the added benefit of selecting each tree we use for their unique set of characteristics. If you source your timber from elsewhere you get what you are given and it is much harder to control the quality of the cuts, the timber itself, the drying process etc. 

Each tree is selectively felled leaving a level of continuous cover, this leaves a gap in the canopy for new growth to take its place. Working the forest In this way means its nature evolving constantly. 

SGI: How do you make your saunas?

OD: We make each sauna from scratch, each build starts with a galvanised steel chassis, on which a timber frame is built. 

We wrap the timber frame in a breathable waterproof membrane. 

The walls are tightly packed with a 100% British lambs wool insulation which provides great thermal efficiency and a very breathable insulation layer. – wool has great insulation properties, it’s a natural and sustainable material that’s also naturally fire resistant. 

The walls and ceiling are then sealed with a foil based vapour barrier, with all the seams, around the doors and windows taped and sealed to create a fully airtight vapour seal – this holds in all the heat and humidity and creates the perfect sauna environment, the air is constantly being refreshed and circulated by our one way air ventilation system. This vapour control also stops any unwanted moisture escaping into the sauna structure and prevents any risk of damp build up or timber decay in the future. Having this vapour barrier is crucial to the performance of the sauna, and really ensures longevity within the structure.

Within the walls we apply a ventilation layer, to allow the internal structure to breathe. 

Air Ventilation points are precisely placed to create a one directional air flow within the sauna, making sure the sauna naturally dries out completely after use.

The walls are then cladded in a very slow grown cedar, with no knots so there is never a risk from sap burning a user, this wood is the most stable wood to use, it also looks and smells great. 

We then start on building the benches, making frameworks and the curved Aspen copings, working and shaping the wood until the shape is right, and cutting each slat to fit in perfectly, with no fixings on show to leave a clean and elegant finish. 

When making the sauna we only use stainless steel hidden fixings to make sure the sauna lasts a lifetime and all the surfaces are comfortable to touch.

Any extra subtle lighting is installed in the roof or bench timbers. 

When the sauna is complete, it’s lifted onto a trailer or lorry and transported to its new home, so that it’s delivered fully built and ready to go.

SGI: What do saunas represent to you?

OD: For me, a traditional sauna experience is a place where you can relax totally, both mentally and physically, where there are no distractions, complete immersion in the experience, it’s just “you” time (even if shared with other people). It’s a space that allows you to focus, to switch off, reset and to think clearly. A place where good ideas often come from. 

It’s a luxury experience, one that makes you feel clean, pure and alive. 

SGI: Do you have a good sauna memory?

OD: Yes, loads! There have been so many good times involving the sauna, with so many friends and family. 

One recent memory is us taking the portable sauna down to the river here in Machynlleth, with the wood fired sauna perched on the river bend. There were 5 of us, sitting in the sauna, looking out through the glass wall, watching a storm coming over with thunder and lightning lighting up the landscape, and ominous dark clouds all around.

That feeling of being sat there in that warm glow and intense heat of the sauna whilst watching the extreme weather outside, that contrast was incredible, we could not just see the storm in the distance, we were in it! Running outside into the wild wind and rain and jumping in the river, the river almost felt warm because of the cold rain on your skin. As soon as you opened the sauna door you could feel the energy of the storm, it was pretty exciting.

We did this for about 2 hours every 15 minutes running outside again. We were almost having an out of body experience as we lay in the river gazing up at the tree tops and rain, our whole bodies alive with the heat and buzz of cold water. It felt amazing to be able to see the storm from inside the comfort of the sauna as we re heated ourselves, sauna bathing at its finest! 

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