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Keweenaw Saunas building on local culture

Submitted photo Keweenaw Saunas’ most recognizable product is a barrel sauna with signature diamond-shaped rear windows.

CHASSELL TOWNSHIP — Saunas are not new to the Upper Peninsula. Introduced to the region by Finnish immigrants in the mid-19th century, particularly for use in rural homesteads, the sauna has been an integral element of Finnish life and culture for centuries. To the Finns, the sauna was much more than a means of simply washing themselves; in addition, it cleansed their minds, rejuvenated their spirits and brought about a sense of serenity. So important was the sauna to those arriving in the Upper Peninsula from Finland, in fact, that when the forest cleared away and the homestead was established, the sauna was the first building constructed on the farm. There is evidence to suggest saunas date to as early as 2,000 B.C. As culture has evolved over the centuries, the sauna has remained integral to Finnish culture.

Keweenaw Saunas is a local company and has been manufacturing cedar barrel saunas for more than a decade. The company was founded by Red McCoy and his wife and business partner, Tammy, in 2010. The facility was originally established in Ripley, but a few years later, they were offered a larger building on U.S. 41, near Klingville Road in Chassell Township and relocated the manufacturing facility there.

A licensed builder, McCoy said he came up with the plan to start the company when he retired, because he wanted to remain active.

“The idea of barrel saunas isn’t mine,” he confesses. According to several sources, the concept comes from Finnish immigrants who built wooden water towers. Some “coopered” barrel saunas have bent staves resembling wine barrels.

Keweenaw Saunas uses western red cedar instead of Easter white cedar for a number of reasons. Red cedar contains more resin and preservative pitch than white cedar, and so withstands moisture better.

“Western cedar is also more aromatic,” McCoy said. “Saunas made with white cedar will smell like cedar, but they don’t have the pungent smell like red cedar does.”

Western red cedar has twice the stability of other softwood species.

While a red cedar tree dries quickly when harvested and experiences less shrinkage than white cedar, McCoy said the red cedar he purchases for Keweenaw Saunas is kiln-dried as opposed to open-air drying, to further minimize shrinking. Additionally, red cedar is a stronger wood than its eastern counterpart.

Other distinct advantages of barrel saunas over square saunas is they heat up quicker, in as little as half an hour. Because heat rises, in square saunas, the heat gets trapped at the ceiling; this is why traditional saunas are equipped with benches on more than one level. The natural shape of a barrel sauna acts like a convection oven in that the shape of the room allows the rising heat to be pushed down the sides and back into the sauna as new heat rises from the heater.

“The circular shape allows the hotter temperature to flow back toward the floor,” said McCoy,” and the heat circulates more evenly throughout the sauna than in square rooms.”

Particularly in northern climates in the winter, the high temperatures generated in a sauna will cause the wood to expand and contract. But as with Finnish barrel saunas, Keweenaw Saunas incorporates ball-and-socket joints in the wood staves to allow for expansion and contraction, and also eliminates the need for screws or nails, which can contribute to wood cracking under repeated expansion and contraction.

To further protect the exterior of the sauna from the elements, the upper half of the sauna is roofed with asphalt roofing, which McCoy said is superior to metal roofing.

“Metal roofing creates a moisture barrier and will keep moisture from escaping from the wood,” he said, “whereas traditional roofing shingles allow for more of the moisture to escape.”

While McCoy is seeing more companies manufacturing barrel saunas, Keweenaw Saunas’ years in the business have allowed the company to rely on its experience to innovate and improve on the features of their saunas. For instance, the company does not purchase the stoves that are included with the sauna. McCoy contracts with a local manufacturer to build the wood-fueled stoves with a rear-loading door that allows the stove to be fueled from outside of the sauna. McCoy designed the stove.

“By loading the stove from outside,” he said, “it eliminates the bark and other debris on the wood falling on the floor of the sauna. It’s a cleaner way to do things.”

A final characteristic of Keweenaw Saunas is the passion and pride that goes into each one produced. It is apparent in the quality of the construction, the precision joints and crafting, right down to the company’s signature, the diamond-shaped windows in the back wall of the structure.

The barrel sauna does not require a foundation. It sits on a cradle that is included with the sauna. Because they come in various sizes, they are ideal for the backyard, summer cottage or at the camp.

So, relax, refresh and destress yourself in dry heat or steam. Help your body detoxify, increase blood circulation and ease arthritis and fibromyalgia. Taking a sauna can also promote healthier skin pores and athletic performance. Sweating aids the kidneys in removing toxic build up by 28%.

To find out more about Keweenaw Saunas, available sizes, both barrel and square saunas, prices and options, visit https://keweenawsaunas.com/ or call 906-481-3000, or stop by the shop from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. Weekends by appointment.

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