The Rambling Writer Builds a Spa on a Shoestring

NOTE: I’ll be back March 18 with the promised next episode of my Greek Travels, a mysterious trip through a flooded cavern labyrinth.

 Here in Bellingham, WA, the “far corner” of the Pacific Northwest, we’ve been enjoying or enduring (depending upon your viewpoint) an unusual weather pattern this winter. Usually we get months of gray rain, punctuated with occasional sun breaks or a Northeaster that might bring snow to the lowlands once a year. This year has brought  waves of freezing winds from Canada and several snow dumps here at sea level. We get a day or two of beautiful white frosting, then partial melting and refreezing to cause accidents and break trees, then a week of warming weather when the crocuses cautiously peek out, then more snow. Rewind and repeat….

The chill hasn’t helped those like me with arthritis, though I couldn’t resist dusting off my cross-country skis and taking some turns through the neighborhood with Bear dog in enthusiastic pursuit.

What saves our spirits and aching joints is our homemade spa area in the back yard, what spousal unit Thor refers to as our “pleasure center,” consisting of a wood-fired sauna, two-person jetted hot tub, and outdoor shower.

When Thor and I set up householding in our midlife union, his Nordic DNA (his father emigrated from Norway) demanded that we build a sauna. Since I also have some branches of Viking on my family tree, it was full steam ahead. And since we both grew up in financially-challenged families, we’re accustomed to DIY budget projects—or as Thor says proudly, “I’m cheap!” He’s also a very useful handyman. I’ve helped build three houses myself, including a sweet cottage on my former land in Southern Chile, so we were ready to go.

First came the sauna, which involved rehabilitating a funky unused garden shack behind our garage that had become a favored domicile of rats and other unnamed critters migrating into the yard from our lower ravine by the creek. Thor donned a facsimile of Hazmat gear to clean out the shed and assess its potential. We decided that the structure was sound, although a bit odd dimensionally, so the next step was to create a design and start scrounging for recycled materials if possible. Thor had built a sauna at a previous home, so he quickly came up with a plan.

We started checking Craigslist for the all-important wood-burning stove, and found an incredible deal on this beauty. The owner just wanted it off his hands, and charged us only $25 (a friend inspired by our sauna and building one himself just paid $300 for a similar used stove). He then threw in some valuable insulated stove pipe for free! Thank you! Takk! Thor added a metal rim to hold the river rocks so we can sprinkle eucalyptus water for some refreshing steam.

Some friends were tearing down an old wooden fence, and donated boards that we used for the ceiling, after insulating and lining with tin foil to reflect heat inwards. We drove out to the county in a freezing snowstorm to gather free decking timbers. Then we explored our local ReStore that recycles building materials, and found the perfect ceramic tiles for a heat shield behind the stove, as well as a door. Thor scrounged at the local dump and found enough used brick for the flooring. The most expensive, but essential, purchases were the new, clear cedar tongue-and-groove planks for the walls and clear cedar boards to build benches. (Smooth cedar is a must for a proper sauna.)  Thor even built a rustic wood box and burned into it our Viking Dragon design.

When we inaugurated the sauna on our first New Year’s eve together, the benches weren’t yet built, so we sat on planks set on upended buckets, but we got that all-important basking to real fire, and a cleansing sweat. (In my first novel, WILD CARD RUN, my heroine says, “High tech simi-flames can’t hold a candle to the real thing,” and it’s true.) Since then, we’ve finished the outdoor deck to hang out and cool off between heat sessions, and also a pavilion framework to hold clear corrugated roofing and keep the rain off.

We also installed an outdoor shower, heated with propane, for cooling and rinsing off the sweat between sessions. And since we have a very private back yard, it also makes for a nice summertime shower to rinse off the salt after swimming in the bay.

Recently, as I was finding that visits to our campus pool and Jacuzzi were helpful with my arthritis, we started pondering the installation of a therapy whirlpool tub of our own. The price for a new one of decent quality didn’t fit our budget, so we held off. Then luck came our way when my massage gal mentioned that she was getting a new therapy tub at home, and no one wanted her old one.  “I do!” I cried, somewhat breaking the spell of the relaxing massage, but happy to do so. Generous-massage-gal had been planning to pay a crane-truck company to take her old tub away (it was on a deck on a steep lot), so all she asked of us was to pay for the truck to move it. Takk! Takk! Every night when we soak in the healing swirls of hot water, we send blessings her way. It’s become a lovely evening ritual, lighting candles in the yard, then enjoying the trees and fresh air above our wild ravine, watching the stars overhead, and occasionally greeting a curious owl who flies over to perch in the branches. Bear dog patrols the yard to make sure all is in order, then lies next to the tub to guard us.

I’ve heard of a few people recently who are offering their used spa tubs for free or cheap, so keep your eyes peeled if you’re interested. Some people find they just don’t use them, or don’t want the hassle of keeping the pH and chemical levels adjusted. Since ours is a small therapy tub, it’s easy to change the water often and keep the bromine to a minimum level (chlorine irritates my skin). A new model of our Jetsetter tub would run around $7500, and we paid around $1000 to move it, build a deck, repair and refinish the wood skirting, and replace a pump. The tubs and piping in these spas are very sturdy, so we’re assured by the spa shop that we’ll get many more years of use from it. And we like the retro look!

A few nights ago, after another lovely snowfall had blanketed the yard with fluffy white, we fired up the sauna once more. This time we could follow the traditional Nordic custom of soaking up enough heat to work up a cleansing sweat, then race out au naturel to roll in the snow and make snow angels. Yips and yowls ensued as our bodies tingled all over with vitality: “Yes! I’m alive!”

If you have any “how to” or other questions, we’ll be happy to answer!


You will find The Rambling Writer’s blog posts here on alternate Saturdays. Sara’s newest novel from Book View Cafe was recently released in print and ebook: The Ariadne Connection.  It’s a near-future thriller set in the Greek islands. “Technology triggers a deadly new plague. Can a healer find the cure?”  The novel has received the Cygnus Award for Speculative Fiction.



About Sara Stamey

Award-winning author Sara Stamey’s journeys include treasure hunting and teaching scuba in the Caribbean and Honduras; backpacking around Greece and New Zealand; operating a nuclear reactor; and owning a farm in Southern Chile. Resettled in her native Pacific Northwest, she taught creative writing at Western Washington University. She shares her Squalicum Creek backyard with wild critters and her cats, dog, and paleontologist husband Thor Hansen. Visit her BVC Ebookstore bookshelf.


The Rambling Writer Builds a Spa on a Shoestring — 3 Comments

  1. That sauna looks so beautiful, with those clean lines in the wood, and the tiles. And I envy you that lovely, lovely yard!

  2. Oh, joy! I dearly want a dry sauna in my home, and you make it possible to think about it. But since few of my friends seem to like whirlpool tubs (to be fair, with our heat and humidity, an outdoor Jacuzzi is not as pleasant as in a colder environment–unless arthritis is involved) I am thinking about a Japanese soaking tub of stone or metal.

    It looks great, guys. You did a wonderful job–so glad that you enjoy it regularly!

  3. Thanks, Sherwood and Cat! We do use the whirlpool a lot, almost daily — and in the winter, usually a sauna once a week. The sauna really is such a serene and cleansing ritual. Come visit and enjoy with us.