by Lawrence Wilson, MD
Essentially, one builds an electrical unit consisting of three infrared heat lamps mounted on a piece of wood or other material. You can then place this unit in a sauna enclosure of your choice, or even in a small bathroom or small closet. The simplest enclosure is a frame covered with fabric. Plans for a frame enclosure follow the plans for the electrical unit.
Infrared Sauna Materials
Three or four 250-watt, red infrared heat bulbs. These are sold at many hardware stores.
Do not use clear heat lamps as their spectrum is not correct. My preferences are Philips, General Electric or Sli lamps. Sylvania and Feit now have short, straight, tightly coiled filaments that focus the heat too much. The effect is more like a spotlight than a floodlight. Westinghouse lamps are somewhat acceptable. At the time of this update (2009) they may be coating their lamps with Teflon, which reduces the danger of breakage, but the lamps could outgas somewhat when heated.
Three or four ceramic or plastic lamp sockets designed for 250-watt bulbs. Sockets are available that wire from the front or from the back. Another type of socket unscrews so that one places half the socket behind a thin piece of wood or metal.
Fifteen feet of heavy lamp cord, a medium duty male wall plug and a switch or timer-switch capable of handling seven amps. You may use a standard wall switch with a box and switch cover plate. Others are rocker, push button or toggle switches. You may use a mechanical or electronic timer-switch, although they cost about $20-50.00 more. I do not recommend a dimmer switch as they often emit strong electromagnetic fields.
A piece of hardware cloth or welded wire about 15″ by 31″. This will be bent around the lamps as a guard to prevent anything from touching them.
Four wood screws and four 3/16″ x 1″ fender washers. These are to fasten the lamp guard to the board or enclosure. You could also use a staple gun to secure the guard to the wood.
The board to mount the sockets on should be about 12” high and 24” wide. The extra width is to mount the switch to one side of the lamps. The board can be of solid wood, masonite, veneer or plywood. For chemically sensitive people, it could be of sheet metal or hard plastic like Lucite it one is not sensitive to this material. To avoid all outgassing, use a metallic material or a poplar, oak or fir shelf board.
Wood screws and/or machine screws and nuts for mounting the sockets and switch to a board or enclosure.
An 8-amp fuse is optional and a good idea, but not necessary.
Tools required include a small screwdriver, wire cutters, and a drill to cut holes in the board for wires, sockets and mounting screws.
Warning #1: Use extreme care when assembling, wiring and using any electrical device of your own design. The author cannot be responsible for misuse of a sauna, poor construction techniques or improper wiring that can cause fires or other accidents.
Accidents happen in saunas. Always move slowly and carefully near a sauna. Never allow young children to play in or use a sauna unaccompanied.
Warning #2: Please do not alter this design if you want the best results. Many people create their own sauna with lamps in the corners, or on several sides, or on the ceiling. These are not acceptable designs for various reasons. Please email me if you must before deciding to alter the suggested design. If you have a brilliant idea, I will add it to this website. However, most details have been worked out for four years and are the best possible way to build the unit.
The only possible modifications I suggest is that you may design the unit:
1) with four instead of three lamps, with the fourth lamp near your knees or even feet. This will heat up faster and provide more infrared.
2) you can design the unit so you can lie down inside, instead of sitting. This is necessary for people who are disabled or weak and cannot sit for the half hour needed for a sauna session. The book, Sauna Therapy, contains details for modifying the design for laying down in the sauna. However, sitting is quite a bit better, in my view, if sitting is possible for the patient.
Mount the sockets to the board or enclosure in a triangle shape (see the diagram at the end of this section). If you are using a board that is 12” high by 24” wide, the top socket is placed in the center, 2” from the top of the board. The lower sockets are mounted two inches from the bottom of the board and 9.5 to 10” apart.
If you are using a board that reaches down to the floor, the top socket should be at chest height when sitting, about 36” off the floor. The two lower sockets should be mounted at abdomen height when sitting, about 28” off the floor.
Place the switch or timer-switch as far away from the lamps as possible, either to one side or above them.
Wire the sockets in parallel. (See diagram below.) The lamps will not work properly if the sockets are wired in series. When wiring the sockets, one need not cut the lamp cord. It may be faster to connect two wires to one socket and then run the cord to the next socket. Separate the wires at the next socket, strip the wires just where the terminal screws are and screw down the terminals over the wires. Then continue similarly to the third socket. Run the wires to the switch. A fuse is optional.
For the protective guard in front of the lamps, bend the hardware cloth into a C shape with 1″ flanges at each end. It is easiest to bend it over a sharp edge of a table or desk. Make the bends in the 31” length, so the 15” dimension of the hardware cloth becomes the width of the guard.
First bend the 31″ piece of mesh 90° at 1″. Make another 90° bend at 9″, another at 22″ and another at 30″. Make all bends in the same direction. This should form a C shape with 1″ flanges at each end for fastening to the wood with wood screws and large washers, two on the bottom and two on top.
To mount the board in an enclosure, you may drill holes in the corners for screws. If you will mount the electrical unit on a PVC pipe frame, you will need mounting holes for four 3/4” pipe straps.
Mounting and Ventilation
If one’s unit is for a bathroom or closet, secure it to a wall so it will not fall over if accidentally bumped. In a bathroom tub area, the unit can be hung from the shower pipe. However, also tie it back so it will not move.
If you will mount it in a wooden or other enclosure, you can secure it using four wood screws, one in each corner. To mount to a PVC pipe frame, use four pipe straps.
Ventilation can be important. Most bathrooms have ventilation. In a closet, the door may not fit tightly at the top. If necessary, open the door slightly every 10 minutes or so as needed to provide ventilation. If building an enclosure, leave a 1″ wide opening across the top at the front and back.
The electrical unit may be mounted in any suitable enclosure including a small closet, wooden box, frame enclosure or other space. If the space is larger than about 4′ by 4′ and 5′- 6′ high, it may need an auxiliary heater or another lamp to bring the sauna to 110° F. within 20-30 minutes. For much more information about enclosures, see Chapter 12 of the book, Sauna Therapy.
Cautions and Disclaimer
Observe all cautions as with any electrical appliance exposed to heat and moisture. Do not touch the lamps during use, or let water, sweat, towels or anything touch them. I will repeat, accidents can happen in saunas. Always move slowly and carefully. Never allow young children to play in or use a sauna unaccompanied. The author cannot be responsible for misuse of a sauna or poor construction.
Sauna Frame Enclosure Plans
An excellent inexpensive enclosure suitable for apartments and portable use consists of a frame over which one places blankets, a cloth drop cloth or other fabric. It works well, though it may be a bit delicate and requires care in its use. The frame parts cost less than $50.00.
The frame requires five 10-foot sticks of the thicker (SCH 40, 480 PSI) 1-inch white PVC pipe. Also required are four 1-inch PVC T-connectors and eight 1-inch PVC elbows. You will also need four 1-inch pipe clamps and eight machine screws and nuts to fasten the clamps to the lamp unit. PVC cement is not needed.
If you are chemically sensitive and are concerned about using PVC pipe, building supply stores sell long pieces of L-shaped, thin stainless steel used for stucco walls. It is inexpensive and already has holes in it along its length. It can be cut with tin ships and could be used to make a metal frame. Wood could also be used.
Tools required are a hack saw or pipe cutter to cut PVC pipe, tape measure and a rubber hammer to tap pieces together if they are stiff. No PVC glue is needed.
The enclosure is designed to be connected to an electrical unit that contains the lamps with guards over them for safety and with all safety requirements needed for any home appliance or piece of equipment. One forces the PVC frame to narrow where it connects to the board. It will flare out and become wider as one moves away from the board. The design shown is five feet high, high enough for most people.
Cut the PVC pipe into four 5-foot sections, six 4-foot sections and four 3-inch sections. Assemble as shown. Push pipe sections into the connectors and use a rubber hammer to gently tap the pipe firmly into the connectors. Assembling the unit on a hard floor will help, as one can place the pipe on the floor when tapping them with a hammer. No cement should be necessary unless pipe is very loose in the connectors. The order of assembly of the sections does not matter. Click here to view a diagram of the sauna frame.
Secure a board about 24 inches wide containing the lamp sockets to the PVC frame with four 3/4-inch pipe clamps. The frame will bend to accommodate the size of the board. This in fact adds rigidity to the structure. The lamp height will be adjustable by moving the board up or down along the vertical PVC pipe sections. The upper lamp should be at chest height when sitting and the lower lamps at abdomen height.
The Frame Cover
One may cover the frame with two queen or king-size blankets, fabric such as fleece, flannel or velour, quilts, comforters or canvas. A cloth painter’s drop cloth that is 14’ x 24’ is sold at Home Depot and works beautifully as long as the width of the frame is reduced to three-foot wide instead of 4-foot wide.
To fasten fabric or blankets to the frame, an excellent way is to buy large (2”) paper clasps, sometimes called butterfly clips, at an office supply store. These work very well. One could also use large safety pins or clothespins to hold the blankets or fabric in place.
You will also need a small stool or chair without a back to sit on. The stool or chair may be of metal, wood or even plastic. The bottom part of the sauna does not get too hot, so outgassing is usually not a problem. A painted surface is also okay.
Be sure to have a guard in front of the lamps and that fabric or blankets are 12 inches or more from the heat lamps to avoid a fire hazard. Pull blankets or fabric tight near the lamps so it does not hang loosely near the lamps. Avoid leaving the lamps on when no one is present.