This article was first written in June 2018, but has been updated in June 2020. If you’ve never made your own vihad before then — with everything going on in the world right now — we think 2020 is the best year to start!
I’ve lost count of the times that an Estonian has turned to me inside a sauna and asked what the English name is for viht.
Viht (or vihad in plural) is the bundle of branches we use to beat our bodies with inside the sauna. This Estonian word was first recorded in writing here in the 13th century (when it was spelt wicht) — although that’s also just when we have the first ever written records from Estonia by arriving crusaders. Like the sauna tradition itself, the use of viht extends further back into the Pagan prehistory of northern Europe.
Viht is also commonly known in Russian as venik or in Finnish as vasta or vihta depending on which part of the country you are bathing in.
As for English, well, I’ve heard suggestions that the correct English word should be whisk. The reality though is that most English speakers have never heard of this concept and will be pretty alarmed if you suggest getting naked, sweaty, and beaten with branches — no matter which word you use.
Saunas have now spread to gyms and spas everywhere in the world, although some of the traditions have been lost in translation and the quality of these modern saunas varies considerably. They are often small, dark, poorly ventilated rooms where people suffer the heat in silence and you are not even allowed to pour water on the stones, let alone have leaves flying around the place. I know many people who were convinced they didn’t like saunas until they tried a proper one here in Estonia — and the viht is an integral part of that authentic sauna experience.
Beating yourself with a viht was once thought of as the primary method of cleaning the body. And it’s still considered important for improving circulation, exfoliating the skin, and relieving muscle pain — similar to having a massage.
Perhaps more importantly though, the viht will fill the air with great natural aromas and raise your temperature during the brief workout. You can also use them to fan the warm air around the room and across the body — in a similar way to how Germany’s aufguss sauna tradition uses a towel for this.
As more people around the world seek out more authentic saunas — or build their own — we hope that more people use a viht too. Maybe the word whisk will catch on in English. Until then, everyone is also welcome to use Estonian terminology. Just remember that Estonians pronounce every letter so viht is pronounced vee-hh-t and not vee-t. The latter is actually a very different word and will make things a bit awkward if you say it in the sauna with Estonians. Trust me.
Oh, and you are also welcome to start using the word leil, which is perhaps a bit easier for English speakers to pronounce. That’s what Estonians call sauna steam, a vital word that is currently missing from English. You can’t appreciate a good sauna without talking about the leil.
How to make vihad in 6 steps
There’s an easy way and a hard way to get vihad here in Estonia.
You can wait for a specific time of year to venture into the forest and make them …or you can buy one for a couple of euros at almost any supermarket. There’s even a 24 hour garage near me in Tallinn that is constantly stocked with vihad, even though they keep running out of basic stuff like milk.
We recommend you try the harder option though, at least once. Making your own vihad is just as rewarding and culturally important as using them and it’s worth appreciate the huge effort that goes into it while you sweat in the sauna. If you’ve never done it before then 2020 is the perfect year to start because you can enjoy the fresh air and reconnect to nature with friends and family with minimal risk of transmitting the virus.
So here’s our six step guide based on how we make ours.
Step 1: Go to the forest when the leaves are ready
The best time to make viht out of birch and other commonly used trees is around jaanipäev, which we celebrate on Midsummer’s night from 23 to 24 June. However, if you’d like fresh viht at any other time of the year then there are some less conventional options that are great too.
Usually though, you need to collect the branches after spring when the leaves are fresh but have grown long enough to reach their biological maturity. Ideally, we like to do this before jaanipäev, but sometimes the leaves aren’t read until afterwards — especially in north Estonia.
The ideal time varies slightly each year in different places depending on recent weather and other local factors. When in doubt, speak to other local whisk makers if possible.
There’s also an old belief that the branches should be collected during a waxing moon, although few follow that rule these days.
For my partner Anni and I, we consulted her grandmother then took a road trip down to her forest in Viljandimaa when she said the time was right.
We also asked for advice from Eda Veeroja — Estonia’s wisest saunamaster and the owner of Mooska farm in Võrumaa. She gave us a great tip to look out for linden blossoming.
If you don’t have access to a private forest then you can also go to a public forest and do this. Estonia’s Forest Act allows you to collect branches there as long as you respect the forest and do no harm to the trees. We’ll show you how to do that.
Step 2: Carefully gather your forest materials
As mentioned, birch is the most common tree to use for making vihad in Estonia, followed by oak and eucalyptus. That last one isn’t even native to Estonia, but people import it. We’re also a big fan of Juniper, which smells great, is a little sharper, and can be used fresh at any time of year.
You can actually use pretty much any leaves from any trees or plants, as long as they aren't toxic or too thorny. Each type of leaf is considered to have its own special qualities and you can even combine different types in one viht. So wherever on Earth you live, get creative and look for what works best locally.
If you are feeling really brave, some Estonians even use stinging nettles.
We recently went to a whisk making workshop with Birutė Lenktytė, one of Lithuania’s top saunamasters, and she showed us a wide variety of other materials that she uses. Her favourite trees included red oak, maple, linden, bird cherry, hazelnut, rowan, aspen, and fir, while the herbs included wormwood, mugwort, St. John’s wort, meadowsweet, cammomile, mint and nettles.
If you are visiting Lithuania then you can contact Birutė to learn more about the Lithunian sauna (pirtis) here.
You need to look for branches that are straight, have plenty of leaves, and are roughly the length of one arm, although larger branches can be trimmed down for size later.
In order to cut branches without harming the tree, make a clean cut with pliers about 1 cm from where the branch extends out. If you leave too much then the tree is going to waste its energy trying to save a dead branch. Also, make sure you don’t take too many branches from any one tree and never ever, ever take the top of the tree.
Estonia is more than 50% wilderness, although it’s quite difficult to get lost here when there’s good connectivity even in the forest. If you are making your vihad here, another good tip is to download the RMK app from the Estonian Forest Management Agency. That has a great map you can use.
We used the old fashion method though of navigating by following our own birch piles back to civilisation. Here’s Anni returning with just one of several birch piles.
Step 3: Stop for a sauna
This bit is optional, but always recommended.
By this point, we were swarmed by mosquitoes and also had red ants crawling onto us from the birch we were carrying. So the first use of our branches was just trying to swat them away.
As in many other countries, we also have a problem with disease-carrying ticks in our wilderness so it’s really important to check your body all over after spending time there.
Anni suggested that the best remedy to heal insect bites was to jump in cold water. I’m not sure if this is scientifically proven, but it was a good excuse for a sauna.
This nearby sauna with plastic windows was meant to be a temporary construction, but it delivers a great leil and has stood the test of time.
Step 4: Tie the bundles
We loaded our crop into the boot of our car and drove them back to our own forest village of Nõmme in Tallinn where we arranged a very small talgud.
Talgud is an Estonian community tradition in which friends, family and neighbours are invited over to help with manual labour that is too big for one household to do on their own. In return, we provide the food and drink (and sauna).
As you can see, even our cat Laima was keen to help out.
A standard sized viht should be the length of one arm — so about 45 to 50 cm — while the handle should be just a bit bigger than a clenched first holding it. It’s also possible to make different styles of whisks depending on your preferences, such as smaller children’s whisks or whisks with extra long handles.
We decided to make large and small whisks so we began by sorting our piles of branches into three smaller piles for large, small and discarded branches. We picked up each branch individually and tore off parts until we only had straight, leafy branches with nothing sticking out and a clear space without any leaves at the bottom. The quality of your crop will determine how much you’ll end up throwing away.
Once the piles are sorted, you can then start making individual whisks by putting the good quality branches together one by one.
In order to get the right ‘candle flame’ shape, take branches of roughly the same size and focus on ensuring the tops are lined up, not the bottoms because those will be trimmed later anyway. Where branches bend, point them into the centre of the whisk so that it forms a solid shape. At the bottom, make sure that you pull leafs away to keep a clear handle.
Once you have a big enough bundle, wrap string three or four times tightly around the handle as close as possible to where the leaves start. It’s important there are no leaves left in the handle because they are going to shrink before being used so could loosen the string around it and cause the whisk to fall apart. If you are going to dry the whisks for use throughout the year, make sure you leave an equal amount of string at the end before cutting it because we are going to tie the whisks together in pairs.
Finally, take an axe or pliers then neatly cut off the bottom of your whisk handle. Repeat the process and add another whisk tied up on the other end of the string. You can leave one (or more) aside for step six though.
During this entire process, make sure you don’t leave your branches in the sunshine at any point or they will quickly shrivel up.
In addition to birch whisks, we also made one with linden based on the advice from Eda at Mooska.
Step 5: Preserving the whisks
We use vihad all year round, yet we can only make them at one time of year so we need to preserve them. There are three main ways to do this: drying, freezing and salting.
If you have enough space in your freezer then wrapping your whisks and storing them inside it is the best way to keep them feeling fresh throughout the year. A plastic or baking sheet is best to keep them seperated. In fact, Anni’s family has a laminating machine just for sealing vihad in airtight bags before putting them in the freezer.
We’ve gone for the simple method of drying — partly because we love the look and smell of vihad hanging up in our sauna house during jaanipäev. As you can see, we tied them in pairs then slung them across the beams in the ceiling like this:
Our sauna house now has a beautiful smell of birch. Once they are fully dry though, we can then take them down and pack them away in a box to preserve their aromas until we are ready to use them.
Step 6: Beat it
The final part of this process is to use them. Yes, two of our six steps actually involve taking saunas.
For your preserved whisks, the best technique to prepare them for use is to fill a sauna bucket with cold water and then submerge it for an hour. After that, take it into the sauna and submerge it into hot water. If you are short of time though, submerging it one for 20 minutes in hot water is good enough.
The best sauna experience involves fresh whisks though so take the one that you left aside during the process of making them and try it out straight away.
‘How to use a viht’ could be a whole nother article. Different saunamasters have very different techniques, which can be a combination of massage skills and a performance that helps hot air circulate in the room.
Don’t worry too much about your own technique though. Most people are perfectly happy just hitting their body all over once or twice. The strokes should be firm, but won’t be as painful as it looks — unless you haven’t stripped the branches properly.
We don’t do vihad straight away though. We first appreciate the temperature in the sauna on its own then add more leil the longer we stay in, culminating in a large amount of leil while using the viht. This is usually the last thing we do before going to wash.
You can whisk yourself or someone else when they are either sitting, standing, or lying down. First, shake off the viht onto the stones so that the room fills up with the aroma of the the forest. Just be careful you don’t drop leaves onto the stove though or they’ll start to burn.
Afterwards you should feel great both inside and out — even if you are still not entirely sure why.
You can dry and reuse your viht a few times if it’s still intact. The Estonian tradition is to treat the viht with respect, which includes not burning it in the stove afterwards — although many people do consider this to be the correct way to dispose of it in other countries.
Also, the sauna was traditionally considered a holy place to connect with departed ancestors. That’s why, upon leaving the leiliruum (sauna hot room), it’s also been traditional to leave one viht behind so that their spirits can use it after you.
Thanks for reading
This Estonian Saunas blog is run by Anni and Adam.
We export Estonian sauna design and technology — including HUUM sauna stoves — at EstonianSaunas.com (and into the UK at EstonianSaunas.co.uk). We actually thought about exporting vihad, but we would rather people experienced the joy of venturing into nature locally to make their own. If you want to help share our sauna traditions though, you can order a t-shirt or hoodie with the English dictionary definition of leil on it.
You can follow our own adventures exploring Estonian sauna culture and helping fill the world with more saunas on Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. We also have a Facebook group for Sauna explorers / Sauna avastajad. If you used this guide to make your own vihad then send us a picture!
You can also contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.