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 this:
Estonians, like many of their fellow northern Europeans, use bundled branches like these to beat themselves (and each other) in the sauna.
I’ve heard suggestions that the correct English word is whisk, although interestingly never from a native English speaker.
The reality is that most English speakers will be pretty alarmed if you suggest getting naked and sweaty then using branches in this way — no matter which word you use.
Saunas have spread everywhere in the world, yet sauna traditions like this have lagged further behind as gym and spa owners opt for a cleaner and duller sauna experience. You are not even allowed to pour water on the stones in many places so turning up with a small proportion of a forest would certainly be frowned upon.
The Estonian name is viht (or vihad in plural) and their use was first recorded in writing here in the 13th century (when it was spelt wicht). It’s believed though that this tradition extends much further back in time as part of Pagan rituals used by the very earliest sauna goers.
There’s not much scientific research into the benefits of using them, but the same used to be true about saunas themselves. We are only now starting to understand why our ancestors were right about using saunas over thousands of years so maybe there’s more to those whisks too.
Proponents argue that this tradition improves circulation, exfoliates the skin, and relieves muscle pain — similar to having a massage. At the very least though, whisks 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 way that a towel will never replicate.
Hopefully whisk will become a more commonly used word as more people discover the joy of more authentic sauna experiences. Everyone is also welcome to use Estonian terminology though, especially if you are visiting a sauna with Estonians.
Just remember that Estonians use 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.
How to make vihad in 6 steps
There’s an easy way and a hard way to get whisks in Estonia.
You can wait for a specific time of year to venture deep 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 whisks, even though they keep running out of basic stuff like milk.
Regardless of whether you buy your whisks or make your own, it’s worth appreciating the work that goes into making each one as you whip yourself with it.
So here’s our six step guide based on how we made ours this weekend.
Step 1: Go to the forest when the leaves are ready
The best time to make viht is just before jaanipäev (Midsummer’s night). You need to collect the branches after spring when the leaves are fresh, but also when they have grown long enough to reach their biological maturity. It’s also sometimes said that whisk branches should be collected during a waxing moon, although there is no clear reason why.
The ideal time varies slightly each year in different places depending on the weather and other factors there. When in doubt, speak to other local whisk makers.
In our case, we consulted Anni’s grandmother and 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 told us to look out for linden because it’s currently blossoming and will provide us with a great summer vibe in the depths of winter if we add it to our whisks.
If you don’t have access to a private forest then you can also go to a public forest and do this. I checked with an Estonian lawyer and she says it’s legal to cut down and collect branches there as long as you respect the forest and do no harm to the trees.
Yes, even lawyers speak like that in Estonia.
Step 2: Carefully gather your forest materials
Birch is the most common tree to use for making whisks in Estonia, followed by oak and juniper.
However, you can use pretty much any leaves from 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 whisk. Juniper is a little thorny, but it’s still perfect for this task.
We recently had a whisk making workshop with Birutė Lenktytė, one of Lithuania’s top saunamasters, and she showed us a wide variety of other whisk ingredients that she uses. The 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 — for the really brave — stinging nettle.
If you are visiting Lithuania then you can contact Birutė to learn more about the Lithunian sauna (pirtis) here.
You are looking for branches that are straight, have plenty of leaves, and are roughly the length of one arm, although you can cut large branches shorter 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 take the top of the tree.
Estonia is more than 50% forest, although it’s quite difficult to get lost here when there’s 4G connectivity in the forest. We used the old fashion method though of using our own birch piles to guide the way back to civilisation. Here’s Anni leading the way back 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 those critters away.
Anni suggested that the best remedy to heal insect bites was to jump in cold water. Once again — I’m not sure if this is scientifically proven, but Estonians have plenty of unorthodox natural remedies and they usually seems to work.
Fortunately there was a pond there in the forest, which happened to be next to a sauna.
Step 4: Tie the bundles
We loaded our crop into the boot of our car and drove them back to our forest town of Nõmme 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 whisk is about 45 to 50 cm long as they should generally be the length of one arm, while the handle should be the length of one fist. 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 so that we just 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 that 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.
As Eda from Mooska suggested, here’s our whisk that includes linden:
Step 5: Preserving the whisks
We use whisks 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 in newspapers and storing them inside is the best way to keep them feeling fresh throughout the year.
We’ve gone for the simple method of drying — partly because we love the look and smell of whisks hanging up in our sauna house during jaanipäev (Midsummer’s night). Our whisks were tied in pairs so we slung them across the beams in the ceiling like this:
Our sauna house now has a beautiful smell of birch, but at some point after they are fully dry we will have to take them down and (unfortunately) 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. That’s right — two of the 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 sure 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.
Once you’ve been in the sauna long enough to sweat properly, you can whisk yourself or someone else (with their permission), either sitting or standing. First shake of the whisk onto the stones so that the room fills up with the aroma of the the forest. The strokes should then be firm, but not painful — unless you haven’t stripped the branches properly.
Afterwards you’ll feel great both inside and out — even if, like me, you are still not entirely sure why.
Thanks for reading
This Estonian Saunas blog is run by Anni and Adam. We introduce people to Estonian sauna culture to support the export of Estonian sauna design and technology from HUUM, as well as encourage more sauna tourism to Estonia. We also sponsor the European Sauna Marathon in the Estonian winter capital of Otepää.
You can contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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