Here’s how we opened our Tallinn smoke sauna (in beta mode)

In Estonia, even a sauna can be developed like a startup.

Six months ago, I asked some friends in Estonia if I could take pictures of them naked to put on the internet.

“It’s really not as bad as it sounds though,” I tried to explain to them over the phone. “We’re starting a new company and we want to get some nice pictures. And we’re starting the company inside a sauna.”

“OK,” came one response before I’d given any more information. “That makes sense.”

Only in Estonia, perhaps.

My partner (in business and life) pictured with me is Anni Oviir. We actually met through a mutual love of saunas and have since travelled to saunas all over Estonia and the world together to find the weirdest and most wonderful of them.

Along the way, we decided to start this new company, called Estonian Saunas, to make it easier for other people to find sauna experiences around Estonia — including at a suitsusaun or ‘smoke sauna’ that we planned to open ourselves in Tallinn.

We made a good team. Anni grew up immersed in Estonian sauna culture and learnt how to build things from scratch at an early age. She’s now a professional green building consultant, a DIY wonder woman, and an expert on Estonia’s sauna traditions. And as for me, well…

“I can write the blog posts and stuff,” I explained to her while snapping Instagram pictures.

As Estonia is now an advanced digital country, we could establish and manage our company entirely online from anywhere — and even the most remote sauna cabin deep in the forest here has a good internet connection. So it seemed obvious that we should start our company inside the sauna, especially as the sauna is a traditional place of birth for Estonians.

This made the news in some surprising places, like there above in the UK’s largest newspaper. That’s the front page of their business section and just above a story about Elon Musk’s new Gigafactory. I’m not even sure what a Gigafactory is, but it’s probably more important than our sauna to be honest.

Back then, there were still a few challenges ahead of us though. For a start, we didn’t have a location in Tallinn for our sauna. Also, we didn’t actually have a sauna.

“These are small details,” I pointed out to Anni at the time, a bit too optimistically. “We’ll figure it all out.”

Six months later, I’m pleased to say that Anni and I have opened our smoke sauna in Tallinn and have started welcoming visitors who want to learn more about Estonia’s sauna heritage and traditions.

For anyone interested in our project, Estonian saunas in general, or just the process of building a company, I thought now would be a good time to share the rest of the story about how this happened and what we plan to do next.

But first, let me rewind a little.

The backstory

In addition to possibly being Estonia’s biggest sauna fans, Anni and I have a few more things in common.

We both have family that moved to Tallinn from Viljandi, a picturesque town in southern Estonia. Our families then went in very different directions though.

Back on 9 March 1944, Soviet bombers destroyed my family’s last home in Tallinn during a night of bombardments targeted at residential areas. After that, members of my family fled west from both Estonia and Latvia to escape the Soviet invasion and ended up in the Displaced Peoples Camps before being taken to Britain, while Anni’s family stayed in Estonia and some were sent east to Siberia during the persecutions that followed.

Three generations later, Estonia became a free country again and I was able to visit for the first time with my family. Just as my dad was about to give up searching after many trips, we eventually tracked down surviving family in Nõmme, the ‘forest city’ on the edge of Tallinn — which also happens to be where Anni lived most of her life. We got our citizenships restored and then received Estonian digital ID cards that could be used to connect to the country online from anywhere in the world. I was so proud to have that card, even though I didn’t have a clue what to do with it at first.

Then one night while celebrating jaanipäev (midsummer’s night) in Nõmme a few years ago, I decided I would use my digital ID card to start my first Estonian company.

It was a tough experience and a sharp learning curve, but business did eventually start flowing in. To my surprise, this was mostly from other Estonian companies that I met while making trips back and forth. Estonia has a very small domestic market so the country has to nurture companies that think globally and I was in the right place at the right time to help them.

I eventually realised that my future was here too so decided to stay permanently. Once the company took off, I then found a small apartment with a huge wood-fired sauna in an old wooden house in the centre of Tallinn. I fell in love with it instantly and decided to buy it. After a gap of 72 years, it meant we had a family home in Tallinn again.

I wasn’t the only person following this path. I’ve since met many other grandchildren of those that were displaced in 1944 back in Estonia, which is a great indicator of how much confidence there is in the future of this country that was once lost. One of those people is Liina Sarapik who moved here from the US along with her siblings, one at a time.

Liina is, quite possibly, the friendliest person on this planet. So I was lucky to bump into her in Tallinn once and then receive an invite to their Thanksgiving dinner just before moving into my new home.

I had such a great night that I announced at the end that Liina and all her friends were welcome to my home warming party. Anni was one of them.

“We’ll make it a sauna party,” I explained, sounding like someone who understood Estonian sauna culture, but absolutely did not.

They all showed up and we actually spent the night talking and laughing and having the kind of house warming party you’d expect to see anywhere else in the world.

“Well, it’s getting late,” I pointed out. “I guess there’s no time for that sauna.”

Everyone nodded, except one person.

“I came here for the sauna,” Anni explained, while getting out her towel.

After that night, we had many more sauna parties and Anni taught me more about Estonian sauna culture each time. I learnt that the sauna may not be needed for many of its original purposes that helped Estonians survive in this landscape, but it’s more important than ever for developing friendships and relaxing. Perhaps those are the survival skills we most need now for our modern world.

As unlikely as it seems, Anni and I also discovered that we’d crossed paths a few times before.

When I was visiting Viljandi as a child to help my dad track down family, Anni was living there. I would walk past her house to reach the pools where we both spent many summer days swimming up and down. When she went on holiday to the seaside town of Jurmala in Latvia, I was there at the same time and we visited the same water park. Anni was then living in Nõmme just a few streets away from where we found our long lost family. On the midsummer night that I jumped over the bonfire and made my decision to start an Estonian company, Anni was jumping over her own bonfire nearby. After I started my company, she started her first job and I was invited to their office opening in Tallinn. She handed me cake and we even discovered a picture of us standing together at the event.

We soon started jokingly calling my new apartment Rangi saun (Rang’s sauna).

One of our sauna parties even crosses over into another story here on medium where a Spanish entrepreneur called Luisfer describes his own powerful personal experience starting an Estonian company after he became an e-resident of Estonia. Bizarrely, he ended up in our sauna along the way and was forced to listen to all our favourite Estonian Eurovision songs. Even more bizarrely, he seemed to enjoy the experience.

As it happens, I actually now work for the e-Residency programme myself to help more people around the world join our digital nation and start companies in Estonia. I have awesome and very talented colleagues there who are passionate about making Estonia bigger and they are the ones that made me that Rangi saun sign above for my birthday.

I’m not sure whether Anni liked me or my sauna more, but she eventually became my girlfriend and moved into that apartment. We were also joined by a little cat that I found at a sanctuary in Nõmme and named Laima.

After that, Anni and I began exploring more saunas together around Estonia (while Laima hid from us in our own sauna for the first few months). You can read some of these stories here in our digital sauna diary.

People like Luisfer got us thinking though. More people are discovering Estonia every year and seem fascinated by Estonia’s sauna culture, but very few of them actually manage to experience authentic Estonian saunas.

So Anni and I began brainstorming ideas for how we can introduce even more people to Estonian sauna culture.

We first thought about launching our sauna search engine to make it easier for visitors to scroll a map of Estonia and find authentic sauna experiences. It would need to include all the essential details about how to get there and what to expect on arrival so that we could deal with not just the lack of information, but also remove some of the fear of the unknown about these experiences.

But we also realised there were some gaps missing in this process for it to be helpful for visitors. For a start, a sauna isn’t very useful if you don’t know what to do when you get there. While researching this project, most visitors we spoke to also wanted a saunamaster who could introduce them to Estonian sauna culture and guide them through the experience.

Most crucially though, there’s a huge gap on the map around Tallinn, which is where about 75% of visitors to Estonia spend all of their time.

The main options there are Gym and spa saunas (which are not authentic) and public saunas (which are not very welcoming). Oh, and don’t even ask me to explain those ’24 hour saunas’ in Tallinn. The truth is that the best saunas in Estonia are inside our homes, but visitors are unlikely to get an invite anytime soon.

That’s why sauna recommendations are often missing from the regular stream of articles encouraging people to visit Estonia. This one, which was published just now as I’m typing away, even mentions that sauna in a national pastime without mentioning any saunas.

So, in addition to the sauna search engine, we decided to go one step further and first create our own sauna in Tallinn that we can add to the map. And it had to be a smoke sauna.

The smoke sauna is like the Rolls-Royce of saunas. It’s the oldest and most special type of Estonian sauna, but takes more skill to build and prepare. It’s heated with a special technique that’s been used for thousands of years, since long before the invention of electric stoves or even chimneys. A fire is lit inside beneath a pile of large stones and then kept burning for about half a day. During that time, the stones absorb an enormous amount of heat and the smoke sterilises the surfaces (which is why it could be used for childbirth and almost everything else essential for life afterwards). Once the fire dies down, the smoke is ventilated but the room will stay hot long into the night.

The smoke sauna is so special that the tradition is protected by UNESCO in the southern region of Võrumaa where most of Estonia’s smoke saunas are located. In fact, there are now very few smoke saunas in the north half of Estonia and we’ve only managed to find one in Tallinn — inside a museum.

The museum claims that visitors are sometimes given the opportunity to use the smoke sauna, but when and how remains a mystery. Every so often, we phone up and ask when it’s available but are told it’s just for looking at.

That’s quite sad. A sauna is not just a hot room or even the building around it. The sauna is the entire experience from the moment you are welcomed inside to the meal that you eat afterwards. It’s about cooling down just as much as it’s about heating up. It’s about the traditions and the culture that surrounds the experience. And it’s an opportunity to learn about the sauna and the people who use it. For visitors to Estonia, experiencing a sauna can be a powerful, immersive way to learn more about Estonians themselves.

So we believe Estonia’s sauna heritage does not belong in a museum.

The best way to preserve our sauna traditions for the future is to ensure more people can visit Estonia’s saunas now and actually use them for the purpose they were created.

That’s why we planned our sauna to combine everything we’ve learned to love about different saunas we’ve visited, such as serving the best local food to celebrating the best of Estonian design.

We don’t need to compete with other saunas. We’re going to reach the people who wouldn’t otherwise visit a sauna and then serve as a gateway to encourage more people to get out of Tallinn and explore saunas across Estonia.

Creating our new smoke sauna

Finding the right location for our Tallinn smoke sauna was the toughest challenge.

We realised that creating a new location from scratch would require a big investment into all the facilities around the sauna, but partnering with an existing business would be mutually beneficial and enable us to focus on the sauna experience itself.

We scrolled Tallinn on Google Maps, walked the city on foot, and called up as many people as we could, but the locations we loved didn’t want us and we never found the right partners. That’s understandable. I think we just didn’t sound like a very good business opportunity.

But we will.

During this time, we were constantly receiving emails from people around the world (but mostly Japan, interestingly) who were visiting Estonia and wanted to visit our smoke sauna — despite it not existing yet.

We needed to keep the momentum going for them by finding a temporary location and opening the ‘beta’ version of our smoke sauna experience. In startup jargon, releasing a product in beta mode just means that you know it’s not perfect yet, but you are going to keep improving it based on the feedback of real users.

I think this is the key to Estonia’s success as a startup hub. We don’t have huge resources and things don’t always go our way, but we do have crazy ideas and a mentality of getting things done. Our greatest resource is between our ears, as President Kersti Kaljulaid likes to point out.

By this time, we had already found a manufacturer who could build a smoke sauna to our requirements and deliver it to Tallinn.

A visit to the Iglucraft factory in Viljandimaa.

Iglucraft makes incredibly beautiful saunas that are handcrafted in Estonia and reflect the very best of modern Estonian design for an ancient Estonian tradition. And they are based in Viljandi county.

The smoke saunas take a special skill to build and they don’t make many of them. In fact, they were thinking about discontinuing their manufacture entirely just before we decided place an order for their largest version.

Construction began while our search for a location continued. Then something caught our eye.

It’s not very often that houses come on the market in Nõmme, but Anni found a beautiful white wooden house with a quiet garden and a large ‘auxiliary building’ that’s almost as big as the main house and would make a great sauna house. We bought it immediately and made it our home.

We kept our old apartment too and are turning that into short term sauna- themed accommodation for visitors — although my parents are our most frequent visitors. It turns out that the sauna there wasn’t quite built with the correction permissions so our first task was to remove the wood-fired stove and replace it with an advanced new app-controlled stove that is safer and can be fired up remotely. It’s made in Estonia by HUUM and delivers an incredibly good heat.

We weren’t quite sure at first whether it would be possible to offer the smoke sauna experience at our new home in Nõmme, but we began speaking about our idea with the local council, our accountant, our lawyer, and our most important stakeholder of all — our new neighbours.

It turns out one of our neighbours was actually born in a smoke sauna. They not only gave us the thumbs up, but immediately started sharing ideas for how we could develop our plan. In return, we promised to keep the noise down and not let anyone get drunk — which was quite easy because we wanted visitors to appreciate the sauna experience and gain the full benefits. That’s much easier to do without alcohol. We instead let visitors take home a bottle of Sauna Session, a birch-infused Estonian craft beer made by Tanker.

There were also all kinds of legal rules we had to comply with to make it work — from ensuring the smoke sauna was 4 metres from a building and not visible from the road to paying our own company to cover our use of the saunas in our personal time.

But there was just one last unknown factor that would determine whether we could open our smoke sauna here.

“Does the sauna even fit?” Anni asked, while pacing up the narrow garden entrance and double checking the measurements. It’s details like these that I tend to overlook.

After several attempts to turn the delivery truck into our drive, we admitted defeat after bumping the neighbour’s fence off its hinges. Anni quickly got out her tools to fix it and I quickly got out my camera to document it for Instagram. As I mentioned, we’re a good team.

The delivery truck just managed to drop the sauna onto the end of our driveway. We were gonna need a bigger crane.

The second crane managed to lift up our sauna, manoeuvre around our tight driveway into the garden and then lower it slowly and perfectly into place. As it did so, the wheels of the crane sunk lower and lower, until it backed up to reveal the damage.

Nevertheless, our smoke sauna had a location in Tallinn and we could create our new Rangi saun!

This is before using Mulgi, our smoke sauna, for the first time…
…and this is after one use!

The smoke sauna performed even better than we expected.

About ten people can fit inside, although for smaller groups there is space to lie down too. It takes about four hours to heat, but then stays hot for another four hours. Here’s what that process looks like inside:

The experience is far superior too. The heat is gentler and the aroma is rich and smokey. The careful design of the Iglucraft sauna also means that your whole body is heated almost equally and the leil (steam) gently descends onto you from the curved walls above.

After returning from a trip abroad for a few days, I returned to discover that Anni had somehow managed to restore the ground destroyed by the crane with even greener grass on top. Estonian women have a magic touch when it comes to things like this.

We also worked on the facilities around the sauna and started thinking about all the special homely details that visitors might appreciate. The smoke sauna was now a separate building so our ‘sauna house’ would instead contain the changing rooms and toilet, the washroom, a place to store firewood, and the eesruum (sauna pre-room) for cooling off between sauna sessions and enjoying a meal afterwards.

This building has electricity, but no water connections and we decided to keep it that way. The washroom was given a wood-fired boiler and the shelves were filled only with non-chemical products that were made in Estonia and could drain into the soil below with minimal impact on the environment. Soap made from tar is my favourite.

Anni also custom designed a composting toilet cabin for the space available next to it.

Anni designing our composting toilet while waiting for a flight.

We’re also currently investigating the possibility of building a deep water well to tap into Nõmme’s abundant source of water deep below the surface.

Anni’s cousin, Lauri, is a skilled carpenter so he’s the one doing the hard work here while I’m the one posing in front of it afterwards. If you are interested, Lauri also makes awesome wooden bicycles that you can check out here.

One of my favourite investments though is the firepit.

A good meal has always been an essential part of a good sauna in Estonia. In older times, families would traditionally sauna together on a Saturday and then finish with an evening meal. In Soviet times, many Estonians built even larger eesruumid (sauna pre-rooms), partly to help facilitate deal making with local officials deciding how to allocate resources.

To this day, Estonians still enjoy good food and drink with their sauna. Our main priority is to ensure that guests always stay hydrated, but we also love to cook local ingredients and then serve them in our eesruum. We always start with freshly baked black bread from the Muhu Leib bakery.

The eesruum is also where we dry the birch branches to be used as vihad or ‘whisks’. We made these ones from Anni’s forest in Viljandi just before jaanipäev. You can read about that here.

As cooling down is just as important as heating up, we had to find something cold for visitors to jump into during what Estonians call ‘bad skiing weather’ when there’s no snow. We discovered that the solution was another sauna.

A wood-fired hot tub is called a tünnisaun (or ‘barrel sauna’) in Estonian. It’s a great way to stay warm in winter while still being able to look up at the stars above your head. By not heating the stove though, it’s also a great place to submerge yourself in cold water between smoke sauna sessions.

This time we didn’t have a crane. We had family and friends that didn’t quite know what they were getting themselves into.

My parents took delivery of the tünnisaun while we were at work then we called in reinforcements to help us move it at the weekend. During this process, our friend Alex received a cut on his arm that automatically entitles him to free saunas here for life.

The tünnisaun arrived just in time for jaanipäev so we heated it up the first time that night, while hosting our families from Nõmme and friends from around the world who helped us test it.

Late in the evening, Anni and I got unchanged and walked outside while arguing about who would be the first person to have the honour of jumping into it.

We then looked up to see our new friend from Japan, Yushi Nakashima, already sitting in it with a beer.

We were so impressed with his behaviour that our tünnisaun is now officially called the Yushi Nakashima. This guy came to a party where he knew hardly anyone yet was the first person to seize the opportunity to strip off and enjoy the sauna.

Anni and I still occasionally ask ‘What would Yushi do?’ whenever we need to remind ourselves to seize opportunities and enjoy life more.

Laima has also been following Yushi’s example. Sometimes we find her sitting in the bowl for washing feet, which she seems to think is her own personal tünnisaun.

If you’re interested, here’s how the tünnisaun is kept warm:

Finally, and with little fanfare, we began saying yes to some of the guests who were emailing us to visit — as well as to journalists who wanted to report on the experience.

One journalist even ended up at our smoke sauna after coming to Estonia for a report that was meant to be all about our country’s free public transport. After interviewing entrepreneurs at the coworking space Lift99, they asked if they could film Anni using public transport so she took them back to Nõmme by train where they were quite surprised to discover our smoke sauna.

The smoke sauna ended up as the main focus of the report on Germany main news show, which described it as a symbol of Estonian innovation. You can watch it here.

Even Laima was featured!

Rangi saun is still a work in progress, but we look forward to hosting many more guests here. We currently only accept small groups of visitors once per week on a Saturday, which is the traditional sauna day in Estonia, but are still planning our move to a location where the sauna can be operated for larger groups every day.

No matter where we end though, we’re going to keep offering a homely experience and stick to the rules that we originally developed for what constitutes a good sauna experience, while also celebrating the best of Estonian design and serving good Estonian food and drink.

And there’s one last detail to add — a photo of my Estonian grandfather, Uno Rang, will be hanging in the eesruum. He never made it home to Estonia himself, but his legacy did. This place is named after him and we’re going to use it to keep introducing the world to the country that he loved.

Thank you for reading. If you’d like to help us, the best thing you can do is follow us here below on Instagram and Facebook.

Join the movement!

In addition to opening the new Rangi saun and developing the original one into accommodation, our sauna search engine is under development and will eventually go live at estoniansaunas.com.

We’ve also started thinking about how we can add not just saunas to the map, but also sauna events. As a result, we hosted our first event through Estonian Saunas to see how much interest there would be.

A Finnish inventor called Janne Käpylehto decided to make the first ever sauna sea crossing in a sauna craft that he built himself so we created a welcome sauna party for him in Seaplane Harbour Marina. There was torrential rain on the night of his arrival so we had some doubts about whether anyone would show up. By the time Janne’s craft arrived though, our dock-edge sauna was packed with a wide crossing section of sauna fans from across Tallinn.

If you’d like to hear about future events — or if you just like looking at pictures of saunas then please do follow Estonian Saunas below on Instagram and Facebook.

Finally, you can read more of our articles on Medium here: