A smoke sauna is an old-fashioned rural sauna. Traditionally, the smoke sauna is attached to a country house or farm and is a small cross-timber building where, once a week, the family cleanses body and soul through the practice of steaming, healing and washing.
A big stove with a heater can be found in every sauna. The stove is heated for several hours. The sauna has no chimney, so the smoke circulates and warms the room during the heating, adding to the heat that comes from the stove. When the sauna reaches the right temperature, the last of the smoke is released through a window, a door or a hole in the wall. The room is ventilated and then people can enter.
Every smoke sauna has its own character, which is best understood by the owner of the sauna who heats it. There are special customs and beliefs connected to the smoke sauna, handed down the generations within a family. One must know how to heat the sauna, but also how to behave in the sauna. In a smoke sauna that has been heated properly there is no carbon monoxide or smoke, the air is light and the steam does not burn. Visiting the sauna gives you strength and promotes healing, but only if you honour the customs of the sauna and set aside enough time to fully experience it.
Not very long ago – a hundred and fifty years ago, perhaps – all Estonian farm saunas were smoke saunas. Saunas with chimneys began to appear only about a hundred years ago; nowadays most saunas are “clean” saunas where smoke is let out through a chimney during heating. Smoke saunas which are still in use are something of a rarity in most parts of Estonia. Most of the surviving ones can be found in southeastern Estonia, particularly in the farmsteads of the Võro and Seto people.
For a full appreciation of the difference between the smoke sauna and other kinds of sauna, you must visit a smoke sauna for yourself.