The Sauna Builder
Story and photos by Adrian Lysenko

Kari Jamsa believes it should be every Finlander’s mission in North America to promote saunas.

For the 71-year-old Thunder Bay carpenter, sauna-builder, business owner, and jack-of-all-trades, saunas have always been part of his life.

Growing up in Finland he remembers his family gathering in a large sauna. “It would take all day Saturday to heat it up but then you could go there Sunday morning and still could have a sauna there,” he says.

Even when his family moved to Thunder Bay in 1957, the tradition continued. “Our big treat was we’d go to the Algoma Steam Bath,” he says. “That was our Saturday trip. We’d go there with Dad and me and my two brothers and we’d weigh ourselves on the big scale (that’s now in the Hoito) to see how much we weighed before we came in and when we came out.”

Although it wasn’t many years later before Jamsa began building saunas, he noticed how their popularity started to grow in the 1960s. “The first time when Finland donated a sauna to President Kennedy as a gift—I still have the LIFE Magazine with the article somewhere—that’s sort of a key point when companies started springing up in North America.”

With a background in carpentry going back to 1966, Jamsa began making prefab saunas in 2000, building them in his workshop and then assembling them on location. “I’ve developed my own unique way of building them that’s very easy.” He got the idea when condos were being built on Hilldale Street along with the Chartwell Hilldale Retirement Residence. “A lot of Finlanders wanted to move in there and they were hoping there would be a sauna.” Jamsa built five saunas in the condos and one in the retirement residence.

When asked what makes a good sauna, Jamsa states there are many factors but says the most important thing is that people are proud of it. And if it’s by a lake, that’s a bonus. “If you know some Italians, they say, ‘my wine is the best wine,’ so that’s the way the Finlanders are too. Everybody is proud of their sauna, so you don’t go criticize their sauna, that’s their project that they’ve built,” Jamsa says. “I listened to them and said, ‘You know what? There’s a lot of misconceptions about saunas, I was conceived in a sauna and I was born in a sauna!’ and then they shut up,” he says with a chuckle.

Although lately he’s spending less time building saunas and more on running his new business JASA Spring Water, Jamsa is making a mobile sauna which will be raffled off at this year’s Finn Festival, with all proceeds going toward the Finnish Canadian Cultural Federation. Last year, Jamsa biked from Thunder Bay to Toronto to raise funds but with this year’s festival being here in city he wanted to do something else. “I’m not cycling this year, so I figured I would build a sauna instead.”