Cedar vs Thermowood vs Hemlock vs Pine

A Clear Western Red Cedar barrel sauna offers excellent quality for the highest price (thumbnail) A Western Hemlock barrel sauna offers good quality for a moderate to low price (thumbnail)A white pine (SPF) barrel sauna with porch offers OK quality for the lowest price.

Choosing Your Wood Type

One of the most common question we get here at Backcountry Recreation is related to cedar vs thermowood vs. hemlock vs white pine and which type of wood is best for your sauna. Each species has its own unique properties and consequently varies in price points. This page is will help you navigate which building material is best for your specific needs.

Clear Western Red Cedar Saunas

A Clear Western Red Cedar barrel sauna offers excellent quality for the highest price (regular)Clear Wester Red Cedar held together with sturdy stainless steel bands and fasteners. Clear Red Cedar Sauna  


Clear Western Red Cedar - Excellent Quality / Highest Price

Western red cedar is one of the most commercially valuable species. Its exceptional working properties like natural resistance to termite, rot and decay make it an ideal choice for outdoor applications. The appealing dark color, lightweight and soft texture makes it suitable for various applications . Its flexibility and versatility enables its usage in roof shingles, exterior siding, exterior cladding, decking, greenhouses, and saunas. Although there are many grades of red cedar saunas on the market Backcountry Recreation only uses the highest clear grade cedar available making out saunas one of the highest quality red cedar saunas on the market.

  • Lightweight
  • Excellent working properties
  • Can be sanded to a smooth satin finish
  • Planes and shapes well
  • Glues easily
  • Has moderate screw and nail holding properties
  • Appropriate for outdoor usage
  • Beautiful aroma

Canadian Producers Using Clear Cedar:

  • Backcountry Recreation 
  • Dundalk 

 Thermowood Saunas

 A thermowood barrel sauna offers very good quality at a moderate price. Thermowood grain viewed from above


Thermowood -  Very Good Quality / Moderate Price

Thermowood is created by heat-treating Scandinavian softwood to temperatures ranging from 180 – 230° in special chamber kilns for up to 96 hours. Steam is used as a protective gas and helps to prevent the wood from splitting and becoming damaged during treatment. 


Thermowood’s Characteristics & Qualities

This process causes chemical and structural changes to occur within the timber, which therefore alter some of its characteristics and qualities. Some of the characteristics and qualities that make Thermowood such a popular species include:

Dimensionally Stable – The intensive heat the wood is exposed to during its production dries out deep into the core, causing all moisture and resin to be removed from the timber. Thermowood therefore doesn’t react to changes in humidity as drastically as untreated wood (the risk of swelling, cracking and shrinkage is decreased), allowing it to retain its shape far better. The wood also doesn’t secrete sap or resin even in high temperatures.

Environmentally Friendly – The softwood used to produce Thermowood originates from well-managed, PEFC-certified forests, and as no chemicals or foreign substances are involved during its production, Thermowood is an environmentally friendly material produced by using only natural methods.

Resistance to Rot and Fungi – Due to the heating process breaking down hemicellulose, the wood doesn’t contain the appropriate nutrients to allow rot and fungi to grow and develop.

Increased Longevity – When wood is treated with heat, its average life span is prolonged meaning your sauna will last a lifetime!

Improved Insulation – Wood that has been heat treated is much more porous than untreated wood, vastly improving its insulating properties.

Its attractive appearance and removal of resin means that the timber is also ideal for interior projects, such as saunas , furniture & flooring.

  • Dimensionally Stable 
  • Environmentally Friendly
  • Resistance to Rot and Fungi
  • Increased Longevity
  • Improved Insulation
  • Non-Toxic 

Canadian Producers Using Imported Thermowood:

  • Backcountry Recreation
  • Northern Sauna

 Western Hemlock

A Western Hemlock barrel sauna offers good quality for a moderate to low price (regular) Hemlock boards viewed from above

Western Hemlock- Good Quality / Moderate/ Low Price

Western hemlock features a fine texture and a straight, uniform grain. This species is seasoned uniformly in dry kilns to improve its strength and stiffness, and to enhance its resistance to decay and insect attack. It offers a wide array of applications. This wood species is primarily known for its even grain, which offers excellent machining properties. It offers a wide array of applications, ranging from moldings, interior woodworking, general construction and traditional saunas.

There are a few reasons why cedar is a better choice than hemlock for building a sauna.

One reason is that hemlock is prone to splinter. In the construction of a sauna, it’s important to use wood that is both pliable and strong. Cedar is reflective of both of these traits and works very well in all aspects of the sauna. Hemlock is better suited for framing use within a building such as a home or a barn.

Hemlock is a very straight grained wood which is one of the reasons that it does splinter and in some cases snap. This wouldn’t be a wise choice for not only the construction of the sauna itself, but also the benches of the sauna. The benches need to be comfortable and smooth and with cedar they are.

Cedar is such a beautiful wood to look at. Hemlock isn’t nearly as attractive. Cedar can be left in its natural state and it remains attractive for years, hemlock needs to be treated. It’s very difficult to paint hemlock. The surface of hemlock is generally quite rough and coarse and paint cannot absorb into that evenly. The result is a spotted appearance and with even several coats of paint you may not achieve the look you desire.

You wouldn’t want to build an outdoor sauna only to discover that within months the wood had bowed. This is exactly what can happen when hemlock is used for a sauna. Hemlock bows and curves horribly when it’s subjected to sunlight. Cedar retains its shape for years even if its being exposed to all of Mother Nature’s changing seasons. Once you build your sauna from cedar, you’ll notice that it does not warp or curve at all regardless of the outside elements.

  • Good strength-to-weight ratio
  • Excellent machining properties
  • Good sanding, staining and painting properties
  • Glues satisfactorily
  • Turns, planes and shapes well
  • Moderate nail- and screw-holding ability
  • Polishes beautifully

No Known Canadian Producers Using Hemlock

Pine (SPF) Saunas

6 ft white pine (SPF) barrel sauna White pine (SPF) boards viewed from above

Pine (SPF) - Ok Quality / Lowest Price

The spruce-pine-fir (SPF) group is a mix of Engelmann Spruce, Lodgepole Pine and Subalpine Fir. SPF has a high strength-to-weight ratio and is primarily used for framing in North American housing. Due to its dimensional stability and superior gluing properties, SPF is used extensively in the flat-packed furniture industry. It is also a great choice for modular houses, interior finishing, boxes, pallets, packaging cases and concrete formwork but not the best choice for outdoor application when left untreated. 

  • Good planing and shaping quality
  • Excellent nail and screw holding properties with very good resistance to splitting
  • Good staining properties
  • Great strength and dimensional stability
  • Outstanding working properties

Canadian Producers Using SPF:

  • Bsaunas


 Knotty Cedar Saunas

A Knotty Cedar barrel sauna offers low quality for a low cost. Knotty cedar wood grain viewed from above

Knotty Cedar - Low Quality / Low Cost 

Sometimes referred to as "Rustic" or "Heritage" cedar. Knotty or select tight knot cedar cedar can be used to build saunas but is a much lower quality when compared to clear cedar. This is because of two main reasons, the sauna will expand and contract over time and the knots can come loose and fall out leaving your sauna with unplanned ventilation holes. The knots are also very dense and dense  means heat retention, these dense knots can burn skin and make the sauna seating almost unusable. Knotty cedar is coming more and more common in eastern Canada as access to clear cedar in most parts of the country is getting very hard to come by.

Knotty cedar cost around 60%-70% less than a clear cedar sauna and  any finished product should be 60-70% less than a Backcountry clear cedar barrel sauna. If you are trying to keep costs down, knotty Cedar will work for walls but clear Cedar should be used for benches and backrests at a minimum. What you save in price you lose in longevity, beauty and long lasting enjoyment, 

Canadian Producers Using Knotty Cedar or Heritage Cedar

  • Muskoka Sauna Co.
  • Nootka Saunas
  • Almost Heaven
  • Krucker Sauna

 Have more questions about wood types? Give us a call 1-877-446-3565 or send us a quick email at Info@backcountryrecreation.com

Canadian wood species Canadian wood species Canadian wood species
Trade name Western hemlock Western red cedar Spruce-pine-fir (SPF)
Affordability $$$ $$$$ $$
Physical properties
Strength  Very Moderate  Low
Stiffness Very Low Moderate
Stability (Shrinkage) (air dry) 12.4 6.8
T/R Ratio 1.9 2.1 2.2
Radial % (R) 4.2 2.4 3.2
Tangential % (T) 7.8 5 6.9
Working properties

ratings are based on a scale from 10 (excellent) to 1 (very poor) in terms of the species performance

Planing Very good Very good 8
Turning Very good Good 6
Mortising Very good Good 7
Staining Very good Excellent Very Good
Screw holding Good Moderate Good
Nail Holding Very good Moderate Good
Other properties
Drying Fair Good Good
Seasoning Good Good Good
Durability Good Very good Poor
Treatability Good Difficult Easy