Sauna whisks are normally made from small branches of birch; other species of wood are only occasionally used. A sauna whisk is used as part of a genuine Finnish sauna experience. The Finnish word for the whisk is either vihta or vasta, depending on which part of Finland you happen to be in1. Verbs for use of the whisk are derived from these words and are vihtoa and vastoa. Urbanisation2 has reduced the use of sauna whisks, but the tradition is still strong and very much alive.
How to Make a Sauna Whisk
Start by gathering small branches of birch about 60-70 centimetres long. You will need a fist full of them. Gather only young, thin, and flexible ones with as many leaves on them as possible. (All leaf trees can be used, but birch is your number one choice for scent, feel and durability.) The whisk is built as a flower bouquet, with all the branches the same way around. Binding is done with a branch (if you are a pro) or piece of cord. After binding the whisk, cut the branches at the handle end to equal length with a knife. If you are not much of a handyman or do not know a suitable place to gather the branches, you can buy them from market places in most Finnish towns.
Sauna Whisk Season
The best vihtas are made just after the leaves have grown to full size. The season ends when trees start to prepare themselves for winter. After this point the leaves fall off too quickly once you take the whisk to the sauna. This happens a few weeks before the leaves actually turn yellow. Real enthusiasts dry whisks for use in the wintertime. A more modern method of storing vihtas for winter is to put them into the freezer.
How to Use a Vihta
Take a bucket of water and the whisk with you to a heated sauna. Sit down on the benches (lauteet) and wait until you start sweating. Throw some water on the stones and dip the whisk into the bucket. After this, start hitting yourself with the whisk. This is not supposed to be painful or sexual, and it is considered perfectly normal for a Finn to ask somebody to beat him with the whisk. When the vihta dries, dip it into the water again and continue. Use only the amount of force that feels good.
When you go to cool down, perhaps for a roll in the snow, make sure that you do not leave the vihta on the top bench to dry; take it outside with you and it will last far longer. In case you are lazy and/or environmentally friendly you can use the same vihta for two or three days in a row, if you store it in water, handle-end first after using it.
Why Use a Vihta?
In the heat of the sauna your skin will soften up and gentle use of a vihta will peel it far better and cheaper than any expensive lotion from your cosmetologist3. Scent also plays an important role, as the odour of a vihta is something that all Finns like and it brings back memories of childhood summers. These memories and a few beers soften Finns up and they can actually do some small talking and show their softer side. It is a rare occasion not to be missed and something to tell your grandchildren about.