For those who prefer a sustainable, natural-looking backyard, many customers turn to wooden cedar hot tubs. Cedar, known for its ability to resist decay and moisture, also has antimicrobial benefits and creates a unique spa experience.
Customers looking to invest in one must be patient. Most of them are handcrafted and made to order. Benny Ghelerter, general manager of Roberts Hot Tubs in Richmond, California, says people who come to him looking for a wood spa already know what they’re after — and it’s not a typical acrylic model.
“While we’re considered part of the spa industry, we put in little effort to convince [customers] to go from acrylic to wood,” he says. “The customer already knows they want one.”
Ghelerter says the individuals purchasing wooden tubs are generally adding them to custom homes and backyards, or second homes. His company sells direct and to wholesalers. His customers appreciate that cedar tubs last about 20 years due to the wood’s resistance to rotting and bug infestations, making them even more valuable. Further, Roberts Hot Tubs purchases directly from sustainably sourced wood mills. While western red cedar is a favorite among customers, the Alaskan yellow cedar and teak tubs have also become popular, he says.
Customization is a Draw
For those who patiently await the creation of a wooden hot tub, it often turns out exactly as they hoped it would — as a customized way to relax with a style that blends into the natural elements of their backyard. While the original styles were made with redwood, today most are done in red cedar, Alaskan yellow cedar or teak.
They’re more customizable than acrylic or rotomold hot tubs, too.
“These things are made for individual customers,” says Stephen Meisner, founder of Maine Cedar Hot Tubs, located in Skowhegan, Maine. “If we build a hot tub for you, it’s built specifically for you — for your specific torso length and the jet placement is where you want them to be.”
Wooden tubs are created in a variety of sizes to accommodate different lifestyles. From exercise tubs to relaxation tubs, customers can order wooden tubs in oval, circle or square shapes. Ghelerter says wooden hot tubs are making a comeback due to the product’s sustainability.
“They’re environmentally sound and compostable when their time is up,” Ghelerter says. “You can’t say that about an acrylic tub.”
The concept of soaking in wooden tubs isn’t new. The Japanese appreciated the beauty of wooden bathtubs — called ofuros — often installing them in their homes. These are deep tubs created for soaking.
“Essentially, it’s either a small water tank or a very big wine barrel,” jokes Ghelerter. “The construction methods used on [wooden spas] are thousands of years old.”
After World War II, American troops adopted Japanese bathing culture. Circular wooden tubs — made mostly of redwood or mountain cedar — started popping up in California. The 1960s saw increased use in the wooden tubs created from discarded wine barrels and vats, which often leaked water or got moldy.
Robert Ghelerter — Benny Ghelerter’s father, whom he endearingly describes as “an old hippie” — used to belong to a woodworking co-op called The Splinter Group that focused on hand-making wood items like cabinets. When the co-op closed, Robert started making wooden hot tubs. He founded Roberts Hot Tubs in 1976, after realizing a demand for wooden hot tubs that didn’t leak.
“We were one of the first who started out making redwood barrels,” Benny Ghelerter says. “The redwood was no longer allowed to be chopped, so we switched to cedar and teak and still make them the old-school way.”
While some redwood can still be sourced off private land, reclaimed or from naturally fallen trees, Ghelerter says, it isn’t enough quantity, so his company has exclusively used cedar since the 1990s.
Creating Tubs from Nature
The fact that wood hot tubs do not require constant sanitation is another draw for customers. The pH still needs to be managed, however, Ghelerter says: “We cannot keep any kind of sanitizer in the water 24/7. With the lumber, it will eat through the walls. And as long as you take care of the water in the barrel, the wood pretty much takes care of itself.”
Ghelerter advises customers to leave the wood alone to do its own thing. “It does best if it’s allowed to breath and move on it’s own,” he says, adding that it can turn grey eventually, but many customers like this rustic look.
Bathing in Natural Beauty
Each wooden hot tub showcases a beautiful wood grain pattern.
Meisner says cedar wood tubs want water and constant use. But customers can’t just put any type of chemical into a cedar hot tub: an epoxy coating allows for using stronger chemicals, he says.
“You have to use a specific chemical treatment for them,” he says of tubs without an epoxy layer, also known as a cold-molded tub. “Bromine is terrible for wood. It just destroys it. Other people want the look of a wooden tub, and [epoxy is] how you give people that look without the other idiosyncrasies with the wood.”
Most customers are mainly drawn to wood hot tubs for their handcrafted aesthetic, Meisner says, likening their creation process to an art form.
“You can generate almost any look you want,” Meisner says. “It’s a manufacturing setting, but it’s more an art or craft than a production methodology. We’re trying to make pretty things for people who want them, one tub at a time.”