To Rehab a Redwood Swing Set

Last April, I wrote about maintenance tips for redwood swing sets – and in that article I mentioned I would soon be rebuilding a good part of my set with fresh manufacturer’s redwood along with some new replacement swings. I wanted to take my 11-year-old set and make it look brand new. Some of you responded with detailed comments within the thread of that first article while others emailed me directly, and I could see that this is a topic of some interest. That being said, I wanted to get additional information posted that might further help with what I believe is probably the key question many of you may be grappling with:

Should I buy a new redwood swing set or should I buy used set and restore it myself?

There’s no question – these sets are expensive.

And there’s also no question, redwood swing sets need to be maintained.

Just to recap briefly, in my original summary, 7 Tips for Maintaining a Redwood Swing Set, I described my personal experiences and suggestions for doing all you can to keep the sets looking great for as long as possible:

1) Cleaning the Canopy

2) Staining the Redwood

3) Cleaning the Yellow (Rubberized) Stairs and Swing Chains

4) Dealing with Wood Rotting and Splitting

5) Trying to Deal with Insect Damage

6) Utilizing your Warranty

7) Buying Replacement Parts

In this follow-on article (now in its second revision), I’m now going to focus on my personal experiences with the down & dirty details of what happens after you invoke Steps 6 and 7, hoping to answer the question:

What does it take to truly restore one of these redwood swing sets?

A Used Redwood Set – What You May Be Starting Out With

My set, from about 25 feet away looked terrific, even at eleven years old.  This would fetch a pretty good “used set” price for sure…

Pre-Restoration Redwood Swing Set

In fact, with all the maintenance I had been doing over the years – some people were surprised that I was doing anything with it at all – but there are certain realities that come with time that require much closer inspection.

Insect damage (carpenter bees in my case) can result in permanent weakening of the infrastructure:

Carpenter Bee Redwood Swing Set Damage

Rusting of the swing chains is also another factor – it doesn’t seem to happen to all sets, but this can look pretty terrible once you take a closer look. Nobody wants their children touching this stuff, even if it’s up high on the swings. (As a kid – I know I was often standing up on swings, reaching high up on the chains!) Click on the picture just below to get a better look…

Rusty Swing Chains

The yellow, rubberized coating can surely also decay with age depending on climate conditions; here’s a shot of what mine looked like. Once again, clicking the picture will give you a much closer look:

Yellow Rubberized Covering Damaged

And then, there’s the wood rotting. Here’s where you need to be particularly careful – because there’s the rotting you can see, but worse, there’s also the rotting you cannot see. Here’s a photo of one of my swing set legs that also appeared in the earlier article. You can surely sort-of see initial signs of splitting and rot, right? This is what you might come across if you were checking out a used set. And you’d be wise to it.

Redwood Leg Base at Ground Level

But in the next shot – you’ll see the same leg after removing it from the ground:

Rotten Redwood Swing Set Leg

Clearly – the damage is far more extensive than it appeared at the surface!

I’m now going to show you just how far this can go – as I journal my effort to rehab my own entire set.

Replacement Playground Equipment Parts & Support

Most swing set manufacturers are unlikely to extend the project warranty to anyone other than the original purchaser, so if you’re buying a used set it’s prudent to anticipate that you’ll need to purchase replacement redwood pieces. Furthermore, items like swings with rusted chains and torn or faded canopies are much less likely to be covered under any warranty – unless they’re less than a year old or so. And if you’re striving for authenticity – these clearly need to be purchased from the original manufacturer as well.

If you are the original owner – then surely contact your manufacturer and inquire about the details of your warranty. For me, it was a lifetime warranty on all wood pieces that could be shown to have any signs of rot or insect damage.  I needed to complete a “Warranty Request Form,” provide a copy of the original purchase receipt – and photograph all pieces of wood that I wanted replaced, clearly pointing out the damage areas. It was a lot like filing an insurance claim.

After about a week – they got back to me with an itemized quote.

The wood pieces I needed would all be provided at no cost – though I needed to pay the shipping. Furthermore, they also provided the option to have a technician come out and install everything – which I would have to pay for. I opted to do this, because I was replacing so much of the set that I wanted someone here who had done it many, many times before. The person they lined up was local, he had been working on their sets for several years – and he was frankly outstanding. As with all such projects – there’s were surely surprises, but we got through them.

Of course, you can always find a local contractor on your own as well – but I’d strongly recommend you get more than a laborer for a project like this: you need a craftsman and preferably one that has specific experience with your set – and extra parts you may not have anticipated needing.

Breaking Down the Swing Set – Hidden Surprises

Here’s where those of you who are considering buying a used set might be a little taken back.

You saw my set. I thought it looked pretty good – but after carefully photographing the damaged wood pieces for the warranty request, I ended up with a pretty significant list of required replacement parts. The new wood is shown below on the week prior to the renovation:

Redwood Replacement Parts 1

I know I said this before, but it bears repeating: my swing set manufacturer was really impressive with this. They simply replaced all of this wood at zero cost; I paid only shipping expenses. This is really a lot of wood, as you can now see quite tangibly – and the ladder pieces (with the yellow rubberized steps) are, of course, more than just wood. All covered by the warranty.

On the day of the construction, I met with the contractor – and we went through everything. He started breaking things down, and in a matter of 20-25 minutes, my carefully maintained redwood swing set looked like this…

Breaking Down the Redwood Swing Set

And here’s where the surprises begin.

Surprise Number 1: I had inadvertently destroyed the footer lumber

Over the years, it’s a matter of good maintenance to refresh the mulch every couple of years. Take a look at the bottom step on the ladder in the picture below and notice just below the yellow step, there’s about 3-4 inches down to the mulch. That is not the way this is supposed to be!

Pre-Restoration Redwood Swing Set

At some point, mulch had completely covered the foundation 4×4 pieces that supported the entire set. Once we broke down the set – these pieces were “unearthed” and can you imagine what they looked like? Okay… you don’t actually have to imagine. They looked like this:

Closer Look at Redwood Footer Rot

Redwood Footer Rot

In essence, completely destroyed – there was surely no way these could be reused to support the swing set. We had to manufacture new pieces on the fly. At first, my contractor though he would have to come back after I ordered additional pieces via the manufacturer’s warranty. But I pointed out that we were replacing so much wood, we could manufacture new footers from the old wood. We ended up using the two legs you can see on the left side of the set in the still-assembled picture just above (as these were being replaced anyway) – and created new custom footers.

WARNING 1: If you’re buying a used set, be sure you can see and carefully inspect these footers. At the end of this article, you’ll see clearly what they should look like.

WARNING 2: If you’re rehabbing an existing set via a manufacturer’s warranty as I was, be sure you request replacement footers along with anything else you need – these are very easy to overlook and you could end up tearing the set down to find you cannot subsequently rebuild it.

Surprise Number 2: Beyond the footers, there was far more rot than anticipated

I already showed you the extent of the true rot on that one leg earlier. Let me now show you what the decking looked like. While assembled, it looked just fine – of course. The deck in my set was comprised of 4 sub-assemblies, three of which had carpenter bee damage and would be replaced. But once the set was broken down, the carpenter bee damage seemed like “small potatoes.” The edges of my set’s decking are covered by what you might call a “molding” and had been quietly (and invisibly) rotting behind the aesthetic covering. Once exposed, the damage became quote obvious – and the wood crumpled to the touch…

Unexpected Redwood Decking Rot

Fortunately, we were replacing three of these sections – so we were able to make due with the one older assembly, taking the best of the original four. One interesting thing, though – the new decking sections were thicker. So, once assembled – the older section had to be elevated a bit to keep things even. We used some shims I had in my basement. Once again, though, we had to improvise on the fly.

Surprise Number 3: The hardware may not be completely reusable

I alluded to this earlier as one of the reasons to use a contractor with specific experience with your set. You need a guy who arrives with spare parts! Some of the bolts and nuts were simply corroded and didn’t really want to re-thread. I had experienced some problems with this a couple of years ago while making some smaller tunes to the set and ended up at the hardware store trying to improvise. But, it was no issue with the contractor who did my job – he was experienced enough to anticipate this, and he was prepared for it.

The Swing Set Restoration: Putting it All Back Together

The first order of business was manufacturing those new footers.

The new legs were added to the end of the set first – and the older, partially-rotten legs were turned into footers for the fort assembly. The first shot below is of the new legs, and the following two shots show the fort assembly and new custom-made footers. Note how beautifully clean the yellow rubber is on those stairs. Nice, right?

New Redwood Swing Set Legs

Manufacturing a New Footer

Rebuilding the Base Redwood Structure

Once the above assembly was secure, the new swing set foundation was essentially established.

The rest of the set was then assembled with some of the old pieces and a lot of new redwood pieces. Plus – I had purchased new swings and a trapeze (without rusted chains) and the canopy was essentially brand new as well as I had installed that only a few months earlier myself.

Some final aesthetic tunes were needed: I had to do some wood filler patching and redwood stain touch-ups on the customer footers where there were existing holes from their previous use as legs. And once these final items are fully completed – I end up with what you might consider a stunningly new-looking set. Complete with that new redwood swing set smell… :-)

Redwood Swing Set - New Ladder

Redwood Swing Set - New Swings

Final Redwood Swing Set

So – Should I Buy Used or Should I Buy New?

I think this is a personal question that depends on your specific circumstances: Do you want a lower-priced set to use for just a few years? Does having a brand new set with customized perks that you specifically choose feel better to you? Are you intending on maintaining your set for 30 years like me?

But one thing for sure, in order to make such a decision wisely – you have to know what you might be getting into. I can tell you that I was struggling with this same question several years ago, and I wasn’t aware of most of the nuances I’ve described in this article or the earlier companion piece, 7 Tips for Maintaining a Redwood Swing Set. In fact, this has surely a large part of my motivation for writing these.

And so, in closing, I can definitely recommend the following:

1) Shop around – and ask difficult questions. I truly believe (now more than ever) that if you chose to buy new, dealing with a reputable company with a good warranty is imperative. There are several companies that sell these sets. And beyond redwood, there are of course cedar swing sets and pine sets as well. Do your homework and get everything related to warranty details in crisp, clear writing.

2) If you’re going to buy a used set – anticipate surprises, and you surely have a very good idea what many of those could now be. Will there be others? I’m sure. And to that point, I would ask that when you stumble across anything that hasn’t been addressed here – please leave additional stories and wisdom below so everyone can benefit. Does anything come right to mind?

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Comments

  1. Thanks Mark, The reason I asked the question is that when the warranty department left me a voicemail with instructions. They mentioned they would replace wood and parts that have been maintained according to the manual. Which is kind of vague. Mine is a Rainbow with the lifetime warranty. I am assuming that yours is a Rainbow as well??

    Thanks
    Scott

    • Hi Scott – Mine is the same manufacturer, yes. I don’t recall all of the details, but I can say for sure that it was not vague. I’d suggest asking your contact for the authoritative terms and conditions of your specific warranty — but I just found a link that may help. The first paragraph (talking about “all North American Wooden Components”) sounds like exactly the criteria that I had to meet:

      http://www.rainbownew.com/files/RainbowWarrantyPages.pdf

      But, again, I’d definitely suggest getting it from your contact in writing, even if they’re just agreeing that the above link is in effect for you as well. Hope this helps, and if you learn anything further that may help others – I’d surely appreciate a follow up here. They were genuinely helpful when I dealt with them in 2011. Best of luck!
      Mark recently posted..Carpet Tiles for a Quick Rehab

  2. Mark,
    I have had my set for 12 years. I am putting in a claim for several pieces to be replaced. However I have not sealed or stained in about 4 years. Do you know if this will effect me claim??

    Thank you
    Scott

  3. Karl Kime says:

    Has anyone tried disassembling the ladders? I just procured a used set exactly like the one pictured. The ladder legs are rotted but the rungs are in good shape after the cleaning I gave them. Since I’m not the original owner, I assume I can’t get warranty pieces. Even if I could, I can’t imagine the shipping would be less expensive than just buying the lumber. I’m wondering if the rungs are just pressed in and glued, or if there is some sort of internal bolt, at least on one side. I don’t want to start pounding on it if the only way to get the rungs out is to destroy the legs.

  4. Hi Mark,
    Thanks for your great article and photos about rehabbing a redwood swing set. We recently purchased a used set (approx. 5 yrs old) that had been neglected for at least the last couple years. I had read your article and the comments others had posted, particularly about how to get the dark grime and mildew off the yellow components. I used an OxiClean solution, Magic Erasers and several different brushes I had around the house to get the swing chains, chain ladder, rock wall hand holds, and canopy tarp looking like new again. I found the most useful tool was the wire brush end from a baby bottle cleaner that was just small enough to get between the links of the chains to remove the mildew and gunk. It took several hours of tedious work, but the results made the work worth it. I also used a dry wire brush on the rockwall handholds to get the mildew and age spots brushed clean and they look bright and new again as well. We do have some minor rot issues as would be expected, but overall the set is in great condition and was quite a deal since we only paid 10% of the retail cost of this set new.

    My only question is if there are any ideas for repairing or patching the canopy tarp? There is about a 6 inch tear at the top of one side and although it is a minor issue now, I think it may get worse in time if we do not reinforce or repair it now. Any ideas?

    Thanks again! Here are several before/after pictures and the final setup (we’ll stain in the spring).

    Redwood Swing Set Rehab Yellow Rubber Cleaning

    • Hi Bonnie – Thanks so much for your kind words and for the great tips, wisdom and before/after photos you submitted. To your question, I’m afraid I don’t have great news on the “tearing tarp” front. My tarp, a few years back, started tearing exactly as you described. I contacted the manufacturer and discovered that since my set was (at that time) 9 years old, it would have to be custom-manufactured for about $300. So, I tried some colored duct tape which held the tarp together for more than a year, but in the end – I replaced the tarp in total.

      I’m sure you can find cheaper tarps, and perhaps your set isn’t old enough to warrant the custom job – even if you go with the original manufacturer as I did. But the colored duct tape was the only “patch” I could find for this problem, and it’s definitely temporary.

      Your set really looks great – and it’s clear the number of hours you surely have spent cleaning and restoring. I suspect you may not be satisfied long-term with duct tape, as I wasn’t.
      Mark recently posted..Installing a Bathroom Ventilation Fan

  5. Great Article about rehabbing the playset. That’s helping me a ton to fix the used one I just picked up. But I do have one more question. The yellow bar ladder assembly main beams on mine are a little rotten on the bottom 2″ or so. The rest of the beam is still solid. On my set they are 6×6 beams. Is it possible to replace those. How are those ladder bars attached? Thanks for the help.

    • Hi Charles – Thanks for your message… Interesting question – here’s my personal take: I’ve never disassembled the stair assembly – and while there’s no question the bars fit very snugly within the each of the redwood beams, I strongly suspect there’s additional reinforcement with some type of adhesive as well. If it were me, I’d start by calling the manufacturer and checking on the cost of the entire bar ladder assembly. Believe it or not, I was told last year by a Rainbow technician that their warehouse had somewhat of an excess of some of these. I’m not saying the part will be cheap… but surely worth checking. Otherwise, I’d just build one – striving for the snug fit, of course, and I’d definitely reinforce with a construction adhesive.

      There’s something to be said for having the manufacturer’s assembly, though, especially for something as important as this. So, I’d surely try the manufacturer as a first course of action.
      Mark recently posted..Preparing to Install Hardwood Flooring

      • Mark, did you just power wash the yellow bars of the ladder? I didn’t catch that in your post above. We have the exact same set and I’m gearing up to rehab it this season.

        • Hey Nick – I didn’t power wash the bars for my set; I received the entire ladder (both sections/sides) through my warranty… which was really cool. So, the ladders you see above are truly brand new. I’m glad you mentioned this, though – as it’s definitely worth trying. If you get the chance, perhaps you can send before and after pictures to me via the contact page? Those would be great to show here – so everyone can see how the power washing works out. Good luck with your rehab!
          Mark recently posted..Installing a Bathroom Ventilation Fan

          • Thanks again for the article — I was thrilled to see the same model swingset rehabbed so thoroughly and it helped a lot. We ended up replacing a LOT of wood as well, though since we weren’t the original owners (and didn’t have the warranty at our disposal) we went with pressure treated pine. We replaced all the base support/footers of the two ladders, the slide frame, the swing beam, and all of the floor boards (I found plenty of carpenter ants living in the floor boards). The playground was placed on our sloping backyard years ago, so we actually lowered the upper hill side of the fort by 8 inches to level it (literally just cut the two redwood 6×6 ladder posts by about 8 inches each and recreated the footer/support for that side with PT pine). We also added railing on the downhill side since we were nervous about our young children toppling down through the opening.

            I goofed when purchasing the replacement tarp for the roof (I measured it too short). Fortunately not all of my math knowledge escaped me since childhood and I was able to use the Pythagorean theorem to determine how much to cut off the supporting 4×4 beams and then ran a few 2×4 pieces up at each corner to raise the overall roof height by about 8 inches. I think this turned out great (since I didn’t have to buy another tarp) since it makes it less likely for us parents to smack our foreheads on the 1x4s that hold the tarp in place.

            The previous owners also had unfortunately used paint in the past, so even with power washing we weren’t able to go with a stain. I let my 3 year old daughter pick the paint color (she threw a bit of pink and blue into the mix) and she and I had a great time tackling the paint project.

            We finished off the project by building a border around the play area and filled in with playground chips. All in all it took many days and a lot of labor, but was well worth it.

            Redwood Swing Set Rehab

          • Hey Nick –

            I have to say a few things here:

            1) The pink and blue accents are VERY cool — I’m glad you called that out as I didn’t notice it at first glance of your set. Not only does that add a lot of character, but it’s awesome you let your Daughter add to the rehab like that. She’ll remember that forever!

            2) The Mulch bed frame-out looks outstanding as well – I find that nuances like that can really make the overall project (in this case your rehab) pop twice as much, and in this case – it definitely does, in my opinion. Very nice.

            3) Glad to hear you could make some positive use of the USG “downtime”

            And finally…

            4) As a part-time Science teacher, I just have to love that you used the Pythagorean theorem so effectively. You get an A… :-)

            Thanks so much for posting your finished project here!
            Mark recently posted..Downsizing? Interior Design Tips for Small House Plans

  6. I am getting ready to do a rehab on a play system very similar to yours, and the plastic looks about the same as yours did before you revamped it. What product did you use on the plastic?

    I hope mine looks as nice as yours does. Nice job!

    • Hi Rachel – I use Magic Eraser on the plastic surfaces as recommended by my manufacturer. It’s cheap, and you should try it – but depending on how far things have degraded, it can only do so much. In the set you see here, I actually replaced most of the yellow rubberized elements – that’s why they look perfect. But try cleaning first for sure.

  7. Mick O'Reilly says:

    Great work! I realize this was posted nearly a year ago, however just want to add my experience (or what soon will be my experience). We bought a used structure very similar to yours and like you said surprises were around every corner. The evening before we arrived for disassembly my wife and I took a look to see if it was something we were interested in and given the extremely low asking price we were all in and wrote a check on the spot. By 9 the next morning, I was in utter panic at the condition of the structure we just bought. I am scheduling time this week to go to the hardware store to get the pieces we need – new footers (old ones rotten to the core), new hardware (rusted to the point of breaking off during disassembly), new canopy, and new swing chains. All tolled, we’ll spend an additional $140.00 over what we paid, however after replacing these items and adding a nice coat of stain we will have saved hundreds, possibly a thousand +, on what we would’ve have spend on a new or mildly used one and it will look just as good. Wouldn’t have done it any other way. Thanks again for sharing.

    • Thanks, Mick! And even though I did write this about a year ago, people have been buying & building these sets for decades and will surely be doing so for many, many more – so everyone’s insights are really helpful to folks taking this “plunge” for the first time. Sounds like you did GREAT if you got all those replacement parts for $140. Annual redwood swing set maintenance will surely be a must for you as well, of course, but from your summary above – I’m quite sure your set will look awesome for years to come. Enjoy it!!
      Mark recently posted..How To Visualize Deck and Landscaping Design Ideas

  8. We are in the process of rehabbing a play set we bought for very little on craigslist. In addition to wood rot, we have also had issues with structural integrity after reassembly. The play set was initially from a reputable company, but after being taken apart and reassembled a few times, (we are beginning to suspect we didn’t purchase it from the original owners), it has a definite wobble comparable to what you get when you take apart cheap assembly required furniture and then try to put it back together again. Some creative hardware fixes have helped a lot and I have no doubt it is safe, but I am afraid it won’t last as long as I’d hoped. In my case it was still worth it for the amount of money we saved, but definitely something to consider.

    • I like your phrase “creative hardware fixes” – as that really conveys the reality of a play set renovation effort like this. You can definitely save a lot of money (and it sounds like you surely did), but you have to expect the unexpected and roll with it. Thanks, Andrew!
      Mark recently posted..My Battle with Surface Water Runoff

  9. Wow! Now I don’t feel as guilty about not having one of these for my girls as they were growing up. This may not be the part-time job I was hoping for. Really, amortized over 11 years, it’s not that bad. I guess there really IS no free lunch.

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