Updated — Originally Published August 26, 2012
Last year, 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 and accessories. 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 crazy 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…
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:
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…
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:
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.
But in the next shot – you’ll see the same leg after removing it from the ground:
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:
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…
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!
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:
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…
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?
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… :-)
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?