Things to Consider when Buying a Swing Set

February, 24, 2014

Materials Used in the Playset Construction

What kind of wood is used in the play set, or is it made from wood at all? Popular (cheap) options in recent years have been treated yellow pine or imported Chinese Fir (often passed off as Chinese “cedar” due to the aroma and appearance). Both of these options will require frequent staining and can splinter badly. There are also vinyl manufacturers that use a combination of composite/plastic boards for the decking and railings and then encase the supports beams with vinyl. There is no sure way to know what type of wood is being used under the vinyl. Also, because of the vinyl layer, the hardware cannot be recessed, leaving bolt ends and lag heads extruding out from the posts. This can cause places where children can snag their clothing on the protrusions or get scratched. Better options would be redwood or red cedar, however only young or new-growth trees are being used and these options may require occasional staining. Both will not splinter as much as cheaper alternatives. The heartwood of the tree is the most decay resistant but only accounts for about 10% of each log. The best option is northern white cedar swing sets. White cedar is the only wood used in the playground industry that needs no staining or maintenance, and does not splinter. The heartwood of white cedar accounts for nearly 100% of each log used. Be sure to stay away from any play set claiming to be made from “wood” or “lumber” without giving a definitive type or species.

What types of hardware are being used? Let’s face it. Wood can be fastened together in many different ways. Many U.S. shed manufacturers make pre-built swing sets that are delivered whole or in large pieces. To minimize production cost, these sets are typically nailed together with pneumatic nail guns. Not only can the nail heads pop out later on, but many times the tips crack through the pieces of wood and are left exposed on the back side. Both situations will cause serious injury to a child sliding their hands or knees across the wood, or walking underneath and hitting their heads on the nails. For most of the “kit” sets sold in the big box stores, they incorporate a mix of nails and screws with T-nuts and 5/16” bolts for the structural beams. A T-nut has one side that is flat and one side with spikes on it that get hammered into pre-drilled holes. The 5/16” bolts get fastened from the other side, through both pieces of wood. The downside (other than the small diameter) is that there is no surefire way to recess the T-nut safely, and the hex head on the bolt remains exposed. The best method to fasten structural components is a mixture of round-headed carriage bolts and lag bolts. Washers should always be used to prevent over-tightening and either lock-washers or lock-nuts should be used to prevent any bolts from working themselves loose. Carriage bolts should be a minimum of 3/8” thick and should always be recessed into the wood to prevent injury.

What type of slides are used? Are they single or double-walled? What is the weight capacity? Double-walled, roto-molded straight slides (scoop style or wave) have much more structural strength than single-walled structural foam slides. They will also typically have higher weight limits as well, ranging up to 250-pounds. For the spiral tube slides, a thickness of 1/8” or more is best for durability. Also, the higher-end tube slides will have full-tube components and seams only where each tube segment matches up.

What type of swing hangers are used? The most basic option is a lag screw hanger, which consists of a hook and eye which attaches to the swing beam with a lag screw bolt. This is not an ideal choice however, since this style does not get bolted through the beam with a nut on the other side, and there is a good chance that the screw can work itself out over time. The next option is a basic “bolt-through” hanger, typically consisting of the hook and eye like the lag screw option, but this time it is attached to a 6” threaded bolt shaft that goes all the way through the beam and gets fastened with a washer and nut on the other side. This option is stronger, but not the strongest. The best option is a ductile iron swing hanger, which is constructed from high grade iron and brass bushings. Each hanger gets bolted through the beam with two 3/8” thick carriage bolts, with washers and nuts on the other side, so that each swing position has four designated bolts.

What type of swings are used? There are swings made from many materials - plastic, vinyl, wood, rubber. For residential use, look for 1/4” thick vinyl swing belts that are USA-made, with reinforced grommets built into the vinyl. The imported swings sold at big box stores and home improvement centers are made from thin plastic that will not last very long and will crack after a few years of exposure. Rubber swings are used primarily in commercial applications because of higher resistance to vandalism, but they are quite costly. Wooden swing seats, although popular through the years for tree swings, are not used in residential or commercial playgrounds anymore due to the risk of a child being struck by the hard heavy seat in motion if they fall off the swing.

How are the swings fastened to the hangers, rope or chain? Rope is an attractive option for swings, but it is not ideal because it can fray over time and snap. This will happen at all of the high-stress spots where the metal hardware connects the rope loops to the hangers and the swings themselves. For metal chain, there are many types and thicknesses available. The swings sold at big box stores and home improvement centers come with double-loop or figure-8 chain that is rarely a thickness more than 1/16” or 1/8”. Some of these chains have a plastic tube over them to protect children from the chain, but it tends to peel or crack and fall off. The best choice is a rubber-coated 3/16” proof-coil chain. Proof coil is a type of chain that has shorter links than normal chain, so that children cannot get their fingers caught in the chain. The coating assures that fingers, hair and clothing will not get pinched, and also allows for a softer, more temperate surface to grab onto while swinging.

Construction Style of the Playset

Construction style varies with everything we buy: furniture, cars, clothing, toys - even the packaging for our food. In an economic time when we all want to save money, but still have the best for our kids, it becomes difficult to differentiate overpriced junk from a well-made good deal. Here are a few simple things to look for when researching the construction style of your swing set. First off, always look for bolt-through construction on all of the structural support beams (these include the upright posts, the cross supports under the decking and the swing beam parts). This means that rather than nailing or screwing the support beams together, they are carriage bolted at the joints with bolts, washers and nuts. At all fastening joints, the bolt ends should be recessed into the wood so that children cannot get caught on the bolts. An additional measure is to cap off the end of the bolt with an acorn nut. The hex-shaped heads on all lag bolts should also be recessed to prevent children from scraping themselves on the edges.

The second thing to look at is the size of the structural support beams. They should be what is known as a “4-by-4” in the wood industry, which has a finished size after it is planed of 3-1/2” by 3-1/2”. These should also be used for the support runners for options such as ladders, rock walls, ramps and monkey bars. Additionally, nothing smaller than a “4-by-6” should be used for the main swing beam. Decking thickness varies the most in the industry, and will be the most common cause for low weight capacities on the platform. This will include the steps on the ladders to the platform as well. The decking included with budget kit sets can be as thin as 1/2” or 3/4” with very little supporting from underneath. Look for decking made from “2 by” material such as 2-by-4, or 2-by-6 boards. These materials will have a finished thickness of 1-1/2” after planing. This is much thicker than the boards on a typical house deck because house framing is able to utilize 16-inch floor joist spacing. Finally, all of the wooden parts should have rounded smooth corners, or “dressed edges”, which is a process done during the milling stage. There should be a 3/8” roundover on all of the large beams and at least a 1/4” roundover on all of the smaller stock.

Swing Set Safety Features

It is very common for some budget manufacturers to skip over common sense safety standards in order to pack more options into the box for minimal cost. This practice, although enticing to the wallet, is not the best choice when it comes to our children’s safety. Spacing is the biggest thing to check on with the manufacturer. This will include the space between swings, as well as the open spacing between wooden parts and climbing options. For swings, the farther away from each other you can get the better. Ideally, look for swings that have a 15-inch spacing between each position to prevent collision. Also be sure to have your swing arm off to one side of your structure, rather than between two towers. Younger children have a tendency to run in front of the swings, so it is best not to give them an enticing reason to do so.

For the wooden structure itself, spaces between 3” and 10” should be avoided so there is no risk of head entrapment within the play set. This is especially important on ladders, monkey bars, and wall panels. Also be sure to avoid configuring the play options too close together. If one side of the play set has all of the openings and climbing activities, it will become a hot spot for kid traffic and an increased risk of tripping. Spreading the options out also makes the set more interesting. For the openings in the tower, spacing should be kept at a minimum, no wider than the option itself, and all openings should have a board across the top of the opening to prevent youngsters from falling out, or pushing each other off the platform. Make sure the play structure does not include any free-hanging ropes, either for climbing or swinging. These pose a strangulation hazard. All rope activities should be tethered at both ends to the play set or a ground anchor.

Where is the Swing Set Made?

There are only a handful of American manufacturers left in the residential playground industry. And even so, many of them make only a small portion of their products here in the US. The bulk of what is sold through online retailers and big box stores has been made overseas and imported. There is very little quality-control in place and it near impossible to get replacement parts or customer service of any kind. The construction style and materials used will be the most inexpensive, resulting in wood of unknown origin and ridiculously low weight capacities and sub-par safety standards. There are also American manufacturers that are using imported lumber in their US plants so that the product can be labeled Made in the USA. This wood has not been tested for endurance, nor is it sustainably harvested.

How is the Play Set Made?

There are two ways play sets are offered to the consumer: Knocked Down and Component. In the knocked down systems, there is no pre-assembly performed at the manufacturers facility. This means that each and every board that goes into the swing set is separate, individual pieces. This will include parts for the walls, decks, ladders, etc. The early steps in assembling most of the knocked down kit sets involve measuring out the spacing for each deck and wall board and fastening it all together with screws. Once the larger parts are made, the play set assembly can begin.

In component systems, as much if not all of the auxiliary items are factory pre-assembled to ensure proper spacing and alignment with the rest of the structure. These items should include the Ladder, Rock Walls, Decks, Walls, Monkey Bars and Ramps. An additional feature of component systems is the holes for the carriage bolt joints will be pre-drilled as well.

Yard Space - How much do I really need?

When deciding on a play set configuration, it is important to keep in mind that space is needed as a buffer around the entire play structure. Manufacturers will give dimensions of each system in their online or printed materials. These sizes will not take into account the safety space needed around the swing set. The industry standard for residential playground equipment is to leave a 6-foot buffer around the perimeter. This means 6-feet extra on all four sides, so when measuring out the space in the yard, add 12-feet to the dimensions. It is imperative that space be left for children to slide and run off of the slides, jump and fall off the swings (in both directions!) and for multiple children to be able to enter and exit climbing activities while allowing others to pass by them. Along with leaving proper space, it is important to make sure the area is clear of injury hot spots - trees, stumps, rocks, fences, walls, even edging and borders. General rule of thumb - if a child can sustain serious injury by falling onto or into it, stay 6-feet away.

Customization - Can I get just what I what?

The ability to customize a play set when you order will vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. For the pre-boxed kit sets, what you see is what you get. There are no choices to be made for activities, layout or even color packages. This is not the best choice for most, as every family’s needs are different, from how many children you have now, what ages they are, and whether you are planning to have more children. Other aspects may come into play, such as space restrictions or the desire to start small and add on later. It is best to go over any special requirements you may have with your customer service representative. When you are ordering directly from the manufacturer you have the most control over your purchase. You can mix and match climbing, swinging and sliding options into your perfect package. As your family grows in size and your children get older, these sets can be upgraded, added to or reconfigured to grow with your children.


Warranty - How long will the swing set last?

This is a topic for much discussion in the industry. Do you really need the swing set to last 20 years? For your investment, you want to make sure that your children are still safe out there playing through season after season, year after year, until the very last one grows “too old” or “too cool” to slide or swing anymore. The most common age that children will need a play set is between the ages of 2 and 12. That doesn’t mean you won’t catch your 14 year-old sitting out on the swing while texting her friends someday. Or that your toddler won’t try to follow his older brother up into the clubhouse. The average family has 2-3 kids, spaced 2-4 years apart. If the swing set is put in place when the first is one or two, it could be 18 years until the youngest is 12. That’s a lot of miles for one swing set. A twenty year warranty will give you the piece of mind that your play set will be a great source of enjoyment and exercise throughout their entire childhood.

-Jaclyn Wooding, Co-owner of Triumph Play Systems, Inc