Although play sets are built for fun, designing one is serious business best left to experienced play set manufacturers. Professional designs aren't accident-proof, but they reduce potential risks. Look for manufacturers whose plans and accessories meet the standards established by the American Society for Testing Materials (ASTM) and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). The CPSC and other organizations (see SOURCES) also offer free play set planning and safety information — much of it refers to public playgrounds, but the principles apply to backyard play sets as well.
Buying a building plan offers peace of mind, and you can still exercise your creativity by customizing the play set with your favorite accessories (swings, slides, ropes, etc.). I recommend purchasing a kit, which typically includes the building plan, hardware and accessories. This eliminates shopping hassles and lets you get right to the fun of building. In addition, kits cost at least 50 percent less than comparable professionally built play sets.
We chose a kit from Detailed Play Systems. Besides the building plan, hardware and accessories, it included a lumber-shopping list that made ordering a snap.
Constructing a play set is similar to building most other outdoor structures, such as decks. It requires basic carpentry skills and a few portable power tools, including a circular saw and a drill/driver. Most cities do not require a permit to build a play set, but you should check with your local code authority for specific building requirements.
Selecting a site
Before you start looking at designs and accessories, you must determine how much space is available for your play set. First, consider the proximity of other structures. You must provide a minimum 6-ft. clearance between any hard structures (your house, garage, fences and trees) and the play set. Allow a few extra feet in front of slides and swings for landing areas.
In addition, the site should be relatively flat, and you must provide appropriate ground cover. Concrete and asphalt are obviously too hard, but even grass is considered an unsuitable surface under a play set. The ground cover must be resilient, drain well and not compress over time.
Finally, you'll need to choose a site that can be easily watched from the house. Good supervision is the best way to prevent backyard injuries.
Choosing a design
When it comes to design decisions, first consult the kids. Play preferences vary, so ask which accessories they want. Choose a design that includes age-appropriate accessories but doesn't limit future options. Most designs incorporate equipment openings that are 22 to 24 in. wide, making it easy to change standard accessories.
Make sure the design can grow with your kids. For example, rather than using a low 6-ft.-high swing beam (appropriate for infant or toddler swings only), use a taller 8-ft.-high swing beam that can later accommodate belt swings.
Properly designed play sets have well-defined play areas to prevent accidents. For example, the slide should not exit in front of a ladder, and nothing should be in front of or behind the swings.
Finally, the play set should offer shaded play space. Most designs feature either a wood roof or a canvas canopy. Our kit included two snap-on canvas canopies. Standard-size canopies are available from most play set manufacturers.
When you've determined which features and accessories you want, shop around for the kit that most closely matches your needs. Home centers and lumberyards sell play set kits and plans, and many manufacturers operate Web sites where you can order plans and kits to be shipped to your house.
Home Carpentry - Building a Backyard Play Set Kit
A. Platform dimensions - 4 x 4 ft. minimum area and 5 to 7 ft. tall.
B. Decking - 5/4 deck boards or 2x lumber
C. Deck support - 2x6 joists fastened in joist hangers
D. Posts - 4x4 or larger
E. Ladder rungs - space 8 to 10 in. apart
F. Handrails or grips - locate on ladders and at each opening in the railing
G. baluster spacing and bottom rail height - typically 3-1/2-in. minimum
H. Swing Beam - double 2x6 or single 4x6
I. Swing beam length - minimum 4 ft. beam length per swing
J. Ground cover - 6 to 12 in. minimum depth
K. Slide - length is typically two times the platform height
L. Swing chains - coated safety chains
M. Canopy - exterior- grade canvas of wood roof
No matter what type of play set you are building, the structural members and decking must be rated for exterior exposure. Use only structural-grade lumber, such as treated pine, cedar or redwood. We chose ACQ pressure-treated No. 1 Southern yellow pine. ACQ and copper azole are nonarsenic-base preservative treatments that the Environmental Protection Agency has designated safe for play structures.
We didn't need to order hardware, but if you are building from scratch, use only corrosion-resistant hardware. Use high-zinc-content galvanized fasteners such as Simpson's ZMax line and USP Structural Connectors' Triple Zinc line. You can also use stainless steel or coated fasteners.
Although play accessories such as swings and slides may seem simple to make, resist the temptation to build them yourself. Manufactured accessories are safer and more durable and operate more smoothly than most shop- made wood versions. Many kits include accessories, and you can update your design with a variety of additional options.
Building the structure
Building a play set is somewhat easier than constructing a deck because a play set doesn't require footings. Otherwise, most of the same construction rules apply.
Don't be intimidated by the extensive parts and cutting lists; you'll be surprised at how quickly the structure comes together with the help of a couple of friends — you may be able to recruit neighbors whose kids will likely use the play set.
Although the play set instructions may suggest cutting and boring all of the lumber at one time, which is efficient, this doesn't leave any flexibility for surprises (errors and lumber changes). For example, lumber that isn't completely dry sometimes twists or bows during construction. Play it safe by cutting and assembling only the lumber used in the next step of construction.
The construction process for all play sets is basically the same: Start with the central platform and work out to the perimeter parts. Use gravity to your advantage when constructing the central platform. First, attach all joist hangers to platform beams on the ground — it's easier to nail on the ground. Next, assemble two opposite sides of the platform on the ground and then tip them up into position. Plumb and brace the sides before connecting them with cross members.
To prevent the project from becoming overwhelming, approach assemblies such as ladders and ramps as separate projects. Construct each part and then attach it to the main platform. The play set will quickly take shape.
You have the three basic finishing options: Apply no finish and let the wood weather naturally, apply a sealer to prolong the wood's natural color, or apply a stain to change the color of the wood. Any stain intended for decks is appropriate to use on a play set. I don't recommend painting play sets. There are too many small surfaces to cover, and you won't want to deal with chipping or peeling paint in the future. If you want vibrant color, try a semitransparent deck stain. These finishes fade as they age, but they don't peel. They come in a much wider variety of colors than transparent deck stains.
The preservative used to treat the lumber is often still wet when the lumber is purchased. Allow the preservative to dry before applying any finish — usually a couple of weeks. To keep accessories from becoming stained, apply the finish before attaching them. Because the decking will exhibit the most wear, it will need a fresh application of stain every few years.
Most play accessories come out of the box ready to install. The one notable exception is spiral or tube slides. These slides are made up of several sections that bolt together. They are not difficult to assemble, but they can take a few hours to complete.
Each accessory typically is delivered with the appropriate fastening hardware and installation instructions. Fasten handles, grips and slides with either lag screws or bolts. Swing chains should hang from specially designed swing bolts, and tire swings should hang from swivels.
Maintaining the play set
Your job doesn't end with construction. Good supervision and proper maintenance are essential to preventing accidents. Play sets take a lot of abuse. Check the set every few weeks for damage, and perform these simple maintenance steps:
- Sweep dirt or sand off of decks to prevent slipping.
- Check that the ground cover is at the appropriate depth throughout the play area.
- Inspect all bolt, screw and chain connections.
- Replace broken framing, and sand sharp or splintering edges smooth.
Building a play set is the kind of project you tackle because you want to, not because you have to. Take the necessary time to create a safe, well-planned environment that will offer years of entertainment and exercise for the whole family.
Play set plans and equipment:
Detailed Play Systems (plans, kits and accessories)
Simpson Strong-Tie Co.
Southern Pine Council
SwingSafe (swingset anchors)
USP Structural Connectors
Play set planning and safety resources:
Consumer Product Safety Commission
KaBOOM Inc. (planning and safety)
National Program for Playground Safety
National Safety Council