What is the Best Wood for A Swing Set? How to Choose


When building or buying a swing set made from wood, you must remember that not all wood is created equal. Several factors should be considered when deciding on the best wood for this project. Depending on your needs and preferences concerning your swing set, one wood may work better for you than another.

The best, most common types of wood used for swing sets are redwood, cedar, and pressure-treated pine. Pressure-treated pine is the most durable, weather-resistant, and inexpensive of the three. Cedar is the next best choice if there are concerns about the chemicals used in pressure-treated pine.

What is best for your project will ultimately depend upon your priorities. Any wood you choose will require some form of maintenance over time, though some will require more than others.

Read on to determine which lumber will be the ideal choice for your swing set, whether you are buying it or building it.

Look for Rot-Resistant Wood

One would assume a wooden swing set is an investment that you’d like to last for many years to come. Another assumption is that this swing set is going to be exposed to the elements.

If you can place a roof or cover over your swing set, all the better, but exposure to moisture is still a concern. Here are how the three discussed woods stack up against moisture.

Redwood

Redwood trees have naturally occurring complex astringent chemicals called tannins that protect the plant from wood rot caused by fungi and many insects that would eat the plant’s wood. Tannins are concentrated mostly in the tree’s bark (to protect the living plant) and in the heartwood. The heartwood is the dead core of a tree.

Most trees harvested now are smaller, “second growth” trees that have a high percentage of sapwood. Sapwood is the living rings between the core and the bark that transport water from the roots to the leaves.

So while redwood trees are rot-resistant, not all of the available lumber from these trees can claim the same. You can specify that you want to buy heartwood, but this will cost much more. Also worth noting, tannins leach out, so your lumbers rot-resistance will decrease over time.

Redwood should not be placed in direct contact with the ground, as this will cause the wood to rot and degrade.

Cedar

Cedar also has naturally occurring tannins, though less than is found in redwoods. Also, like the redwoods, most cedar harvested now is from smaller “second growth” trees that have a high percentage of sapwood.

Cedar, like redwood, should not be placed in direct contact with the ground as this will cause it to rot.

Pressure-Treated Pine

Pressure-treated pine is chemically treated to resist rot. The boards are placed in pressurized tanks where preserving chemicals are forced by pressure deep into the woods fibers.

Pressure-treated lumber typically comes in two grades: “above ground” and “ground contact.” The difference is that ground contact lumber retains more of the chemical treatment and can be placed in direct contact with the ground and even be buried.

Pressure-treated lumber rated for Above Ground use should not be in direct contact with the ground.

Best Rot-Resistant Wood: Pressure Treated Pine

Source: University of Massachusetts Amherst; U.S. Forest Service; Arbor Day Foundation

Our How To Build A Swing Set article and Free Swing Set Plans List can use any of these popular types of wood.

Look For Insect Repellent Wood

Another potential problem to consider is insect infestation. While cedar, redwood, and pressure-treated pine are said to be insect resistant, this is usually a reference to termites. Other culprits when it comes to structural damage to wood by insects are:

  • Carpenter Bees
  • Carpenter Ants.
InsectWood Type
TermitesRedwood – termites are repelled by the tannins found in the wood but will still eat the wood (even the heartwood) if there are no alternatives
TermitesCedar – termites are repelled by the wood’s tannins but will still eat the wood if there are no alternatives.
TermitesPressure Treated Pine – termites die after ingesting the chemicals used to treat pressure-treated lumber.
Carpenter BeesRedwood – carpenter bees do not eat the wood they nest in and are not deterred by tannins.
Carpenter BeesCedar – see the entry above for redwood.
Carpenter BeesPressure Treated Pine – just as tannins do not deter carpenter bees, they are not killed by the chemicals found in this lumber because they do not eat the wood.
Carpenter AntsRedwood – carpenter ants do not eat the wood they nest in and are not deterred by tannins.
Carpenter AntsCedar – see the entry above for redwood.
Carpenter AntsPressure Treated Pine – just as tannins do not deter carpenter ants, they are not killed by the chemicals found in this lumber because they do not eat the wood.

Best Insect-Repellent Wood: Pressure Treated Pine (But Only For Termites)

Source: University of Kentucky; Log And Timber Worx; Carpenter Bee Control; Terminix

Appearance

Redwood heartwood ranges in color from light pinkish-brown to deep reddish-brown. The sapwood ranges from pale white to yellow. If not maintained, the color will eventually turn silverish-grey.

Cedar will range in color, sometimes having a reddish-brown tone with hints of pink, but more often have a yellowish tone. Much like redwood, cedar will turn a silverish-grey color if not periodically maintained.

Both cedar and redwood are naturally pretty, but if there are plans to stain or paint the wood, cedar’s lighter color will be a better choice.

Pine, while it may not have the appealing color of cedar or redwood, is not an ugly wood. The heartwood is a light brown while the sapwood ranges from pale yellow to nearly white.

One issue with using pressure-treated pine is that the treatment process leaves the wood wet, and it will not take paint well. If painting is an absolute priority, the wood needs to dry before doing so.

Best Looking Wood: Subjective and depends upon preference

Source: The Wood Database; Prowood Lumber;

Cost and Availability

Cost is a difficult statistic to report as it varies by region. One source states that redwood costs, on average, 15% more than cedar in the state of Texas. HomeAdvisor reports that, on average, cedar costs 20 – 30% more than pressure-treated pine.

Redwood is likely to be the most expensive in all regions as it is in high demand globally. But, the supply is diminishing due to restrictions on harvesting old-growth trees and wildfires on the west coast of the United States.

You might find that some “cedar” swing sets manufactured and imported from China are cheaper than their redwood and pressure-treated pine counterparts.

This is because “Chinese cedar” isn’t cedar at all: it’s a fir tree. The name was chosen for marketing purposes, but the wood’s ability to resist rot is inferior to that of actual cedar.

Most Cost Efficient and Available Wood: Pressure Treated Pine

Maintenance

As mentioned before, any wood you choose will need to be maintained. Some will require less maintenance.

RedwoodCedarPressure-Treated Pine
CleaningScrub with a stiff-bristled brush dipped in soap and warm waterScrub with a stiff-bristled brush dipped in soap and warm waterScrub with a stiff-bristled brush dipped in soap and warm water
Removing severe mildewScrub with a stiff-bristled brush dipped in a solution of one cup trisodium phosphate, one cup oxygen bleach, and one gallon of water. Rinse with clean waterScrub with a stiff-bristled brush dipped in a solution of one cup oxygen bleach and one gallon of water. Rinse with clean waterScrub with a stiff-bristled brush dipped in a solution of one cup oxygen bleach and one gallon of water. Rinse with clean water
Wood sealantRecommended annuallyRecommended annuallyRecommended every two years
Restoring colorUse the method described above to clean severe mildew. After, apply a solution of 4 ounces oxalic acid crystals dissolved in warm water to the wood. Rinse with clean water after the wood has dried thoroughly.After cleaning, completely strip the weathered surface finish using heady duty cleaner/stripper to remove stain and discolored fibers.After cleaning, brush a solution (2 cups oxygen bleach dissolved into 2 gallons of warm water with ¼ cup of liquid dishwashing soap) generously into the wood. Let sit for 15 minutes and rinse with clean water.
Checking for rotCheck for and replace any parts that have begun to rot. Rot will occur most frequently where the wood comes in contact with the ground.Check for and replace any parts that have begun to rot. Rot will occur most frequently where the wood comes in contact with the ground.Ground Contact approved pressure-treated wood is less likely to rot and will not need to be replaced as often as other woods.

Easiest Wood To Maintain: Pressure Treated Pine

Source: Mendocino; Real Cedar; Bob Vila;

New Pressure Treated Lumber Is Considered Safe

In the past, wood was pressure-treated with Chromated Copper Arsenate (CCA). In 2003, due to toxicity concerns around the presence of arsenic, it was agreed upon by the Environmental Protection Agency and the lumber industry that CCA treated wood would no longer be used to construct residential structures.

Since 2003, commercially available pressure-treated lumber is most commonly treated with alkaline copper quaternary (ACQ). Current research indicates that any estimated exposure to ACQ falls below the toxicity threshold.

While ACQ is less toxic, the high levels of copper make the wood more corrosive. For this reason, it is recommended that all metal hardware be hot-dip galvanized steel or stainless steel. Otherwise, the metal hardware can corrode, compromising the structural integrity of your swing set.

Conclusion

If properly maintained, any of the three kinds of wood are good choices, but pressure-treated pine is the best choice. It is the most weather-resistant, insect resistant, costs the least to use, and can be placed directly on or in the ground with little to no worry.

Pressure-treated pine does have a stigma from the past use of toxic chemicals to treat the wood. While the current chemicals are deemed to be safer by the Environmental Protection Agency, this might not be enough to convince all consumers. If this is the case, cedar is the next best choice. Just be careful when buying that you are getting the real deal.

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Robert Sampson

I'm Robert Sampson and I live in Colorado where I spend a lot of time in the backyard with my family either grilling, playing games and sports, or working on a project to make our backyard a better place to be.

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