The Great Debate: Which wood is best for play sets?

by Dave Young, Creative Playthings Orlando, Owner

I’m not an expert in many things – my wife can attest to that – but after selling residential play systems for over a decade in Central Florida, I can comfortably say I know a lot about how wooden swing sets perform, especially in this climate.  We’ve serviced countless brands made from all the various materials over the years and have noticed some clear tendencies I would like to share with you.

Pine v. Redwood/Cedar
For some context, let me explain that Creative Playthings was one of the very few manufacturers who offered its play systems in both Redwood/Cedar and in Pine for many years.  So we were fortunate to be able to sell both types of wood side-by-side in our Orlando store for a long time.  But after a few years, we noticed some clear trends in the Pine v. Redwood/Cedar debate.  In fact, our experience led us to eventually phase out the redwood/cedar lines here in the Florida, and here’s why:

Redwood and Cedar are touted as “naturally resistant” to moisture and insect damage.  And while I don’t doubt that may be tWood-Pine-longrue up North, it was not our experience in Florida’s challenging climate.  Between the frequent rains of the summer and the constant humidity that prevents the wood from quickly drying out, we saw far more moisture-related issues with Redwood and Cedar.  Of course, most damage can be replaced under warranty – but isn’t the point of a warranty is not really having to use it?  After all, who wants to replace rotting wood on a premium play set in a few years? Over the years, we’ve noticed far fewer warranty issues with Pine, both moisture and insect-related.

We also found that, as Redwood and Cedar are much softer woods, they require more maintenance to keep looking good.  In particular, they tend not to hold the stain as long as Pine.  Hot sun and lots of rain are quite taxing to wood, and the softer Redwood/Cedar needs to be stained every couple of years.  Our experience with Pine is it’ll usually get 4-5 years before needing a re-stain.  Note: you’ll still want to apply a water seal annually, no matter which wood you go with… but a clear seal is an easy job compared to stain which takes some extra detail work.

Imported Boxed Sets
In club stores and on the Internet, you’ll see tons of low price points on imported sets made of Chinese Cedar.  This cedar, or China fir, is in the redwood family but shouldn’t be confused with the California redwood I discussed above.  This is a much lower grade wood that simply doesn’t hold up well, particularly in the Florida climate.  Don’t take my word for it, read the reviews – there’s no shortage of feedback online about the poor quality of the wood and hardware from the boxed sets imported from China.  The most common complaints are that it rots quickly in moisture, is susceptible to termites and fades within a year.  Our experience servicing these imported sets backs this up, in fact, we quit repairing them years ago as they usually fell apart as soon as we tried to work on them.

And with most club stores carrying the product line for a only few weeks in the Spring, they’re not able to help much after the sale.  If you have any problems or need service, all you’ve got is an 800 number.   Now, I freely admit that I’m a faithful Costco shopper, so it’s not that I don’t love the club stores, I just don’t believe they’re well positioned to support the cheap imported swing sets they sell.  Most of their stuff is awesome – but their play sets aren’t.  Sorry…

Inside a plastic wrapped post
Inside a wrapped post is not even solid wood

Encapsulated Wood
One final note as you consider all of your swing set choices, be wary of any wood that’s wrapped in a plastic coating.  Also known as encapsulated wood, it sounds like a good solution but the wood is usually untreated.  And when the plastic inevitably cracks from the sun – moisture gets in, but it can never dry out.  So the wood rots… and you’ll never notice until it fails.   Considering these parts are usually the structural elements, such as posts or swing beams, failure is not an option, as they say.

I hope this article has helped shed some light on the wood choices available when comparing swing sets.  If you have any follow up questions or comments for me, please feel free to contact me at creativeplaythings@cfl.rr.com.