How to Restore an Old Backyard Playset

In the midst of the pandemic, my 5-year-old granddaughter was running out of things to do. Everything was closed, including schools and even the local playgrounds. We had to get creative and find ways to get her outside, staying active and safely entertained. On top of that, she is an only child, so mom and dad had to do more to keep her occupied than ever before. We decided it was time to invest in a backyard playset. After some initial research, it became clear that this would be easier said than done. Turns out, every family across the country had the same idea. Moms and Dads were looking for ways to keep the youngsters happy AND out of their hair for a couple hours each day. Playsets, swingsets, and trampoline sales skyrocketed and became nearly impossible to find. Even today as I write this, they are hard to come by. Gorilla Playsets is one of the leaders in the playset industry, and this is what you find on the Gorilla Playsets website right now in June of 2021:

If you’ve recently ordered one of our products, please understand that the current health crisis has brought on an unprecedented and overwhelming demand on the entire production and supply chain that supports our category of products. As we navigate through the challenges of COVID-19 and the unprecedented demand in our category, we remain dedicated to providing open and honest communication with our customers…

As a result, we decided to try to buy a used playset on Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace. Used playsets were also hugely in demand so if you saw one, you had to act fast and there was no room for negotiation on price, given the circumstances. We were also willing to restore an old playset if necessary. In fact, with everything closed, we actually preferred this option as the project would give us something to do.

I had looked at a few used sets when I got a call from a friend who was selling his house. He had a very nice playset that he was willing to give us for free. His children were older and the buyers of his home were also baby boomers, so he assumed they wouldn’t want it either. Unfortunately, we learned a few days later that the buyers did want to keep the playset for when their grandchildren visited. We were bummed, until this same friend mentioned a very large, but very old, playset that had essentially been abandoned in the woods near his house. He promised to track down the owner for me. It turns out his neighbor hosted a wedding in his backyard a few years back, so they moved the playset into the woods. This was supposed to be a temporary move, but his kids were all teenagers who lost interest, and the playset sort of just stayed in the woods.

Most importantly, we were welcome to take it if we were willing to come break it down and transport it. I was excited and requested a picture, which I received, and you can see below.

old playset in the woods

Right away, I knew this was a Castle Set from Rainbow Play Systems, the best (and most expensive) residential swing set manufacturers by far. My excitement grew, as these sets cost $6,000 brand new and are made of very durable and very beautiful 100% natural cedar wood. The condition of the playset was hard to determine from the one picture, so I requested a few more. Even if it was in awful shape, restoration would easily be worth the effort. This was a great opportunity… but then I got the rest of the pictures. See below.

weathered and damaged playset

Yikes! This was going to be a ton of work and he lived an hour away, but this was an amazing opportunity. Without hesitation, I said “yes!”. While his neighbor insisted we were doing him a favor by taking it, I immediately sent him an Amazon Gift Card to express my gratitude, (and to ensure he didn’t change his mind or give it to someone else). I knew breaking this playset apart and rebuilding it would be challenging so I grabbed my tools, rented a U-Haul, and started driving.

How to Breakdown a Playset

Disassembling a play set is easy but disassembling a playset that you actually plan to rebuild is very time consuming and difficult. In the event you find yourself in a situation like mine, follow these steps. Otherwise, skip this part.

  1. Bring the right tools. Of course, you will need a socket wrench, adjustable wrenches, and a drill. But you will probably also need a deep socket set, lubricant spray, pliers and probably a hammer. On an old playset, some of the hardware is really difficult to untighten, especially 18-inch bolts! In some cases, you may want to hammer bolts back out when they are tough to move. Take care not to bust the end of the bolt like I did. This hardware can be expensive to replace.
  2. Take pictures of everything. This is the most important step. You assume you will remember where everything went but when it’s broken down into a million pieces, the pictures will be incredibly useful, for you and anyone who might help you reassemble. I just counted 64 pictures I took before breaking down.
  3. Pack a lot of Ziplock bags, pieces of paper, and a marker.
  4. Remove Accessories, ladders, slides, swings etc. first.
  5. Put hardware for each accessory into a zip lock bag and label it. I can’t stress the importance of this step enough. For example, put the slide hardware into a Ziplock bag with a piece of paper that reads “Hardware to connect 6-foot green slide to playset”.
  6. Take apart the frame of the playset, labeling EVERY piece as you do. All of this extra work during disassembly will make reassembly that much easier. I was worried I would not get the set broken down in one day, because I didn’t want to have to rent the U-Haul truck twice, but I was MORE worried about being unable to rebuild the thing for my granddaughter. Be patient and take your time. Start at one end of the structure and work towards the other.
  7. Finally, get help. I still can’t believe how heavy some of the parts were, especially the swing beam and A-Frame. Collectively, this particular play set weighs 1,695 pounds. There was no chance I could have moved some of these things myself, not without getting hurt anyway.

I should mention that I was unable to disassemble this play set in one day. This was a bummer as the truck rental was about $100, plus gas and tolls but I wanted to do it right, without damaging the playset (or myself). It was almost a relief when I came to the realization that getting the whole thing broken down and moved in one day was impossible. I was able to slow down, relax, and do everything correctly.

I should also mention it was November when all of this was happening. Doing all of this during the winter isn’t ideal, but we had planned on this being a Christmas gift. It was clear all of the wood needed sanding and refinishing so I bought a 12x12 tent to protect the wood from the elements during the restoration phase. And with that all of that said, we finally get to the important part.

How to Restore an Old Backyard Playset

Here are the exact tools and materials I used for this Playset Restoration Project

  1. Dewalt Random Orbit Electric Sander
  2. Rust-oleum Self Etching Primer
  3. Rust-oleum Gloss Sun Yellow Spray Pint
  4. Rust-oleum Gloss Clear Coat
  5. Behr Semi-Transparent Weather Proofing Stain & Sealer (Redwood)
  6. Dap Plastic Wood Filler (Red Oak)
  7. Swing-N-Slide Extreme Heavy Duty Swing Set
  8. Swing Set Stuff Trapeze Bar (Pink)
  9. Swing Set Stuff Telescope (Pink)
  10. Swing Set Stuff Periscope (Pink)
  11. Swing Set Stuff Textured Rock Wall Holds (Pink)
  12. Creative Playthings Back to Back Glider
  13. Gorilla Playsets Glider Bracket
  14. Rainbow Play Systems Rope Ladder
  15. Eastern Jungle Gym Heavy Duty Tire Swing
  16. 15ft U-Haul Truck Rental
  17. 120 Grit Dewalt Orbit Sand Paper
  18. 3M Medium Grit All-Purpose Sanding Block

(Full disclosure: In some cases, the links above are affiliate links)

Restore your Playset in 5 steps

  1. Clean the Playset. A Lot of the tutorials and videos I watched suggested power washing the wood. I had a power washer ready to go but ultimately decided this was unnecessary. If there was mold, I may have considered it. However, I planned on sanding every square inch of wood and I knew that would get rid of the loose sand dirt. Not to mention, in most of those same videos, people got too aggressive with the power washer and damaged the wood. I am glad I made this decision. Instead, I gave the set a basic wash down with a standard hose.
  2. Restore or Replace Accessories. I wanted to restore as many of the accessories as possible. I quickly decided this was a bad idea. It was extremely cost effective to replace them, and since I got the set for free, I decided to go this route. The most expensive item to replace was the tire swing, which cost $117.28. I opted for two heavy duty swings with plastic coated chains to avoid little fingers getting pinched (a not so fond memory of my childhood). These “premium swings” came in at $49.80 for the set and were well worth the money. My granddaughter loves her cousin’s rocker swing, so I purchased one of those for $93.82. These can’t be connected to standard swing hardware, so I paid an additional $38.59 for the glider bracket. I found a pink trapeze bar for $33.64, a pink monocular and telescope set for $22.24 and my favorite purchase of all, pink replacement rock holds for the climbing wall, which were a steal at $43.14 and really “made” the set. I know that sounds like a lot, but these are the parts of the playset that kids actually touch and play on most. They make all the difference and essentially make the set look brand new. Collectively, that came out to $400, which once you see the final pictures below, was a steal and the best decision I made during the course of this project.

    When considering the $235 cost to replace the slide, we opted to restore here. We cleaned and scrubbed with dish soap and then power washed. We re-waxed the slide the good old-fashioned way- wax paper. I will concede the slide doesn’t look “brand new”, but it looks pretty darn good, and I wanted to stay within my budget, which I arbitrarily set at $1,000.

    For all of the handles, monkey bar rungs, ladder rungs, climbing handholds, or anything metal, I used the following process. First, I sanded very lightly with a medium grit multi purpose sanding block. For the metal accessories, I followed that up with some acetone to clean off any oils. After that, it was one coat of self-etching primer (which I had never even heard of prior to his project), followed by three coats of Rust-oleum 2X Ultra Cover spray paint, followed by three coats of gloss clear coat. This felt like overkill while doing it, but it paid off. We had to wait for the occasional 50-60 degree days to complete these steps as we were doing this project throughout winter. The can reads, “Use when temperature is between 50-90 F”. In some cases, it was definitely colder than that, but we tried to bring the smaller pieces inside to warmer temperatures to dry and cure whenever possible. The colder it is outside, the longer you have to wait between coats, so this felt like an eternity. But it definitely paid off. It’s been months, and these parts look great despite all of the nasty northeast weather and snow we’ve had. If you decide to go with just 1 or 2 coats, I highly recommend at least doing the 3 coats of the gloss clear coat!

    refurbished playset safety handles

  3. Sand, Repair, or Replace the Wood. This was the easiest and most fun part of the process, but it also took the longest. Thankfully, I had some volunteers and two electric sanders. I say this was fun, because the wood looked absolutely beautiful after it was sanded and prepped for paint. It made everyone so excited to see the final product. It was at this moment that I knew all of this hard work was going to pay off, and that this set was going to look good as new.

    When researching this step online, you will find that experts suggest anywhere from 80 grit to 200 grit sandpaper for cedar wood. We tried to split the difference and ended up going with 120 grit. We sanded extremely lightly, as you can see in the image below - just enough to get that top coat of sealant off - to the point you can just barely start to see bare wood underneath. Areas where the wood was chipped or splintered, we sanded powerfully so that the wood was smooth and wouldn’t cut anyone. There were only 5-10 of these instances thankfully. During this project, we learned that bees’ favorite wood is Cedar. There were about a half a dozen bee holes which required filling. They were perfectly round and almost appeared to be there by design. We used wood filler which worked beautifully - it dries overnight, and then is ready to sand and stain the next day. You literally can’t tell there were ever holes there. We used this in a few other areas as well where the wood had been damaged for whatever reason. We had to replace just three pieces of wood. One of the wooden stairs looked a bit rotted so we errored on the side of safety. I am not terribly handy with carpentry, so I walked into Home Depot with the three pieces and they were able to cut identical sized pieces for me right there. I don’t know if they always do this or were just slow/bored with a mostly empty store during Covid, but I was incredibly thankful. Take caution to keep the sanded wood safe from the elements. We put as much inside as we could and kept the rest outside under a tent, and up on cinder blocks to keep off the wet ground.
  4. Stain the wood. We choose to stain the wood by hand with regular paint brushes. Any should do the job, although we went with the All Paints & Stains Purdy 144152330 XL. All of the prep on the wood paid off, as the stain went on beautifully. We only needed one coat.I can’t tell you how happy I was after the first piece of the wood was stained. It looked absolutely beautiful and brand new. See below.

    restained playset wood

  5. Reassemble. Having seen the first piece of the wood completely finished, I couldn’t wait to get all of the wood painted and the darn thing reassembled. My three sons and I re-built the playset in one day. It took about 7 hours with a lot of beer, food, and laughs in between. The effort and care I took to label every part and take pictures of every piece paid off, as we checked these very frequently.

As I mentioned, I did “booger” some of the hardware by getting too aggressive with the hammer and some of it was very rusty, so we did make two trips to the local hardware store for new hardware, which cost a bit more than I expected, totaling $95.63. I sprung for lunch and beer for my three sons and bought them some “thank you” lottery tickets, which cost me another $90. The (two) U-Haul rentals totaled $282.36 after gas and tolls. Once the swing set was complete, everything looked absolutely incredible… except for the rope ladder. It was a sin to redo the entire set but try to repurpose the original worn and tired rope ladder, so I literally had to bite the bullet and spring for a new one. I drove about an hour to the local King of Prussia Rainbow Play Systems to get the original for $120. I also later discovered that the safety handles come in pink, so I had to spring for them too for a reasonable $28.28. So, when it was all said and done, I spent $1,114.78, a ton of hours and energy and ended up with essentially brand new playset that otherwise would have cost me $6,000+ to buy. And I have to say, as I watch the smiles on my grandkids’ faces playing on it and consider the fun memories of restoring it, it was “worth every penny”.

restored playset

refinished backyard playset

retored playset

As I look back on the past year with Covid, this had to be one of my favorite days - the four of us coming together to build this beautiful playset for my sweet granddaughter. I couldn’t wait to see the look on her eyes. I hope you enjoy your playset restoration project as much as I did and I hope my experiences above can make your project a little easier and affordable.


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