Weekend warrior chronicles: Dad assembles a giant backyard gym set

Consumer Reports News: April 30, 2010 05:08 AM

This spring, my six-year-old son has been asking for a swing set for the backyard. Now that his little brother is nearly two, I figured I’d look into getting one. We often go to a town playground on the weekends, but I figured a backyard playset would allow them to get some fresh air and burn off some energy after school, and before dinner, on weekdays. I began the hunt.

I started on the Internet at Google Maps: Swing sets near my ZIP code. I quickly found two stores within 10 minutes of my house, Timbergyms and Easter Jungle Gym. Great! I could “swing” by and see what they had, and even let my kids try them out. Both stores were very similar—they had wooden swing sets on display, offered free delivery and even free set-up for some models, and my kids loved them! One problem: the base-model sets started at about $1,700 and prices steadily rose from there! Want to replace a cloth roof with a wooden one? That’s extra. Want a swing seat appropriate for your two-year-old? That’s extra. At this rate, the sets quickly added up to about $4,000 and more! Suddenly the short ride to our town’s playground seemed like a better option.

I went back home and started cutting a hiking trail in the woods in the back yard. Maybe my kids wouldn’t mind playing on a rock or climbing a tree? But in the end, I still wanted a playset. But where could I find a cheaper model?

I had a brainstorm: Let’s check Walmart! I headed there with my six year old and finally found them: a couple of closed boxes that promised to become wooden swing sets. They ranged from $400-600, and the most expensive one had a wooden roof—something you’d only get at the other places for the price of a small used car. After about a half-hour of searching for a sales clerk, I discovered that Walmart couldn’t even supply me a picture of what these sets looked like once assembled. They suggested I look on the Internet. I went home.

On Walmart’s Web site, the sets looked nice. But I also checked Sam’s Club’s site and found the Taj Ma-play-scape I had been looking for: The Highlander! This thing had four levels, a picnic table, a wooden roof, and more for $998. A big bonus for me was that each ladder leading to the four levels was actually very small, making it easier for my two-year-old to navigate. The user reviews for it were great, but they did mention the assembly time: 20 to 40 hours to put it together. That’s right, 20 to 40 HOURS. With two kids, and two parents working, that seems kind of like a big commitment for our family. I found several companies that assemble these things, but a quoted fee of $600 seemed a bit high. I decided to try it myself. After all, my six-year-old loves projects—and what a project it would be.

Armed with a pickup truck, I headed off to Sam’s Club. With not much more effort than it takes to buy a 96-pack of toilet paper (well, maybe a little more), I soon had nearly 800 lbs. of lumber in four huge boxes, as well as a big slide, piled into the back of the truck. Game on!  After all, I thought, I’m an engineer, how hard could this be? Did I mention there were literally hundreds of boards in those boxes that mostly looked the same? The good news is that my six-year-old was a great help finding the boards I needed and put washers on the bolts. After four hours, I had already erected the base. I felt l like I’m building an Amish barn.

Thoughts so far? It is a pretty incredible kit. I doubt I could even buy all the wood I needed for the thousand dollars the kit cost me. I haven’t found a single split board or an incorrectly pre-drilled hole, and all the boards are marked. To be honest, I’d really like to leave work now and continue the build. I doubt it is as sturdy as the big-dollar playscapes, but I have a feeling it will be just right for my two kids. (Learn about the importance of padding underneath any outdoor play equipment, and see the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s home playground safety guidelines.)

Follow-up. After about 21 hours of labor, and with some help from my Dad and my boys, I am very happy with the purchase. I really had a lot of fun assembling the kit, and my kids can't get enough of the playscape. In fact, the television hasn't gone on once since we assembled it.

—Jake Fisher, senior engineer, auto test

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