There might be no more carefree activity for a kid than yanking back on the ropes of a swing and letting it rip. Before the training wheels come off the bike, and well before a driver’s license, it’s that first taste of freedom. And while backyard swing sets — like the arms race of the ’80s — are getting bigger, more elaborate, and expensive, they don’t have to be. For less than $100 you can hang a swing from a tree in your yard. What that swing looks like — a traditional plank, a freewheeling disc seat, or the iconic tire — is up to you. It can be intimidating for newbie DIYers to tackle a tree swing. After all, a lot is riding on it should a child have an accident. But the process isn’t difficult. Read on to find out how to hang a swing from a tree — and prepare the yard for a summer of (safe) memories.
Step 1: Find the right tree
Look for a mature tree that looks healthy, meaning the canopy is filled with leaves, there are no cracks or hollows in the trunk, and it’s free of rot or pests. If you’re unsure about the health of the tree, have a licensed arborist give an opinion. Stick to tough hardwood trees like oaks, maples, and sycamores. Avoid evergreen and fruiting trees, which tend to be less sturdy, with limbs that snap easily.
Now look at the space around the tree. You’ll want about 3 feet of room between the swing and the trunk, but not so close to the end of a branch that the weight causes sagging. The path of a two-rope swing is more predictable, so you can install them closer to the tree. Hanging a disc or tire from a single rope? The movement on those is a bit more unpredictable (and fun!), so keep them further away from the trunk. The area under the swing should be level and free of big rocks, tree roots, or other debris that could cause a tripping hazard. Ideally, you want grass or a patch where you can add a 2-to-3-inch-thick layer of wood mulch for a soft landing.
Step 2: Pick the right branch
Play it safe by picking a branch that is 8 to 10 inches in diameter, which would be strong enough to hold an adult. The best branches are mostly horizontal. A steeply angled branch will encourage the seat to twist with a two-rope swing, which you don’t want. But with a single rope disc or tire swing, that might be exactly what you want. Examine the branch for signs of decay: missing bark, areas without leaves, cracks, and rot. Pick a limb that is between 10 and 15 feet off the ground. The higher the branch, the longer the rope and the greater the range of motion, and while that can feel like a lot of fun, it can be unsafe above 15 feet.
Step 3: Get the best rope
Synthetic rope is inexpensive, readily available, strong, and durable, so you don’t need to use metal chains, which will damage the branch if you simply toss it over the limb. You’ll have options at the hardware store, but go with polyester that’s at least ¾-inch in diameter. You want to overengineer the swing to carry an adult’s weight, so when in doubt, go thicker. Natural ropes can absorb water over time and will need to be replaced every few years, so skip those.
Step 4: Make the best connection
There are a few ways to attach the rope to the tree. What you don’t want to do is toss the rope over the limb, and tie it tightly around the branch. As that limb grows the rope will strangle it and eventually kill it. You want to limit the friction of the rope as the swing move back and forth. A simple fix is slipping lengths of rubber tubing over the ropes so they sit on the top of the limb. Then tie a slip knot so the rope’s opening expands as the tree grows and the tubing helps reduce friction.
If the limb’s within easy reach and you can work off a ladder, considering using eyebolts for a more permanent installation. Pick bolts that are at least 5/8-inch in diameter, longer than the branch is thick, made of stainless or galvanized steel, and with an eye that’s larger than your rope. You’ll need a drill/driver with a bit that’s longer than the branch is thick. Measure the distance between the holes on the swing’s seat and drill holes for the bolt vertically through the center of the limb. Make sure the holes are aligned with one another so the swing moves without twisting. Thread the bolts through the hole, and top them off with a stainless-steel washer, and a nut. Then slip the rope through the eyebolt or, if you plan to remove the swing seasonally, connect the rope to the eyebolt using a carabiner clip rated for heavy weight so the seat unclips easily. Use a thread lock inside the nut so it won’t work itself off the bolt. Putting holes in the tree sounds harsh, but a healthy tree should heal itself around the wound and it will reduce friction.
Another way to hang a swing from a tree, if you’re not comfortable with tools, is to use hanging straps that go over the limb. These reduce friction on the branch and connect to your rope easily. Whichever connection you use, make sure the rope is tied off to the seat and the branch securely. And expect to inspect the tree every so often — it can be hard from the ground to tell if the branch is under stress or the rope is wearing thin.
Step 5: Set the swing height
Adjusting the height of the swing is relatively easy by tweaking the knot at the seat. Plan to adjust the swing’s height at the end of the installation so you can fix out-of-level issues with a two-rope seat. A level, or nearly level, seat means a more predictable path for the swing, which is what you want on a two-rope design (though less important with a single disc or tire). Consider the height of the swing’s rider when fixing the height off the ground. For preschool-age children, the seat should be at least 12 inches from the ground and, for school-aged kids, at least 16 inches. For younger kids who need help getting in and out, keep the swing 24 inches off the ground. Once you have the right height, use a level on the seat to adjust the knots until the swing is level.
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