I spend a lot of time on my two porches.

Eight months of the year, the front porch is an extra living room. When people drop by, we sit on the front porch with coffee or iced tea. We watch the traffic pass. We wave at neighbors. We talk. If someone wants to smoke a cigar out there, it's no problem. And when the smoke is finished, the ivy around the holly bushes makes a terrific ashtray.

There's no air conditioning on the porch, of course. There's also no TV blaring in the background, and no rap music from the kids' radios. There's a little noise from the street. You can hear the cars going past, and once in a while some fool will have Pearl Jam or Travis Tritt blaring too loud. Mostly, though, you hardly notice it. It's always shady. There's nearly always a breeze. Except in the dead of winter and the hottest afternoons in August, it's the most pleasant, most sociable spot in the house. In the spring, especially April, it's like heaven.

Then there's the back porch. Twelve months of the year, it's my personal mini-retreat. In the morning, even on the coldest or the hottest days, I can take my coffee and step out the kitchen door. That's where I find a couple of quiet minutes before the day really starts. The birds sing. Maybe some rain is falling, or the morning fog is still thick. It doesn't matter. I can look at the crepe myrtles to see how they're doing after last fall's pruning. I can think calmly for a minute about the day to come.

In the afternoon or evening, I can go out there for a little break from washing the dishes or folding laundry. If my neighbors are out on their porch, we'll chat for a minute or two. If not, it's nice to lean over and put my elbows on the porch rail. There is always something to see. Kids scramble around on the jungle gym and swing set. A squirrel runs along the fence and hops onto a tree.

Neither of my porches would be half so nice without the swings. On the front porch, of course, it's a porch swing. It's not a glider. It's a real wooden porch swing, hung by chains from the porch ceiling. In the back, there's a big old wooden play set that I built for the kids several years ago.

In the springtime, there's nothing better than a swing. Young and old, everybody loves to sit on a swing and smell the April flowers.

Porch swings are mostly for us older types. Kids love them, too. But kids don't really appreciate the difference between the swings on porches and the ones on a playground. They always want to swing too high and too fast. Porch swings aren't made for that. The seating isn't secure, and if a kid falls out, she lands on a concrete slab, not a nice soft lawn.

I've never actually made a porch swing, but I've hung several and observed quite a few. I've never made one because they're expensive and difficult to make but cheap and easy to buy. I've found that if I put a couple of coats of good oil-based enamel on those bargain swings from Lowe's and K-Mart and Walmart, they last for years and years.

Our current swing is pushing on towards ten years old, and it still looks great. It's bright electric pink, like those hot pink impatience flowers that you see in hanging baskets. In fact, it is almost exactly that color. I know because my wife wanted our front door to match the color of the flowers on our porch. I took one of those flowers into Virginia Paint Company one day. The clerk put it under the lens of the color analyzer, and he came up with a pretty close match. A few months later, I used that same paint when I put up the new porch swing.

In my experience, those bargain porch swings are surprisingly sturdy, too. I had a friend, now deceased (but still sorely missed), who weighed 450 pounds. He spent some fine evenings sitting on my $29.00 porch swing, telling stories and spinning out ideas.

The first couple of times he sat down, I kept a pretty close eye on that swing. It bowed, but it never cracked. I knew the screw eyes wouldn't pull out of the porch ceiling. There was extra bracing on the ceiling boards where the screw eyes went in. And the chain was plenty strong. But I was surprised by how well that light, cheap, wooden swing held up. Almost ten years later, it's still doing fine.

But kids are the ones who really know how to use a swing. Before I built the current swing set, we wore out two others. The first was one of those light weight metal sets. You know what I mean. It was a bunch of sheet metal pipes fitted together with 1/4 inch bolts. It had two light chain swings with cheap plastic seats and a two-seat combination see-saw and swing.

My kids, the ones who are all grown up now, wore out that thing in a matter of months. By the end of its second year, it was becoming dangerous. The swing seats were cracked. The bolts were stripped. The pipes were bent. The stakes I had put down for anchors were coming out of the ground or breaking.

From a friend, I got a "heavy duty" swing set. The frame was made of solid looking aluminum pipes. It had a ladder up the side and monkey bars across the top. The rungs were thick and heavy. Every one of them had two 3/8 inch bolts. The whole thing looked solid and felt heavy. I anchored it by digging four holes, 16 inches deep or more, and filling each of them with a whole bag of ready mixed concrete. I thought those swings would be there for my grandchildren.

In a year, the rungs were starting to bend. The swing pivots were wearing thin. First the seats broke, then the chains on the swings. It was worn out, becoming dangerous for the kids to use.

I unscrewed the bolts, dug up the concrete blocks, and started from scratch. We went to some parks and playgrounds. My wife showed me some wooden swing sets that she liked. I got out my notebook and made some drawings. I made some measurements in the back yard.

The result is the wooden swing set that sits in the middle of our back yard. It has been there for the last seven or eight years. Except for one missing rung, it still looks mighty good.

It's big. If you walk out our back door, you won't miss it. It's eight feet tall, four feet deep, and eighteen feet wide. The jungle gym is six feet wide. Four feet up, on the inside, there's a floor. There's a bright blue tarpaulin roof over it, like a tent, so it feels like a playhouse when the kids sit on the floor. They play house in there.

There's a twelve foot set of monkey bars, eight feet high. Two swings and a trapeze hang from the bars. They're made from heavy duty rubber and thick nylon rope. A couple of the swings have worn out, but they're easy (not cheap) to replace. There's a ladder at one end of the monkey bars, and the other end attaches to the jungle gym.

The whole thing is stabilized with wide buttresses that flare out three feet on either end. It was easier to use buttresses than anchors, and it has proven to be more durable, too.

It's all made from salt treated two-by-fours, lag screws and carriage bolts, and one-inch dowels. Every other year, it gets a coat of clear sealer.

It's great. Whenever the weather allows, the kids play out there constantly. Especially in the spring, they swarm all over it, my kids, neighbor kids, strange kids that I never saw before. The swings pump back and forth, almost touching the honeysuckle and morning glory that grows along the back fence. Little kids climb up and down the jungle gym, under the blue tarpaulin then back out and down the side. Slightly older kids sit inside the jungle gym, on the ground, pretending it's a club house. Others walk across the top of the monkey bars or try to swing across without banging into the kids who are swinging.

That's what April is supposed to be like. Summer is for swimming pools. Winter is for sleds. Spring is for swings. And for porches.

Nick Sharp

Richmond, Virginia

April, 1995



orange bulletBack to the Start of "Porches, Swings, and Porchswings"

orange bulletBack to Essays Page

orange bulletTo Nick Sharp's Home Page

[Last Updated: June 25, 1998. Disclaimer: This page does not represent an official position of Virginia Commonwealth University]