Landscaping- Railway Sleepers

Using wooden railway sleepers in your landscaping project

The History

Wooden sleepers were first used on wooden tracked railways in British mines from around the beginning of the eighteenth century. A recent railway unearthed at an iron works in Bersham near Wrexham found that the rails were made of elm and the sleepers of oak. Wooden sleepers went on to be used above ground as railways developed as public transportation. They were traditionally made of beech or oak, although pine is still used in countries with few or no hardwood trees. Today there are over 2.5 billion wooden sleepers in operation around the world. Most of the railway sleepers on the second hand market today have been in use for up to a 100 years or more. For the most part in Europe they ware made from Oak.

Railway Sleepers

Railway Sleepers have much history is attached to them guess where this is?.

Using second-hand sleepers in landscaping

There are a number of benefits of using second-hand wooden railway sleepers in your landscaping projects. Railway sleepers will last a long time and are very strong. The standard size of a wooden railways sleeper is 250 mm x 200 mm x 2600 mm. They are easy to get hold of, relatively cheap and they are immensely strong, making them perfect for retaining soil beds and planters. Remember old railway sleepers have been treated with Tar based preservatives- its impossible to successfully remove or paint over it with traditional oil based paints. In My opinion they look best just as they come. If you want to use a decorative finish use new pine railway sleepers however they are not as strong as the original oak railway sleepers.

Things to consider when creating raised flower- beds and borders with railway sleepers.- Are the height and width you want your bed to be. How fit are you? Do you want to access, without actually climbing onto it, then 1000mm wide is about right and have it as long as you like.

Railway Sleepers

Railway Sleepers used here to create a small raised vegetable garden

Creating borders and flower beds

You can use railway sleepers for your borders and flower beds in a number of different ways. You can simply lay them lengthways; end to end and stack more rows on top of each other to obtain more height.  Do not to use more than 4 rows stacked on each other as it may become unstable anything over 1 row, you will need to connect the layers of sleepers together this can be done as follows.

Railway sleepers

Railway sleepers used as a raised flower bed and rubbish bin screen

How to Build walls with Railway sleepers 

Row 1.The first row of Railway sleepers should be laid on a prepared small level foundation of concrete to help with stability.

Row 2 should be laid directly on top of row 1 make sure you lay like bricks so the vertical joins do not align better to cut one Railway sleeper in half and use it to start the second row. (Cutting is best achieved using a chain saw)  If you are not used to using this type of saw get training or use a professional.

Once you have completed row 2. Drill- 13mm holes through the top Railway sleeper and at least 150mm into the sleeper below  (You will need a powerful drill with a high quality wood -cutting bit as old Oak sleepers are a very tough material to cut and work with.)

If you intend to do a lot of cutting buy new Oak or Pine sleepers.

Inject a little gun applied chemical resin into the holes (don’t try filling the holes as you have to leave room for the bolt) then fit your bolts into the holes  (zinc plated coach bolts 12mm x 300mm will do nicely) They may need a gentle tap with a hammer – then clean off any excess glue. Coach bolts have a slightly rounded head – a good smack with a club hammer will drive the head down a little. You only need do this if your intending to add further rows as the Railway sleepers will not sit tight down on the previous row.

Railway Sleepers

Railway Sleepers. Used here vertically to form a retaining wall

Bigger- For a retaining wall 

If you intend to make wall any higher than 800mm or you want to form a curve you need to use the sleepers vertically. To do this a trench will have to be excavated to structurally retain the bottom section of the sleeper below ground level. The trench needs to be 600 wide and depth is dependant on the maximum height you want to achieve – say you want the maximum possible above ground level and intending it for retaining soil you need to have a minimum of 700mm below ground that will leave you a maximum of 1900mm above ground this is all based on a standard railway sleeper  2.6m. Long

Based on the above your trench needs to be excavated to a depth of 800mm – Then fill the bottom of the trench with 100mm of level concrete and allow it to set.

Stand your Railway sleepers up and one by one and use temporary support battens placed at an angle nailed into the sleeper and secured into the surrounding ground. Make sure the temporary supports are well secured. Soft wood timber battens 50mm x 25mm will do nicely.

Keep adding Railway sleepers until the wall is complete – you can also fix horizontal battens to keep them nicely aligned. (If you fix them on the back face they can stay permanante as they will be eventually covered wirth soil)

Next mass fill the trench up to the top with good quality concrete and allow to cure for 1 week before loading soil against them- It’s a good idea to use 2 layers of landscape fabric to line the wall of railway sleepers before filling. This will avoid soil washing through any gaps.

Another tip -try to make sure you get all the tops of the railway sleepers dead in line as cutting them after will be a real sod of a job.

Railway Sleepers

Railway Sleepers Here they have been used to create a raised bed and drive edging

Be more creative 

Consider cutting them to form a sculpted curved top or even castellated.

You can also alternate height of beds around your garden and intersperse these with large rocks, or containers and plant them with a variety of alpine plants, heathers and lavenders.  Solid pottery containers with wild thyme, columbine and black eyed Susans look particularly decorative.

If you have a small space to landscape, such as a city yard, you can use railway sleepers to create a long and thin bed to sow your flowers or vegetables in. It is relatively simple to cover a raised bed with cloches in the winter to protect your vulnerable plants.

Railway Sleepers

New Railway Sleepers. Used here for a more contemporary look

Decrorative Finishing

There are a diverse range of railway sleepers to be found. You can use new or used ones depending on the style you’re aiming for. You can find hardwood and softwood types and treated or untreated woods. You can treat untreated railways sleepers yourself with a coloured stain finish or any popular fence treatment.

More ideas

Besides flower beds and borders you may wish to use sleepers to delineate play areas and sandpits or use them to create garden furniture. You can also plant upended sleepers into the ground among tall plants and bushes to give a Japanese garden effect and use them with water features. Oak railway sleepers will make sturdy gate posts and will support the weight of a large gate.

The wonderful appeal of railway sleepers is that they will evolve with your garden. Wooden railway sleepers will add character to your landscaping with every knot and split they display, as they weather down to a lovely silvery grey. Whatever you opt to do with them they will always have a story to tell.