Railway Sleepers – Fast Track to Garden Design


In recent years, wooden railway sleepers have become a popular addition to the modern garden. With a wide variety of possibilities for their use, including garden paths, retaining walls, and raised flower beds to name a few, it isn’t hard to see why their popularity has increased…

Railway Sleeper Flower Bed | Image Shutterstock

Why Choose Wooden Railway Sleepers?

Wood has been the primary material used to make railway sleepers for nearly two centuries, so it’s hardly surprising that wooden railway sleepers are still the most commonly used for railroad tracks worldwide, particularly in the US, where 16 million wooden sleepers are laid every year. The natural properties of wood are well suited to producing a resilient track with excellent load bearing properties, as well as offering noise and vibration reduction as trains roll over them. Most commonly, hardwoods such as oak are used to make sleepers, but some softwood varieties are used for sleepers on lighter, less busy railway lines.

The sleepers are laid horizontally underneath the tracks to hold the railway lines in place at the correct spacing. Wooden railway sleepers are also comparatively cheaper than their steel, concrete and plastic alternatives, as well as being lighter. The average wooden railway sleeper weighs between 160 and 250 lbs, whereas an equivalent sleeper made of concrete can weigh as much as 800 lbs! From this we can deduce that wooden railway sleepers are much quicker and easier to install and require little to no specialist equipment to maintain. This in turn makes them a much more cost effective option.

In regard to using wooden sleepers in the garden, it is more about the way they look than their other properties (although cost effectiveness is always a consideration). There is a certain grand, rustic quality that wooden railway sleepers possess, which adds a certain unnameable but unmistakable element to the modern garden that currently has the nation captivated, with an increasing number of UK homeowners adding them to their gardens every day.

Treated or Untreated?

Wooden railway sleepers can usually be found in one of three conditions: untreated, pressure treated (“tanalised”) or coated with Creosote.

Used untreated railway sleepers are the most common. While aesthetically appealing, they may occasionally have deposits of oil or diesel on the surface which have fallen from passing trains over the years and, while seemingly “untreated”, may actually contain tar or Creosote inside the wood itself from an original treatment many years ago. Railway sleepers were often coated in Creosote in order to protect them from the elements and from insect infestation. Creosote also extends the life of wood but it is hazardous to the environment. While surface oil or diesel can be cleaned off easily enough, in the heat of the sun any tar or Creosote inside the timber may seep out, leaving a sticky mess that can’t be permanently removed. This is a definite consideration when using used railway sleepers in your garden.  If in doubt, always purchase new untreated sleepers for peace of mind.

Green treated or “tanalised” railway sleepers are coated in environmentally friendly, non-Creosote based preservatives, such as ACQ or Tanalith E, which are safe to use and suitable for all garden landscaping projects, making them a wise choice for your garden.

In 2003, the British government ruled that railway sleepers treated with Creosote could still be used in parks, gardens and other outdoor recreational facilities, but should not be used where there is a risk of frequent skin contact, (e.g. schools, play areas and benches) or in areas where they may come into contact with food stuffs, (e.g. picnic tables). They also should not be used indoors (e.g. for fireplaces, lintels, steps or indoor furniture). As long as creosoted sleepers are not used around children, food or indoors, it is fine to still use them. Though as mentioned earlier, there are considerable benefits to using new sleepers which have not been coated in Creosote.

You can find more detailed information on the use of creosoted railway sleepers here.

New railway sleepers can be treated or coated with Barrettine Creosolve, a safer and more environmentally friendly alternative to traditional Creosote. We also have a wide selection of other railway sleeper treatments, clear and coloured that are perfect for protecting both softwood and hardwood sleepers.

As a general rule, always use gloves when handling railway sleepers, and be wary of inhalation of sawdust whilst cutting them. Only cut them outside if at all possible.

Sleepers & Pebbles Create A Natural Look | Image Shutterstock

Grading Railway Sleepers

Grading railway sleepers is not an exact science, and deciding what is a Relay Grade, Grade 1, 2 or 3 is relatively subjective. There is no universal system of grading in place and there are so many variables, especially between different types of softwood and hardwood sleepers. But as a general rule…

Relay Grade – These are sleepers in the best condition, often able to be re-used on the railway track.

Grade 1 – These sleepers are in good condition, and are generally squarer, straighter sleepers with fewer cracks.

Grade 2 – This grading denotes sleepers in reasonably good condition, but with more imperfections and irregularities than Grade 1.  They are often older and more weathered, and may have rounder edges, cracks in the ends, and the hardwood sleepers in this category can be bowed along their length, especially in the case of the Dutch Oak.

Grade 3 – These sleepers are most likely to be irregular, weathered, battered, bowed, cracked or damaged with signs of decay.  Despite this they may still last a long time, and some people particularly like their battered and world weary look to create an element of contrast in their garden design.

Sleeper Sizes

The most common length for railway sleepers is 2.6 metres or 8ft 6″ long. The most common width is 250mm or 10″. And the most common thickness is 125mm & 150mm (5″ & 6″).

You can find more information regarding the size, weight and pricing of railway sleepers here.

Sleeper Ideas

The possibilities for using wooden railway sleepers in your garden really are as limitless as your imagination. Here are a few ideas to get you started…

  • Raised Flower Beds – Add a new dimension to your garden using sleepers to create raised flower beds. Mixing old, weathered sleepers with new sleepers can create some interesting lines in your garden design.
  • Retaining Walls – A retaining wall made from either vertical or horizontal wooden sleepers can terrace your garden, fence off a BBQ or pool area, and can level out a sloping garden quite nicely.
  • Garden Paths – Use railway sleepers to simply and effectively define the edges of your garden path. Or perhaps use them as stepping “stones” (as in the image above) to create a stable pathway across the garden. Mix in some pebbles for a really unique, rural look.
  • Steps – Whether it’s a few simple steps or a whole flight of stairs, new or used railway sleepers can provide a unique solution.
  • Decking & Patios – Railway sleepers can be used as an innovative alternative to traditional decking boards, creating a relaxing, rustic-looking patio area in your garden.
  • Water Features – Railway sleepers can be put to great effect making eye-catching water features in the garden. Complete with water-loving plants and pond ornaments, maybe even some strikingly-coloured fish and frogs if your budget allows.
  • Garden Tables & Furniture – Railway sleepers can be utilised to make a simple table and matching benches. Three sleepers cut in half can create a table, as the wood that has been cut off makes the legs. Benches can be made from one sleeper each, using the same principle.

For some visual inspiration, we recommend looking at the Projects & Ideas Library over at RailwaySleepers.com, which is a great source for all sleeper-related information.

Looking for more information and ideas for using railway sleepers in your garden? See our other  blog post on railway sleepers.

Need help from an expert?

For more information about railway sleepers and their uses, contact our team of resident experts who are always on hand to help with project advice and product recommendations. Alternatively, see our railway sleepers FAQ page which covers many of the most commonly asked questions about railway sleepers.

We love to see before, during and after photos of any wood finishing project. If you would like to share your project pictures with us and our followers, you can either send us some photos or share on our Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest or Instagram pages.

Other great blogs that discuss railway sleepers

  • Using Wooden Railway Sleepers in Your Garden

    1. Advise on staining railway sleepers in my garden, prefer satin clear finish please advise what product is the best

      • Good Morning Mrs Breen,

        Thank you for getting in touch with your enquiry. Is it possible to send me some more information about the current condition of the sleepers, and whether they have any treatment on them currently? And what look and colour you are hoping to achieve ? Via our contact us page and I will be able to narrow down some options for you.

        Kind regards Samantha.


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