This blog post is going to be an off the cuff guide to building with Railroad ties. Landscaping projects vary from each project, every yard is unique and getting that unique vision to come to life can seem taxing. Well we’re here to help. A and K Railroad has been selling railroad ties for over 50 years. We’ve sold for the railroad, for the landscaper and for the everyday DIYER that couldn’t look away from Pinterest for their morning eggs and bacon. Railroad Ties add so much rustic flavor, they “tie” every project together. See what I did there..
Let’s start with the Basics:
Standard railroad ties are 8’ to 8’6 feet long and the dimensions vary but most typical are the 7” tall and 9” wide units. These ties don’t have to be set in only one way.
I suggest laying the tie with the height 7 inches on the ground this allows for you to cover 2 more inches for your wall. Typical retaining walls are going to be 27”-36” high. Now a note that if you do taller than 36” you are legally bound to hire an engineer to draft and draw something up. We have to let you know… That being said let’s get to the ways you can use and place these ties.
Retaining walls are great for getting rid of Hills in your yard or pesky uneven fence lines. Like I mentioned before, setting the tie on it’s side will give you more height and more than likely easier to get the best looking side of the railroad tie out. Stacking your railroad ties like you would bricks is also a great way to secure in multiple places and keep from having weak or breaking points throughout the wall. You can easily do this by buying ties that are 8’ and ties that are 8’6”. That gives you an easy half foot to keep your creases from staying together. Another popular method is to have us cut your ties to 4 feet or 3 feet for particular rows. For example if you have 4 rows of railroad ties totaling a height of 36”, you can start your first and level row with the full length being 8’ or 8’ 6” railroad ties. Then on your next row of railroad ties, start the row with a 4’ pre-cut railroad tie with 8’ or 8’6” railroad ties for the remaining legnth, if you’re math is correct you’ll most likely complete the row with the second 4’ half of that pre-cut railroad tie. The next row of railroad ties you do the same as the first - leveling railroad tie - 8’ length railroad tie or 8’ 6” railroad tie for the whole length. This will give you a well spaced area that will keep the retaining wall from having any loose points or breaking points. Now there are a couple of things I’ve mentioned briefly and a few I’m sure you’ve heard or might be asking yourself like, “how do I secure the railroad ties once they’re stacked?” or “how does the tie stay standing?” “When they say level what do they mean”? Well let me break down each step we advise you to do when building a retaining wall in your home. Also we suggest these tips because these railroad ties are top quality, they’re going to last you 20-30 years.. best to set your railroad ties up for success.
Step One: Leveling the foundation
Like any project it is important that the foundation be solid and unwavering. Railroad ties are very sturdy and very hard, this means they’re not going to bend to adapt to your lawn or rocks you’re placing them on top of. It is crucial that you are placing the railroad ties on top of a surface that is perfectly (well okay not perfect but pretty dang..) level. This will allow the next rows of ties to be straight and will lay very seamlessly on top of the lower railroad ties. Wow step one is already a doozy well it isn’t too hard and it really is the hardest step of the project.. maybe next to physically dragging the ties through your yard and not messing up the perfect paths the dogs run on everyday. That can get tricky, but like we said, every yard is unique. Using a flat shovel and a “rocket” or “torpedo” level - really just any small level - as well as a longer level roughly 4-6 feet. If you are spanning a longer length like 80 feet we suggest using some yard/level line. We’ll break that down in the next paragraph, if that’s what you think you wanna do, go ahead and skip right ahead to the next section of this Tips and Tricks blog post.
Now that you have the material that you need, a die hard DIY attitude, and a place dying for a retaining wall. Let’s get to work. You will need to level a section spanning 9” at the most. Take that flat shovel and start leveling 12” to the left and 12” to the right with a depth of 9” for the whole two feet. Now that you have the 2 feet in front of you semi level you’re going to want to make sure with your rocket level. Start with the first 9” in front of you. Facing the level so it is straight towards the back of the 9” make sure the ground from the front of the 9” to the back are level. Awesome that’s done. Now take your torpedo level and turn it 90’ so you are now facing the level and the front is running the length of 24” you just eyeballed. Doing a torpedo level might seem so small for the whole project but in reality you are setting the level that you’d like and then you get the rest to match, the remaining leveling won’t be so tedious. Boom, your 12”x9” or 24” x 9” is perfectly level at the angle you want it to be. Now grab that 4’ - 6’ level that you set aside next to you and hold the center of it at that perfectly level spot you just spent way too much time making perfect. Now start to level the line all the way down the level. You might see that 30” from center you need to add an inch of dirt or maybe 18” from center you need to take 2 inches of dirt. Do it and check what the level looks like and just remember that amazing rustic look these railroad ties are going to give to your yard. Nice that 4’ section is now perfectly level. Depending on the amount of dirt needed you can move dirt or purchase a yard or two from a local landfill and have it in a wheelbarrow next to you. That will allow you to stay focused on the task at hand and not draw it out longer than needs be. Also stay very hydrated!! The sun is no joke and that rustic look is not worth dehydration! Dying from dehydration because of a yard project isn’t something we hear of much but recovering from dehydration especially when preventable is very common and not fun at all. Alright back to your 4’ section.. Now continue this process of using the 4’ - 6’ level all the way down your length. This will insure that the remainder of you length is level just like where you started. Now let’s not forget about the pesky 9” depth that also needs leveling. Every 2” you’ll need to use your rocket level to make sure the full 9” the railroad tie will be sitting on is flat and level. This will prevent the wall from teetering or tipping over as crazy as that sounds.
Step Two: Laying the Railroad Ties
Now that you have you whole length leveled you’re ready to lay down your railroad ties. This is the worst but best part - Like our website tells you and we mention a couple of times, our railroad ties are the best that you can find. Being in the business since 1940 helps when it comes to logistically sourcing the best of the best railroad materials. These great connections and top quality material factors into not only the look of the ties but also the weight. Our ties weigh anywhere from 80 pounds to 120 pounds each. If you’re getting longer ties, than even heavier - Our heaviest tie in the yard can weight 400 pounds each. Well don’t let that turn you away, just grab a friend and get a couple people helping you and it shouldn’t be a problem at all. We do have customers that have done walls all on their own without the help of anyone else lifting the railroad ties. If that’s your approach more power to you. We also offer tools that make lifting the ties and dragging them easier, like tie tongs. We also offer tie picks which are 3’ axe looking picks that help grabbing the tie and rotating them. These are great for flipping into place rather than dragging into your leveled spot.
We highly recommend layering your ties by offsetting them at-least 2’. What we mean by this is always make sure your tie ends are two feet apart. Layer one could have a row of 8 foot lengths, then layer two have a 6 footer than a row of 8 foot lengths. This makes it so when you drive re-bar through both ends of the top layer the ties will have more to hold onto and not tip at the breaking point of each layer of ties. Now we just mentioned something that might’ve taken you by surprise, securing the wall by driving a fastener such as re-bar through the top. Let’s address that - We suggest using 3/8 re-bar or 1/2 re-bar driven through the top tie all the way down to the ground and into the ground 6 inches or more. Using 3/8 re-bar can be better for some because they can hammer the re-bar in and that’s that. Using the 1/2 re-bar allows for more secure stability but requires pre-drilling the ties with a 3/8 bit then hammering the 1/2 into all the layers of ties. If you are stacking the ties 4 or higher we recommend driving 24” re-bar through the first two layers, 6 inches into the ground then stacking the remaining two on-top and securing those to the lower two that have already been secured to the ground. We recommend two pieces of re-bar through each top-layer railroad tie.
Railroad Tie Buck Tees
Another addition to your retaining wall is to use a 2’ or 3’ length of railroad tie that goes from the wall directly into the hill or area where dirt will be placed. This T will allow for the retaining wall to be supported by the dirt behind it and not have to rely only on the level ground and the re-bar to hold it up. If you are doing a length longer than 20 this is highly recommended. It will save you quite a bit of heart ache in the long run.
Other uses for Railroad Ties
Railroad ties aren’t only good for retaining walls - the list is almost endless what you can do with railroad ties and we have seen and helped give advice for them all.
Railroad ties are great to use for garden beds or any flower beds. However, we want to warn you about the damaging effect of Creosote. If you do decide to use railroad ties for a garden bed that you plan to consume the vegetables or fruit that you harvest, please use a simple weed liner before placing your dirt. This will block the creosote from soaking into the soil of your garden and later on soaking into the vegetables or fruit that you want to eat at dinner. Creosote causes cancer please see our page about the warnings and everything you need to know about Creosote here.
Stacking the railroad ties for a garden bed is very similar to a retaining wall. The only difference is to make sure you corner with a center piece and drive the re-bar through each corner. If you would like to be very sure the railroad ties aren’t going anywhere feel free to drive a piece of re-bar down the center of each length.
Though we don’t recommend using railroad ties for horse stalls it is a very common project we see people using railroad ties for. So if you are getting ready to build a new stall with railroad ties, let us at least give you some precautions you should take and hopefully we can help you best help yourself.
Given that warning you would think we hate railroad tie - horse stalls. That’s not the case, they look great and last forever. How can you beat that? The only reservation we have about using railroad ties for something like this is the direct contact the hooves of the animal will have with the creosote. Horses that will stand on the ties for hours at a time can absorb the creosote through their hooves, especially mares. If they have horse shoes and are full grown they’re much less prone to this but can still happen and the animal can develop cancer. That said, if you keep wood chips, or cover with any other material the creosote won’t have direct contact with the animal. It’s very rare but something to think about for your next project.
Railroad ties are great for holding a sturdy fence up against the weather. We have seen fences that use the tie as a post then material running horizontally like a 2"x6" or metal sheeting. We have also seen fences that use the tie for every slat of wood. This is an expensive project but looks incredible. If you would like to place an order for that quantity give us a call.
We recommend when putting in your fence to make sure at least 2 feet of the tie is securely in the ground, using concrete works great for this.
A common use for railroad ties is lining the base of a fence. Perhaps in your yard you have a 2” space between the bottom of the fence and the ground. If you’re anything like me you love animals but like always animals have a sneaky way of getting underneath and through those tiny spaces and into your neighbors yards. Giving a border around your yard of railroad ties is a refreshing look and successful way to keep those animals in the yard. This process is much like laying a retaining wall but only the bottom layer and no need for Buck T. Securing the ties to the ground using re-bar is always a good idea.
If you see any other ways to utilize railroad ties, please share with us! We love to see projects and hear about how our customers use their railroad ties. Shoot an email with pictures and a good story to firstname.lastname@example.org. We would love to feature you.
Thanks for reading and let us know if there is anything else we can help you with.
If you have any questions check out our FAQ page.