Plenty of us are looking for unique solutions for common backyard landscaping projects. One of these landscaping projects is the basic retaining wall. Often constructed using natural stone or concrete, you can take this common landscaping project up a notch by using a less common material—railroad ties! Using railroad ties for landscaping or retaining walls is a unique way to elevate your outdoor space.
Railroad ties are sought after for their appearance, durability, and unique look. Done right, they build a wall solid enough to stand the test of time. Not only can they hold a retaining wall firmly in place, but a railroad tie retaining wall is a project you can do yourself.
In this article, we’ll take you through the basics of railroad ties. What are railroad ties? How can you use railroad ties for landscaping? And how can you take a basic railroad tie and turn it into a complete railroad tie retaining wall?
What are railroad ties?
Let’s start with the basics. If you are unfamiliar with railroad ties, chances are you’ve seen one and simply not recognized what you were looking at. These items are exactly what they sound like. Railroad ties are rectangular supports built to support common railroad tracks.
Imagine you are drawing a railroad track in your mind. Railroad ties are the many lines you draw to connect your two, long parallel tracks. They “tie” the tracks together.
Ties are historically made of wood, and many railroad ties you see today are still wood. However, as time has gone on and infrastructures have changed, the railroad tie has as well. Nowadays, it is not uncommon to see ties that are made from prestressed concrete, steel, or even recycled plastics.
Railroad ties can be sourced from many different places, including landscaping companies and local sources. However, they can also be bought from big box stores such as Home Depot, as seen below.
Uses of Railroad Ties For Landscaping
Dirt and railroad ties go hand and hand. So it wasn’t long before these pieces of wood found themselves moving from the railroad and into the hands of crafty homeowners and landscapers. Create stairs, front or back edge borders, or even raised garden beds. There’s an outdoor application for railroad ties found everywhere you look.
Stairs and Borders
The sturdy, rustic look of traditional wood railroad ties makes them perfect for creating an organic looking border for a gravel driveway, or for a walking path. Some landscape designers have even turned railroad ties into stairs that “tie” one element of your backyard design to the next.
Raised Garden Beds
One of the oldest and most common applications for railroad ties is using them to build simple raised garden beds. The solid wood keeps dirt in and pests out, and looks great doing it. However, as time has gone on, there has been kick back about the safety of using the railroad tie near plant life and edible gardens. More on that in a moment.
Walls and Terracing
Finally, as you may have guessed from the title of this article, railroad tie retaining walls and the railroad tie terrace have become popular backyard projects. This weight bearing wood holds up well against pressure from erosion, and is a great way to source used materials instead of buying new.
Advantages of Railroad Tie Designs
As mentioned, there are a lot of benefits to using this material over other common landscaping materials such as brick, stone, or pavers.
Because so many railroad ties were created during the peak of America’s railroading empire, many homeowners find that using these already existing materials is a sustainable alternative to increasing demand for other natural materials. Like reclaimed brick, using what is already creates a smaller footprint than sourcing new materials that haven’t yet been made.
A material that was created to bear the load of freight trains is bound to stand the test of time. Whether your climate is rainy, dry, hot, or cold, a railroad tie wall is unlikely to be phased by the elements.
For some, the railroad tie retaining wall just seems to be a more practical alternative to other materials on the market. It effortlessly opens design opportunities to mix traditional and modern or contemporary styles. And if you have the patience and drive to put in the time and care required, you can execute a beautiful outdoor project without any professional help.
Risks of Railroad Ties—A Disclaimer
We do feel it’s pertinent to bring up a disclaimer before you decide to plow ahead with your railroad retaining walls. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the chemical that was traditionally used to treat the ties can be potentially hazardous. This chemical in question is called creosote. Creosote can be harmful to your health, and to the health of your plants. It can also affect drainage and run off water on your property.
Avoid coming into direct contact with treated wood. If you know the ties you are using are treated with creosote, do not use near edible gardens, or sources of drinking water. This being said, repurposed railroad ties are still available for commercial purchase. It is simply on consumers to be safe about how they choose to use them.
Railroad Ties for Landscaping– Retaining Wall
Now, for the main event. If you are interested in learning how to build a railroad tie retaining wall, we’ll give you some of the basics. From commonly used tools, to basic steps, here’s what you need to know before you begin your own perfect project.
Building Railroad Tie Retaining Walls
- Railroad Ties (More than one tie)
- Corded Drill (No rinky dinky cordless drill for this project!)
- Drill Bits (Long Wood Auger Bit, Drill Bit Extenders)
- Tape Measure
- Shovel or board
- Tamping tool
Level and Tamp The Ground
Every project needs to start with a good foundation. When it comes to retaining walls, this foundation needs to be level and firm. To begin to build a railroad tie retainer, determine the area you will use for your wall. Using your shovel, clear this area of dirt, debris, and other landscaping.
Make sure the space is flat and even using your level. Then, tamp the dirt to create a solid, hard foundation. Using a tamper works to uneven settling and shifting of the wall once it is in place. Of course, it is almost impossible to prevent settling long terms. Tamping as well as possible will minimize the change over time.
Cut Out The Wall Area
Once the area underneath your wall is prepared, you should move to prepare the area for the wall itself. You should have a good idea of the desired height and shape of the wall. The wall should be square to the ground to ensure a snug fit for your ties.
The area you carve out should be about half a foot deeper than the depth of the railroad ties. The extra space allows room for gravel and to allow runoff from the above hill to collect without weighing on your wall.
Add a Layer of Gravel
After your wall is carved out and the ground is prepared, it’s time to lay and tamp gravel. Make sure this layer is thick enough—about four inches should be sufficient. This gravel foundational layer is incredibly important. It provides bottom permeability and bottom drainage for the wall. The gravel laid beneath railroad tie retaining walls is critical to make sure the ties are not pushed out or eroded away.
Lay Your First Tie
After a good bed of gravel is laid down and completely tamped, it’s time to lay your first foundation tie. This tie sets the tone for the rest of the wall, so it’s important to get it right. Any errors here will be repeated and exaggerated as the wall is built.
To make this tie as level as possible, remove or add gravel underneath the foundation tie until it is completely level. These initial ties can be tamped using a sledgehammer.
Grab your “Dead Men” Pins
One you have your foundational ties laid, it’s time to secure them. Railroad tie retaining walls are held in place by pins called “dead men”. The most common types of pins used are rebar, but substitutions can be made if you don’t have much rebar available.
The first pins secured are the most important. They hold the pins securely to ground, and make the rest of the project stand solid. Make sure these initial pins are at least 2 feet long to get a firm grip on the ground below.
Drill Holes, Hammer Pins, Rebar
Once your foundation is created, it’s time to build up. To do this, you’re going to need to drill holes. Holes in the rest of the railroad ties should mirror the size of the rebar or pins that will secure them.
To drill holes, use a long wood auger bit. Drill bit extender things can work as well, but they will make the process more difficult. You may lose a drill bit to the tie. Augers, on the other hand, will cut through the tie easily. Corded drills are preferred for this type of project, as they give more power.
Once holes are drilled, secure with pins.
Fill Gaps With Gravel and Repeat
There are steps you should take as your build to make sure that ties fit, and that you are able to minimize settling. The most important is to make sure you are filling the gap between the laid tie and the hill. Fill this space with gravel, and tamp as you go. Repeat this step with the previous until you’ve reached the desired height!
When it comes to DIY projects that give your yard personality, railroad tie retaining walls are a sustainable and effective option. From start to finish, this project is attainable with the right tools and some basic know-how.
And if you don’t want to build a retaining wall, how about trying one of the other many railroad tie landscaping projects available to homeowners? From gardens, to borders, and more, railroad ties are versatile, unique, and worth trying in your yard.