Railway sleepers are a popular fixture in many gardens throughout the country. Available in softwoods and hardwoods, they offer a stylish addition to any outdoor living area, adding a rustic charm that many desire for their garden.
Sleepers are also highly versatile. They can be used as garden edging, raised flower beds, retaining walls, wooden stairs, and even as decking – although you probably need a lot of wood for such a project!
Edging is probably the most popular use for the material, as you can create a distinct wooden border with just a few blocks of reclaimed timber.
It’s an easy enough project to complete yourself in a few hours, while you can expect the edging to last for many years due to the high durability of the material – they were built to last on rail lines for decades after all!
Old v New
When buying the materials for this project you can either purchase them new or reclaimed.
The latter is the most popular for garden landscaping, with the darker tones and high density of the wood making it ideal for edging and borders, with the reclaimed timber likely to last for many years.
New timber is a more affordable option but it may lack that rustic appearance that makes them so popular in garden landscaping, although you can add your own treatment to create a contemporary or traditional finish.
When choosing this option, expect a newer softwood that won’t be as durable as hardwoods used on reclaimed timber, while you can add your own finish as they tend to be untreated when sold as new.
How to Fix Railway Sleepers to the Ground
Fixing the timber to the ground is a lot easier than most assume. You can place them at a single height (they can be laid flat or on their side) or build a few layers on top of each for increased height, although a single layer is much easier to do.
Adding the First Layer
To start, clear everything away from the area where the edging is going.
Mark out where each piece of timber is being placed and then start to dig a shallow trench – it should be half the depth of the timber.
Once the trench is dug, add a concrete mixture to the bottom of the trench (around 50mm) and leave to partially dry.
Now add the sleeper into the concrete mixture.
You can then add another layer on top of this, although you will need to secure them together using landscaping screws or metal straps (L or flat straps work well).
If the edging doesn’t reach higher than around 40cm, you probably won’t need to secure them together, so if making a shallower edging then you’re done for the day!
Adding and Securing Additional Layers
Landscaping screws are the most common way to fix several sleepers together.
Just drill the screw from the top layer and it will pass through into the one below, securing firmly in place, making it a powerful joint for holding the stacked edging together.
Another option is to insert stakes at regular intervals and attach the timber to these, although it tends to be commonly used for raised beds more than flat edging.
When stacking several layers, make sure that any joints overlap before securing them together – corner braces are a good idea for securing them in place here.
There may be some extra length at the ends of the border if you haven’t pre-cut the wood, in which case you just saw off any of the excess wood.
You may also want to plane and sand jagged edges, especially if you have young children or pets.
For a unique stepped edging, you can cut the wood vertically at varying lengths, stacking the longest at the bottom and shorter wood above.
This involves cutting the wood into various lengths and installing next to each other, with the varying heights of each layer creating a gorgeous rustic look.
A heavy-duty saw is necessary for cutting the timber into the desired length – you may even find a chain saw is the easiest option.
You’ll need to clear the space where you are placing the edging, digging the trench to about 30cm wide and a depth of your choosing.
Create a concrete mixture and lay this in the bottom of the trench, around 50mm. Allow to semi-dry and then add the longest bits of wood into the ground
Start building up subsequent layers with shorter lengths of wood. You may want to leave behind some concrete mixture for haunching at the back of the edging.
Regardless of the way you want to lay the edging, you’ll need a selection of tools to get the job done.
- Spirit Level – This is needed to make sure that the trench and each layer is level
- Drill – A good drill is needed to secure the timber with landscaping screws or metal plates.
- Landscaping Screws – these large screws have a hexagonal head and are several inches long, allowing you to drill into several layers to create a strong joint that holds the edging in place.
- Concrete Mix – A light mortar is needed to make concrete that will secure the bottom layer of wood to the base of the trench. If creating a stepped effect you may need to use some for haunching too.
- Saw – You’ll need to cut the timber to length. An electric saw is recommended if using reclaimed timber, as this will be very tough to cut with a handsaw.
- Googles and Gloves – Safety is important when completing any landscaping project!
- Sanding Paper – It’s a good idea to sand down any rough edges and the corners of the edging, especially if you have kids or pets.