Add a Touch of Personality to Your Garden with Railway Sleepers

01-April-2015

If you’re thinking of adding something a little different to your outside space this summer, then why not use railway sleepers in your garden? From the natural worn look of reclaimed timbers to the fresh clean edges of newly cut sleepers, the humble railway sleeper is a versatile addition to any garden space.

Why railway sleepers?

Using railway sleepers in the garden is a great way of adding a touch of character to your space. For decades, landscape gardeners have been using the hardy nature of railway sleepers in a multitude of different ways – from retaining walls, raised flower beds and boundaries, to garden paths and steps. 
Their natural and often rustic appearance suits all types of garden design, from a chic contemporary space to a traditional cottage garden and even down to a small front garden plot. Their hardy nature ensures that they’ll last for years to come, and if you’ve got kids who love playing out in the garden then they’re a great choice for a kid-proof space too.

What are the different types and which should I use?

As with any addition to your garden landscaping, getting the right type of sleeper for your space is crucial. There are a few different types of railway sleepers to use in your garden design, but here are the main three types to help create that garden space you’ve always dreamed of.

Reclaimed railway sleepers

Rustic Softwood Sleeper used to create a plant border
 
When most people think of using railway sleepers in the garden, what they are probably thinking of are reclaimed railway sleepers. These are timbers which have served as the supporting beams under railway tracks, which have since been dug out and replaced by concrete structures. This variety are notably denser and heavier than their counterparts, which is reflected in the price. Their density and durability does mean, however, that they will last considerably longer than a new sleeper equivalent.

A lot of people choose to use old railway sleepers in their gardens not just for the quality and density of the timber, but for the pleasing aesthetics that the worn timber brings. Reclaimed sleepers can be used in exactly the same way as newer sleepers, but it’s worth noting that in their previous working life they may have been treated with creosotes, to help prolong the life of the timber. This substance has a tendency to seep out of the timber when it gets warm, so they may not be suitable for certain purposes, e.g. building a pond. However, their hardwearing nature means that reclaimed timber sleepers continue to be a popular choice for most garden designs.

Contemporary softwood sleepers

Softwood Sleeper used to create a raised bed
 
Our most popular of all the railway sleepers that we stock, newly cut softwood railway sleepers provide a sleek finish for almost any design, be it modern or traditional. Just as versatile in their use as the reclaimed timbers, new softwood sleepers can be treated with a variety of finishes, or simply leave the beautiful redwood bare for a contemporary look.

Made from redwood and pressure treated as standard for durability, the benefit of new timbers are that they don’t leak the tar or creosotes that reclaimed wood does in hot weather, making them ideal for building ponds, or places where you might come into frequent contact with the wood, such as steps or benches. 

Rustic design sleepers 

Rustic Softwood Sleeper used to create a raised bed
 
Rustic design sleepers are cut from the same softwood redwood timber as the contemporary finish sleepers, but have retained some of the natural shape and rough finish of the bark. This makes them a very nice option for those looking for the hassle-free option of using new untreated timber but also looking for a rugged look in their garden design.

The rounded edges make a nice feature when stacked horizontally, making them an excellent choice for retaining walls or creating steps. After a time, the natural bark finish will slowly come away from the timber, but will retain the pleasant curved shape. As with the contemporary sleepers, the solid redwood doesn’t need to be treated but can benefit from a range of finishes, such as a wood stain or sealant, which can help the longevity of your railway sleepers. 

What kind of garden feature could I create?

If you’re dreaming up garden designs using railway sleepers, then thanks to their versatile nature they can do just about anything. Their durable finish makes them ideal for raised flower beds, and they are often used as lawn boundaries in landscaping as a cutting edge between the grass, creating some stunning garden features.

Railway Sleeper in garden situ

Building a raised flower bed using sleepers is a relatively straightforward process. In this video, a simple raised bed structure is built and filled for planting, perfect for a miniature kitchen garden for some summer vegetable growing. This simple structure can be transformed into a pond just as easily, too. If you’re taken by the idea but unsure where to start, this tutorial is a step-by-step guide for building a pond from timber sleepers, including the types which are most suited to the job.

Railway sleepers are also a natural choice for retaining walls. Sleepers can be laid either horizontally or vertically, and built up to the desired height. In this video, for example, this budding garden designer has chosen to level off his sloped garden by building a retaining wall from new railway sleepers, which will hold in the large amounts of soil behind.

Softwood Sleepers used to create garden steps

Get creative with your garden design using railway sleepers by creating a rustic feature with a set of railway sleeper steps – you can even plant fragrant camomile in between open steps for a beautiful scent. Using sleepers vertically can make a striking feature in your garden design, such as a paved patio area, cordoned off with a curved feature wall of sleepers. You could even knock up a quick and easy bench to put on your patio, like in this video below:

How much do I need & how much does it cost?

So, you’ve got your heart set on using railway sleepers in the garden, but you’re not sure how much you’re going to need for your project. As with many of our other products, such as guttering, if you bring in your plans and some rough dimensions, then one of our experts at Bradfords can help bring your design together. Alternatively, give us a call to discuss your ideas.

The cost of using railway sleepers in your garden design depends entirely on the project you have in mind, the number of sleepers you need, and what type of finish you go for. Most people choose to leave their railway sleepers bare, letting the natural timber age with time and wear. If you choose to opt for a finish, there are a number of woodcare products on the market, such as stains, fillers and preservers, which could extend the life of your sleepers.

How do I lay them/install them in my space?

Installing railway sleepers in your garden wholly depends on the type of project you are going to be carrying out. If you’re using them as a border, for example, then you might want to consider embedding them in concrete for added stability. This video provides a great demonstration of one technique of embedding sleepers for a flower bed border.

If your railway sleeper garden design requires multiple rows, then it’s essential to fasten or stake the sleepers together, to ensure they are stable and that the rows remain rigid, otherwise there could be a risk of them toppling over.  

Rustic Softwood Sleeper creating flower bedding
  
What other tools do I need?

For most projects using railway sleepers, essential tools are:
- Saw
- Gloves
- Sandpaper
- Sanding block
- Planer for taking the sharp edge off 
- Wood finish

Tips and tricks

One thing to bear in mind is that railway sleepers can be slippery when damp, so if you’re planning on using sleepers for a set of steps, then it’s a good idea to fasten chicken wire over the top or cut notches in the wood to prevent any accidents.

When handling any timbers, particularly reclaimed railway sleepers, it’s a good idea to use protective gloves to protect skin against any creosotes used to treat the wood which may still be present.

The ends of railway sleepers can also be mitred at an angle to create some interesting shapes in your garden design, so get creative!