The Blog

Railway Sleeper Myths - BUSTED!

Railway Sleepers

Railway sleepers are versatile and helpful in the design and development of your garden, making great outdoor furniture, foundations for patio and decking areas, and being adaptable for use indoors. However, due to the many different types of wood used to make railway sleepers, rules around treating them, and what they can be successfully and safely used for can be difficult to pinpoint. 

Here at Hillsborough, we’re dedicated to providing you with both the best quality garden materials and accessories – as well as the best quality advice on how to use, maintain and make the most out of our purchases when in use… after all, you wouldn’t buy a car without filling up the tank, would you? We’ve put together a myth-busting guide to diminish any doubts or worries about investing in and maintaining railway sleepers for your outdoor space.

First and foremost, railway sleepers are a great foundation material for most outdoor projects. A choice of either redundant sleepers used on actual railway tracks or new sleepers, both are naturally sturdy, strong, and built to survive in dynamic and alternative weather conditions – making them a sound investment for both indoor and outdoor use.

There are multiple concerns and rumours around the toxicity of old railway sleepers, as many have been soaked in creosote (a wood preservative that contains toxic chemical compounds) and are therefore dangerous to human health as they are carcinogenic. Whilst this sounds like a worry, the highest risk factor occurs when sleepers are being burnt as ordinary waste rather than hazardous waste. This consequently releases carcinogenic compounds. So, if you do use old railway sleepers, when getting rid of them or renewing them, be sure to dispose of them correctly – as hazardous waste. We recommend using these kind of sleepers outdoor and as fencing or decking – avoid use where they may come into contact with skin or as vegetable patches.

Due to a high percentage of railway sleepers being used outdoors, keeping them clean and treated becomes less of a priority, as they are built to withstand natural wear and tear, moisture damage, and wood rot – remember they had tonnes of train weight to endure! If standard ‘railway muck’ such as grime and dust is the only issue, scrubbing fortnightly with soapy water and detergent, or power jetwashing should keep your materials clean. Older railway sleepers that have previously been treated with creosote have developed internal tar and are not recommended for use in direct sunlight – as hot weather draws creosote and tar to the surface, meaning a sticky residue could form on the top on the sleepers. Due to the internal effect this has had on the sleepers, it’s virtually impossible to prevent.

Make sure you’re using the best ‘grade’ of railway sleepers for your intended purpose. Railway sleepers are graded in relay, 1st grade (best), 2nd grade, and 3rd grade (worn) – this ranking ensures you are getting the right quality for your project. Depending on the look that you’re going for, the worn and torn sleepers could be beneficial in creating a more rustic garden atmosphere, whilst 1st grade sleepers are great for sharp, neat patio, decking and indoor purposes.

The main use for railway sleepers in the garden is as foundational material for patios, decking, and paving areas. Remember to fasten the railway sleepers together as you complete each ‘layer,’ screwing them together with Timberfast sleeper screws. Do the same with the next layer and so on… 

For more advice on how to use and maintain railway sleepers or to shop our wide selection of garden products, visit us online. Better yet, pop into store and experience our products first-hand, where our friendly customer assistants will always be on hand and happy to help!

Happy Gardening!

Back to Posts