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Saturday, November 28, 2009

How to build a retaining wall with railroad ties

raymonds rail ties retaining wall
Retaining walls are can be beautiful or utilitarian. Materials choice matters.

By Raymond Alexander Kukkee

It's bright and sunny outside, and time to cut the grass again. You cut the side yard first, perfectly and evenly with the mower, and then look at the long grass in the back yard with trepidation. It is lawn that is far too steep and the soil is precariously eroded from endless water runoff. It is impossible to cut the grass safely with a lawnmower, so you haul out the weed whacker and start giving the treacherous area a tedious, crude haircut one more time.

You know you need a retaining wall but have procrastinated in building one, for the cost of manufactured, interlocking concrete stones commonly used to construct retaining walls is too high for your budget..

How can you build an inexpensive retaining wall?
The answer may be to build a retaining wall with railroad ties.

Where can you get railway ties?

Railroad ties, also called cross ties, are creosoted or chemically treated timbers that have been historically used to lay railway track all the way across North America. The treated wood ties resist decay for years but are eventually replaced as a matter of safety. Replacement may be with new timbers or the increasingly common concrete rail bedding ties. The replacement program has left millions of used and unused railway ties, switch timbers, and other large creosoted timbers available for other purposes including landscaping.

To find a source of railway ties, ask at your local building supply, landscapers, building contractors, or your nearest rail yard.

* Incidentally, do NOT feel free to help yourself to piles of ties you may happen to see along the railway tracks. Trespassing on railway property is both illegal and dangerous.
Buy railway ties from reputable contractors that often have contracts to legally remove hundreds, even thousands of ties at once, and do stockpile them for sale. Expect to pay higher prices for better quality timbers...

Read the rest of Raymond's retaining wall article at

copyright 2009 Raymond Alexander Kukkee - reprints available upon request

For a fantastic, in-depth look at your retaining wall options, please visit Raymond Alexander Kukkee's Zone, Retaining walls and how to build them. Thanks to Raymond for the photo shown with this article.

See this article as it appears on

Read our previous article about building concrete or cinder block retaining walls.

We're collecting pictures of retaining walls that failed. Got one? Leave a comment here, or reach me via email.


  1. I am surprised to see a blog about how-to build a retaining wall using railroad ties. Typically, people ask me to get rid of or replace their railroad tie walls. I've never been asked to build one. Most people find them fairly unattractive and don't like them because of the chemicals. They're cheap. That's about the only good thing about them. But aside from that, I'd steer clear of building a wall out of them. Just my 2 cents.

    Retaining Walls Portland Oregon

  2. You're right, of course, Jim. However, this project appeals to a certain sort of DIYer. Diff'rent strokes ... you know. ~Jim

  3. r.a. kukkee9:12 PM

    Jim L., your comments are valid. Railroad ties are not recommended for use in vegetable gardens or children's play areas.

    Upgrading to more attractive retaining wall materials when considering a replacement program is always an option, but would anyone build a new retaining wall using railway ties on the front lawn of a a $500,000 estate home anyway? Not likely.

    He or she would undoubtedly call a reputable contractor and have a retaining wall custom-designed, installed, and would happily save themselves a lot of work.

    Does the "less attractive" appearance of a railroad tie retaining wall curtail it's useful application on smaller projects where visual aspects are not a serious concern? No.

    The use of railroad ties, as with any building material, should be both suitable and appropriate for the application, location, and the final purpose of the wall. That decision is left up to the customer or DIY'er.

    As an reputable retaining wall contractor, you have probably discovered your valued customers also expect to be advised of all options available to them.
    Less expensive, even DIY alternatives to very costly options are essential where budget is a concern, especially when alternative materials are available and quite suitable for smaller DIY projects and their intended purpose.
    As usual, it's called customer choice. ~Raymond

  4. While I agree that in the front of a home one may desire a more aesthetically pleasing wall, we are actually searching for railroad ties to secure the base of a backyard fence (new puppy can get out of fence where the yard slopes) and for an inexpensive small retaining wall to separate areas in the back yard.
    We have not been able to locate any, other that the large loads that come from CSX. Any advice on where to find some in Columbia, SC?