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what are railway sleepers and what can they be used for

Railway sleepers, garden sleepers, landscape timber – you might have heard them called by any of these names but what are sleepers and what can they be used for?

A brief history of railway Sleepers

Traditionally used to lay railway tracks on, these large, rectangular sawn pieces of timber are now used in a variety of landscaping and gardening projects, such as raised beds, lawn and border edging, steps, pathways and retaining walls.

But did you know that they’ve been around for more than 2,200 years? Whilst not quite in the form that we’re familiar with today, the original railway sleepers have been traced back to wooden railroad tracks found in rural China and used during the Qin Dynasty.

Due to their length, experts postulate that the tracks were designed for horse-drawn cars to pull loads up and down the mountain, quite astonishing!

an example of what are railway sleepers

Using railway sleepers today

Returning to the present day, used railway sleepers (although not those from 221 BC!) are one of the most popular choices for garden projects as they add a level of character unmatched by modern features. New sleepers just can’t top them!

What’s more, as hardwoods are more durable, you’ll find that the majority of used sleepers that are in good condition will be made from hardwood lumber such as oak. They vary in colour (and condition), but they definitely retain that rustic charm.

How long do reclaimed sleepers last?

As they are made from hardwood and are generally found in one of 3 conditions: untreated, pressure treated (tanalised) or coated with creosote, they will last for years – even up to 20 depending on the environment they are used in. Taking good care of them with regular maintenance will see them thrive for even longer.

Should I buy new or used sleepers?

New railway sleepers can be made of hardwood (commonly oak) or softwood, which will be treated or tanalised with preservatives to extend their longevity.

With less of a rustic look, they may not appeal to the more country style or cottage garden, but arranged as a raised bed or seating area, their ‘clean’ finish and smooth lines look fantastic.

Charred, brushed and high-pressure treated new sleepers boast an exposed grain to mimic these older sleepers, the ideal option if buying new is your preference and you want to retain that nostalgic feel.

In general, treated Softwood sleepers should last up to 15 years depending on the environment they are used in.

What can I use sleepers for? 7 creative ideas

I‘m sure you’re itching to get these stunning features in your garden, but where’s a gardener to start? Fortunately, railway sleeper uses are endless, and only limited by your imagination, but below are 7 key areas of use:

railway sleepers being used as a path

1.    Garden paths

Use railway sleepers to define the edges of your garden path and you will turn heads. Sleepers are one of the best garden edging materials to create clean lines and a natural finish, and so subtly too.

Alternatively, use them as stepping “stones” to create a stable pathway across the garden. Mix in some mixed pebbles for a really unique, rural look that both protects your grass and transports your guests to an idyllic countryside past.

2.     Garden tables & furniture

From decorative to utilitarian, railway sleepers are an interesting tool to make a minimalist table and matching benches. Three sleepers cut in half can create a table, as the wood that has been sawn away makes the legs. Benches can be made from one sleeper each and blend gorgeously with a rustic background of latticed fencing and plant walls.

railway sleepers being used as steps

3.     Garden steps

Whether it’s a few simple steps or a whole flight of stairs, new or used railway sleepers can provide a unique solution to a sloped garden. Completely solid and suited to zoning outdoor spaces, garden sleepers aren’t simply quirky – but like old railways – they’re built to last!

4.     Decking & patios

Railway sleepers can be used as an innovative alternative to traditional decking boards, creating an evocative, period-style patio area. Pair this with a seating station or outdoor bar, and you’ll create your own little paradise.

railway sleepers for raised beds and walls

5.     Retaining walls

A retaining wall made from either vertical or horizontal wooden sleepers can terrace your garden, fence off a BBQ or pool area, and can level out a sloping garden. And the best part? It’s fairly easy to lay them to blend them in just beautifully, whatever garden scheme you’re following.

6.     Water features

An especially creative way of using railway sleepers involves putting their charm to great effect by building eye-catching water features in the garden. This stylish creation can elevate a good-looking garden into something truly special.

railway sleepers used to make raised beds

7.     Raised flower beds

Railway sleepers make one of the best types of wood for raised beds, owing to their winning combination of durability and charm. Add controlled areas to your garden using wooden sleepers and see your raised flower beds transformed.

If you want to go the extra mile, mixing old and new sleepers will help create some interesting colours and lines in your garden design, providing a sense of depth and intrigue to the overall look.

Get on track with your garden design

Now you have a solid understanding of what railway sleepers are and what they can be used for, it’s time to put that knowledge into practice. So whether you’re inspired to add a hint of railway charm into your flower beds or you’re planning to create a bespoke outdoor dining area, there’s plenty of room to get creative.

Browse our gorgeously diverse range of railway sleepers, old and new.

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