How to Install Railroad Tie Walls


Railroad ties can weigh 100 to 200 lbs., making them a good choice when constructing retaining walls. However, the weight alone does not mean you can simply stack them and forget them. If not properly constructed, shifting soil, heavy rains, freezing and thawing periods can force the wall to bow or break apart. The key to a stable railroad-tie wall is to anchor the first layer into the ground and to securely attach each layer to the previous one.

Things You'll Need

  • Tape measure
  • Hammer
  • Stakes
  • String
  • Gloves
  • Shovel
  • Hand tamper
  • 4-foot carpenter's level
  • Landscaping fabric
  • Gravel
  • 6-inch nails
  • Drill with bits
  • Steel reinforcing bars
  • Sledge hammer
  • 12-inch spikes
  • Call your local city utility office to have all underground utility cables and pipes marked before digging.

  • Mark the area for the wall. Use a tape measure, and hammer a stake into the ground at each end of the wall. Tie a tight string between each stake to indicate the outer edge of the wall.

  • Put on gloves, and dig a trench 6 inches deep and 18 inches wide for the entire length of the wall. Use the string as a guide. Tamp the ground with a hand tamper and check for level using a 4-foot carpenter's level.

  • Lay landscaping fabric in the trench, with the excess running up the slope behind the wall. Pour a 2-inch layer of gravel into the trench and tamp it level.

  • Put the first row of railroad ties into the trench. If you have more than one tie, butt the ends tightly together. Check the ties for level. Add or subtract gravel below the ties if they are not level. To help keep the joints snug, drive a 6-inch nail at an angle from the end of each one into the adjoining tie.

  • Anchor the first row into the ground before laying the next row. Drill a 1/2-inch hole 1 foot from the end of each tie. Pound a 2-foot steel reinforcing bar through each hole and into the ground with a sledge hammer. The end of the bar should be flush with the top of the tie.

  • Set the next layer of railroad ties on top of the first. As you set the ties, position them in such a way that the joints are staggered. It may be necessary to cut them to size with a saw. This layer is set 1 inch back from the front edge of the previous layer, toward the slope.

  • Attach this layer and the remaining layers to the previous one with 12-inch spikes. Pre-drill the holes with a 1/4-inch bit to help prevent splitting. Place the spikes 6 inches from each end, and space them 24 inches apart. Drive the spikes through the tie into the one below.

  • Construct "deadman" anchors for retaining walls with four or more layers. These are used to strengthen the walls and keep them from bowing or leaning. Cut a 4-foot stem section and a 2-foot cross section from the ties. Spike them together to form a "T."

  • Dig into the slope an area large enough to accommodate the stem and cross section of the "deadman." As you lay the fourth layer of ties, insert a "deadman" anchor every 8 to 10 feet of wall. The stem section will lie on top of the third layer and the cross section will be buried into the slope; it lies level and perpendicular to the wall. Secure the stem section with 12-inch spikes.

  • Pour gravel behind the wall after the fourth layer is in place. Continue to build the wall, stepping each layer 1 inch back from the front edge of the previous layer. Stagger the joints, secure each layer with spikes and insert "deadman" anchors every four rows.

  • Fill the area behind the wall with gravel after every couple of layers. Fill the last foot with dirt. Any excess landscaping fabric can be folded over on top of the gravel before shoveling in the dirt. Tamp the area and cover with sod or plants.

Tips & Warnings

  • A chain saw can make cutting the ties easier.

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