How to Build a Railroad Tie Retaining Wall

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About: We're an 88 acre farmstead in Missouri dedicated to growing heirloom vegetables, raising happy chickens, goat, pigs and doing other cool shit.

Intro: How to Build a Railroad Tie Retaining Wall

If you have a slope that is need of a retaining wall and have access to railroad ties, this is the perfect project for you! We'll be showing you how we made a railroad tie retaining wall in between two of our shops. We had 18 inches of a hill that needed to be retained. This is how we made a basic retaining wall using railroad ties found on our farm. 

Step 1: Level and Tamp Down the Area

First, we leveled the area where to wall was going to be. Actually, it is slightly sloping down away from the building. We then tamped the dirt to make a nice, hard foundation. Tamping the dirt will also help to minimize settling and shifting of the wall. Although, it will settle and shift a bit no matter what you do.

Step 2: Cut the Area to Make a Snug Fit for the Railroad Ties

You want to cut the area where the wall will be square so the ties fit in there nicely. Make the area about 5 or 6 inches deeper than the railroad ties so you have room to fill the area behind the tie wall with gravel. This will allow any water coming down the hill to seep into the gravel instead of bulging out your tie wall and eventually making it fall down or move. 

Step 3: Add in a Layer of Gravel

Once you've got a good area for your wall made, put down a foundational layer of gravel. We did ours about 4 inches thick and tamped it down real good. This will provide bottom drainage for the wall, allowing the water to drain away through the gravel instead of pushing the railroad ties out or eroding the dirt away from the wall.

Step 4: Level the First Tie in the Wall

Once you have a good bed of gravel laid down and tamped, it's time to level the first tie in the wall. It's important to get this tie as level as possible because any error will be compounded the higher the wall is. Take away or add gravel underneath the tie as needed until it is level in both directions. Having the wall out of plumb will also cause the wall to sag, bulge or fall faster. Using a sledgehammer as a tamper works pretty well to tamp gravel under the front or back edge to adjust it.

Step 5: Make Your Pins to Secure the Ties Together

Next, you're gonna need to make some pins or "dead men." Most people use rebar because the ridges help to grab the dirt and railroad ties to hold the wall solid. We didn't have much rebar on hand but we did have these square bent 1/2" steel rod things with eyelets on the end we found in the barn. So we just chopped those up.

The first set of pins that are going through the bottom tie are very important. These will pin the wall firmly to the ground. Our wall was 8 feet long, so we used 4 pins. Each of the pins should be about 2-2 1/2 feet long so that you get a good solid hold into the ground.

If you cut one end at an angle, it will be a lot easier to drive the pin through the soil or through the railroad tie. Sometimes it can be near impossible to get a pin through a railroad tie without cutting a point on it.

Step 6: Drill Holes in the Tie for the Pins

Now you gotta drill some holes. You want the hole to be the same size or just slightly bigger than the pin you are going to drive through it. You can drill it smaller if you want, but it will make pounding the pin in a real pain. Especially if your pins are made out of rebar.

The best thing to use is a long wood auger bit as opposed to one of those drill bit extender things. The drill bit extender will probably work, however, it will also probably come loose in one of the railroad ties at some point. Thus creating a permanent home for one of your drill bits inside one of the ties. Drill bit extenders are pretty cool but not for this application. Railroad ties are made of tough oak and are soaked in tar and baked in. They're pretty tough. An auger bit will eat right through it and has the length to drill through more than one tie at a time when need be. Try not to hit the ground too much or your bit will go dull real fast.

Lastly and obviously, use a corded drill that has some power. If you try to dive an auger bit into a railroad tie with a rinky dinky cordless drill, neither you nor the drill (nor its battery) will be happy.

Step 7: Pound in the Pins

Now it's time to pound in some pins. We like to start them off with a 5 lb hand sledge and finish them off with a 10 lb full sledge hammer when the goin' gets tough. Once you've got the pin almost all the way in and there's about 4-5 inches sticking up, pound it over to lock the railroad tie down so it can't slide off the pin. Since our wall is 8 feet long, we put a pin in about every 2 feet or so. We wanted to make sure that the foundation tie was really secured to the ground well.

Step 8: Fill the Gap in Between the Tie and the Wall

After the pins in the first tie are set, fill that 5-6 inch gap between the back of the tie and the hill that it will be holding back with gravel. Tamp it down with a sledge hammer. We like to put down about 2-3 inches of gravel at a time and then tamp it, and then add another 2-3 inches, tamp it and so on and so forth.

Step 9: Repeat the Process Until You've Reached the Desired Height

Now just repeat the process. Place a railroad tie on top of the last tie you laid, drill into it and the one below it as deep as you can, drive in the pins, fill the back side with gravel, tamp it down and repeat!

Step 10: Finishing Touches!

It's ok to cover everything up with dirt if that's the look you're going for. It should not affect drainage too much. We did it only temporarily until we get around to filling this whole area in with gravel driveway and connecting it to the rest of our driveway. When that day comes, we will remove the little bit of dirt that is covering the gravel between the ties and the wall to allow for even better drainage. This is also why it look like the dirt is a little low. Gotta leave room for gravel driveway!

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    31 Discussions

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    dwalker34

    4 months ago

    If you had the choice between railroad ties and salt treated 4x6's what would you and why?

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    Archtrain77

    7 months ago

    I am in the planning phase of building a retaining wall in my back yard. It slopes kind of uneven toward the left. My home is attached on either side and this wall will allow me to install a fence, etc. I love the look of RR ties, but hear they are toxic/carcinogenic to use. Soil leaching, chidren and pets playing around. I guess I'm either going with brick or cinder block.

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    bobmccann

    2 years ago

    Anchoring the first course.

    I bought 1/2" rebar, 48 inches in length, and want to pre-drill the holes in the pressure treated 6"x6". Do I drill a hole with a 1/2" drill bit? The wall I am building will be anywhere from one course to 4 courses.

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    DanTDM

    4 years ago on Introduction

    Utility poles are also good. First, get some poles. You can find them at some stores, or you can just cut down a pole.

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    ntinumirov

    4 years ago

    www.epa.gov/iris/subst/0360.htm creosote

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    ntinumirov

    4 years ago

    step1 - find rail road.. step2 steal some ties...

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    rnorton2

    4 years ago on Introduction

    i've built more railroad tie walls and walkways than i care to think about. good job. for other s considering this project. you need to consider several other things, 1 the height and length of the wall, his little 8 foot 3 stack wall doesn't need weed blocker or drainage unless you have some serious erosion issues. if your wall gets over 3 feet in height then you need to add dead men every 6 or eight feet apart. and how involved they get will depend on the over all dimensions of the wall and the what are you retaining, what is behind the wall and what kind of runoff are you going to be dealing with. on a large scale wall you would add the dead men and re-bar them and possibly add concrete to really keep them in place.also weed block and drainage as the other person suggested. as for using pressure treated wood its really a preference thing. the pressure treated equivalent would cost you prolly 3 times as much but would last longer. as for the R/R ties they are treated with creosote and will last a very long time. use gloves and protective clothing and eyewear and be careful with the ties and pressure treated would they both cause cancer (the Creosote) remove any splinters immediately. i had one i couldn't get out right then (at work) and it was infected by lunch i think it was. if anyone has questions holler.

    7 replies
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    vincent7520rnorton2

    Reply 4 years ago on Introduction

    Hollering :

    What is a dead man ? I know I heard it before but as English remains a foreign language to me I just can't put my finger on it !

    Ridiculous, huh ? … ;))

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    rnorton2vincent7520

    Reply 4 years ago on Introduction

    a dead man runs perpendicular to the wall and back into the ground you are retaining. you usually can see the end of the dead man from the front of the wall. this is to give the wall stability so it doesn't lean over.

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    vincent7520rnorton2

    Reply 4 years ago on Introduction

    Ah ! I see. It's like a post planted vertically in the ground then.

    Thank you for answering.

    Have a nice week

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    nehmovincent7520

    Reply 4 years ago on Introduction

    A deadman is an anchor going back into the dirt on high side of the retaining wall usually made form more ties or other wood. There are other methods to secure the wall, but I won't bother describing them because I object to this kind of wall on enviormental and aestetic grounds.

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    rnorton2

    4 years ago on Introduction

    here is a link to some pictures of deadmen

    google deadmen retaining wall

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    dummy1977

    4 years ago on Introduction

    I once rented a house in a very hilly area where a previous owner had a railroad tie retaining wall. By the time we got there, it was rotting out with the foundation threatening the house below. It cost the owner an arm and a leg (and a nearby shed) to repair the damage, but not as much as a pending lawsuit could've. They replaced it with blocks in what probably was the nick of time.

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    nehmo

    4 years ago on Introduction

    How much poison is in a typical railroad tie? Does it kill plants? Pets? Do you want your kids chewing on a piece?

    And what about the aesthetic appeal? Beautiful, huh?

    If you want a low retaining wall, use segmented blocks. But anything, even simply reinforcing the pitch of the grade with internal geogrids (plastic-fiberglass webbing) would be preferable.

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    I was thinking about the same thing. I read an article once about how they were removing ties from a uranium mine and had to build a machine to pass each one thru to see if it was radioactive or not. The whole thing was automated and the radiation detector would toggle a lane change to send the glow-in-the-darks to one holding are and the safe ones to another.

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    noelsgordon

    4 years ago on Introduction

    I built some retaining walls like this in the 1980s. The white ants (termites) made nests inside these and eventually tunnelled under and into the house and started eating the timber studs in the walls ! Fortunately we discovered this before too much damage was done but it cost thousands of dollars to exterminate them. They could have easily DESTROYED our whole house. Effective poisons that deter termites have been banned. Think carefully before you try this. Creosote eventually won't deter termites.