How to treat railroad ties

Written by kristi roddey
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How to treat railroad ties
Sleepers contain creosote, which can contaminate vegetables when you use them to border vegetable gardens. (mountain railroad tracks junction image by Yali Shi from

Sleepers make attractive building materials for use around the home. Use them to build a sturdy garden bench or border a garden in the yard. Sleepers contain creosote, a product that prevents the ties from rotting. Creosote slowly leeches out of ties into the surrounding soil. The Environmental Protection Agency has determined creosote to be a toxin, so you should not use sleepers in direct contact with vegetable gardens or in places with poor ventilation. However, by treating the sleepers before you use them, you can lessen the risk of contamination.

Skill level:

Things you need

  • Urethane, epoxy or shellac
  • Heavy black plastic
  • Paintbrush

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  1. 1

    Cover sleepers with two coats of urethane, epoxy or shellac to seal the creosote in the wood, using a paintbrush.

  2. 2

    Place a layer of heavy black plastic between sleepers and the soil of vegetable gardens. This step is not necessary if you are using the ties around a flower bed, unless there is a possibility of a human or pet consuming the plants.

  3. 3

    Reapply your sealant if you see any black substance oozing from the wood.

  4. 4

    Dispose of treated wood by burying it or through ordinary trash collection.

Tips and warnings

  • Wear coveralls, vinyl gloves, protective eyewear and a dust mask.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency advises against using creosote-treated sleepers in landscaping. If you do use them, take the precautions listed to minimise risks.
  • If using plastic to protect garden soil from creosote-treated sleepers, till the area carefully to avoid tearing the plastic.
  • Do not burn sleepers to dispose of them.

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