How to Build a Retaining Sleeper Wall

Railway Sleepers are ideal for creating garden walls and and retainers as they don't require the same skills involved in building brick walls. The size of sleepers makes building walls relatively quick too but they can be very heavy to lift. Once done, though, they look great for a long time...

Railway sleeper retaining wall

Which sleeper to use?
Reclaimed Sleepers are the most economical choice and will give your garden a more rustic look. Due to their creosote content and old fixings they're not suitable for gardens with children present or for retaining vegetable beds. 

New Softwood Sleepers are uniform in their dimensions, giving a clean modern appearance. They're often lighter to handle than second hand sleepers and certainly easier to cut. The treatment process makes them safe for use in all garden and landscaping projects

New Oak Sleepers are also uniform in their dimensions, but a great deal heavier than softwood. They can be oiled or stained, if required. These sleepers need to be cut mechanically due to their density as using a hand saw is too arduous.

What tools do I need? 
A digging spade
• Shovel
• Chainsaw
• Spirit level
• Heavy duty drill

Which style of constriction is best? 
The method you choose for construction will be influenced by the height and style of wall you want. 

The traditional way of building a sleeper wall is horizontal
1. Lay out the first row of sleepers horizontally and then the next layer on top, like bricks. Use landscaping screws to fix these two rows together and then continue this until you have the height of wall you want. 
2. Ensure there is adequate drainage to prevent the wall from rotting or deteriorating. Between the back of the wall and the soil being retained put a waterproof membrane and layer of hardcore or shingle to ensure the free draining of any water build-up.
3. Strengthen the sleepers, especially if it's a straight wall, from behind with metal posts. If the wall has corners, this may not be necessary. 

The second way to build a sleeper wall is to stand them vertically
 A vertical walls means you can vary the height of it in different places and even create a curved, rather than straight, wall.  Landscaping screws are great for joining sleepers together. They are screwed in without needing pre-drilling and hold sleepers very firmly. 
1. Dig a shallow trench, about a third of the height of the sleeper, put a layer of shingle or waterproof membrane down (or even both) and then lower the sleepers in vertically side by side.
2. Fill the hole in with concrete. 
3. Once the concrete is set, you can fix the backs of the sleepers together to strengthen it, using pieces of wood, metal posts or strips. 

How to cut sleepers
In an ideal world you would plan your wall to avoid cutting the sleepers, but this is sometimes unavoidable; sleepers can be cut with a hand saw, but this is a time consuming task if you have a few to cut. The use of a mechanical saw is advised, especially on oak sleepers, to speed up the process and give better results too.
Beware if using reclaimed sleepers there's a chance of foreign objects being present in the timber, along with the creosote, which will dull and possibly damage any blade used. 

Our experts say... 
"It is advisable to place shingle behind the railway sleepers, particularly for taller structures. This can aid the life span of the sleeper and assist drainage, ensuring any water drains to the bottom and doesn't run out between sleepers. Use a membrane on the back of the sleepers if the shingle is likely to spill through any gaps left between the sleepers."

Help & Advice
For more advice on sleepers, please get in touch with your local branch. Our specialists will be happy to offer help and advice and can provide you with a free quote for supply of all relevant materials.

20th Sep 2019