Sleepers are arguably one of the most versatile building materials used in gardens. We have seen them in almost every type of garden structure, including lawns, flower beds, walkways, and patios. We’ve also seen them in terraces, raised planters, and garden furniture.
Every day, it seems people are inventing new ways to use sleepers in their gardens. The reasons are simple. Railway sleepers are great for supporting garden structures and defining/edging garden spaces. They are also durable and easy to install.
That last quality, “ease of installation”, is the reason behind this article. You want to learn how to lay garden sleepers, and we wrote this guide to help you do exactly that. You’ve got this. As long as you have some DIY experience, get the necessary tools and follow our instructions.
Let’s get started.
Equipment and supplies for laying garden sleepers
You need the following:
- Railway sleepers: we will discuss the different types later.
- Spirit level
- Protective goggles
- Fittings: Steel rods, nails, screws, brackets or metal plates
- Retaining posts
- Paint or Varnish
A basic guide for laying garden sleepers
This step-by-step breakdown will guide you through laying sleepers for garden edging. The process will vary slightly for other structures.
Step 1: Choose and prepare the site
Three are 3 tasks in this step. You have to choose a location, prepare the site and set markers. You’ve probably already done task 1, so let’s move on to task 2.
To prepare the site, you need to remove any existing structure, debris, plants or items. Remove anything in the space and level the grounds if needed.
You can complete task 3 (setting makers) before or after task 2. Measure the dimensions of the structure. Then set the pegs or retaining posts as markers for the foundation.
Step 2: Cut the sleepers into the required sizes
Using the saw, cut the sleepers according to your desired dimensions. Don’t worry if they are not of equal sizes. This will actually add character.
Step 3: Dig a trench for the foundation
Dig a trench according to the markers set in step 1. This trench doesn’t have to be deep. Just enough to give the sleepers strong roots.
Skip this step if you don’t want a foundation. In that case, you can use the fittings and retaining posts alone to hold the sleepers together. However, note that without a foundation, the structure won’t be as stable as it could be.
Step 4: Lay the ground-level set of sleepers
You can use the spirit level to ensure the sleepers are level. Use fittings to join the sleepers together.
Step 5: Complete the foundation
Fill in the foundation material, whether concrete, gravel or soil. When using soil, add waterproofing to protect the sleepers from water. When using concrete, wait for the concrete to dry partially before laying the sleepers.
Step 6: Add the remaining layers of sleepers
Now that the ground-level level/foundational sleepers are secure, you can add the remaining layers. Fix more layers (using fittings to hold them together) until you reach the desired height. Make sure the upper sleepers overlap properly and are level with the lower ones. You can use the spirit level to confirm this.
Step 7: Finish
Use sandpaper to sand off splitters. Then paint, stain or oil as desired.
Step 8: Add the rest of the structure
The sleepers are set. It is time to add the rest of your structure. For flower beds and raised planters, that means adding soil and plants. For steps, that means adding the rest of the stairs.
Tips for laying sleepers
Our step-by-step guide takes a generalist approach. Here are some tips for laying sleepers for specific structures.
- When laying sleepers for stairs: Cover the sleepers (or even the entire stairs) with slip-resistant material.
- When laying sleepers for lawn and flower bed edgings: Add a foundation.
- When laying sleepers for raised planters: You don’t need a foundation.
- When laying sleepers for curved edgings: You have to cut sleepers into smaller sizes or lay them vertically. This will make it easier to form unique and curved shapes.
Types of sleepers
There are 4 main types of sleepers.
- Hardwood sleepers: These are made from hardwoods like oak and teak. They have great aesthetics and a long lifespan. Hardwood sleepers can last for up to 100 years.
- Softwood timbers: These are made from softwoods like pine and spruce. They can be treated or untreated. The former lasts longer, about 5 to 30 years. The latter can rarely last for more than 5 years.
- Reclaimed railway sleepers: These are sleepers that have already been used on railway tracks. They have a unique weathered, rustic aesthetic. You may find this interesting. Do note that railway sleepers are treated with creosote, a chemical that is bad for the environment and irritable to human skin. So, reclaimed sleepers are not the most ideal materials to introduce into your garden. However, you can resolve this issue by treating the sleepers with urethane.
- Composite sleepers: These are created using wood fibre and plastic. Manufacturers often use recycled plastics. So the environment benefits when you use composite sleepers. Plus, they are also extremely durable and rot-resistant.
Sleepers can also be made from bricks, concrete, metals and stones.
So there you have it. Unless there are complications, you should finish the entire project in a few hours. No matter how long it takes, it is important to pay attention to each step to avoid mistakes. Mistakes can make the project more frustrating and time-consuming.
We know you can handle this job yourself. However, we also recommend you consider the service of a professional when needed. For example, if you don’t have enough time or if the project is too big or complex.
How long do garden sleepers often last?
This depends on the sleeper type and the environmental factors in your garden.
Must I use a foundation when laying garden sleepers?
No. You can lay sleepers without using a foundation. Some structures, like raised planters, don’t actually need one. Just use enough fixings to hold the sleepers in place. You can also fasten the structure to the ground.