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How to Build Railway Sleeper Steps

Read this post for comprehensive instructions on how to construct railway sleeper steps. The sleepers form the risers and part of the tread. We're showing paving slabs between each sleeper to form the majority of the tread, however it's up to you what you put between each sleeper. The railway sleeper steps offer a softer step for little children compared to sharp slab edges, and the corner of railway sleepers can be sanded or routered to form a bullnosed profile for an even softer edge, it's really up to you!

Before you start

When deciding on the layout of your railway sleeper steps, there are a number of things to consider to ensure the job runs smoothly:

  • Railway sleepers aren't limited to pine, Oak is also widely available. Oak generally costs two to three times as much as pine, but will last much longer and look much more attractive. Remember that the sleepers will be buried in the ground, so pine will  start to rot within a few years. We recommend Oak for a more durable, long lasting and aesthetically pleasing product. Oak sleepers, if left untreated, will naturally turn an attractive silvery grey over time. You can see this on some of our pictures.
  • Apart from the odd exception, sleepers generally come in standard lengths, with the most common at 2.4m and 3m. If you don't have access to a large electrical mitre saw, you will want to reduce the amount of cuts to do by hand, especially if you are using Oak railway sleepers. To do this, be selective with the width of your steps, contact your local supplier and check to see what length they supply them in. Once you know this, try to keep your step width to match these lengths, or so that the width is divisible by the available length. For example, I want to create four railway sleeper steps at 1.2m wide, my local supplier supplies the sleepers in 2.4m lengths, so I only need to purchase two lengths. If I had wanted to create four 1.3m wide railway sleeper steps, I will have to purchase twice the amount of sleepers for little gain.
  • Check your ground conditions! Carefully dig a trial hole about 300mm into the ground to check that there aren't any hidden manhole covers or cables that could turn a seemingly straightforward job into a nightmare.
  • Think about the riser (vertical step height) and going (horizontal tread distance) before doing anything. The riser should be a maximum 150mm, and you want to distribute the overall height of the steps evenly between each riser. So if I have 600mm overall height along my railway sleeper steps, I'll probably build four risers. The going can also be evenly distributed along the full length of the steps, however this isn't always necessary. The length of the steps is usually flexible, but be sure to keep them the same for each tread.
  • In accordance with building regulations (2016) and if you are building new steps along the main route to the house from the road, then this is permitted providing you are replacing existing steps. However, you will need to obtain building regulations approval should you introduce new steps where there weren't previously any.

Tools

  • Clamps - with a minimum opening of 150mm
  • Drill - (we recommend an impact drill when screwing into Oak)
    • 125mm minimum length wood drill bit with diameter approx. 2mm less than screw diameter
  • Gloves
  • Large hand wood saw or large compound mitre saw
  • Lump hammer
  • Manual Tamping rod (a sledge hammer will also do)
  • Pencil
  • Rubber Mallet
  • Set square (large)
  • Shovel
  • Spade
  • Spirit Levels - small to large sizes depending on width of steps.
  • Tape measure
  • Trowels - Large and small
  • Wheelbarrow

Materials

To set the sleepers in place, you'll need:

  • 100mm (4") x 200mm (8") sleepers. The total length depends on your step width and the number of steps.
  • 50mm x 50mm x600mm (2"x2"x2ft) long pointed pegs. Total number depends on total length of steps, read on to find out how many.
  • 125mm long sleeper screws

To build the treads, you are free to use whatever you feel is most appropriate, such as gravel or more sleepers. We've shown paving slabs in this guide.

Useful downloads

Drawing file of main sleeper steps cross section - dwg (2004) dxf (2004) 

Main sleeper steps cross section - PDF (A4) 

 

Method of Constructing Railway Sleeper Steps

Dig out two trenches for the top and bottom sleeper steps using the diagram below as a guide. Ensure the base of the trenches are flat along their lengths by using the longest spirit level that will fit within the trench

Digging out the top and bottom railway sleepers

Digging out the top and bottom railway sleepers

Next you'll need to make a bedding mix of mortar for just the top and bottom railway sleepers, allowing you to get them level and correctly positioned with relative ease. Mix the mortar to a 6:1 ratio of washed sand:cement, with little water to create a fairly dry mix, if the mix is too wet then add more sand and cement in the right proportions to obtain a dry mix.  This should be a dob every 0.45m along the length of both railway sleeper steps, with each dob using up about 5 litres of mix (0.005m3) or about 7.6kg washed sand to 1.2kg cement.

Place the dobs of mortar at 0.45m intervals along the length of the top and bottom railway sleeper steps. Pile the dobs a couple of inches higher than they need to be, so that the sleepers can be tapped into position.

Placing mortar dobs below the railway sleepers

Placing mortar dobs below the railway sleepers

Carefully and slowly lower the railway sleepers into place and gently rest them on the dobs of mortar. You may need help for this, especially if your're using heavy oak railway sleepers as steps. Using a rubber mallet, tap the sleepers into position whilst constantly checking that they are level using a spirit level.

Once the top and bottom railway sleepers are in place, drive in the wooden pegs behind the sleepers at 450mm intervals, in between the dobs of mortar and being careful not to disturb the position of the railway sleeper. Keep tapping until the top of the pegs are about 50mm below the top of the sleepers.

To attach the pegs to the sleepers, first pre-drill two holes through each peg prior to screwing. If you are using oak railway sleepers, pre-drill through these too, being careful to drill only 75mm into the sleepers, there's no need to pre-drill through pine railway sleepers. Screw in two 125mm long screws through the back of each peg into the railway sleeper steps. Clamps are handy here to temporarily hold the sleeper securely to the pegs.

After about an hour you can use a trowel to chamfer the mortar away from the front and rear of the railway sleepers, this will direct water away from the wood and reduce rot.

Securing top and bottom sleepers to pegs

Securing top and bottom sleepers to pegs

Wait until the mortar dobs are set, which can be a few hours in peak summer to a day in the middle of winter. Using a hand saw, chamfer the top of the pegs so that they can shed water away from the railway sleepers.

Now it's time to set out any intermediate railway sleeper steps between the top and bottom sleepers. On both ends of the steps, nail a string line from the front edge of the first step to the front edge of last step, this will give you the finished height for the leading edge of each step and allow you to dig out the soil to the correct height.

Marking out the intermediate railway sleeper steps

Marking out the intermediate railway sleeper steps

Place each intermediate sleeper as you did for the top and bottom sleepers previously, using mortar dobs. Don't forget to chamfer the mortar dobs away from the sleepers. Repeat the above steps until you have all your railway sleeper steps in place and securely fixed to the pegs.

Once set, pack hardcore into the gap between the dobs of mortar below each railway sleeper step. First pack in the mortar using your hands (wearing gloves) into the gap, ensuring you thoroughly fill the area below the railway sleeper steps, we don't want to leave any voids here. Void will provide a good home for bugs and small animals, as well as a space for soil to eventually creep into. You should be able to pack in the hardcore from the front and rear of the sleeper. Then, using a lump hammer or sledge hammer, compact the hardcore further into the gap, being careful not to dislodge the sleepers.

When the railway sleepers have well compacted hardcore beneath them, fill the voids between each sleeper with hardcore to a depth of 75mm, this will form the sub-base layer for the paving. 

Compact the hardcore with the manual tamper and prepare for laying slabs. From this point on, please refer to our separate page on how to lay paving slabs.

If you intend to point the slabs using traditional sand and cement mix, bear in mind that you will need to add a flexible cement admixture to the pointing mix. This only applies to the pointing along the slab edge where it runs next to the railway sleeper steps, and will help the pointing mix to flex with the timber over time and reduce cracking.

Here's an overall detail showing everything mentioned above:

Main detail for Railway Sleeper Steps

Main detail for Railway Sleeper Steps

 

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