Wooden garden sleepers or railway sleepers have become a hugely popular feature of gardens. How they are looked after and maintained largely depends on what type of wooden sleeper you have, and also, what they are being used for. Wooden sleepers being used for a raised vegetable bed need to be treated differently from perhaps reclaimed railway sleepers being used for a retaining garden wall or path. The cost of buying garden sleepers can be high so maintaining them to protect and preserve them is essential.
At ‘Home Gardener’, we get asked a lot about garden sleepers. Here we try to answer many of the more commonly asked questions.
Garden Sleeper FAQ’s
Click on a question to be taken to the answer below.
- What are the best sleepers to use in a garden?
- How long will wooden sleepers last in the garden?
- What is the best treatment for garden sleepers?
- What is the best preservative for railway sleepers?
- Can you seal railway sleepers?
- Can garden sleepers be used for raised vegetable beds?
Wooden sleepers can be used for a variety of uses around the garden. Find out more about garden sleepers and their uses here.
(Q) What are the best sleepers to use in a garden?
(A)The type of wooden sleeper to use can depend on what it’s going to be used for. There are three main types of garden sleeper, reclaimed hardwood sleepers, new softwood sleepers, and new hardwood sleepers. New softwood and hardwood sleepers are better suited to projects that involve the growing of fruit and vegetables such as raised vegetable beds or compost bins. This is because they can be purchased as untreated, meaning that there are no preservers or other chemicals that can leach out into the soil. New sleepers can also be bought tanalised and although this is a method used for preserving wood, the general consensus is that tanalised woods are also safe to use for this purpose. For peace of mind, you can research this further.
Reclaimed hardwood railway sleepers are better for projects like retaining garden walls and garden paths. Being made from dense hardwoods and often treated with commercial grade wood preservers like creosote, they are highly durable and resistant to wood rot and decay making them ideal. Reclaimed railway sleepers that have been imported from other countries such as Africa are made from very hard, dense, exotic hardwoods and because of the very dry, hot climates they come from, they have no need to treat or preserve them. Remember that when buying garden sleepers and fixing them into place, you will also need the various sleeper brackets, fixings and supports to fix them in place safely.Back to top
(Q) How long will wooden sleepers last in the garden?
(A) Defining how long wooden sleepers will last is difficult, as there are so many variables to take into account. For example, how are the sleepers going to be used? What type of sleepers are being used, softwood, hardwood, reclaimed or new? Are they untreated or treated? And if untreated, are they going to be preserved, oiled, or painted. Other factors such as how much weathering they are exposed to in terms of wind, rain, sun, and frost can also affect how long they will last.
As a general rule, hardwood sleepers will last longer than softwood sleepers and treated sleepers will last longer than untreated sleepers. The life of wooden sleepers can be hugely improved by treating them with a wood preserver, an exterior wood oil or both. This will help to protect them from biological threats including mould, algae, and insect attack, as well as the effects of weathering. periodically applying a maintenance coat of exterior wood oil or decking oil will help to protect and preserve them for potentially decades. In terms of what wood preservers and exterior wood oils to use, these are the same products that are used to care for and maintenance garden sheds, fences, and decking. to find out more about these, see our guides to garden shed treatments, garden fence treatments, and .Back to top
(Q) What is the best treatment for garden sleepers?
(A)Garden sleepers can be treated with a variety of wood care products including wood stains, wood preservers, wood oils, and garden paints. Which can depend on the type of finish required and the type of sleeper being treated.
New untreated or tanalised sleepers can be treated with most types of shed treatments or fence treatments. To keep the natural look of the wood, they can be treated with two coats of a wax-free, clear, wood preserver, followed by two thin coats of a clear exterior wood oil. This will help to protect them from both biological threats including mould, algae, wood rot and decay as well as the effects of weathering. New untreated or tanalised wooden sleepers can be stained to a different colour or painted with a garden or shed paint.
Reclaimed sleepers can be more tricky if they have been previously treated with tar, creosote or other chemicals. If they have been imported from a hot country, they may be untreated meaning that it may be possible to oil, stain, or paint them if required. Always do a test area on a part of the sleeper that won’t be seen, to test the finish and suitability of any products, before going ahead and painting them allBack to top
(Q) What is the best preservative for railway sleepers?
(A) For new bare wood, tanalised or pressure treated sleepers you can use any type of wood preserver. If you plan to paint, varnish or stain them with a coating type product, use a wood preserver that doesn’t contain any wax or silicon. Wood preservers help to protect the wood from mould, algae, wood rot and decay. Once treated, wooden sleepers can then be treated with a wood oil, wood stain, exterior paint or garden paint to enhance their appearance and provide protection against weatheringBack to top
(Q) Can you seal railway sleepers?
(A) New or reproduction railway sleepers can be easily protected from the elements by sealing them with a wood oil, wood stain, exterior grade varnish, or garden paint. Exterior wood oils are a great option as they retain the natural appearance of the sleeper, will help to seal in any wood preserver used on them, and offer a good level of protection against weathering and water damage. Wood oils are also easy to maintain by simply applying a fresh coat of oil as and when required.Back to top
(Q) Can garden sleepers be used for raised vegetable beds?
(A) In short, new bare wood, tanalised and pressure treated sleepers are fine for raised vegetable gardens or vegetable beds. Although there have been numerous discussions about any preservative leaking in to the soil, the general opinion is that this isn’t an issue with pre-treated reproduction wooden sleepers. If this is something that still concerns you, there are steps that can be taken.
One option is to line the inside of the sleepers with plastic sheeting. This prevents the wood from coming into direct contact with the soil. Another option is to use an exterior wood oil or decking oil to seal the sleepers. This will help to seal the preservative into the wood and also provide additional protection for the sleepers. Oils help to keep the wood nourished and supple and their water repellent qualaties help to prevent water ingress, a contributing factor to wood rot and decay.
Greater care should be taken with reclaimed railway sleepers as these are often soaked in commercial grade preservers and chemicals including creosote and tar. Reclaimed sleepers are ideal for things like garden paths and retaining garden walls but less suitable for areas where fruit and veg is likely to be grown. The only exception to this is if they are old and have weathered for a good number of years. This may have allowed much of the surface contaminates to wear or wash away. As with new sleepers, a plastic membrain or barrier can be used on the inside of reclaimed sleepers to prevent any direct to soil contact.Back to top
Types of Garden Sleeper Treatments
Garden sleepers are like any other garden wood including sheds, fences and decking. This means that they can be treated in the same way and even with the same products in many cases, for example, with garden paints, stains, and wood oils for sheds, fences and decking.
For a more detailed explanation of decking, shed, and fence treatments that are also suitable for garden sleepers, follow the links below:-
Do you have a garden sleeper care and maintainance related question that we haven’t covered above? Let us know and if it is something that we get asked more than a couple of times, we’ll add it to this page along with the answer to help other site visitors.
We cover a wide range garden wood care topics including sheds, fences, decking and more. If you’re looking for answers to many of the common problems and issues that can affect these garden fixtures and fittings, visit our FAQ index page for more answers and solutions to these problems.
We always recommend that test areas are done to assess product suitability and final finish, before starting any project. For technical advice, troubleshooting or any other product or situational queries, always refer to the product manufacturer’s published information and guidance. For technical information on products and their suitability for a given project, contact the manufacturer’s technical support departments directly. Contact details including phone numbers can usually be found on the manufacturer’s products and/or website.
home-gardener.co.uk cannot be held responsible in any way, shape or form for the guidance given in our gardening faq’s or any other part or page of our website. This is due to the unpredictable nature of wood, its age, species, condition, previous history including previous treatments and/or contamination, environmental, and application considerations, which can all differ from one piece of wood to the next and which will ultimately have an effect on any wood finish applied, including but not limited to suitability, colour, performance and overall results. If in any doubt about the suitability of a product for a given project, always contact the product manufacturer before starting any project or seek the advice of a professional contractor.