Building houses with railroad ties : LUSENET : Countryside : One Thread

I was wondering if anyone has explored the safety issues of building a house with old railroad ties? I am wondering what they were treated with and if it would be safe to build with them? I have this idea for 2 octagonal shaped components with a common wall and an entryporch between. Each component if my highschool geometry is not failing me, should have a diameter of somewhere in the neighborhood of 23'. I am thinking of putting wood strips on the inside and then putting insulation and the paneling or wall board. Has anyone ever heard of doing anything like this?

Little Bit Farm

-- Little bit Farm (, May 03, 2000


YUCK. Stinky nasty dirty things. Ties used to be treated with creosote, I believe something else now. Whatever, you'll smell it. If you're smelling it, at least part of whatever that treatment is is air-borne and you're breathing it in. Doubt any interior finish would completely block it. Ties are also full of grit and stones. Difficult to do any cutting on. Hard on blades.

If you have zoning laws, I doubt they'll let you build with ties. If you don't have zoning laws, I'd hate to be the person who so outraged the county residents that they enacted zoning laws.

Oh, and ties are HIGHLY flamable. Trust me, I've battled enough fires invovling ties to know. Gerbil

-- Gerbil (, May 03, 2000.

I agree with Gerbil on this one! I used to work with a contractor and we built many a retaining wall out of used ties, and while they were solid, they were a mess!! Dirty, stinky, various stages of rot depending on the age, oily, and who knows what else. Not to mention the spikes and plates still attached. Ever try to pull a spike out of one? Not easy!

-- Eric Stone (, May 03, 2000.

Little Bit, I've thought of basically the same thing you are talking about, but with three-sided (D-shaped) logs rather than railroad ties. However, while we were living in Alaska a few years ago one of our neighbors was building an octagonal log house, and he swore he'd never build another one. Squares and rectangles are much easier to actually build than odd shapes like an octagon. You could make your own three-sided logs, or four-sided (squared) fairly easily with a chain-saw lumber maker. Also, as I've been going through our huge stack of old TMEN's and removing the few useful articles to keep, I came across an article about a family that built a rather large house out of logs they squared with just a chalk line and a chainsaw. House looked quite nice, too. Have you found a place to buy yet?

-- Kathleen Sanderson (, May 03, 2000.

Among the many articles I read in TMEN I remember one with stacked lumber, though I couldn't find it to help answer your question. I was thinking you could build a building with the railroad ties, but one main problem would be the off-gassing of not just nasty smell but also toxic gas from the creosote or whatever used to preseve the woold.

One of the books I have read described building a cordwood home out of old telephone poles. These were preserved (at the time, it's an old book) with creosote. this wasn't mentioned in the article. The house looked really handsome. Perhaps the builder was a heavy smoker was impervious to or didn't notice the odor. There actually was a man in Berkeley County, West Virginia, where I had land once who worked for the telephone company. He got the old poles and built log cabins. he built a beautiful one of his own which was much admired locally. An arsonist set fire to it and it was totally destroyed. Consequently, flammability is something you need to consider, as has been pointed out already in this thread! You could set fire to a couple of your railroad ties and see how flammable they are before you construct anything out of them.

If I were you and had an unlimted supply of railroad ties, I'd build a small shed of under 150 square feet or so. In an agricultural area such a shed would not need a permit. Once you had the enclosed space, you could step in it and see how much off-gassing there was and how sensitive to it you were. Then you could experiment with different coverings on the different walls to see what worked best (if anything). I remember another article where the person built a home with landscape timbers. They were of uniform size, precut, easy to lift and place. The building looked great in the article.

Again, my concern about building from a material with a toxic substance would keep me from doing it. However, maybe there is someway to use the railroad ties as the skeleton or bones of a structure and then coat them with something to keep them from off gassins as people do with the rammed tire homes, and then completely cover your building with adobe or cob or concrete or elastomer or something. Good luck. I'd be interested to know if you find a solution to your interesting problem that covers all the bases.

As an asthmatic, I personally would not build with railroad ties or any kind of treated wood whether with creosote or arsenic salts or whatever.

-- Elizabeth Petofi (, May 04, 2000.

Here is a test you can do Little bit--Find a creosote RR tie--rub your hand on it and smear it on your arm or face--now, go outside in the sun. Feel that burning sensation yet ? Watery eyes ? Nose burning ? Great idea--wrong material ! But if you were to saw your own logs 6" x 10" than you got it covered--build away !

-- Joel Rosen (, May 05, 2000.

As a former employee of a railroad tie treating plant let me say. DO NOT DO IT!!

Creosote is very hazardous. When our ties came out of the cylinders they were parked on a drip pad for a couple of days at least. The drip pad had to be cleaned a special way (I worked in the office so I do not know how) so the the haz mat was caught and desposed of properly. The pad had to resealed and painted every so often also.

I remember a female truck driver coming in to pick up a load of dried ties. She had never hauled them before and was wearing hip hugger jeans and a short halter top. Our guys loaded the truck but the truckers had to secure their own loads (liability). When she came into the office she had creosote on her stomach, hands, arms, shoulders and even some on her breasts. She was burning like being on fire, and all she did was brush up on them while chaining them down. Luckily we kept speical, expensive, salve for such dummies. Imagine living with that day in and day out.

If you want to use untreated ties, contact a saw mill and ask about them. The normal size is 7"X9"X9' but they come in all sizes. You can then buy some sealer for the wood. This is what was recommended by my employer whenever people would call about doing this. Which happened more often than you would think.

-- Viv in TX (, September 05, 2000.

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