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How to build sleeper steps

How to build sleeper steps

Rob, Copywriter and Digital Content Creator. Towcester

Guide written by:

Rob, Copywriter and Digital Content Creator. Towcester

8 guides

Sleeper steps are a fantastic garden landscaping project, providing a natural looking feature which is practical, attractive, and long-lasting. Read on for our step-by-step guide on how to build sleeper steps.

Important features

  • Design and planning
  • Preparing and cutting timber
  • Laying down the sleeper steps
  • Finishing off
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Timber or railway sleepers are naturally strong, durable, and make great steps. Available in various types of wood, they can be incorporated into any kind of garden design. Use them to access difficult slopes or zoned areas such as raised beds, veg patches and play areas.

Steps

  1. Designing and planning your sleeper steps
  2. Preparing and cutting the timber
  3. Laying down the sleepers
  4. Finishing off the tread

Railway sleepers come in different sizes, the most common being 2.6m long, 225mm wide and 125mm high, which is the ideal size for garden steps. Some sleepers can be a little larger though. When planning your project, you need to account for:

  • the rise (height of each step)
  • the tread (the depth of the area behind each sleeper)

The maximum height of each step should be 15cm. There’s no recommended maximum width or depth, but the steps will look better if they’re all uniform in size.

To work out how many steps you will need, measure the full height of the incline you’re building into, and divide that number by the rise of each step. The depth of the tread will depend on the length of the incline – for example a short, steep slope will mean narrower treads. Longer slopes allow for more steps with a bigger tread.

Hardwood sleepers – such as oak – are very strong and will last a long time. Softwood sleepers are more budget-friendly but are more prone to rot. Make sure all timber is treated with preservative before you build your stairs.

Your project design can vary from simply placing sleepers into the ground for a very natural look, to constructing a frame for your stairs which gives them a more formal appearance. This guide concentrates on building garden steps without a frame.

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Multi-purpose wood treatments

Building sleeper steps involves moving and lifting heavy timber, so make sure to wear protective gloves and steel toe-capped boots. You may also need someone else to help you.

Once you have finalised your plan it’s time to dig out the ground. 

  • Use either pegs and string or marking paint to map out where the stairs will sit
  • Dig out the basic step shapes (a series of ‘trenches’) into the slope. Dig each trench a little larger than the size of the step. You will need the extra space to secure each sleeper with either concrete or wooden stakes. 
  • Use a spirit level to check that each trench is level.

Either dig each trench one at a time as you go along or alternatively dig them all in one go before you lay down any sleepers. If the treads are particularly large or deep, then cover the soil with landscape fabric to prevent any weeds from growing through.

Cut your sleepers to size using a circular saw or a chainsaw. You could use a hand saw, but this would require a lot of effort. Treat the cut ends with wood preserver.

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Hand saws

Position the first sleeper in its trench. There are two methods to fix your sleepers into place – using concrete or using wooden stakes.

Securing your steps with concrete is best for soft or rocky ground. 

  • You need to lay a concrete bed about 50-100mm thick. Allow for a little extra space behind the sleeper.
  • Mix the concrete in a mixer and pour it into the trench. Level it out and position the sleeper on top. 
  • Add some more concrete in the space behind the sleeper. Make sure the sleeper is fully supported from behind and underneath.
  • Use a spirit level to check that the step is level.
  • Repeat this process for the other steps.

Wooden stakes are best used in firm ground. 

  • Drive a stake into the ground directly behind the sleeper, one at each end, a few centimetres in.
  • Each stake should be at least 30cm long. When hammered in, the top of the stake should sit about an inch lower than the top of the sleeper so it can be covered with shingle or gravel.
  • Check that the step is level, then secure the stakes to the sleeper with exterior timber screws or nails.
  • Repeat this process for the other steps.
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Timber screws

Now that the steps are firmly in place, fill in the treads behind the sleepers. The aim is to finish up level with the top of the sleeper. You can choose from a variety of materials:

  • Decorative stones, gravel or shingle
  • Bark chippings
  • Soil topped with turf

Turf is more likely to be slippery in wet conditions and will need more maintenance. Turf may also become very muddy in winter.

A layer of gravel or shingle is the best material for drainage. Make sure the gravel is nice and compact after you’ve spread it into the tread.

Finally, to improve the grip of the steps, cut some very shallow lines into the timber, and then sprinkle each step with a fine layer of sand or grit.

Required skills

Building garden steps requires moderate DIY experience:

  • Planning and visualising your project effectively
  • Measuring and cutting accurately
  • Using heavy duty power tools, e.g., circular saw 
  • Digging ground to accurate measurements and a level finish
  • Comfortable with mixing and pouring concrete

Time required

1-2 days depending on the size of the project. Possibly more if you’re waiting for concrete to set.

Number of people required

2 people 

Tools and equipment

Personal protective equipment (PPE)

Please note: this is a non-exhaustive list; be sure to match your personal protective equipment to the job at hand.

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Cement mixers

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Guide written by:

Rob, Copywriter and Digital Content Creator. Towcester, 8 guides

Rob, Copywriter and Digital Content Creator. Towcester

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