Guide written by:
Rob, Copywriter and Digital Content Creator. Towcester
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Wooden stakes are best used in firm ground.
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:
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.
Building garden steps requires moderate DIY experience:
1-2 days depending on the size of the project. Possibly more if you’re waiting for concrete to set.
Please note: this is a non-exhaustive list; be sure to match your personal protective equipment to the job at hand.
Guide written by:
Rob, Copywriter and Digital Content Creator. Towcester, 8 guides