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Useful Things to do With Utility Poles and Railroad Ties

Updated on September 9, 2011

There is a great sense of satisfaction in being creative enough to re-use or re-purpose something that might otherwise be thrown out. Saving space in landfills and some dollars in your pocket drive many people to search for ways to turn old into new again.

There are plenty of people looking to buy utility poles and old railroad ties. The long,straighttimbers lend themselves perfectly well to outdoor projects on the homestead, from retaining walls and garden borders to outbuildings and recreational enjoyments.

First, there are a few things you should never do with used utility poles and railroad ties. Being aware of these no-no’s is essential to the well-being of ourselves and our neighbors.

Most utility poles and railroad ties are made of pressure treated wood. In order to preserve the bases of wooden poles and ties that are in contact with the ground – and therefore in contact with moisture, fungi, bacteria, and other critters just looking for an easy lunch – lumber is doused in liquid preservatives. The lumber is then put into a pressure chamber, where the preservative is forced into the very fibers of the wood and to the core of the block. The most commonly used preservative is ACQ, or alkaline copper quat, because copper has been proven an effective toxin against some bugs and fungi, and ACQ binds very well with wood fibers. Unfortunately, treated wood is also not all that great for humans, either. You should avoid too much direct contact with this type of wood. Use gloves when you are handling it, don’t breathe in the sawdust, and keep kids away. Especially, don’t burn treated wood in open fires or stoves for heat or cooking, as the smoke is laden with toxins. Never use chipped or shredded treated wood for mulch or fill, as the chemicals in the wood will soon leach into the ground andwatertable.

That being said, the longer treated wood is left to weather the elements, the less toxic it becomes, making old poles and ties perfect candidates for other uses after years of duty in the great outdoors. Following are a few ideas to spark your imagination.

Pole Sheds

Use strong, sturdy and straight poles as vertical supports for storage buildings of all sorts. After digging anchoring holes at least 18” deep (wider and deeper in wet ground) and between two and ten feet apart, place the poles and fill the holes with concrete. Install a foundation and floor, and then use the upright poles to attach planks for walls, nailing the planks to both sides of the pole and filling in the hollow space between with electric wiring, plumbing, and insulation. Make sure your structure meets all code requirements for safety! With a solid roof attached with a truss system, you’ve got a new building for many types of storage and uses, and often for a bargain when you buy utility poles in bulk.

Bridges

Many people have been able to fashion simple post and beam bridges to cover gullies, streams, small rivers and creeks, and ravines using utility poles scrapped by utility companies. Building a bridge will take some hard work and muscle, but when the materials are mostly free or inexpensive, a little sweat equity just makes the finished project all the more rewarding. The key is to keep the bridge as simple as possible. Arched bridges, suspension bridges, and other types of bridges might look fantastic, but some require almost constant maintenance to keep in good working order. Unless you are paying someone with an engineering degree to keep your bridge safe for crossing, keep it straightforward and uncomplicated.

Fences

Probably the most obvious employment for used poles and ties is for robust fencing. Planting the poles in cement-reinforced holes, similar to the pole shed wall above, nail planks or other fencing material on using the poles as supports. Your fence can be more lightweight or more solid, depending on the amount of wood or metal you use as cross pieces and what you are keeping in (or out!).

Zip Lines

For recreational purposes, having a zip line around is a fun challenge and thrill. You can build your own gravity-braking zip line with a pole at one end, allowing access to the top of the line with a ladder or stair structure against the pole.

Landscaping

It’s a common site to see railroad ties utilized as borders for flower and garden beds as well as retaining walls. Because they are already treated against insects, moisture, and fungi, railroad ties and poles are ideal in this situation. They can lie in or on the ground for decades before decaying. Because railroad ties have been treated with creosote, that black, sticky stuff that looks like tar, cover your hands, arms, and any skin that might come into contact with the beams. If you get slivers or punctures, creosote can cause the wound to fester to infection. Be careful!

Construct retaining walls in places where the soil is eroding due to water. If your yard is very steep, terracing the earth into manageable and flat landings will save your soil, allow you to plant grass, flowers, trees, and vegetable gardens, and play or lounge without fear of rolling downhill. Mowing is going to be a whole lot easier, too!

Retaining walls can also be for decorative purposes to create interest in an otherwise flat garden. Planting in levels keeps flowers and bushes from being hidden, and by carefully planning heights and blooming seasons, your garden can be lush and attractive all year long.

Buy railroad ties, cross beams, or used utility poles through reputable dealers, who often have deals with railroad companies to take bulk ties. Don’t assume that ties lying next to railroads are up for grabs, as that could lead to trespassing and theft charges. And make sure you call your utility company to see if you can get free poles. It never hurts to ask. Even if the poles are not free, you might be able to get a great bargain, and you’re saving the utility company from having to store the wooden poles as they are replaced with steel or iron poles.

By using your brain and recycling something that would otherwise end up slowly rotting in a landfill, you can save money and find a great deal of righteous contentment in a job well done.

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      Lyla Burns 

      6 years ago

      I love the idea of using landscape railroad ties in landscaping. http://www.adamscole.com I really think it can add a certain touch to your yard if it's done right. I love the thought of having a garden in the ties. I love having the garden separate from the rest of my yard.

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