Building With Railroad Ties: You Can Construct a Home

Learn about building a simple home from railroad ties that can be picked up free and using money-saving materials.

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    Railroad ties can give your home a unique look.
    Photos courtesy of Provincial Press

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This article is presented as part of Mother Earth News history, and should not be used as a guide for new construction. Coal tar creosote, even when the scent has dissipated, can cause negative health effects, and timber impregnated with it should not be used for dwellings.

The comfortable 2,200 square foot, three-bedroom house studied here took one couple, with occasional help from their friends, five summer vacations' spare time to complete. The three-hundred railroad ties used in the walls were picked up free. Mortar material cost $300.00. This compares with a cost of $7.00 per lineal foot for stud walls with bat insulation, gypsum board, and exterior wood siding.

The house has served as the family's permanent home through ten palouse winters, the walls showing their age only in hairline wood shrinkage cracks between tie and mortar.

The ties were laid horizontally in masonry fashion. The same material serves as structure, insulation, and interior and exterior surface. The rough, unfinished, organic material provides a mellow, rustic appearance.

Railroad ties have an 8" X 8" section and are treated with creosote oil, a preservative derived from coal tar. The ties used should be at least ten years old. By then, enough of the creosote will have evaporated so that its smell will not be noticed. Only the softwood (e.g. fir) ties should be used. Hardwood (e.g. oak) ties will shrink too much for this purpose.

The ties were stacked with 2" spacer blocks separating them to leave joint spaces. The most uniform ties were used for interior partitions. In the exterior walls the beams were laid to present the best face to the inside, and that face of the wall was plumbed even, putting all irregularities to the weather. Electrical conduit runs were then made within the joint spaces.



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