Frequently asked questions about Creosote treatment of Railway Sleepers

- Are creosoted railway sleepers illegal? Are they safe to use?
- Can you use creosoted railway sleepers for furniture?
- Can you get sticky creosote off railway sleepers?

Railway is registered by the environment agency for importing and selling creosote treated railway sleepers.

There have been lots of news items and enquiries recently about the issue of creosote and railway sleepers. 
Are creosote treated railway sleepers banned ? Are they dangerous ? Do we still sell them ? What restrictions are there? 
We aim to cover the issues and history another section Railway sleeper treatments. Hopefully all your questions about creosote and railway sleeper treatments should be answered both there, and also in some of the following questions:

Here are a couple of letters asking questions about railway sleeper treatments:


Dear Railway,
Could you help me. I am told that it is illegal to use railway sleepers in the garden (because of Europe.. so I am minded not to comply (!)) but I need ten railway sleepers to terrace my garden. Adrian Andrew

Railway Fear not. The knock on the door by the special branch is unlikely to follow your use of creosoted railway sleepers in the garden! They haven't been banned, only restricted
1) you can't eat off them
2) you can't use them for children's play areas (or areas of frequent skin contact)
3) You can't use them inside a house.
So, you should have no problem using them as a terrace.


Dear Railway,
We are are a small furniture design studio in Israel. We use old railway sleepers to build some of our home and garden furniture. Some railway sleepers are used whole and some are cut in different ways. Lately we heard about the dangerous CREOSOTE used as a pesticide. We are both exposed to saw and sanding dust in the workplace and are concerned about the possible hazard to our customers. We saw your web site and are hopeful that you can advice us on some matters What precautions are you taking while handling, cutting and sanding the railway sleepers? Do you know if coating the wood with varnish makes it safe to be used as a furniture? Does the strong odour coming from some railway sleepers indicates the level of toxicity? Is using a dust mask while cutting and sanding the railway sleepers OK?  Is it OK to put these furniture in the house or only outdoors? We have no access to reliable information in Israel and will be very happy if you can help us. You are also welcome to visit our site (the railway sleepers furniture are presented only in the Hebrew part) Thank you for taking the time to read our mail.
Yours Sincerely, Harel Nadav

Railway Thankyou for your e-mail, and quite excellent pictures. We will put them on our website, as examples of your studio's work. We have visited your great site and find your design and creativity very impressive. Both simple and stylish.
It's hard to answer accurately your questions. Firstly because we are not doctors or scientists, and secondly because there is not much written about the effects of creosote. So please don't take our opinions as hard evidence!
1) Creosote has been used for hundreds of years. It is only in the last few years in Europe, that there has been restrictions on the use of railway sleepers that have been creosote treated. (see our article on 'Sleeper treatments')
2) The European restrictions say that creosoted railway sleepers should not be used where there may be 'frequent skin contact', risk of 'food contamination', or 'inside houses'. However they can still be used for many landscaping, construction etc.. purposes.
3) In terms of ourselves, we use gloves when handling sleepers, and are wary of inhalation of sawdust whilst cutting, as one would be with any type of timber. We only cut them outside. We don't sand them, although customers do do this, as well as sand blasting them, and pressure washing them. I don't know whether the stronger the smell indicates that a railway sleeper is more 'dangerous'. However, it is true that older sleepers tend to smell less, as though the creosote has weakened or evaporated.
4) Should you use creosoted railway sleepers as furniture? Fortunately, or unfortunately the decision has already made for us by the European Parliament. We're not allowed to use creosoted railway sleepers as furniture. However, we have in the past quite happily used them inside houses. The issue then was merely whether there was surface tar, oil or creosote to make it impractical or unpleasant to use as a seat (for example), or whether the smell was too nasty to have inside. The conclusion is that you can make furniture out of used railway sleepers that are untreated (e.g. Jarra, Azobe, Oak etc..) or treated in an uncreosoted way (e.g. salt-treated russian bulkheads, or tannalised pine) or use new untreated sleepers.
5) I don't know whether varnishing the surface of the sleeper would 'seal' the creosote inside. I doubt it.


Hello, I have seen many purveyors of furniture made from railway sleepers, specifically coffee tables. I'd very much like to own one, but am a little reluctant to pay the sometimes astronomical prices asked for such items. I therefore had the idea that i would buy my own railway sleepers (from a reclamation yard) and create my own furniture. I then read on your site that the original treatment of such timbers make most of the old oak railway sleepers unsuitable for such a use. Can you advise me if there are any railway sleepers that may be suitable for my requirements? Do I need to do something with the timbers that make them suitable for indoor use and is this why furniture companies charge so much for their stock? Thanks in advance. Marc

Railway It's a big rip-off world out there... so what's new ! There's lots of railway sleepers, new and old, that might be suitable. New are more straightforward because they are straighter, and not treated with anything nasty - so, NEW British Pine, or NEW oak. Used would mean Tropical hardwood Australian Jarrah (untreated) or African Azobe (untreated), as they aren't treated with creosote. Best thing is to come and visit us, have a look and take them away with you.


I'm wondering if you can help us. we've just had our garden landscaped and have 2 large flights of steps made from old railway sleepers which have already started leaking tar in the recent warm weather - no one warned us that this would happen. The contractor has merely told us to throw sand over the tar but this doesn't stop it getting on your shoes etc. Is there a product that will seal the railway sleepers or do you have any tips which you would be willing to share with us? Many thanks,
Sue Thomas

Railway Sorry to hear your news - the last thing you want in your new landscaped garden. There's no magical solution I'm afraid. Used softwood railway sleepers (British pine) treated with tar and creosote, will invariably leak in hot weather. We've stopped recommending them for family and public landscaping in the last few years for that very reason. There are much more preferable railway sleepers that are untreated, or treated with different solutions that have no tar or creosote base, that would be perfect for you. So saying, I appreciate that this is absolutely no comfort to you at all. My advice is to (a) grin and bear it (b) replace them with similar size and profile railway sleepers, but in a nicer tar-free or untreated version (c) I can't think of any others. As a gesture, we will supply the right size to you, as economically as possible. Alternatively, invite the well heeled contractor to sit on your steps for a quiet sticky chat. 

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