If you’ve ever used railroad ties for a project, you know they’re heavy duty. However, this also makes railroad ties difficult to cut. You’ll need a chainsaw, a circular saw, and/or a reciprocating saw like a Sawzall to get railroad ties down to the size you need. We have everything you need to know about cutting railroad ties, including safety precautions.

How to Cut Railroad Ties

Railroad ties are the wooden, rectangular supports in railroad tracks. They are sturdy, last a long time, and are resistant to rot and insects. Railroad ties can be used for yard projects like building a retaining wall. In this case, you’ll probably want to cut them to size.

There are a few different ways to cut railroad ties. But, above all else, keep your safety in mind. In the instructional videos below, you’ll notice that no matter what method is used, the workers are wearing protective gear. This includes closed-toed shoes, hearing protection, eye protection, long pants, a facemask, and gloves.

Railroad ties are often covered in creosote, a dark brown, oily compound that acts as a wood preserver. While creosote is great at preserving railroad ties — which are exposed to all types of weather — it’s extremely toxic. In fact, if you get creosote on your skin or inhale it, it can cause burns, eye damage, and/or rashes. If you’re exposed to it in large doses, you could end up with liver or kidney failure, convulsions, or even death, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Because of this, you may not want to use railroad ties for something like a vegetable garden, as the creosote may leach into the soil and produce. For other projects, after you have taken the necessary precautions, try one of the three methods below to cut railroad ties.

1. Chainsaw

The fastest — and best — way to cut railroad ties is with a chainsaw. This method is demonstrated in this video:

In the video, you’ll notice that the man cutting the railroad ties has the ties elevated off the ground — if you don’t do this, your chainsaw will hit the ground and kickback at you, which could result in injury. The key here is to go slow and use a kind of rocking motion when cutting. You may also want to enlist the help of a friend to hold the railroad ties, as seen in the video. This is not entirely necessary though.

2. Circular Saw and Reciprocating Saw

If you don’t have a chainsaw, you can use a circular saw and reciprocating saw to cut railroad ties, as seen in this video:

In the video, you’ll notice that — like when using a chainsaw — the railroad tie needs to be elevated. And because you’ll first be making cuts around the outside of the tie, you’ll want to mark your cutting lines using something like a carpenter pencil and a Speed Square Layout Tool. After you’ve marked your tie, use the circular saw to cut around all four sides of the tie. After that, starting from the bottom of the tie, use the reciprocating saw to cut through the rest of the tie.

3. Reciprocating Saw (Sawzall)

Alternately, you can skip the circular saw and just use a Sawzall, as demonstrated in this video:

In the video, you’ll notice that the tie is elevated by another tie. You can use this method or elevate the tie on both ends — like in the previous videos. Once the tie is elevated, proceed by cutting down through the railroad tie using the same kind of rocking motion you would use with a chainsaw.

Other Railroad Tie Cutting Options

Because most railroad ties are covered in creosote, places like The Home Depot, Lowe’s, and Menards won’t cut them for you because it’s a liability risk. However, a local lumber yard may be willing to help. Search for a lumber yard near you and call to ask.

Another option is to rent a saw from your local Home Depot or a Menards near you (Lowe’s doesn’t rent tools). Rental prices will vary by location, but for tool availability, see below:

1. The Home Depot

2. Menards

In Summary

Railroad ties are great to use for projects because they’re sturdy and are resistant to rot and insects — but this also makes them difficult to cut. However, if you own — or can rent — a chainsaw, a circular saw, and/or a reciprocating saw, you should be able to get the job done. Be sure you wear the appropriate safety gear and take precautions for your health.