How to Remove Creosote From Railroad Ties – Is It Possible?

If you just got your hands on some old railroad ties, you might be considering using them for some landscaping project, for example. As you already know, there’s a high chance that the ties have been treated with creosote, which is a wood conservative against parasites and harsh weather conditions. Since creosote is toxic, is it possible to remove it from railroad ties?

The answer is: yes and no. Depending on the conditions of the wood at hand, it might be possible to remove most of the creosote contained in it. There’s not a definitive method for it: ending results might vary. In this quick article, we are going to look at these 5 ways to remove creosote from railroad ties:

  1. Cutting the outer layers of the tie;
  2. Using solvents like paint thinner or mineral spirits;
  3. Leaching;
  4. Sandblasting;
  5. Sealing the tie.

A little disclaimer before we start: all the following methods will be addressed from a theoretical point of view. I’m not suggesting you follow any of them. There are high health risks involved, such as:

  • Eyes burns;
  • Skin rashes;
  • Convulsions;
  • Blistering/peeling of the skin;
  • Burning in the mouth/throat;

These are just a few. Consult the Publish Health Statement for Creosote by the ATSDR for a complete overview. Be aware of that before starting.

How to Remove Creosote From Railroad Ties

removing creosote from railroad ties
“Railroad ties” by Valerie Everett is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Before we start talking about the different methods, a few words about safety are due. As you already know, creosote is made up of all sorts of nasty chemicals. Exposure to creosote-treated wood without protection might cause skin burns, eye irritation, plus all kind of internal problems. Last but not least, some components are also carcinogenic.

That’s why you need to be extremely careful when working with treated wood. Wear glasses, gloves, and a face mask (a respirator would be even better). Make sure to protect your skin from contact also. Consider wearing a coverall.

1) Removing the Outer Portion of the Railroad Tie

If you need to cut the tie to size for your project, might as well try this method to see how deep the creosote is. If you are lucky, and the railroad tie isn’t too old, then you might be able to reach clean wood by cutting a couple of inches all around the tie. Use a trial and error approach; start by cutting a 1-inch thick layer, then check the appearance of the underneath wood. If it’s still toned black, then creosote is still in it. Proceed accordingly until you reach the desired size. You might be able to remove all the wood impregnated with creosote. If that’s not the case, after cutting the outer layers of wood you might want to try to remove the residual creosote using one of the other methods.

What tool to use to cut a railroad tie? For clean, straight cuts you might want to use a bandsaw. The problem is that railroad ties are quite heavy and big to handle; if you don’t have a buddy that can help you, you can use a chainsaw for the cutting. Use a used chain for that, there might be old nails in the wood.

Beware of the risk involved in cutting railroad ties. Creosote contains notoriously carcinogenic chemicals, so you don’t want to make contact with any of the sawdust produced. Wear long sleeves shirts, gloves, glasses, and a face mask. Try to seal the area where you work so that you’ll be able to clean it up afterward completely.

2) Using Solvents

Another thing you could try to remove creosote from railroad ties is using solvents. For example, you might want to try using mineral spirits or paint thinners for this kind of job. Make sure to wear a respirator and chemical-resistant gloves when handling solvents. If you can, aerate the shop or work outdoor to prevent toxic fumes from building up.

You’ll need a large amount of solvent to impregnate all the railroad tie. To avoid wasting time and materials, start on a small portion of the wood to see if the solvent can bring out the creosote or not. Results will depend on how deep the creosote penetrated into the wood and on the chosen solvent. Then, decide if you want to carry on onto the rest of the tie.

Since creosote might start to come out of the wood, make sure you placed the railroad tie over a plastic sheet to prevent it from penetrating the soil if you are working outdoors, or dirty up your shop floor.

3) Leaching

Some creosote components are soluble in water. This means that by getting the railroad tie in contact with the right amount of moisture, some creosote should leach away from it. That’s the theory behind the practice of putting railroad ties in the dirt to let the creosote leach out.

There’s a couple of things to consider if you plan to use this method:

  • We already know that creosote is made up of toxic chemicals. If you put railroad ties to leach in the soil, you’ll end up poisoning it. On top of that, you might also risk poisoning the groundwater, if it’s not that deep. If you decide to follow this route, make sure you are not breaking any laws by doing that.
  • After establishing that you can put your ties into the soil, carefully pick a location for it. A good idea might be to use a remote portion of your property to do it, where you are sure you won’t plant anything in the future.
  • Really old railroad ties might not leach creosote at all. Make sure to check on the tie from time to time to see if you are getting any results at all.
  • As mentioned before, a certain level of moisture is required for this method to be effective. Wet the soil if it’s too dry and you are not getting any result.

4) Sandblasting

Some folks also mention sandblasting as a possible method to remove creosote from railroad ties. There are two problems with this method:

  • Sandblasting is a superficial treatment. When applied to wood, it’s usually used to clean the surface from stuff like old paint. Thus, it probably won’t be able to good deep enough if the creosote penetration is high.
  • Secondly, sandblasting creosote-treated wood might represent a huge health risk, due to all the fine dust that will be produced. You would have to wear a full suit, glasses, and a respirator. On top of that, after you are finished, you should use a vacuum to pick up all the sawdust and dispose of it properly.

Basically, there’s a very low chance of success, which does not justify the health risks you will have to deal with if using this method.

5) Sealing

Finally, a bit different approach. Instead of removing the creosote from the tie, you could also try to seal it to prevent the creosote from leaching. You might also give this method a try if all the earlier methods didn’t work out as planned.

Use your favorite wood sealer. If you are going to use the ties outdoor, make sure to use a waterproofer product like this Siloxane-Based Sealer. You might need to apply multiple layers of product to get decent results. Check the ties a few days after you treated them to make sure the sealing is effective. If not, consider applying additional layers of sealer.

It might take a few tries to find the right product for this type of project. If you need to treat multiple ties, start with just one and see if you are getting the desired results before sealing all of them.

Final Thoughts

So there you have it, 5 methods to remove creosote from railroad ties. As I mentioned in the beginning, results may vary, due to the amount of creosote left in the wood and how deep the penetration is. If the tie is very old, chances are creosote penetrated soo deep into the wood, that it will probably be impossible to remove it completely.

“Playing the Claw Game With Railroad Ties” by cogdogblog is marked with CC0 1.0

To increase the chance of getting better results, you could also try to use a combination of the proposed methods. You might want to start by removing the outer layers of the tie to get to the desired size; then, proceed with solvents treatment; finally, seal the tie to hold the residual creosote.

Sounds like a lot of work to recover some old wood, right? You’ll have to deal with toxic products, and you are not even sure you’ll get results before the end of it. Considering the chance of failure and the high health risk, it might not be worth even trying to remove creosote from railroad ties at all.

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