How to Cut Railroad Ties

If you buy something through a link in our posts, we may get a small share of the sale.

Railroad ties can be used for a lot of different things. While they are most known for placing railroad, they can be used for a number of other projects as well. These thick and hearty pieces can’t be cut by just anything. It takes precision and the proper tools.

Below, you will find a complete guide on how to cut railroad ties properly.

Preparing to Cut Railroad Ties

Cutting railroad ties is not a simple task. For starters, the planks are long and difficult to manage. They are large and heavy wood planks that are tough and durable.

In addition to the size and durability, some railroad ties also have chemicals on them that might have adverse effects when you cut through it.

If the railroad ties have been in use before, you could also run into things like gravel or debris that have been embedded into the railroad tie. These can go flying or could even potentially damage your tool while you are cutting.

Here is a simple list of the gear we recommend for cutting railroad ties.

  • Chainsaw: There are other options but a chainsaw is the best tool for cutting through a railroad tie. The best chainsaw is both powerful and tough, which is the perfect combination. It will still take some effort and some time, even with this powerful tool.
  • Proper Chain: We recommend using a carbide tipped chain. While you can use any chain, this is the chain that will work best and will cut more quickly.
  • Wood Scraps: You will need a couple of scrap wood pieces for elevation while you work. We recommend 2x4s for this project. You could also use a few sawhorses if you have them.
  • Tape Measure: Plan to have a tape measure so that you can measure where you need to make cuts and get your cuts as precise as possible.
  • Chalk: Chalk is a simple way to mark a line so that you have a guide for where you need to cut the railroad tie.
  • Coveralls: You will need full protection from anything that might fly at you, including wood chunks. Coveralls is the best way to protect your clothes and person.
  • Boots and Gloves: Your feet and hands will need to be protected as well. Work boots that are not easily penetrated as well as leather or thick work gloves are a must.
  • Safety Goggles: Again, you must protect yourself from flying objects. Safety goggles will protect your eyes from chips and splinters.
  • Construction Mask: We recommend wearing a construction mask to prevent inhaling the dust or potential chemicals.
  • Hearing Protection: Chain saws can be very loud to operate so protect your ears and your hearing with appropriate hearing protection while you work.

This seems like a long list but many of the items covered are safety gear items. Do not skip the safety gear for this project. Railroad ties are nothing to mess with and you will need all of the safety gear to ensure you are not harmed while you work.

Cutting Railroad Ties Step-By-Step

The most important element for this process is to understand that safety matters. This won’t be a simple cut so we recommend being incredibly cautious. Be prepared for the challenge as this will be difficult. You can’t just zip through it.

Remember that there could be debris that flies or makes the cut more challenging. Also remember that most railroad ties have chemicals on them for weatherproofing purposes. These chemicals might cause irritation to lungs, skin, and eyes so it is important to wear your safety gear to prevent that as well.

Here are the steps that we are going to walk through for cutting a railroad tie.

  1. Preparing Your Space: You’re going to be working with a large item so you need to set up your work area for the task. If possible, cut the ties close to where they are rather than lugging and moving them around.
  2. Measure: You will need to measure the railroad tie and mark it accordingly before you start cutting.
  3. Cutting Railroad Ties: We will walk you through making the cut from start to finish.

This may not seem like many steps for a complicated and challenging task but you will find that this will take some time and steady effort to work through. Don’t expect a 30-second cut to happen here.

Now, let’s walk through the steps in further detail.

Prepare Your Space

You will need to prepare your space before you get to work. Preparing your space is simple but you want to be sure that you have a setup that can handle the railroad ties and be stable in the meantime. If you have the railroad ties in a workshop, you can use a workbench or sawhorse for the task.

However, we recommend setting up a workspace somewhere near where you are placing the railroad ties. It just makes it that much easier. These suckers are heavy.

Those wood scraps we recommended having on hand will be helpful here. Set them up to give yourself some elevation while you cut. Place them approximately 3-feet apart from one another. Before you cut, place the railroad tie on top of these 2x4s.  This helps prevent binding and will make cutting a bit easier as well.

Measure

You might not need to measure if you are just cutting into scraps or pieces in order to remove a railroad tie. However, if you need accuracy or specific lengths, you should plan to measure before you cut. This will help guide you as you cut for a more precise and accurate finish in the end.

To measure, simply use your tape measure and your chalk to mark the railroad tie in the necessary places. Be sure that your chalk line is thick enough to see easily and covers the length so that you have a straight cut (or as straight as possible) when you finish.

If you need to make more than one cut, go ahead and mark it all before you get started. If you’re cutting multiple pieces or cuts, you will probably need a brief break in between cuts.

Cutting Railroad Ties

Now, it’s time to cut the railroad ties. This is definitely the most challenging part. The better chain and chainsaw that you have at your disposal, the easier this task will be. On the same note, regardless of your equipment, it probably won’t be easy in the end.

Here are complete steps to guide you through the cutting process. Take it slow and steady.

  1. Safety Gear: Before you pick up that chainsaw, you need to apply all of your safety gear. You should have on coveralls, work boots, work gloves, safety goggles, a mask, and hearing protection. Protection is a must because of the chemicals and potential debris.
  2. Start the Chainsaw: Power up your chainsaw when you are prepped and ready to cut. Make sure your wood is already placed and you’ve done everything except cut up to this point.
  3. First Cut: Start by making your first cut. The first cut will be straight into the railroad tie and should work through until you reach about 3/4 of the way through the tie. This first cut will take some time as you work through debris and the solid wood that a tie is made of. Don’t cut all of the way through.
  4. Last Cut: Your final cut should go from the bottom and work up. With this being such a massive cut, finishing from the bottom will help to prevent your chain from binding as you finish cutting through the railroad tie.

As you cut, debris and rock inside of the tie can damage your blade or even your chain saw. Your cutting will be slow going so just be sure to watch closely and carefully for any potential items like this. If you work slowly and pay close attention, you will make it through ok.

Learn how to measure your chainsaw’s size.

This type of cut can be hard on your chainsaw. If you are making multiple cuts, you may need to have extra chains on hand and perhaps be able to sharpen your chain in between cuts.

Why So Much Safety Gear?

We cannot express enough how important the proper safety gear is to this task. There are two reasons that you need safety gear. First of all, you’re cutting through a hefty plank. Railroad ties are known for having grit, sand, gravel, rocks, and more embedded into them.

You could be met with flying debris of any kind as well as wood chips that break loose and move around while you are cutting. Your safety gear can help to protect you from injuries for these.

Additionally, railroad ties are often coated with a chemical known as creosote. Creosote can cause irritation to your skin or eyes and it can also be harmful to your lungs. It is a known carcinogen. Proper safety gear will protect you from this as well.

Summary

If you follow the proper tips and safety procedures, you should be able to cut your railroad tie with no problems. Keep in mind that it is a big task and be prepared to spend time to get it done right. Gear up and cut slowly and carefully.

An expert at home repair, remodel, and DIY projects for nearly 40 years. His first experience came in completely restoring an antique home. Completely redone from the inside out, and restored to its original form, the home is a featured design by renowned Southern California Architect Cliff May, considered to be the father of the California Ranch Home. Now Dennis spends his time on fine woodworking projects and tool comparisons.