October 01, 2023
the following project took nearly 5 months, with several false starts.

there is no secret to this kind of work -- it's primitive, slow, and exhausting. it's also a reminder that Mother Nature always wins, and she will exacerbate any challenge you wage against her.

let's begin!

what is a railroad tie?

remember when Abe Lincoln permitted Union Pacific to build a railroad across the country? one of my favorite shows of all time, Hell on Wheels, covers this epic in great detail. and when you watch the show you notice a lot of 2 things: hookers, and railroad ties.

a railroad tie is a strong, creosote-treated piece of lumber measuring ~9 feet long and ~8 inches thick, designed to provide foundational support for trains and railroad tracks.

for those of us who don't work at Union Pacific, they're also available for $27 a pop at Home Depot. i bought 3 for a small experiment in my backyard.
huge mistake parking my truck here

hard-scaping with railroad ties 

maintaining a pond kind of sucks. we don't have algae or ecosystem problems per se, however the shoreline of a pond always look a bit messy.

first, because there is no defined beginning to your land. water levels rise and fall throughout the year. second, you can't get a lawn mower within 5 feet of a pond's edge without sinking it in the mud. trust me, i've tried failed.

my Big Idea? line the pond edge with railroad ties to a) provide optical definition and b) prevent a muddy shoreline. i want to mow right along the coastline, dangit!

so when my parents came to visit for a weekend, i convinced my dad to help out.
carrying 3 railroad ties ~200 feet from my truck, by hand

first we gathered necessary tools and supplies:

- 2 foot rebar, 6x ($3.77 /each)
- sledgehammer
- 1/2" masonry drill bit ($15)
- chainsaw

then we got to work.

Step 1 - prepare the edge
for a more natural look, your railroad ties should sit "in" the ground a bit instead of directly on top of the surface. to accomplish this you place the tie along the edge, draw a cut line with a straight shovel, then roll back the tie and dig 3-5 inches deep.
beginning to dig after drawing a cut line

Step 2 - drill holes
when the footing is ready, you need to secure it with rebar. so we used the masonry bit to (slowly, painfully) cut through 9 inches of highly dense, treated wood.
drilling 1 hole on each side of the tie - here we had to restart

Step 3 - place and secure railroad tie
roll the tie into place and hammer in the 2 foot rebar. it should go ~8 inches into the ground and sit flush with the top of your tie.

in some cases you'll need a chainsaw to cut a corner from adjoining ties. this prevents awkward "pie" gaps between ties that sit at different angles.
backfilling some mud between and behind 2 ties

Step 4 - repeat!
with this system you can place 3 ties an hour, pending weather. what's not included:

- chainsaw dying (i bought 2 for this project)
- cordless drill starts smoking (i upgraded to a wired hammer drill and ran extension cords)
- rain makes every shovel scoop of mud 3x heavier
- moving railroad ties from your pallet to the pond edge

in May 2023 my dad and i laid 6 ties, and it looked great. but at 95 pounds each, this is not a 1 man job. so i waited for another opportunity to keep going.

scaling the pond edge

first things first, i needed more railroad ties. and loading up 6-8 per trip in my truck wasn't going to work. so i made a free Home Depot "Pro" account in exchange for free job site delivery of a full pallet.
a pallet of 16 ties, plus 8 more (~$648)

the system got a small upgrade - grab 4 at a time, put them in the back of the UTV, and chauffer the ties directly to the dropsite. carrying distance was reduced from 200 feet to 10 feet, which helped a lot but was still a horrible experience.

summer of false starts

in July i recruited a high schooler and his friends to lay ties at 25 bucks an hour. i trained them, left them alone, and later that afternoon found them hanging out and eating snacks in our guest house.

in August my buddy Dan visited from Florida and we laid a few more. but it had been raining heavily, including while we worked, which slowed down the process significantly. as in, 1 railroad tie per hour slower. NGMI.

after 2 days of toil our chainsaw wouldn't cut, the drill wouldn't drill, the mud was heavy as hell, and dozens of tree roots prevented us from straight cut lines along the pond edge.
we upgraded our tennis shoes to waterproof boots

bringing back The Dad

in September my parents visited again. thankfully dad knew what time it is. so we got to work.

after 2 days of literal blood, sweat, and tears we finished the pond edge beside our dock in the backyard. the extra chainsaw, blisters, and back pain was a free bonus.
in case you're curious why our "edge" is more than 10 feet inland, that's because the pond was in a low fill state at the time of install. in a month or 2 it will fill back up and these ties above will be more or less flush with the water line.

here's a full visual.
with less water/mud spread, i can now mow right next to the edge

and from the other side:
see that long white pipe in the middle? it's usually fully submerged

bonus - extra railroad ties

if you're keeping count, i bought 24 railroad ties after already* installing 6 during the initial experiment. it turns out i didn't need all 30.

we put them to use along the back right corner of our pond, in front of the future Container House.
eventually this will be nice and grassy

this 2nd pond line treatment is a great bonus because this is the deepest section of our pond, making it the best place to catch bass. 

until this edge was in place, weed growth and an inability to mow along the shoreline made it dangerous (snakes, poisonous plants) to stand her and cast a line. no longer.

key takeaways

a lot of people are afraid of physical labor. especially the youth. since moving here i've consitently observed 50+ year olds out-perform younger and more "in shape" counterparts. which makes me at least a little bit sympathetic to the boomer message that our generations are pathetic crybabies. in some respects they're right.

someday i'll rent an excavator (again) and clean up the shoreline even futher, scooping out the shallow mushy area so that even when the pond level is low, you won't see anything but waiter and railroad ties along the edge year round.

until then, hit the weight rack Millenials!
Spent: $1,036.00 | Time: 26.0 hours
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