Lovely Outdoor Firepit I'm going for

My wife and I recently purchased our first home. We'd like to make a flattened area in our backyard (which is somewhat sloped) for a firepit. My thinking was to dig out a shallow area and fill it with gravel, then place the firepit on top (similar to the picture above) What I'm unsure of is how to safely contain the gravel without it spilling over. I was imagining some kind of retaining wall thing. This picture clued me in on these wooden beams, which I like the look of and I would expect are less expensive than building a stone retaining wall (probably more practical too).

The Question:

What are the wooden beams called in this picture?

Bonus Question(s):

  • Do you see any issue with using these wooden beams to contain the gravel?
  • Would you expect these Beams to last several years or would you expect them to deteriorate quickly?

Any insights would be greatly appreciated.

BTW, if my question needs to be edited in someway, let me know and I'll edit it ASAP.

  • 1
    No issue with the gravel containment, I have them framing 2 sides of a parking area, just like in your picture and they work great. Those things weigh a ton, and once they're set, they won't move. May 4, 2019 at 13:06
  • I would call that a sleeper.
    – Strawberry
    May 5, 2019 at 12:59

4 Answers 4


"Landscape Timber" or, sometimes, "used railroad tie" - but "landscape timber" is what you'll find at most typical lumber suppliers.

They will typically last several years - if well pressure-treated, longer. It's hard to know if they are really well pressure-treated until they start failing and you look at a calendar to figure out how long it's been.

Concrete "fake stone" retaining wall blocks will last longer, generally speaking. So which costs less depends on how long a time you are considering when judging the total cost.

You probably want a geotextile fabric layer between the soil and the gravel to keep the gravel from migrating into the soil over time.

  • 4
    "Railroad tie" is the term. Searching for "landscape timber" will yield a lot of false results. Mostly you'll get these hits, but you'll also find the squared-off, pressure-treated 4x4 or 6x6 variety. May 4, 2019 at 13:04
  • 5
    "railway sleeper" is another term... but depends on location...
    – Solar Mike
    May 4, 2019 at 13:09
  • 2
    I'm not sure if they're still like this across the country, but railroad ties used to be treated with tar, which is nasty. One could argue that a pressure treated 6x6 (rated for ground contact) is also somewhat nasty, but less so. If it was my yard, I'd use the PT, then cap it with a 1x8 in douglas fir/cedar/whatever is available that isn't fj pine. May 4, 2019 at 14:50
  • 1
    As @SolarMike suggested, in Australia these are merely referred to as sleepers, often without the railway association. Here they're usually available as CCA-treated softwoods or untreated hardwood.
    – Bob
    May 5, 2019 at 9:56
  • 3
    @AloysiusDefenestrate that "tar" was typically creosote, to be specific. May 6, 2019 at 17:17

The answer is RAILROAD TIES.

The timbers in your photo are Railroad Ties. The railroad will change the ties on a regular basis. They are impregnated with creosote and as a result they are very heavy. In Alaska the railroad will give the old ones away for free occasionally. I have built retaining walls with them.

For the purpose of your fire pit area they are cheap and they work, if you do not care about the creosote. Some are in better shape then others.

Treated 6x6 or even 4x6 timbers would also work.

There are more options for this then i care to list here.


Those are railroad ties

They are used in the track bed of railroad track. They are typically either 6"x8" or 7"x9", and 8' long (your photo does a good job of hiding the joints). They weigh 150-200 pounds.

They are heavily laden with creosote preservative, so you won't be doing any organic gardening near them... And using them in a sandbox or around kids is questionable.

They will have a mottled appearance from transferring the weight of railroad trains onto the jagged 2" cut stone ballast used in track beds.


Residential Developer-railroad ties....these are used all across the US for this and other secondary purposes. You will not find these at box suppliers like HD or Lowes.


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