How To Tell If Railroad Ties Have Creosote? Is there a way?

railroad ties treated

We have covered a few topics regarding the use of railroad ties for landscaping purposes, today we will talk about how to tell if railroad ties have creosote on them.

Before we dig in I want to emphasize the fact that creosote is a toxic substance and if you are planning on using railroad ties treated with it, you should read more about it here and you are aware of the risks of using it.

As mentioned above, we talked in the past about railroad ties, how to get them for free, where to buy railroad ties from, what are railroad ties treated with, how much railroad ties weigh and a few more topics that I believe you’ll find as useful as this one.

Now, how to tell if railroad ties have creosote?

Creosote is made out of the distillation of tar from wood/coal and it has a dark color, so the simplest way to tell if the railroad tie has been previously treated with creosote is by the color of it.

Is the railroad tie blackish, does it look like clogged, with a nasty sticky oil like on it? If so it has been treated with creosote.


One thing you need to know is that, in time the creosote used for treating the wood will leach away into the soil, so if you got an old railroad tie, the blackness might be almost gone, that doesn’t mean that creosote is not present on it, it just might not be in the same quantity as before.

Also, in time, wood will turn blackish, especially the one used for railroad ties which was exposed to rain, snow so it can be quite confusing. Chances that a railroad tie used previously by the railroad was not treated with creosote are extremely slim.

There are used railroad ties for sale, where the seller can guarantee that the tie was never treated with creosote, railroad companies will not use those for their main purpose.

A railroad tie not treated with creosote will look like a piece of regular wood with a natural wood color, with pores open and veins visible, not clogged and/or covered with what looks like oil/paint.

In some instances you can also smell the creosote, especially on a hot summer day, a railroad tie treated with creosote, exposed to direct sunlight will smell like oil, that can be another way of telling if it has creosote on it.

As a general good practice, you should assume that any used railroad tie you put your hand on was previously treated with creosote, which means that you should wear adequate protection and never burn them. If you have to cut a railroad tie, always wear a mask, since the creosote might be present in the fine sawdust.

Note: Handling railroad ties treated with creosote or any other known toxic substance might irritate your skin or even worse, always wear protection.