Sunday, September 30, 2012

Homemade wooden train cars

(This is a guest post by Andrew.)


Greg has loved playing with his toy trains so far.  CHOO CHOO!

Hours and hours of CHOO CHOO!!
I decided to build him a set of train cars.  I found many ideas on the Internet, what follows is the approach I used in this construction. This has been a very fun project and I recommend it for anyone with some craft-level talent. It really creates a special set of toys!  I want to share how I created his train cars so that you can create a set for your child as well.

Designing cars

The first step is deciding what kinds of cars you want to build.  Search around ... look at Thomas (and other) sets, eBay auctions, books/magazines, and also use your imagination!  I recommend coming up with clever designs, so that you're not just making a poorer representation of something you could have bought in a store.  Additionally, use bright colors that your child will enjoy.

I came up five core designs: short/long boxcars, tanker cars, a flatbed car carrying colored blocks, a flatbed "lumber" car, and a flatbed "stacking planks" car.  All of my designs are between two and three inches.  This is the longest car that can easily make the turns in the typical curved track. If you want to make longer cars, you need to consider a more complex floating axle method.  You also need to make sure the cars will fit under train tunnels if you have them.  A car that is 1 5/8" tall (plus wheel height) fits perfectly.

Where to buy parts

I found most of my supplies at Michaels or AC Moore, which have roughly equivalent wood craft sections.  I also bought a few pieces at Lowes.  However, I needed to go to Cherry Tree Toys on the Internet to get specialized train pieces: wheels, magnets, and decorative nails. Michaels/AC Moore did carry toy wheels, but the ones I saw there were not as perfectly round as the Cherry Tree Toys wheels. Make sure you know how many cars you are building, as shipping is around $8 from Cherry Tree Toys and you only want to make one order!

What you will need to buy

This is a minimum set, you'll come up with ideas that will require more parts!
  • Magnets
  • Nails (decorative round head look best)
  • Wheels
  • 1/8" dowel for axles
  • Wood for train car bottoms (5/8" poplar square dowel)
  • Wood for train car tops (depends on your designs)
  • Wood glue
  • Acryllic paints/paintbrushes
  • A gloss lacquer (optional)
  • Mitre saw

Common train car parts

First I'll describe how I built pieces that will work on any train car. (Note I am assuming you get the magnets/nails/wheels from Cherry Tree Toys.)  The most important part is building a solid base for your cars.  Looking at the Thomas cars, they are generally 3" long, with a 5/8" square base and a 1" square top. The square base is 1/4" shorter than the actual car, which lets them recess the magnets a little bit. I liked this effect, so I made 2.75" long bases for my 3" cars and 1.75" long bases for the 2" cars. The important thing is that your magnet + nail MUST stick out far enough from the car to connect to the next car, and maintain that connection around turns.

I used the mitre saw to cut the train bottoms.  I recommend cutting many more than you need, perhaps twice as many, because the axle step is difficult, or at least it was for me. The axles will be 1/8" inch, so I recommend drilling an axle hole between 5/32" and 3/16".  Try various sizes to see which works best for your track. The difficult part of the operation is that you need to drill these holes as low as possible on the train car bottom. Too low on the hole, and you will chew right through the bottom of the car. Too high, and your train car bottom will ride on the track (instead of your car riding on its wheels).  As noted earlier, I made a lot of mistakes with the drill and I was glad to have cut a bunch of extras.

Help with the mitre saw
Sanding the rough edges
Top right is my extra train bottoms.  Various other boxcar, tanker, and plank pieces are in the other tubs.
After trying out a test set, you can prepare a set of car bottoms, and paint them.  I painted and lacquered all the bottoms, axles, and wheels before assembly.  For the actual axles, follow these guidelines but make sure you make adjustments for the actual track you have. We have mostly Thomas track which has a width of 3/4" between grooves.  Adding two 1/8" wheel widths and allowing for a small wiggle to slide across turns, I settled on 1 3/16" as my axle width. If you paint your axles like I did, you will need to sand down the edges to fit into the 1/8" wheel holes.

Painted wheels
Painted bottoms
Bottoms set including painted axles
Halfway through assembly
Twenty two bottom sets!

After your axles and wheels are connected to your car bottoms, and the bottoms are painted, you're ready to add the magnets which will help you form an actual train. It's important you keep front and back straight, both on the cars and the magnets.  I marked all of my car bottoms with F and B for front/back.  I kept the group of magnets connected to each other to help keep front and back straight. The magnets will be hammered in with fancy nails. I found the fancy nails were very quick to bend, so it was easier to drill a very shallow 1/16 pilot hole before hammering in the rest of the distance. 

Keeping the magnets aligned helps to keep front and back straight.  Note there is no need to paint the top of the train bottom as it will be hidden by the train top.
Now that you've got a bunch of train bottoms finished, it's time for the more fun part -- building the train tops!


The boxcar is the simplest design, but you can dress it up with a clever paint job or a little beveling.
I came up with a 2" "coal car" design and a 3" car which I personalized with a name on it. You can cut a simple rectangular 1" square poplar dowel to the desired length. That's it -- a basic box car!

I dressed this car up by using a power sander to take off a 1/8"-1/4" from each top edge at a 45 degree angel. I used the mitre saw to build myself a little jig to place the box car into.  From here it was easy to power sand the edges down. If you have a router, you could make even more clever tops!

Prepared jig.
Easy to power-sand the edges from here.
Hold it tight and you can sand these edges too.
Beveled top
Boxcar is a simple design that you can dress up a bit with paint.

Tanker Car

The tanker car is almost as simple as the box car, and again calls for a paint job to dress it up a bit.
I used a 1" poplar dowel cut into 3" lengths. For ease of connecting to the train bottom, you should sand down one side of the dowel enough to make a clean connection to the 5/8" train bottom.

For my first tanker, I used a file which took me about an hour for one car. After that I called my dad to borrow his power sander, which did the work in seconds!
You can see the flat bottoms on the oil/milk tanker cars. 
Final tanker cars.

Flatbed cars

A flatbed car gives you a lot of room to be creative.  I got 1/4"x1" craft wood to cut 3" flat car bottoms.  For some of the designs, I added edges with 1/8" balsawood or basswood to help hold cargo.

Flatbed with blocks

Starting with the craft wood flatbed, I added length-wise edges of balsa wood, making sure there was 3/4" between the edges (1 - 1/8 - 1/8).  Then I bought 3/4" square wood blocks from Michaels.  These I painted various bright colors, and glued into the flat bed.

Finished flatbed with blocks

Flatbed with lumber

I started with the general flatbed design, except this time I used a 1/4"x1.25" craft wood as the base.   On all four sides I put 1/8" balsawood/basswood. Then I cut out six pieces of 1/4" dowels (just under 2 3/4" long, as they need to fit inside the edges). These lumber pieces were the only ones I only gave one coat of paint since that left a little wood grain exposed, perfect for toy lumber! I then stacked the lumber into a pyramid and placed on the flatbed base.

Lumber planks, lumber flatbeds (right), and block car flatbeds (left)
Gluing order: bottom to flatbed, then lumber to flatbed.  Leaving them upside down for additional pressure to connect the lumber to the flatbed.
Finished lumber cars.
Finished lumber cars.

Flatbed with planks

I got this idea from a Melissa and Doug train set, which has cars with removable tops.

I decided I wanted a car with a configurable top.  The simplest top is a series of planks that are cut the same way as the flat beds. On this flatbed, there is no balsawood edging.  Sticking with my general 1" tall car sizing, I went with a 1/4" flat bed with three removable planks. I borrowed a Melissa and Doug car to get the spacing of the holes.  I used 1/4" holes in the flat bed filled with 1/4" dowels for the holding rods. For the planks, I drilled 21/64" holes into them.

Test set using Melissa and Doug original cars.
I found out that the craft wood I used for the planks expanded when I painted the holes, so if you're painting inside the holes you'll need to use a larger hole size. To add to the fun these pieces could provide, I made twice as many planks as each car would need. I also made some standalone plank holders, of similar size, to hold the extra pieces. I did notice that the craft wood splintered a bit.  It might have been better to use a harder wood, however it was hard to find wood so small.

Flat beds without planks.
Finished flatbeds with planks.  The extra planks are sitting on a 2.5x3" piece with four 1/4" dowels.


Painting is the part where you can really have fun.  Using bright colors makes the cars stand out a bit.
I used a cheap acryllic paint from Michaels and used two coats with all colors, and three coats for several of the lighter colors. For the lettering, I only used one coat for the lettering which was on top of the 2-3 base coats. I added a gloss lacquer covering gives the cars a little shine and also makes it easier to wipe the cars down when they get dirty.

My garage was converted into a paint shop!


Gluing is the final step, also the fastest and simplest step.  Plain wood glue is enough to connect the car bottoms to the tops.  Apply pressure to set the joint, then leave them in a dry place to set.

Showing off the results

I built 22 cars in total across my core designs.  I made eight for Greg and plan on giving the rest away.  What a fun project!

Twenty two total cars!
Closeup of left set.
Closeup of right set.
Greg's set.

Cool links

I hope this inspires you to try something cool for your kids!

These links have some great train ideas either in the main content or in the comments section.
Please post your experiences in the comments.  And happy CHOO CHOO-ing!


  1. Wow, this is so creative..and inspiring...and impressive! I love the bright colors & the different designs you chose (especially the "Greg" train). What a worthwhile project. I'm sure that Greg will be playing with these for years to come, and it looks like he enjoyed helping. Good job Elise!

    ~Lori Brinn

  2. This was totally Andrew's project. He did a great job! :)

  3. Great job and thanks for linking to my site! I also have a few other articles where I make some flat cars here: (If you follow the related links you'll see another flat car post.)

  4. This is great. Doing 20+ cars at the same time was a huge project. Writing up this narrative of how you did it was no easy task either. Good work.

    How well do your cars roll with dowel axels? As other people have mentioned on the ToolMonger site where you posted, wheels and axels are a big challenge and I’m curious how yours worked out. How well do they roll? How durable have they been so far?

    I’ve tried several different axel systems but not dowels. I've settled on using a brass tube with furniture nails as “caps”. Take a look here at my site. I've got an article specifically about wheels and axels.

    Also, do you mind if I link to your site? This is really nice.

    1. Evan, thanks for the kind words! Please do add that cross link.

      I have wrapped up all of the cars for Christmas, so other than a short test run by me they have no been used. I would say they roll "OK", not as good as the Thomas/Brio cars. I attribute this more to the wooden wheels I used vs the plastic from the other toy cars. I believe Greg has some fixed and some floating wheels, so I don't think the axle makes a lot of difference. I think even with the paint/lacquer the wood wheels just have more friction than the others.

      I would have loved to used plastic wheels and metal axles but I couldn't find any plastic wheels. The Cherry Tree Toys wheels were probably the best wooden wheels I could have hoped for, as I don't have the tools or the talent to create my own wheels.

      Thanks for adding to this ecosystem of train builders. Like you mentioned, there are probably more of us out there than are easily found. And happy choo-choo-ing!