Canadian Woodworking

Train Set

Author: Garnet Hall
Illustration: James Provost
Published: February March 2009

Every child loves a toy train. This simple train set is as much fun for a youngster to play with as it is for the young at heart to build.

You can build this train set with a small handful of spare wood, while the wheels, pegs, people and smoke stack are commercial toy parts ( The train has six interchangeable pieces held together with leather loops. Leather is safer than metal hooks, holds better than magnets, and is easier for small hands to handle.

I began by shaping the bases for the engine (A) and the other five cars (H) out of ⅝” birch, although you can also use ¾” stock. The engine base is a bit longer than the other bases, but all are the same width. Don’t fret if your stock is a tad narrower or wider than my dimensions. Once the bases are complete, drill holes for the wheel axles (G). The wheels I used have ¼” holes so I used 7⁄32″ x 1″ pegs. Drill holes at least ½” deep. Don’t drive the pegs in too tight – the wheels need to turn freely.

I used black walnut for the engine body (B), passenger car body (O) and caboose body (Q). Once these are shaped, drill a ⅝” hole in the top of the engine body for the smoke stack (D), and two ¾” holes in the passenger car for the people (P). I also drilled ¾” holes ⅜” deep on either side of the caboose for windows and installed a 7⁄32″ peg in the top. Don’t drill the window holes all the way through, as there is the possibility a child could get their finger stuck in the hole. Attach a top (C) to the engine (I used a small piece of pau amarillo). I purchased milk cans (I), but you could just as well use ¾” dowels. Use pieces of birch for the logs (M) or thick twigs -just remove any bark and make sure they are clean. The posts are simply ¼” dowels. They need to be about 1 ⅛” above the car base to support the logs.

The back wheels (F) on the engine are 1 ½” in diameter, and the wheels (K) for the passenger car (J) are 1″ in diameter. All the other wheels (E) are 1 ¼”. All the wheels use the same size axle (G) except the car (J), which uses a smaller axle (L).

Leather shoelaces make excellent pull cords. You’ll need about 4 ½” for each car. Drill 7⁄32″ holes in the front end of each car (except the engine), glue in the two loose ends of the cords, and then drive in a short piece of ⅛” dowel to secure the cords in place. Install posts (G) on the back of each car, except the caboose, so that the cars can be connected together.

You can make a train set like this over a two to three hour period on the weekend, or a bit longer if you have a little engineer helping you along.

Choo choo!

Toy Safety

Children can be rough with toys, and any part that falls off might end up in a mouth. When it comes to building a wooden toy it’s always better to overbuild. A few simple safety precautions will go a long way towards alleviating mishaps.

• Use a hardwood like birch or maple as softwoods like cedar or pine can splinter easily. Cedar can cause an allergic reaction in some people. Remember small children are most likely to put any toy in their mouth. I find that birch machines well, is easy to cut and sand, and doesn’t tend to splinter. It’s also readily available and fairly inexpensive.

• Round over all edges, including window holes. A ¼” rounding-over router bit works well for this. After rounding all edges, sand the whole toy including inside window holes to at least 220 grit. A flap wheel (, will help speed up the sanding.

• Glue wheels and other small parts on tightly. The wheels or parts should withstand a 25 pound pull. For example, if you hang a 25 pound weight to a wheel, it must hold. The best axle material is a fluted dowel. The glue on the grooves swells, locking the dowel tightly into place.

• Any removable parts must be of a certain minimum size to reduce the likelihood of choking, and it’s best to avoid metal screws, hooks or nails. Consult Health Canada’s Industry Guide to Canadian Safety Requirements for Children’s Toys and Related Products for exact minimum dimensions of small components (613-954-5995 or [email protected] and ask for publication HC4045).

• Usually I don’t apply any finish on toys though I have used raw linseed oil at times. It is oil derived from flax seeds, which people have long eaten for health reasons. If you warm up the oil and then dip in the toy, the oil soaks in deeper and dries faster. Leaving the toys natural eliminates any worry about reaction to a finish, particularly those nasty ones that contain lead. If you make the toys to sell, it’s a good idea to attach a tag to each toy, informing the consumer of the wood and finish used.

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