Toy Train Project Plan

Toy Train Project Plan

When someone mentions the words “dovetail jig,” my mind automatically conjures up boxes, but a dovetail jig can actually be used to join any two pieces of material together at right angles. This may well be on a box, but it could also be a drawer or, as in this case, parts for a toy train.

Two young girls who visit me several times each summer are very fond of trains, both riding on them and playing with them, so I came up with this design. It is not meant to be an authentic model in any way. It is just for the children to play with.

Some of the parts needed to build one or more of these trains will require you to make them from scratch, but you can buy the wheels and axles pre-made as the author did.
Some of the parts needed to build one or more of these trains will require you to make them from scratch, but you can buy the wheels and axles pre-made as the author did.

To make the building process easier, I used pre-made wheels and axles I bought online. The bumpers are also pre-made drawer knobs that I originally bought for a different project. The boiler’s funnel is the same knob, sanded flat on the top.

Please note that in these photos, I’m building two trains so each of my visitors will have one, but the Material Lists specify part quantities for just one train.

Getting Started

Most of the ends of the train car bases will need to be rabbeted to form the hitch connections later. Since these workpieces are small, use caution when milling them at the router table. A sliding jig with hold-down clamps can help secure each part for safer routing close to the bit.
Most of the ends of the train car bases will need to be rabbeted to form the hitch connections later. Since these workpieces are small, use caution when milling them at the router table. A sliding jig with hold-down clamps can help secure each part for safer routing close to the bit.

The first thing I did was make a boiler for each engine. I face-glued two pieces of maple together to create a thicker workpiece, then machined the blank down to 1-3⁄4″x 1-3⁄4″. From there, I installed a 45˚ chamfering bit in my router table and milled this piece into an equal-sided octagonal shape. I crosscut two pieces, 3″ in length, for the boilers. Use the same cutter to put a tiny chamfer on the front face of the boiler.

toy-train-project-4
Trimming the ends of the car bases to gradual points will allow clearance for them to pivot next to one another for steering the train. Again, given the small size of these parts, the author cut these angles using a sled and clamps to immobilize the bases and to set the cutting angles accurately.

The next job is to make the bases. Since I built two trains, I needed eight of these bases, also made from maple. (One train, obviously, will only require four bases.) After you’ve trimmed the bases to size, they need rabbets cut into them. On half the quantity of your bases, there will be a rabbet at each end, but cut into opposite faces. These are the middle train cars. The other bases are for the engine and rear car. These only have a rabbet on one end; the other end receives the bumpers. Each of these rabbets should be about 3/4″ wide and 5/16″ deep. You need to allow enough clearance space for the cars to hitch together easily and swivel.

After the rabbets and clearance angles are cut on the bases, set a piloted chamfering bit in the router table for a slight cut, and ease all of the sharp edges. Or, break these edges with sandpaper instead. It’ll make the parts less prone to edge splinters and give them a finished look.
After the rabbets and clearance angles are cut on the bases, set a piloted chamfering bit in the router table for a slight cut, and ease all of the sharp edges. Or, break these edges with sandpaper instead. It’ll make the parts less prone to edge splinters and give them a finished look.

Also, in order to allow swiveling clearance, we’ll need to cut away some of the remaining material where we have created our rabbets. For this task, I used a simple sled on my table saw with a fence on it set at an angle of 30 degrees. I trimmed from the center of the bases outward to the edges to form gradual points. This will allow enough swivel for the trains to be steered during play. I then used a chamfer bit in my router table to just take all the edges off of the bases.

Drilling Holes in the Bases

The author used this drilling jig to register his train car bases for boring hitch pin holes. The hole size on one end will fit the pins tightly for gluing, while the hole on the other end is slightly larger so the pin on a mating car can swivel.
The author used this drilling jig to register his train car bases for boring hitch pin holes. The hole size on one end will fit the pins tightly for gluing, while the hole on the other end is slightly larger so the pin on a mating car can swivel.

Now the bases need some holes in them to accept the wheels, bumpers and the tow hitches. When I ordered the wheels, they were advertised as using 1/4″-thick axles, but in reality, their axle holes were exactly 1/4″. This influenced the drill bit size I chose for boring axle holes. The axles would need to be slightly smaller in diameter so the wheels could spin. Check your wheels and axles for hole sizing.

A second drilling jig ensures that the axle holes will be placed accurately on the sides of the train car bases — both lengthwise and, even more importantly, through their thickness.
A second drilling jig ensures that the axle holes will be placed accurately on the sides of the train car bases — both lengthwise and, even more importantly, through their thickness.

Drilling holes in small pieces of wood accurately is difficult, so I made three simple jigs for this. The first one is for the tow hitches. One end of it has a hole to fit the car’s hitch pin shaft, and the other end has a slightly larger hole so it can fit over a mating car’s pin. The bases fit snugly into this simple jig so I could drill the holes accurately and repeatedly.

A third drilling jig was made with two holes through its end. This version locates the bases of the engine and endmost train car for drilling pairs of holes for bumpers.
A third drilling jig was made with two holes through its end. This version locates the bases of the engine and endmost train car for drilling pairs of holes for bumpers.

The second jig drills the wheel axle holes. It’s just a piece of wood with the axle holes bored through it as accurately as possible and marked as sides 1 and 2. I glued a piece of scrap across the bottom to serve as a clamping point for my bases. Clamp a base to side “1” of the jig and drill two axle holes. Then, keeping the base oriented the same way up, clamp it to side “2” and drill the other side. The reason for using this jig is that, while a slight drilling error along the length of the bases would be unimportant to wheel function, the same error up or down would mean the finished train car would rock from corner to corner. The final jig is for drilling pairs of holes for the bumpers.

Building the Car Bodies

The author used a through dovetail jig made by Gifkins to form dovetails on his train car sides at the router table. You can use any dovetail jig you like, provided it can make a dovetail pattern small enough to suit the stock thickness here. Or, switch to box joints instead, if you prefer.
The author used a through dovetail jig made by Gifkins to form dovetails on his train car sides at the router table. You can use any dovetail jig you like, provided it can make a dovetail pattern small enough to suit the stock thickness here. Or, switch to box joints instead, if you prefer.

While I made my train car bodies from 3/8″-thick cherry, you can choose any contrasting semi-hard timber you like. The bodies of the middle train cars are 1-3⁄4″ tall by 4-3⁄4″ long. The end car body is 1-3⁄4″ tall by 5-1⁄2″ long, as it has no tow hitch to reduce its length. All the train car bodies have front and back sections that measure 1-3⁄4″ x 2-1⁄8″. This sizing allows the bodies to sit on the bases without protruding and catching on the wheels.

Thanks to precise routing, the author’s dovetail jig enabled him to glue up the car bodies using just masking tape to hold the parts together.
Thanks to precise routing, the author’s dovetail jig enabled him to glue up the car bodies using just masking tape to hold the parts together.

I joined these pieces with through dovetails cut on a router table jig, which has clamp holder attachments that make it easy to handle the small pieces. If forming the dovetails presents a roadblock, the pieces also would look great and be as functional by using box joints rather than dovetails.

Unlike the bodies of the other cars, the train engine’s cab consists of three dovetailed pieces rather than four — it remains open on the back.
Unlike the bodies of the other cars, the train engine’s cab consists of three dovetailed pieces rather than four — it remains open on the back.

After you’ve milled this joinery, cut and glue a floor inside the body of each train car. This way, once the bodies are glued to the bases, the floor provides a much stronger glue bond to resist roughand- tumble play. Round over the tops of the car bodies at the router table or by hand-sanding before assembly.

Constructing the Engine

The author reinforced the boiler’s glued connections for his train engines by driving axle pins up through the base (left) and through the cab (right).
The author reinforced the boiler’s glued connections for his train engines by driving axle pins up through the base (left) and through the cab (right).

Let’s return to the engine. First, we need to make the cab. This is just three pieces of maple dovetailed together. See the Material List for cab part dimensions. Drill a 3/4″ porthole into the cab front that’s centered between the top of the boiler and the roof. Now glue the cab to the base about 1/8″ in from the edge of the rabbet for the tow hitch. Next, make and attach the boiler support. I made mine from cherry and rounded over the front edge. Center and glue it on the width of the base and up tight against the cab structure. Spread glue on the bottom face of the boiler and glue it to the top of the support. Again, butt it tightly against the cab front. Last, cut a piece for the cab roof, and round over its top edges. Glue it to the top of the cab, positioning it for an even overhang.

When assembling the engine parts, the boiler and its support should butt against the front of the cab and be centered on the base’s width.
When assembling the engine parts, the boiler and its support should butt against the front of the cab and be centered on the base’s width.

Because young children can be quite rough with their toys, I reinforced the structure by installing two of the axle pieces — one up through the base and into the boiler and one from inside the cab into the boiler. These “pins” should help hold everything together for many years to come. At this stage, you can drill the funnel hole in the boiler and glue on the tow hitches, bumpers and engine funnel. The hitches are just shortened wheel axles. Glue them into place at the back of the engine and into the correct holes in the middle cars. The larger holes you drilled earlier in the other end of the train car bases should fit easily over the ends of hitches, to form a simple connection.

Adding the Finish and Wheels

Polyurethane thinned with solvent or a wiping version of poly are durable, easy-to-apply finishes for this project. Brush on two coats.
Polyurethane thinned with solvent or a wiping version of poly are durable, easy-to-apply finishes for this project. Brush on two coats.

It’s time for a finish! With young children come sticky fingers and other dirt that will soon ruin the look of the train. That’s why I decided a thinned coat of polyurethane would be the best protection. It’s also easy to brush or wipe on and dries fairly quickly. I applied two coats of this finish to all the train car surfaces and the wheels, sanding lightly between coats.

Cardboard, slotted to fit around the axles, serves as a spacer to prevent them from being glued too deeply into the bases and binding the wheels.
Cardboard, slotted to fit around the axles, serves as a spacer to prevent them from being glued too deeply into the bases and binding the wheels.

Finally, we can fit the wheels. I found the best way to do this was to slip the wheel over the axle up to the head of the axle and hold it there with one hand. Using a small brush, apply a thin film of glue onto the end of the axle protruding from the wheel. Then, holding the wheel at the head of the axle, slide the axle down into the hole. The cardboard is there to ensure that when the axle assembly is pushed fully home, there will still be a small gap to allow the wheel to spin freely.

Click Here to download a PDF of the related drawings and Materials List.

Hard to Find Hardware

7/32” Hole Maple Axles #28589

toy-train-project-16

Don Phillips is a hobbyist woodworker and occasional contributor to Woodworker’s Journal. He lives in Spain.

Posted in: