Building Toy Trains

Before I retired, I always wondered what I would do to occupy my time once freed from the busy routine of working life.  Over thirty years ago, I had made my son a toy fort and had since harboured romantic visions of becoming a latter-day Geppetto, imagining myself white-haired and with a steaming mug of tea, sitting in my garage producing wooden toys for my grandchildren.  Well, the white hair and grandchildren arrived but, by this time, thirty years of accumulated rubbish excluded any chance of working in the garage, so my dreams were put on hold.

The Shed has allowed me to revisit those dreams, and my first attempt was a simple wooden train of unsophisticated design and sadly poor proportion.  That first attempt was a small tank engine type, constructed principally of square-cut blocks of waste wood.  The four wheels were made of simple wooden discs cut with a hole saw fitted to my hand-held power drill.

I realised that, if I wanted to improve on this design, I would need to attempt to make something more readily recognisable as the traditional steam locomotive with full length cylindrical boiler that is always depicted protruding from the top of Santa’s sack in children’s Christmas stories.  There is a splendid wood turning lathe at the Shed, but it is generally fully occupied by fellow Shedders turning bowls, plates, and other traditional turned-ware.  In any case, I was a little scared to use the lathe and wanted to find an alternative method to produce the required boiler tube that could be replicated without using this machine.

The answer was to build up the boiler by assembling a series of wooden discs cut with the hole saw like the wheels on my earlier model.  Each section was made by gluing these discs together in pairs.  A bolt was then passed through the central hole left by the drill and held in place with a pair of lock nuts.  I then locked the remaining length of threaded bolt into the chuck of the power drill to create a ‘mini lathe’ to achieve an even finish to the edges of the spinning discs with sandpaper.

The three pairs of double discs were then glued together and onto a length of 5mm dowel passing through the central drill hole in each pair, requiring only minimal additional hand sanding to achieve a uniform surface.  Three 5mm holes were then carefully drilled in line along the top length of the boiler to take dowels to hold the smokestack, steam dome, and whistle – all of which having been similarly turned from dowelling using the chuck of the power drill.

The body of the train was then constructed from flat pallet wood with detailing added using dowelling again for the buffers and smoke box handle, and lolly sticks for the engine name plates.  5mm dowelling was added to each side of the boiler to represent the steam pipework.  The wheels themselves consist of three smaller pairs glued to their respective axles, and two larger pairs which revolve independently on fixed axles glued between two side outriggers to give the impression of the wheel linkage.

This proved to be a surprisingly simple but immensely satisfying project, and I was so pleased with the result that I immediately started on a second, along with a model driver fireman who, again, is made of separate lengths of broom handle, turned using a power drill and glued onto a central length of 5mm dowel.  Minor refinements were made as I went along, such as the overhang on the roof of the Mk2 model, rear coupling hook, lights made from wooden half spheres from the craft shop, and the front engine number plate made from a drinks stirrer from Costa Coffee.

The most interesting aspect for me about building these trains has been the discovery of what can be achieved using just hand held tools, a power drill, and waste pallet wood that would otherwise have been burnt or gone to landfill.  I would encourage anyone to copy this design as the construction itself is so satisfying and the results so well received by the grandkids   

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  1. You’d give Frank Hornby a run for his money and make dreams come true! Your grandchildren are blessed to have you , more please!

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