How to Make a Wooden Train – The Open Top Car

The following tutorial will teach you how to make a wooden train, in particular an open top car that kids can fill with anything they like. This is one of several cars that I will be posting tutorials for in the coming weeks. You can see a preview of the full set below.

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Wooden Train Plans – Open Top Car

how to make a wooden train

I made this entire set as a Christmas gift for my son, and he really loves them. Choo Choo Trains are one of his favorite things, and my handmade wooden trains did not disappoint. It was an absolute pleasure to see him open these.

He dropped an Elmo toy dead on the ground and went right over to his new trains. It made a father feel good.

how to make a wooden trainThis tutorial on how to make a wooden train covers the open top car. This is a great car to have in a homemade train set. Not only is this a quick build, but kids like to put things into the car when they pull around the train. (At least mine really does.)

The car is made from Walnut and Curly Maple, with a couple store bought accessories to make the build easier. You can shoose any wood you like for the project, just be mindful of allergies when making your choice. The wheels, axles, and coupling posts are all from a woodworking store. There are many places that sell wooden parts for toy makers. Most woodworking stores, craft stores, and several places online carry them.

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You can choose any kind of wheels and accessories you like. As I explain how to make a wooden train in this tutorial, I will explain the exact materials that I use. All of these trains are very clean looking, but you can find lots of wooden accessories if you look online.

How to Make a Wooden Train – Building the Body

how to make a wooden trainStart with a piece of 3/4 inch thick Walnut that measures 2 inches wide and six inches long for the base of the wooden train car. You can use a different wood if you like, just make sure that it contrasts the sides of the car.


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Next, cut two pieces of 1/8 inch thick Maple that measure 6-1/4 inches long and 1-7/8 inches high for the faces of the car. The Maple I used had a nice figure, and was originally going to be used for violin sides.

I really like the look of Curly Maple. You can find figured Maple pretty commonly in woodworking stores, so the expense is relatively low when compared to other types of figured wood.

how to make a wooden train

Arrange the pieces so that the sides are placed against the long edges of the wooden train car base. This is the first assembly step.

Sand one side on each of the Maple pieces, and remove any defects or scratches. These sides are going to be glued to the Walnut base, and it will be difficult to sand them later.

The outsides will be sanded after assembly, but they will be easier to get to. For now, sand the two inside faces of the Maple pieces, and make sure that all obvious scratches and saw marks are removed. Once you are satisfied, move on to the next step.

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how to make a wooden trainUse a high quality wood glue like Titebond to glue the two Maple pieces to the sides of the Walnut base.

Cover both faces that will be bonded together with a very light layer of glue. Then, arrange them on a flat surface.

Press the pieces flat against the surface while applying the clamps. This will help keep everything lined up well while gluing. Also, make sure that the Maple pieces stick over past the ends of the Walnut on both sides. This is intentional, and will be handled after the glue dries. Set the piece aside for a couple hours, or better overnight.

how to make a wooden trainAfter the glue has dried completely, remove the clamps and inspect the joints. Make sure that your glue up has no gaps, and that the pieces have adhered well.

Now, use a belt sander or sandpaper laid on a flat surface to sand the slight overhang on the Maple back flush to the Walnut. Spend a little time and make sure that the ends are made flat and even.

On the belt sander, this process is extremely quick. So quick in fact that you can take off way too much if you are not careful. If you are working on the belt sander, get it close and then finish with sandpaper on a flat surface by hand.

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how to make a wooden trainOnce the two ends are flush, a couple of Maple end caps can be glued on. Cut two pieces of 1/8 inch thick Maple that measure 1-7/8 inches tall and 2-1/2 inches long.

Make sure that your Maple pieces extend past the two that were just glued on. This is similar to the last step, and the overhang will be dealt with later in the process.

Sand the inside faces on both ends to remove any scratches and saw marks. Then, apply a thin layer of glue to both bonding faces, and clamp the ends on the wooden train car. Press everything to a flat surface to ensure that all the pieces are even, and leave the car to dry for a few hours.

How to Make a Wooden Train – Sanding the Open Top Car

how to make a wooden trainAfter the glue has dried, the majority of the construction process is complete, and you are on to finishing touches and trim work.

Start by sanding down the excess overhang on the Maple ends. A belt sander can make short work of this.

Once you get close, switch to sandpaper and a block, and finish by hand. You can also lay a piece of sandpaper flat on the bench and sand the entire side of the wooden train car at once. Be careful on these ends, because the thin pieces of wood are only being held together by a 1/8 inch wide line of glue. It is enough for normal use, but not enough to be yanked on.

how to make a wooden trainNext, sand the bottom of the car flush. Even the best glue job will have a small amount of hang over from one piece to the next. This is fine, and is easy to deal with.

If you have a belt sander, simply press the bottom of the car on the belt and sand until the entire bottom is even. This will remove all glue residue, and even out the wood.

For those without a belt sander, the easiest way is with sandpaper laid out face up on a flat surface. Start with a rougher grit if you have quite a bit to sand off. Then, once you are very close, switch to a finer grit to smooth out the surface. Try not to tip the train car while sanding, and it will flatten out faster.

how to make a wooden trainNow the faces need to be sanded until they are smooth. If you used a nicer looking piece of wood for the sides of the open top car, this is very important.

The open top car is a very simple car. The sides and the bottom will be looked at quite a bit, and become a focal point of the train.

Spend a little time sanding and making sure that all tool marks and sanding scratches are removed at this stage. Also, do not round over any of the edges or corners at this point. If you round them now, it will be more difficult to get an accurate measurement for placing the train axles later in the process. For now, focus on making the homemade wooden train sides as nice as they can be.

How to Make a Wooden Train – Placing the Wheels/Axles

how to make a wooden trainThis step is very important, as placing the axles properly is a key part of how to make a wooden train. If the holes are placed poorly, the train will wobble, and not run true when played with.

For all of my wooden train cars, I placed the wheels the same way. This ensures an even look, and that all the cars will have some matching characteristic to them.

First, measure from the ends 1 inch, and make a mark. Then, measure 3/8 inch from the bottom, and make a second mark that goes through the first one. This intersection is where you drill for the axle pegs. Mark the open top car on both sides, for two wheels each. After they are marked, use an awl, nail, or another sharp object to indent the mark, which will help the drill enter the piece without walking.

how to make a wooden trainThe best tool for drilling these axle holes is a drill press, but you can do it by hand with an electric drill as well if you are cautious. Focus on making the hole as straight as possible, and perpendicular to the side of the train car.

The axles that I used for this project are 3/16 inch diameter. With that in mind, I selected a drill that was just slightly larger to make my holes. This way, there is room for the glue when the wheels are attached. Make sure to work carefully, and drill the holes as accurately as possible. Make sure to use a stop, and drill the holes about 1/4 inch deeper than needed.

To check that measurement, pop an axle through one of the wheels, and see how long it extends into the wood. Add 1/4 inch to that, and you will have your target depth. The excess is for the glue.

How to Make a Wooden Train – Final Sanding and Finish Prep

how to make a wooden trainNow that the holes have been drilled for the axles, final sanding of the handmade wooden train can begin. This is where you can start breaking corners and rounding off sharp edges.

In the end, this is going to be a toy that a child will play with. That being said, you need to make sure that there are no sharp edges or points on the train car.

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Go around the car with 150 grit sandpaper, which will round everything off quickly. After that, switch to 220 grit paper and remove any scratches left by the 150. Blow off the dust and check for scratches that need attention periodically, and stop once the wooden train car looks good.

How to Make a Wooden Train – Installing the Couplers

how to make a wooden trainAll trains need couplers. These are used to attach one train car to the next. Since these are all the same for every one of the trains that I made, I show the process here in another post.

Once you have made your couplers, the process for installing them on the train is easy. On each end of the train, find the center of the 2-1/4 inch wide end, and make a mark near the bottom. Then, measure from the bottom 3/8 inch up and make another mark.

Make an indentation with an awl like for the axle pegs, and use a 5/8 inch Forstner bit to drill 1/2 inch into each end of your wooden train car. Apply glue to your train couplers, and install one at each end. 

Make sure that the holes for the pegs point straight up. This is easily done by putting an axle peg into the hole dry, and using it to sight the coupler straight.

How to Make a Wooden Train – Finishing and Assembly

how to make a wooden trainIt is easiest to finish the homemade wooden train before assembly. This way, there are less small spaces and confined areas that you need to get finish into.

There are a number of different ways that you can finish a wooden toy, but the most important thing to consider first is the final recipient.

Make sure that the finish you use is safe, and that you are not giving something to a child that they will be allergic too. I know that my son has several toys finished with Tried and True Danish Oil, and has never had a problem with any of them. Since an oil finish really pops the grain on wooden toys, it was an easy choice to use the same finish for the train.

Apply the finish you choose following the recommendations on the can, and allow it to dry for several hours. Use a clean cloth, and lay down very thin coats. This will help the finish dry better, and look smoother.

how to make a wooden trainAt the same time that you finish the body of the open top car, finish the wheels and the axles as well. Once everything has dried according to the directions on the finish you choose, the wooden train car can be assembled.

The wheels can be anything you like from a woodworking store, mine are 1-3/4 inches in diameter, with 3/16 inch diameter axles.

Start by test fitting your axles. I have found through error that some of them are a little wider in diameter than others, and they don’t like to go all the way into the hole. Test fit first, and make sure that all of your axles are in good shape. After that, drip some glue down into the hole, and press a wheel and axle into the side of the train car. Make sure that the wheel is slightly away from the body of the car, so that it can spin freely.

how to make a wooden trainRepeat the fitting process on the other three wheels, and then turn your attention to the couplers.

Install the taller peg on the front of the train, making sure to drip just enough glue that it does not press out.

The smaller peg goes through the leather piece, and is glued into the back side of the train. The leather strip should move freely, as it will need to flex from side to side as the train cars are pulled together, Once all of the gluing and assembling are finished, set the car aside to dry. In a few hours, the wooden train can be played with, and will be a great edition to any homemade wooden train set.

how to make a wooden train

I am going to be adding tutorials for the rest of the cars in this handmade wooden train over the next couple weeks. There will be instructions for a Tanker Car, Log Car, Three Tank Car, and an Engine. Each will be it’s own tutorial, as they are all fairly long.

If you have any questions about how to make a wooden train – the open top car, please leave a comment and I will be glad to answer them. Also, please share my work with others who may be interested. It’s a great way for me to help more people become successful at woodworking. Happy building.

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