Introduction: Canoes on a Lake

I had some extra, unused space on my HO railroad layout, so decided to put in a lake. And what good is urban lake without canoeists? These canoes move.

I made this a few years ago and only documented it for my own use, so there may be steps that are "assumed". Hopefully there's enough information or inspiration for you to make your own.


  • 1/4" sprocket chain. I used steel chain but you can use plastic if you wish. You can buy these products from VEX Robotics or Pololu Robotics,
  • 1/4" sprockets. I used nylon sprockets - strong and light.
  • Gear motor. I have 200 motors in my "stock", so just found one that would move the canoes at reasonable pace. Pololu has all ki
  • Wood screws and nuts
  • Plastic: this was surplus material I had from an old sign. It is acrylic, available at any plastic shop.

Step 1: In the Beginning

My train layout consists of 1/2" plywood base, upon which I glued Styrofoam sheets (the good blue stuff). I used this to create hills and valleys and serve as base for the railroad tracks. Photos show my central station, in front of which I had the unused space, which I temporarily painted with brown paint. From there I sculpted out the first layer of Styrofoam, exposing the second layer underneath.

Step 2: Down to the Base

I sculpted out the bottom layer to expose the wood base of my layout. The big hole was supposed to hole the base of the motor I was going to use. Shown are the wires for the motor.

Step 3: First Stab at Installing the Sprockets and Chain

This was a rough trial to see if the rotation speed was correct and if I could use chain and sprockets to get a non-linear path for the canoes. I didn't want the canoes to just go back and forth, but rather trace out a curvy path. Here I just used temporary wood screws to hold the sprockets in place. There is no motor in this setup.

Step 4: Base for the Sprockets

Convinced my plan would work, I cut out a piece of plywood the same shape as the excavated Styrofoam, and mounted the sprockets and chain onto it. The drive sprocket, with motor attached underneath is beside the large sprocket on the right. I had to cut a hole in the plywood to accomodate the body of the motor.

All the other sprockets are just idlers, and are attached as shown in the image. The bottom nut is a locking nut with plastic insert in it so it doesn't move. The screw holding the sprocket is NOT tight, allowing the sprocket to free-wheel.

Step 5: Installing the Mechanism

I first installed the mechanism with a clear plastic cover to test the system and get the right distance between the magnets that sit on the chain, and the cover.

The magnets can be seen riding on the chain in the video attached to this step. They are rare-earth, very strong magnets that are attracted to the pins that hold the chain links. There may be other/better methods to attach them but even after 4 years, they are still held in place by attraction alone.

I bought the canoes from a supplier of HO train parts and inserted smaller magnets in the bow of the canoe. So, as the chain magnet moves around, it drags the canoe with it.

Step 6: Finishing Up

The photos show finishing up around the lake. The grey stuff in the first photo is "paper clay" a kind of paper mache, available from Michaels. The mechanism is obvious in these photos because of the bright lights I use when working on the layout. With dimmed room and blue LED lights surrounding the layout, the mechanism cannot be seen.

Keep it clean! After awhile dust settled on the plastic and the canoes made a mark in the dust. Doesn't look good, so cover your lake when not in use.

Step 7: The End

Two photos showing how the lake looks in relation to surrounding objects.

That's a tall hill in the foreground (bottom) and benches for people to sit on to watch the canoeists.