Introduction: 'Thomas the Tank Engine' Style Train Cars

With two playsets built, I figured I would attempt to make some actual train cars for my lad's ever growing train track which currently fills a high percentage of our coffee table.

As with all my homemade 'Thomas' stuff, I have started with Basswood. My former supply of 1/2" thick stock has been used up, but I did manage to find a woodwork supply store that had nice pieces of 3/8" thick boards for about $1.50 each. They also stock the wheels and axles needed for this project, I would recommend buying 100 of each as they are only 4 cents each and then you won't run out and have to reorder or drive halfway across the province to get more like I did. I had originally used some rare earth magnets and holders from Lee Valley (Shown in some of these pictures) but they turned out to be WAY too strong for a child's toy and so I ordered and replaced them with some ceramic Magnets and Round Head Nails from Cherrytree Woodworking. These magnets were far cheaper than the Rare earth ones, and would only cost about $0.45 per car except for the cost of shipping them to Canada (now about $1.50 per car with shipping). In total for a single 6 wheel car I used about $1.70 in parts, and most of that is in shipping the magnets.

Step 1: Tools & Materials

The tools required for this project:
Drill press
Drill Bits - 11/64", 1/4" and 5/16"
Sandpaper (Medium & fine  - 100  & 220 grit)
Dowel Points
Scroll, Jig or Band saw, whichever you prefer...or a coping saw if you are oldschool.
A piece of wooden track for testing

Materials needed for this project:
Basswood 12" x 4" x 3/8"  (this will make at least 4 or 5 trains)
3/4" Wooden Wheels - 4 or 6 per train
5/8" Axles - 4 or 6 per train
3/8" Magnets and Cups  - 2 of each per train
Thin Hardwood (I used some offcut from some wooden blinds)
1/4" dowel 4" long (the small wood pegs from Ikea furniture work well, if you have any leftovers)(optional)
1/2" dowel 9" long (optional)
Acrylic Paint and Varnish
Acrylic Gel Medium
Sharpie Markers (thick and thin)
Wood glue
Brown paper bag

Step 2: The Chassis

1.)  I start by cutting a strip of basswood 5/8" x 12" and then cutting that strip in half and gluing both halves together and allowing them to dry. Now I cut this double wide piece into smaller lengths, you can get 2 long and 1 short chassis. Or a long chassis and a freight container .

2.) Next I sand all the sides roughly with the 100grit paper to 2" x 5/8" x 1/2", and add a nice bevel on the lower front and back edges. I also round all the edges except for the top edges and prepare for the drilling.

3.) I use an 11/64 drill bit which is just a touch larger than a snug fit on the axles, allowing for some expansion of the wood when gluing. For a four wheel train I put the holes around 3/8" from the front and back, and drilled as close to the bottom of the stock as possible - if I get 1/16" to 1/32" I am pretty happy, but err on the side of caution as the basswood is quite soft, and if you are using a hand drill just try to make your drill holes as perpendicular as possible - you can sand the bottom of the chassis up to your drill holes later if you want. For a 6 wheel train, drill one more hole at the midpoint, but make sure that all three holes are aligned or some of your wheels will not turn on a hard surface.

Store bought Thomas engines and cars have plastic wheels that are a fair bit narrower than the wooden wheels we are using, so I have found that 4 wheel trains are a bit less finicky to place, but 6 wheel trains will be able to make it around the tight curves as long as you leave enough play in the axles.

4.) The last part I make on the chassis is the platform, for which I use my wooden blind slats. These things are great: thin and easy to cut and after installing them on two smaller windows I have a lifetime supply of these. You can use any thin stock you like though. I just measure out using the lower chassis block around 1/8" on each side, cut it out, and give it a light sanding and round the corners a bit.

Now centre and glue the wheel block onto the platform, clamp and let dry for 20 minutes or so.

I varnish the whole thing and give it a gentle sanding with brown paper before painting the axle heads, wheels and chassis black, making sure to keep the hole of the wheel and the axle shaft bare as the unpainted and unvarnished wood is quite frictionless. After a topcoat of varnish I then apply a small amount of glue to the insides of the holes on the chassis, and mount the wheels with the axle pins, using the test track to make sure I have them spaced evenly.

Now I make two pilot holes and attach the cups to the front and back of the chassis and insert the magnets making sure one end is north and one is south.

5.) If you want to permanently attach the freight to the chassis you are all done, but if you want to have a nice way to make the load interchangable, Drill two 1/4" holes about 3/4" in from both ends, but do not go all the way through - they only need to be about 1/4" to 3/8" deep. Two 5/8" pieces of 1/4" dowel  can be sanded smooth and glued into these holes to provide pins for mounting the freight. Leave these dowels unvarnished, but sanded as smooth as you can.

Step 3: The Freight

This is my favourite part. By using dowel points and the holes we drilled on the top of the chassis we can make a variety of different freight loads that can be switched onto any of the trains.

I will describe 3 different pieces of freight I have made, but try any ideas you have, and please let me know what you come up with. The photos are taken on 1/4" grid paper so you can get an idea of scale, and I included some of my concept sketches.

A) The Boxcar:
This one is very simple, using the base block we made in the Chassis step, just sand it square and smooth. At this point I usually varnish, then polish with brown paper, paint and put on a final coat of varnish (or two).

Now use dowel points in the top holes on the chassis to show where to drill 2 matching 5/16" holes. These need to be slightly larger than the dowels as they will not be glued and need to go on and off easily, If need be you can just drill the 1/4" holes and then use a round file or sandpaper to make them a bit larger. I do this step after the painting because the unfinished wood of the dowels moves very freely on the unfinished wood of the holes... if there was paint or varnish they could become stuck over time.

I also used a 1/2" forstner bit to drill a shallow hole on the top and attach one of the metal plates from the magnet kit to the top of the boxcar.. this will allow the various magnetic cranes to lift off the boxcar from the chassis. Not essential, but I wasn't using them for anything else. A small 1/2" washer, Asphalt nail or thumbtack (glued in place for safety)  would work as well.

B) The Logs:
In the latest 'Thomas' movie much of the story revolves around transporting "Jobi Logs" to the rescue centre. I cut 3 sections of 3/8" Dowel at to slightly different lengths, around 3" long painted them with a reddish brown base coat. Now, using a toothpick, I ran a bead of gel medium around the edges of the dowel and drew thick lines of the gel down the length and allowed it to dry.  I wasn't happy with the thickness of the first coat so I simply laid another directly on top of the first to give it some real dimension. Once all the gel had dried I started to apply several coats of paint using a very dry brush, starting with the base colour and adding progressively darker colours on top, and then doing a wash of watered down black and dabbing most of the paint off , leaving only the crevasses. Finally I added a few light highlights and let the whole thing dry completely before finishing with a coat of varnish and gluing the three into a stack. After, I mounted it directly to the base chassis.

This one is my favourite. Thomas sets never come with villians, so I decided to make a nuclear powered badguy with a tender full of nuclear waste. For the waste I would need some clean gravel, so i just went into my yard, got a small hand full of small rocks and gave them a good washing and allowed them to dry.

I started with a small block of stock 2" x 1/2" x 1/2" and applied a really thick layer of woodglue to it. Next, i dipped the glue into the clean gravel making sure none of the rocks overlapped the side by just pushing them in until all the sides were flush. Next I painted on a coat of woodglue over the top of the stones and allowed the whole thing to dry overnight.

The 'waste' was then painted with white acrylic paint, then quickly with a green and yellow. After that was dry put a thick layer of glow in the dark acrylic over the whole thing and dabbed the excess off the high points of the rocks leaving the paint mainly in the crevasses, giving the whole thing a neat mottled glow once the lights go off. Along the bottom edge I painted some hazard stripes and made the ends and bottom black.

Lastly I cut two small, thin strips of hardwood the width of the bock, and two longer thin strips the length of the block plus the width of the two shorter strips, allowing a small box to be built up around the "waste". All four of those pieces were painted black then glued so that the lower edge was not flush, but raised from the bottom of the block by 1/8", just for a little detail. Then a couple coats of good varnish and a polish with some brown paper.

I must say I am having almost as much fun making these little cars as my son has playing with them, so I am constantly coming up with new ideas. A luggage car, A box car with spot to for him to stash little things inside, Dinosaur Car (why not?), a reactor car for the nuclear engine... And I have a request for a Pie Car, although I am not sure where he came up with that idea or how I am going to pull that one off.

Step 4: Christmas Decoration Cars

I like the idea of homemade Christmas Tree decorations and since my son is going to be getting a stocking full of trains already I figured I would take what I had learned and make something fun for the tree by just adding some small screw eyes to hang them from.

Both are made by cutting random pieces of either 3/8" square or 1/8" basswood stock into random pieces, sanding them, and painting the pieces as either books or presents, then glueing and varnishing them on the standard Chassis described in setion 2.

Step 5: Final Result

Overall, I am pretty happy with how these cars are turning out, and I seem to be getting a very positive response from my son for the ones I gave him for his 3rd birthday. The "Jobi Log" car is a particular hit, and as the movie has 3 cars of logs he will be getting 2 more in his Christmas stocking.

In total each car takes about two hours or so to make not including drying time, and considering it takes about the same amount of time to make 5 cars as it takes to make one. I think Ill be making a dozen or so to give out as stocking stuffers this year.

Step 6: WIP Engines

I have made one new engine and am working on another, but they are more complicated than the simple freight cars i have described so far. I may do an entire new Instructable on this eventually .

Chassis: For trains longer than the 6 wheel one described, the chassis must be divided into two articulated trucks so that tight corners can be navigated. The Nuclear powered Engine will be an 8 wheeled train with two individually pivoting trucks - the work in progress is shown below. Scaling down the uranium reactor to 3/4" is proving problematic as well... stay tuned.

Faces: Using a small packet of white and gray FIMO dough I have been able to sculpt a dozen or so small faces for use on the engines. I start with a ball of clay on the end of an appropriately sized dowel use two small balls of white FIMO for the eyes and then build a face around them. I use thread to slice them off the dowel then bake them at low heat in our little toaster for about 15 minutes. After baking they are hard plastic and can be sanded on the back and glued to the boiler of an engine.

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