Art, DIY, East Bay, Featured, Life, Physical Art

Do It Yourself Wooden Train Table…. in less than 24 hours

For my nephew’s second birthday, knowing his love for trains, we attempted to make a train table for his playroom. The basic idea was to find a wooden train set online, and then build a table with a removable top (make one side a train track and the other a Lego board). After scouring Pinterest for ideas, we blended two versions (one from Young House Love, and one from user gdhenson on Instructables). With these in hand, we hit up Amazon and looked for a wooden train set that would provide the necessary bones for our project.

After reading the reviews and seeing the premium they were charging for the Thomas the Train stuff (I swear, people in the wedding and kid business have it figured out when it comes to gouging consumers), we went with the Conductor Carl Set on Amazon. This gave us a really good base of tracks, train cars, cars, buildings, and trees/bushes. Next step was to lay it all out and determine the size of the board we would need to make. Luckily, Annie made me do this before getting too far into the construction, as when set up as designed, the train set was way too big to be usable as an elevated train table. Annie then worked her magic and got it down to a more manageable size. Now onto the building part of the project.


– Sanded plywood (3′ x 4′)

– 1×3 boards (4 x 19″)

– 1×4 boards (4 x 19″) (2 x 48″) (2 x 37.5″)

– Wood glue

– Nail gun

– Pocket hole jig and screws (1 1/4″)

– Primer/Paint/Brushes

– Water-based Poly

Home Depot Plywood Wooden Train Track Layout

After getting the plywood cut to size at Home Depot (3′ x 4′), we reassembled the train set to make sure it would work on the board. After we made sure it did, we got to priming the board with white primer. Painting the grass, lakes, ect on the board would take most of the time, so I wanted to get it primed as soon as possible. After the primer dried, Annie drew on the scenery and rough placement of the tracks.

Primer on plywood Sketching out design

The frame of the table was fairly basic, but needed to be strong enough to endure a couple kids hanging all over it. The first step was to make the legs by cutting a 1×3 and a 1×4 to length (19″ each) and then attach them using glue and two pocket hole screws to give it strength. Repeat three more times and the legs are done. TIP: Use the first leg board as a ‘storyboard’ and make all cuts using the length of that board in order to insure all the legs are the same length.

Train Table Legs

With the legs finished, you are now ready to cut the 1×4 boards that will comprise the frame around the train table. An easy way to do this is to measure the plywood and use it to determine the length of the frame boards. For example, our plywood measured 3’x4′. So, I cut two 1x4s at 48″ and two 1x4s at 37.5″ (36″ plus 1.5″ that each one needs to extend to meet up and form a corner with the 48″ pieces). To play it safe, you could even add another 1/4″ to the longer boards to insure the plywood will slide into the frame without binding. I was not so lucky, and needed to use a router to trim 1/4″ off the plywood in order to assemble the frame properly.

With all the boards cut, it is time to assemble the frame. I did this by setting the plywood top on the floor and then assembling the frame around the plywood using glue and a nail gun. Make sure you don’t nail the frame to the plywood as we want it to be removable. By using the plywood as a guide, we will get the square angles you need and can identify any fitment issues before it’s too late (versus building the frame without the plywood and not having a good fit).

Connecting the legs Train-Table_002

Next up is installing the legs into the frame to support the plywood from underneath. We also want to form a lip around the top of the train table so that the pieces don’t go flying off the board. To do this, I took the plywood and set it on four small pieces of 3/4″ scrap wood on the floor. By placing the scraps under the four corners of the plywood, we are using them as spacers to create a consistent lip. With the frame around the plywood and pushed firmly on the ground (remember the plywood will be hovering on the spacers), glue and nail the legs into the frame. They should be firmly against the plywood top. After you tack all these boards with nails, go ahead and install screws from the inside of the corner joint into the frame to make them more stable.

Train Table Frame and Top

At this point, you should have a completed frame with a removable top…. and a few empty adult beverage cans.

Hit the frame with a sander to clean the edges and round over the corners, and then it’s off to get two good coats of white paint rolled on.

Painting the scenery Train-Table_013

Meanwhile… Annie is doing the hard part. She sketched on the scenery and then removed the train tracks. She then took each element layer by layer and mixed our paint options to create the colors she needed for the design. After the scenery was done, I sealed it with two coats of water-based poly (brushed on), and let it sit overnight.

Water Based Poly Train-Table_023

Attaching Wooden Train Tracks

In the morning, the only thing left to do was affix the tracks to the board. After reading a few DIY posts, we decided to screw the tracks down. The general consensus is that loose tracks are a pain in the butt and caused more frustration for the kids. To give it a clean look, we opted to screw the tracks in from under the table top. To do this, we laid out the track, lifted a piece in order to make a pencil mark, pre-drilled a hole through the tabletop only, and then held the piece down firmly as I screwed it in from below. The screw length (#4 x 1″ ) allowed it to catch about 1/4″ of the wooden track. Most pieces had one screw in the center, but some of the transition pieces required two in order to keep it from binding. Attaching the tracks is a two person job as you need one person pushing really hard on each piece in order to get the screw to snug it up to the board. For the raised bridge, I shot a couple nails into the support pieces instead of screws and it seemed to work really well. The last step is to trim off any of the track that is hanging over the plywood. Because of the how we set it up, we needed to trim two pieces to fit. Before screwing them down, I laid them in place and drew a pencil line along the bottom of the piece by using the plywood as a guide. After being marked, I used a jigsaw to cut them down. Sand the cut edges, and then screw down just like the other pieces.

Completed Train Table

That’s it. We chose to leave the trees and buildings loose, but you could easily screw them in just as you did the tracks. Pop the top into the frame and you’ve got an awesome train table. By leaving the top removable, you can always use the other side as a Lego table or remove the screws when the wooden tracks are in need of a change.

 Henry Playing w/ Train

I think the pictures say it all – the kid loves it.