Hubby How To – DIY Wood Train Set

Struggling to find a beautiful wooden toy train for your child without busting the budget? Or just have a lot of wood scraps lying around and want to build a wooden toy train? Check out these step-by-step instructions for how to DIY wood toy train set using scrap wood!

Updated 9/26/2023

DIY Wood Train Set

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Do you have a treasured wood toy from your childhood or one that your child adores? This DIY project is a wooden train set inspired by a toy train set my grandad made for me when I was young. Now my little one plays with that same train set. Truthfully, nothing beats a handmade wooden toy, and it can be used from one child to the next.

This post covers the tools, materials, and step-by-step instructions following our DIY plans. We even include how to make your own dowels if you don’t have any on hand and don’t want to buy them!

Additionally, we do our best to DIY sustainably by using up what we have, especially when it comes to wood scraps. So this DIY wood train set is set up to be made from wood scrap offcuts. But you do you, and enjoy building this awesome toy train!

Tools For DIY Train Set:

Optional Tools: 

Materials For DIY Train Set:

This train set is intended to be made using offcuts and other scrap pieces of wood. The only thing you will likely need to buy is dowels if you don’t already have them laying around. Make as many cars as you have the material for or build as you go to use up extra materials after every project.

  • (x) – 1×3 Board Off Cuts or larger 1x__ trimmed down on the table saw (Need at least 225″ for full set)
  • (x) – 2×4 Board Off Cuts or larger 2x__ trimmed down on the table saw (Need at least 19″ for full set)
  • (x) – ¼” Dowel Off Cuts (Need at least 9” for full set)
  • (5) – ⅜” x 48” Dowel (Need 104” for Axles, 22″ for Hitch Pegs, 90” for Cargo, and 4” for Decorative Pieces)
  • (1) – 5/8″ X 48″ Dowel (Need at least 32″ for full set)
  • (1) – 1.5” x 48” Dowel (Need at least 35” for full set)
  • (x) – 2” Dowel Off Cut (Need at least 15” for full set)
  • Titebond Original Wood Glue
  • Food Safe Finish (Optional)

DIY Train Set – Build Process

DIY wood train set built and rolling along the ground on concrete

Step 1: Start With Plans

Step one, as always, is to have a plan. Or in this case, you’ll want to get yourself a set of plans! You can find the plans for all of the different train car pieces in our Shop or Etsy Shop

Step 2: Organize The Scrap Material

To start this project, you need to take stock of how much scrap wood you have and what sizes. Trim down larger pieces of 1 bys and 2 bys material into the sizes needed on your table saw. The goal is to organize the scrap wood and match them up with the drawings to build each train car. 

If you’re not going to utilize scrap wood, then the full materials list shows the totals of each size of lumber needed to build the full set.

Determine if you have all of the material needed to make all of the DIY wood train cars. You don’t have to make the entire train set, and you can get creative with the cargo on top of the cars to better utilize what you may already have. You can also build some of the cars now and some more later after you have more offcuts collected. 

It is also possible to make your own dowels if you need to. We will show you how, but you may end up with a better result by buying them instead. 

Step 3: Buy Any Missing Material

Now you know what you have and what you are missing. Make a run to the store and pick up any extra materials, if needed. 

Step 4: Cut Bases for Car Body Pieces

Start by cutting the bases for the Car Body Pieces. Cut them slightly long to make it easier to round off the ends without the blade having to leave and reenter the wood. 

If you already trimmed the width of these pieces down in step 2 or you already have 1×3 material, this should be a simple, repetitive cross-cut. Just set up a stop block and cut away with your table saw or miter saw.

Step 5: Cut Rounded Ends on Car Body Pieces

Now with all of the body bases cut, it’s time to round the ends. If you can find a circle that is 2.5” in diameter, then simply align the tangent and trace the curve. Otherwise, use a compass or a piece of string to trace out a nice semi-circle. 

Once the circle patterns are traced, hop over to the band saw or grab a clamp and jigsaw to cut the semi-circle pattern out. The band saw is definitely my preferred method. Especially when working on pieces this small.  Sand the rounded edge on the belt sander or by hand to ensure it’s smooth.

Step 6: Drill Holes in Car Body Pieces

With the body pieces made, it is time to drill the holes for the axles and hitch pegs. The axle holes will be oversized so the axle can spin freely while the hitch peg should be tight. 

Oftentimes, store-bought dowels are slightly under or oversized. Start by drilling a 1/32” undersized on the peg and see if it can fit in. If it goes in with light hammering, then you have a perfect fit for gluing later. If it doesn’t fit, then try a ⅜” bit. Then try a 1/32” oversized bit, if that is still too tight. 

Repeat this process for all body pieces that get a hitch peg. Then, repeat the process to drill the hitch receiver hole. This time we want to be oversized by 1/16 of an inch or so to make the assembly easy for little ones. Use a drill block if you need to to ensure your holes are perfectly square to the surface. Or if you have a drill press, I definitely recommend using that. 

Next up is drilling the holes for the axles. Again, these will be oversized by about 1/16 of an inch. Use a drill block to ensure you stay square to the material. It is helpful here to clamp all of the body pieces together so that you have a larger face to balance your drill block on. Or if you have a drill press, then set up a few stop blocks to make positioning and holding the piece square easier while drilling through. Increment up in sizes until you achieve your desired fit. 

Step 7: Cut Axles

To make the axles for the wooden train cars, take the ⅜” dowel over to the table saw, set up a stop block, and then chop out all of the axle pieces to length. The table saw may create a little tear out, but a quick sanding will take care of it.

Making A Dowel

If you don’t have a ⅜” dowel, you can try to make one. The easiest way to do this is to take a steel plate that is ¼” thick or so and drill a ⅜” hole in it. Do NOT deburr this hole. Then cut out a square strip of material that is a little over ⅜” x ⅜”. Put this stick of material into your drill chuck then push it through the steel while turning it with your drill. The burrs of the steel will cut away the square strip until you end up with a dowel rod.

Alternatively, if you don’t have a steel plate, then you can put this stick into your drill and spin it while running it on your belt sander to shave it down. Keep trying to press it into the ⅜” hole in your drill block to check it’s size as you work. This method is a lot less precise than the steel plate though, so if you have a plate, then I would go with that method instead.

Step 8: Cut Bases for Wheels

Cutting the wheels is just like cutting the axles above. Just take your 1.5” dowel over to the table saw, set up a stop block, and cut out each of the wheels.

cutting a dowel on a table saw to make wheels for a DIY wood train set

Making Wheel Dowel

If you don’t have a 1.5” dowel, then you can try to make one as similarly mentioned above. Cut a square strip of material that is greater than 1.5” x 1.5”. Since this will likely be coming from a 2×4, you may end up with a dowel that is a little undersized, but it will still work. Make a quick jig that will suspend this wood chunk by two screws at a height where it can connect with your table saw blade. Be sure the screws are perfectly centered. Then use your drill to turn one of the screws while sliding your jig along the fence so the table saw blade can cut it down to size.

dowel making jig for table saw for a DIY wood train set

Step 9: Drill Holes in Wheels

Mark the center point of the wheels and drill out a hole in them. Just like the hitch peg, you will want this hole to be a fairly tight fit. So match the same size hole you used there. 

Step 10: Cut Hitch Pegs

Cut the hitch pegs out on the table saw just like the axles in Step 8.

Step 10: Glue Wheels onto Axles

Pre-glue one end of each axle into a wheel and let it dry for a few minutes. Then run the axles through the holes in the bodies and glue the other wheel on the other side. Try to clean up any excess glue as best as you can and spin the wheels a few times to distribute any remaining glue. This will help prevent the axle from binding up. 

Step 12: Glue Body Together

Glue the top of the wood train car body to the lower part of the body and clamp the two together to get a strong bond. Add glue to the hitch pegs and install them into their holes as well.

bases of a DIY wood train set sitting on a workbench

Step 13: Cut Up Cargo and Body Pieces

With the wood train car bodies assembled, it is time to make the tops of the cars. Our drawing plans have several recommendations for possible assemblies, but the key here is to get creative! Use our plans as inspiration and make cars that best use up the scrap you may already have. As long as you make a locomotive and a caboose, everything else in between is free for interpretation. 

When shaping the decorative pieces for the locomotive and caboose, short of a lathe, the best method is to put the dowel stock into your drill chuck and then spin it on a belt sander in order to profile the pieces. These don’t have to be precise. Just do your best and get creative!

Step 14: Assemble Wood Train Cars

Glue all of the DIY wood train cars together. A lot of the pieces may be difficult to clamp together, so a good trick is to use painter tape or rubber bands to apply pressure and hold the pieces in place while the glue sets up.

Step 15: Smooth Corners and Edges

Once all of the wood train cars are assembled, take a pass with some sandpaper to knock down any sharp corners or edges. You don’t want little hands getting any splinters while they are playing!

Step 16: Finish (Optional)

Applying finish to these cars is entirely optional. Our child is playing with a set that my grandfather made for me when I was his age. It has held up just fine over the years unfinished.

If you do decide to apply a finish though, I recommend a penetrating oil that is food safe, so that any teething children stay safe. Think Mineral Oil or Tung Oil. If you are going to apply finish though, I would recommend that you pre-finish some of the parts before assembly so that it is easier to get into the little cracks and crevices. 

There you have it! A custom-made DIY wood train set for kids to enjoy for generations to come!

More DIY Projects

Check out some of our other DIY projects like homemade playdough or using power tools to make a party/holiday garland. We love doing projects for our house too, with our DIY hanging daybed definitely being the most popular build yet!

Hope you build an awesome DIY wood train set with lots of train cars! Have fun, get creative, and use up any of those wood scraps lying around. Let us know what you think of the DIY wood train in the comments below!

Disclaimer: This post includes affiliate links, and I will earn a commission if you purchase through these links. Please note that I’ve linked to these products purely because I recommend them and they are from companies I trust. There is no additional cost to you.

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