How To Make A Train Board

All aboard! (Can I get a choo choo?)

As promised via our little Instagram/Facebook sneak peek yesterday, here’s the story of how we made a little train board for Clara. Why a train board? Well, Clara is nothing short of obsessed with the one at Barnes & Noble (a nice big track is screwed into place on a little pedestal board and kids flock from all sides of the book store to play with it). In fact if we pull into the parking lot (which also leads to a ton of other stores) before we even turn off the car Clara is shouting “we’re getting to play with the trains!”

So when John suggested that we make our own version of one with a train set that we got for Clara’s second birthday from a few relatives of ours, I remembered seeing this one over on Aubrey and Lindsey’s blog so I googled around for a few others to gaze at (like this one). As for our specific objectives, we had a few goals in mind:

  • to use all of the Melissa & Doug train pieces that we already had and make a nice big track
  • to use solid wood if we could for the board part (just to avoid the off-gassing issue of MDF/plywood since solid whitewood is nice and light – and cheap)
  • to paint something fun on the surface to give Clara more play ideas (ex: the train is going to the beach, the train is going to the forest, the train is going over the water)
  • to paint it with low-VOC paint, seal it with low-VOC sealer, and attach the tracks with screws from beneath to avoid fumey glue (just in the same eco vein as the wood choice)

So here’s how we got ‘er done using nine dollar’s worth of sample paint from Home Depot and one plank of 12″ whitewood for $19 (also from Home Depot) – for a total of $28 spent. First John got a twelve foot long 10″ x 1″ board of whitewood and had them cut it down to make three equal 10″ x 1″ x 47″ boards right in the store. Then he joined them together with his Kreg Jig (you could also use flat bracing pieces of wood or metal along the back to connect them and add some felt pads to make sure nothing scratches the floor). Then he sanded everything to keep the board from feeling rough or splintery. See how the seams are barely visible (these arrows point them out for ya).

Next we pieced the train tracks together in about a million different configurations before finally deciding to go with this one (it has hills, an elevated part, a bridge, a tunnel, and even an area where the train will shoot down an incline and off the board – which we thought would be Clara’s favorite part):

Then we brainstormed what we thought the background should look like on a piece of paper and came up with this (the light green is grass, the blue is the ocean, the stripe next to the blue is sand, and the dark green is the forest):

Then I sketched that layout onto the board with a pencil – just marking the lines of delineation between the water, the beach, the forest, etc.

Then we ran to Home Depot and grabbed three $2.95 sample pots in Japanese Fern, Mirage Lake, and Shamrock all by Behr Ultra (which is low-VOC).

After we brought them home it was time to take the whole track apart so we could paint the background (tip: take a photo of the track configuration that you’ve landed on before dismantling it so you remember how to recreate it when you’ve painted your background). I started with the water and then I added the grass (these two don’t touch, so I didn’t have to worry about if the blue paint was still wet when I applied the green):

Oh and I didn’t prime anything because we didn’t mind this looking like painted wood (we thought a few knots showing through could be authentic and charming). But if you don’t want them to show through, a coat or two of stain-blocking primer should do the trick before you paint your design.

Then I gave that stuff a while to dry since I would be going up against the edges of those for the sand and the trees (and didn’t want things to smear) and came back a few hours later to paint the forest. That was the most fun because there’s that sort-of-bushy shape, so I made this quick video to share my weird little traingle-brush-swiping technique to make those jagged edges:

Then I added the sand, which was just leftover no-VOC white paint (we loved the idea of a white-sand beach between the ocean and the grassy plains, haha).

Then we let the whole board dry and I applied a few thin and even coats of my favorite eco poly (Acrylacq by Safecoat). We’ve had the same quart of it since before Clara was born and it’s still going strong (seriously, I can’t recommend it enough- not only is it low-VOC it’s actually non-toxic). I just brushed it on in thin and even coats, being careful not to belabor certain areas (if you brush things over and over they can get gummy, so I moved quickly across the board, let it dry, applied another coat, left that dry, and applied one last thin application).

As for why we decided to temporarily attach the tracks to the board:

  • at this age for Clara, putting the tracks together herself just led to frustration (crying/throwing stuff) so it wasn’t really a good time for her when things weren’t attached.
  • yet, we noticed how much fun she had at B&N when things were nailed down (it still led to a lot of creative, independent play with talks about trains stopping under tunnels, trains crashing, trains running out of fuel, people stopping at specific destinations, etc).
  • if she ever has a hankering to build her own track down the line, we can always free up this track by just removing the small screws on the underside of the board – so it’ll still be really functional and flexible for spur-of-the-moment-building if it’s detached later.

We just saw how much more fun she had at B&N with the fixed track (no tantrums or frustration of trying to make things go together, etc) so we thought a fixed track made the most sense for now. So after we gave the poly lots of drying time (48 full hours) we laid out the track on top of the newly sealed board and attached the whole thing with screws from underneath the train board. In other words, John removed the tracks one by one, drilled a pilot hole from the top of the board through to the bottom…

… and then held the track in place on top of it and screwed up to attach the track to the board from underneath).

That’s how he got the track to stay in place without looking like it’s covered in screws (using counter-sinking screws meant they sunk into the back of the board and didn’t stick out and scratch the floor). We also added felt furniture pads to keep the board from rubbing on the floor/table/ottoman if it gets lots of use.

As for the elevated part of the train, we attached those blocks to hold the track up the same way we did the rest of the track (a pilot hole through the board from above followed by a screw driven from the back of the board up into the block to hold it in place without seeing any hardware). Then to hold the track in place on top of each of those blocks, we drove a small finish nail into the groove of the track and into the block, which actually proved to be really sturdy without being super obvious (you have to get pretty close to even notice them at all).

When it came to making that one piece of track look like it led off the corner of the board, John just traced the shape of the board onto the bottom of the track, and cut it along that line that he drew (and then sanded it to make it nice and smooth). Then he just drilled that track in from below like the rest of them (he actually had already attached it, which you can see in the pic on the right, so he removed it, cut it, and drilled it back in).

Next came the big test. Holding everything upside down to make sure it was all attached. Thankfully it’s all nice and sturdy. As in, Clara has taken great joy in kicking the elevated part and it’s all holding strong.

Choo-choo, baby. Here’s the whole shebang in action:

Clara loves it. As expected, there’s lots of chatter about people going to the beach, the forest, and over the hills and valleys, and contrary to our guess – her favorite feature is actually rolling them down the middle hill and into a big pile-up. And now for a little video of our train board in action:

Sometimes she even lets us get in on the chugga-chugga action.

Are there any other train board fans out there? At first I thought making new tracks would be part of the fun, but seeing how much Clara loves the fixed one at B&N, I’m glad we made her a souped up board with a fun little background to make playing with it even more exciting. Things like adding an environment behind it and having trains shoot off the board have certainly upped the train-playing ante around here. And John may or may not have played with it a little himself after Clara went to bed last night. Not kidding.

And perhaps the best thing about it is that it’s nice and flat, so it can slide completely under the sofa for storage when it’s not in use. Here it is halfway in:

That’s actually one of the reasons we thought a board would work better for us than a table, since we used all the tracks and trains that we had to build this, so we didn’t need additional storage or anything). It’s nice that we can stash it away in a second and that seems to make it even more special for Clara (she loves things that we bring out and tuck away, like markers and Play-Doh a bit more than things that are always out at her disposal). Maybe it’s like those special “limited edition” holiday Oreos? They always feel more special than the regular kind to me. Haha.

So that’s the full $28 train board rundown. What have you guys been building/painting/sanding lately? Any fun kids stuff in the works?


    • says

      She seems to love it as-is, so we have no plans to change the track around until she’s older and wants us to detach it all for good so she can make new arrangements to her heart’s content (it’s just temporarily attached to avoid her frustration at this age). But we might add some more tunnels or items on top of the board (ex: a barn to stop at, etc) in the meantime. That could be fun!


  1. says

    That is awesome! I would have killed for one of those as a kid! So creative. Seems like the projects are endless.

    When it’s not a house project, it’s a kid project. Guess we have a lot to look forward to :)

    Our Saturday’s are packed pretty full as is… :0

  2. Le Yen McCarthy says

    GENIUS! Great project! This is so much better than the train tables sold at the toy stores. They are high and they can’t be stored under furniture when not being used. Your version is very creative and a great solution to the other ones.

  3. says

    I am floored! We (Chris, too!) love this and can’t wait to make one for Greta for Christmas. We had already brainstormed getting her a train set, but I agree, keeping it together on a track feels so special. Plus, I love the idea of getting to paint a scene.

  4. Megan says

    Such a great idea! This was exactly what I was planning on doing for our 2/12 year old nephew for Christmas this year. Great to see it all put together!

    Clara must be in love. I know I am!

  5. Lisa P. says

    Looks great! I bought my boys a train table for $10 from someone on craigslist. But if I hadn’t found such a super deal, then this would have been a great idea.

    Btw, love how Clara tells the trains “I’m sorry”. So sweet!

  6. says

    You have outdone yourselves this time. This is the sweetest train set! I know you guys love doing this kind of stuff, but Clara is going to look back and see how much you both put into her playtime. Isn’t it cool that her favorite toys are ones that you’ve made? Like the toy kitchen, dollhouse, sandbox & now the train set. I think that’s pretty neat. :)

  7. says

    Seriously, y’all need to definitely commit to that second career as children’s toy designers. I’d buy that in a heartbeat! But, instead, I’ll pin it to my Pinterest board and pretend like I’ll have the tools and the energy to make it myself one day. ;)

  8. Ann L. says

    You’re the female Bob Ross. I just kept waiting for you to tell us you were painting “happy little trees” on the train board.

  9. Tracy says

    How do you guys read my mind??? So. freaky. We have been trying to find a train table/tracks for our two year old son the past 3 days. I found a great table on craigslist for $60, and even though I was first and offered to pay immediately, they sold it to somebody else who could pick it up that night. whomp whomp. We are really debating about permanently fixing the track, because it coming apart seems to be more of a distraction than encouraging free play. Then our little cave-boy devolves into throwing the tracks instead of playing nicely, like he does with the fixed track at our local toy store. Your track looks great, btw. Looks like Clara really enjoys it.

    • sarah says

      don’t nail down the track. if he stays interested in trains like every other 3 year old i know, he’ll like to rearrange and build higher and higher.

      just my 2 cents.

    • says

      You also could just see if the tracks continue to frustrate him like they seem to now and if they do you can screw them in from beneath and then release them later (it doesn’t hurt the track at all, so you can keep them attached for a year or two until he’s in that phase of wanting to build tracks without crying/frustration and then it can be a great option to free them)! Easy peasy.


    • says

      Aw thanks Melanie! We would love to get to do that someday- I keep dreaming of an eco line for some sweet smaller retailer. We’ll keep you posted for sure!


  10. says

    What a great project! It turned out beautifully, and I know it will provide hours and hours of fun!

    And can I just say that Clara’s outfit is AWESOME. I’m wondering if I could pull that off … ;)