Locomotives & Rolling Stock
The majority of wooden trains available through retail outlets are brightly colored, heavily commericalized and quite expensive. Some are character-based and accompanied by books and videos that tell stories to small children. Engines have faces. Any kid over six recognizes these as a toy for small children and this association can be a significant barrier. Updating and detailing your rolling stock is an important step in crafting a credible and engaging railway. An easy step is to substitute a simple, familiar steam engine... As a minimum, remove the faces and soften bright colors.
Custom Rail Cars
In addition to commercially available train cars, it is possible to make your own. Wooden wheels appear in mail-order catalogues with magnets and tacks. Wood wheel and dowel axles are more fragile than ABS plastic wheels and steel axles though - and when they break, they are sharp and present a choking hazard. Hoogerland National Railways had some detailed dimensions to really explore custom railcar construction, but the site is now inactive
Undecorated railcars are a great resource. These have been packaged in small sets called ‘Paint and Play’ and marketed for kids to decorate. They were once available in bulk through the Tomy Outlet Store, but were never made available from Fisher-Price when they licensed the Thomas product line. Orbrium is currently the best source for affordable and durable train cars to use as the basis for custom train cars – a bit chunkier, but nearly indestructible. One might also ‘recycle’ older train cars, putting new bodies onto the base or transferring the wheels to the new train car. If starting from scratch, take measurements from other railcars. Magnets need to be set at the right height and with the appropriate polarity
Parts are available for creating custom engines and cars. Shown are ceramic magnets, rounded couplers, and wooden wheels that can be found at Cherry Tree Toys and other sources. The wooden wheels have a 1/8” diameter hole and accommodate a dowel or screw for the axle.
I ‘child tested’ the wheels using a glued 1/8” birch dowel axle. Within a minute of casual twisting the dowel completely disintegrated and snapped in the middle with a sharp point. Using a carbon fiber graphite shaft and CA glue held up better, but the glue set up so quickly it was difficult to get the wheel balanced on the axle to prevent wobble.
The wheel can be drilled to accept a larger 3/16” hard wood dowel. With twice the cross-sectional area, this could be a more rugged option. But a wood axle rolling against wood has a lot of friction and the wheels don’t spin as easily as desired. The nail through the magnet may also be long enough to wear against the axle. A plastic or metal sleeve could help to reduce friction and wear, but a larger axle also requires a deeper railcar undercarriage that tends to drag on the track over ramps and arch bridges.
Dowels, spindles, drums and similar items can be used to customize railcars - making loads for gondola and flatcars for example. Multiple sources exist for these, including:
Shown are the cross-sections and axle configurations for standard model trains, three of the wood train manufacturers, and wood wheels with either a 1/8" or 3/16" wooden axle. Brio and Orbrium cars have a larger diameter axle that captures the wheel and are virtually indestructable. Thomas, Whittle and others rely on an axle with knurling, barbs or rings to secure the wheels with mixed success from a safety and durability standpoint. Unbranded knockoffs from China have wheels that are minimally retained, making them inferior and even dangerous.