Introduction to Toy Train TablesThis article is one in a series of articles about model railroad trains for children. All of these articles supplement the information given in Parents' Guide to Toy Trains and Electric Trains.
In the old days children's electric train sets were run on the floor, hence the model railroading expression "carpet runner". I'm not a fan of carpet runners. Laying out and putting away track can become tedious to a child. They needs a dedicated space for their electric train layouts. With that in mind, the smaller scale (size) trains offer distinct benefits. Inexpensive N scale trains provide an opportunity for teaching children responsibility. Giving expensive ones to a child is a bad idea.
Train Boards and Tables Help Manage SpaceMy mother said to me many times during my childhood, "A place for everything and everything in its place." I'd be far better off today if I'd actually learned it. Space is a major factor in model railroading layouts. The issues of space are largely determined by the scale of your trains and its track curves. It seems that more and more adult model railroaders are picking up hollow-core doors at Home Depot and using them as a base for N scale "door layouts".
When your child graduates from Thomas the Tank Engine, GeoTrax, or Brio push toys, here are some ideas for train boards and train tables that your child can build their toy train layouts on.
Train Boards for Under-the-bed layouts.For a child's room, a cost-effective solution is to make a "train board" (not to be confused with the popular online forum TrainBoard.com). A train board slides under the child's bed.
To make a train board I would use a good quality 1/2 inch plywood, the kind with one side sanded smooth. Using the smooth side for the top, I'd glue a few furniture sliders on the bottom of my train board to protect carpets and hardwood floors. Then I'd glue and nail 1/2 round molding to the sides, primer it, and then paint it green or an earth tone to protect children from splinters and make it easy to clean.
Train Board SizesIf your child has a twin bed of the type that has the legs under the bed instead of at the corners, then the biggest board you'll get under there comfortably is about 32 inches wide by 48 inches long. I consider this the minimum practical size for a train board, and use these dimensions in example diagrams in the article on scales for children's electric trains. If the legs of your child's twin bed are actually corner posts, you could probably make the length 66 inches.
If your child's has a full bed then a train board up to 48 inches wide by 66 inches long might be possible. Don't forget, you still need open space beside the bed to slide your train board out, with enough room for the child to kneel beside it.
A Bunk Bed as a Train TableA more expensive solution would be to buy a bunk bed and putting a plywood table top for your child's trains over the lower mattress and box spring. Again, I'd paint the plywood a green or an earth tone.
I saw this awesome "twin over full" bed on the web that would really let your child explore some neat layouts. As an unattached American male, I was actually tempted to buy a "full over full" and put a layout on the upper bed frame, but that might look odd to some people. Now if I had a bigger house... one with a guest room... hmmmm
Door LayoutsIf your child's room is large enough, follow the lead of those adult model railroaders that I mentioned. Pick up an inexpensive hollow-core door and use a couple plastic storage crates to raise it off of the floor. That should make it about the right height for kneeling children.
Not many children I know these days are fortunate enough to have that much space available in their bedrooms. If you have the space to give a door-sized train table, they are indeed fortunate. One way to make space for a door layout would be to make use pulleys to raise it out of the way when it's not in use.
Overhead Pulleys that Lower Train TablesSome people mount pulleys on the ceiling of their child's room. Then they use cords to raise and lower the train table. If the parent has good carpentry skills, this can be an excellent inexpensive solution. If you have to call in a handyman, it won't come quite so cheap. The beauty of it is, it allows for larger train tables.
There are two things you should definitely do if you build this contraption. First, do not anchor your pulleys into the drywall using plastic anchors and screws. Find beams and drill through them. Then use eyebolts, nuts and lockwashers to mount the pulleys. Second, don't build layouts and run trains on a board hanging by cords from your ceiling; build folding legs on the bottom of your train table.
After I Build the Table, Then What?If you haven't already, read my article on scales for children's electric trains. That will give you an idea of what you can do with a minimum sized train board of 32 x 48 inches. I have diagrams there showing minimum curves on a board that size for various scales.
Check back here now and then. Over the next few months I'll be posting track layout plans in different scales for your child's train tables. I'll specify age groups for them, because as your child's model railroad operating skills develop, they'll naturally want more challenging layouts.
If you'd like to share your own ideas on train tables for children, or if you have any questions, please post them in our forum.