How to Choose a Child's Wooden Train Set
About the Author: Brandi Ryan is the mother of two train enthusiasts. She has learned more about trains in the last four years than she ever intended to know in her entire life.
This article covers points to consider when purchasing a wooden train set for a child. It includes information on brand selection and cross brand compatibility of tracks and cars. This article does not cover electric or model train sets although some train cars for wooden sets are battery powered allowing the engines to move under their own "steam." Brands surveyed include Thomas and Friends, Melissa & Doug, Brio, Target (Circo), and IKEA. Although Chuggington is not a wooden train set this toy does complete for the same child customers as the other and an overview of the brand is included.
Track and brand selection
Most buyers begin with a starter set that includes both cars and tracks. Although the cars are the most appealing part of the package to children, track selection will have the most long term impact on the set. Although all tracks attach with a similar tab and slot system these attachment points should be considered like nuts and bolts, not all pieces will attach to other brands easily or even at all.
Within a brand, all tracks will attach to each other. Thomas and Friends offers an extensive line of track expansion options most often as part of a kit including bridges, buildings or other engines. Expanding your track set this way can be fun but is often expensive. Brio, Target (Circo), and IKEA are also kit based with few or no options to obtain only a few pieces of track for a slightly larger set. Melissa and Doug does sell individual track pieces as well as full kits allowing for greater flexibility when adding to your basic set.
Most train cars for wooden tracks will work on the tracks of other brands. The exception is extra long or large cars which may not be able to fit under the bridges or angle up the hills or around the curves of another brand. You should also consider the visual appeal of the cars as they fit together. While Thomas the Tank Engine can pull a Circo caboose twice his size it looks a bit silly as he does it and the smaller IKEA enginge looks even more odd.
Toy trains by Ikea, Thomas, and Circo train cars
Toy Trains by Thomas, Melissa & Doug, Brio
Thomas and Friends
Thomas the Tank Engine is far and away the most popular wooden toy engine. If a preschool or elementary age child asked for a train set it was probably Thomas he had in mind. Any and all track accessories available in other brands are either already available for Thomas or soon will be. This is a competitive and constantly evolving brand. A cartoon show and series of videos provides a constant stream of new characters to collect and locations to own. If you're seeking to contain your train layout and store the engines and accessories tidily away the Thomas and Friends brand sells a matching train table.
Please note that Thomas and Friends Trackmaster and Take N Play are both alternate sizes and not wooden trains. The tracks and trains of either will not work properly with a wooden train set.
Brio or Melissa & Doug
Both Brio and Melissa & Doug are reputable providers of children's wooden toys. Brio, based in Sweden, has been in business for over 100 years and producing trains for more than 50. Melissa & Doug is an American company founded in 1988. In recent years they have moved production for almost all of their toys to China but they are still widely considered to be a high end American toy producer. Parents preferring unlicensed toys (toys without branded characters, cartoon shows, and matching clothing) frequently turn to both manufacturers. The styling of the brands is slightly different with Brio having a stronger tendency to use plastic in it's models. Melissa and Doug's toys have a signature look that is carried through in the trains. Flat surfaces are painted with basic lines to convey the nature of the item.
The Swedish furniture maker has offered train sets for at least four years. Like all other IKEA products the manufacturing factory is subject to change at any time and the new pieces are not guaranteed to work in harmony with the old ones. If you think you might like to expand the set you might want to buy two or more fairly quickly. IKEA does not offer the variety of sets found in other brands nor do they sell individual cars, engines, or track pieces.
IKEA trains will work on other wooden tracks but may not work well with other engines. Wooden train cars and engines typically feature magnets on the front and back to attach them to other cars in the line. For most box cars the direction of the car can be changed without changing the look of the train. For engines this is not the case and IKEA's engines do occasionally run in a different direction from the engines of other brands. Additionally, the IKEA cars are smaller than most others.
While other brands of wooden train cars and engines will work on IKEA tracks, non-IKEA train cars most often do not fit under the IKEA bridges. It's not necessary to lay out the tracks to feature a bridge overpass but for a long term train enthusiast it can be a nice option to have.
The Circo brand, sold exclusively at Target, is a relative newcomer to the world of wooden trains but they've come on strong. Engines and cars can be purchased individually and are very affordable, often running around $4 instead of the $12 or more for a single Thomas engine. In addition, Circo offers cars and construction equipment also sized to run on wooden tracks. Before purchase you should note the magnet placing on the particular item you're purchasing. Not all train cars have magnets at both ends making it impossible to link ALL of a child's cars into a single mega-train.