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Wooden Train Sets

Updated on April 2, 2013

Wooden Train Sets - The Missing Manual.

As toy store owners, one of the questions Trish and I were always being asked was, "Do you have any brochures on wooden railway systems?" Mums and dads looked for more information on how things fitted together, before they bought from us.

Well, we didn't have a brochure, so to remedy that, I put together this article and made it available as a download from our website but now I've discovered the wonders of Squidoo, I've turned it into a lens.

What this lens shows is some useful information that goes beyond what you'll find in the railway sets themselves, that will enable you to plan layouts with more confidence. With that knowledge, you'll be able to buy the accessories you need, rather than just a bunch of track and then find you can't do what you wanted to.

Just bear in mind that it's not essential that you read this before you play with wooden trains - especially if you're a three year old!

About Wooden Train Sets

Wooden railways are great fun but they shouldn’t be seen as simply a younger child’s version of an electric train set (nor as a boy’s toy rather than a girl’s toy, one of my pet peeves).. Electric trains are operated remotely, but wooden trains are very much hands on – the youngster has to make the decision as to which direction the train will take at a junction, for example, and physically push the train in that direction.

Manufacturers are gradually adding more and more sophistication, such as intelligent track that can make whistle sounds (and much more), and battery-powered engines. These features add variety, but do they detract from the child’s involvement? I think that, beyond a certain amount of simple “electrification”, the point of the “push-along” is lost.

Most wooden train makers stick to a set of de facto standards that have evolved over time. The expression “Brio compatible” is often used to describe the track and connection systems from various manufacturers. To all intents and purposes, most are compatible, with slight differences between brands, that don’t usually affect the operation of the trains.

You should always satisfy yourself about the compatibility, if it could be an issue, before making any significant purchase. I hope some of the answers I give here will help and in particular, some of the quotes I’ve included from the Internet

You don’t have to know any of this detail, in order to put together a working layout. Let’s not forget who the trains are for. Kids will have fun slotting parts together, even with incomplete track sections, or broken bridges, but a knowledgeable mum or dad is, nevertheless, a great asset!

I’ve collected my information from a number of sources and from Little Shop of Knowledge. The idea isn’t to give you lots of layout plans - just some useful background, so that you can make some reasonably informed choices

Wooden train track profile
Wooden train track profile

Wooden Railway Track Profile

The image shows a typical profile. There are slight variations on this but they don't affect the dimensions that matter for trains to run on these tracks.

The width of the track is 40 mm, with grooves 5 mm wide and 3 mm deep, on 25 mm centres, i.e. 25 mm gauge.

The lower profile is used for non-symmetrical parts, such as curves, switches, ascenders and descenders, that can be flipped over for up/down or left/right handed options.

The section is 12 mm thick.

Track Connection
Track Connection

Track Connection

Shown here, in plan view, is the connection method used in Brio compatible systems. This is self-explanatory; the two ends are known as male and female. Unlike the pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, there is sufficient play in the joints to allow a slight movement in both horizontal and vertical directions, an essential feature of this type of track system, sometimes known as the “Vario system”. Lengths are measured between the two end faces. Another technique is to use a plastic peg with a ball-shaped end for the male end of some track pieces.

Little Shop of Knowledge Starter Train Set
Little Shop of Knowledge Starter Train Set

The 45 Degrees System

If we were to use pieces that had zero tolerance in their fit, as jigsaw pieces do, then we would find that some parts would not meet exactly within the layout. This is due to the fact that the curves, each being one eighth of a circle, give us multiples of forty-five degree turns. So, if we were to make a triangular layout, there would be two sides of equal length and one which would be approximately 1.41 times the length of each of the other sides. You can work this out from Pythagoras’ Theorem, if you really want to! (see below). Because of this, we cannot simply have pieces which are exact multiples of a basic size, hence the need for the “wobble” in the joints that was described above.

Shown here is a circular track made up of eight long curves. The outer diameter is 440 mm, with the track diameter, measured from the mid-lines of opposite tracks being 400mm – the standard radius being 200 mm. This is as it appears in the usual first set – we’ll refer to it here as our Little Shop of Knowledge Starter Layout.

You can see that each piece of track covers an arc of 45 degrees.

We will now look at how that affects the standard track piece lengths.

Triangular wooden train set layout
Triangular wooden train set layout

Why Such Odd Sizes For Train Track?

Now look at the triangular layout on the right. Here, we have two sides of equal length and a longer third side. The original eight curves are still there, but now we've added some straights to make the layout more interesting.

Looking at the right-angled (white) triangle, the areas of the red and yellow squares added together equal the area of the orange square. If each smaller square has sides of 1 unit, then their total area = 2 units. From this, the length of the sides on the larger square are equal to the square root of 2 which = 1.414 approx. So, 100 mm straights would need a 141 mm long side, which is a common length for track. So, 1:1.41 is an important ratio for track sizes.

Oval wooden train set layout
Oval wooden train set layout

The Oval

Now that we’ve seen where the standard sizes come from, and we know that they’re not just random lengths, we can look at extending our basic Little Shop of Knowledge starter layout. The easiest extension is to add some straights to two sides and turn the circle into an oval. This gives us a bigger layout for very little cost, but it’s still fairly plain, as layouts go!

Figure of eight wooden train set
Figure of eight wooden train set

Figure of Eight

The next layout adds another level of interest with a central crossover – not a feature you’ll generally see in real railways, (fortunately!) but very common with toy trains.

There are various versions of the crossover, the crossing plate shown being one common type. Another uses two 140 mm straight sections with a 40 mm slot cut into the top of one and the bottom of the other, so that they can be fitted together, with cross grooves cut into the top piece.

A turntable could also be used to achieve the same result.

Another way to do this is by using a Three Arch Bridge to cross one of the central lines, a way to begin adding different levels into the layout.

Apart from the crossing plate, this layout uses long curves and 4 x 140 mm straights.

Combination Loops

Combination loop wooden train set
Combination loop wooden train set

At last, we come to a decent-sized layout. This is an outer oblong loop, enclosing a figure of eight from the previous example. The new additions here are the curved points (also called switches) and gender changers, shown below.

The points are “flippable”, as mentioned earlier, so that only two types are needed – having single male or female at one end, splitting out to two “ways” of the other gender.

In the configuration shown, there is a need to change gender in four places, using the 54 mm special male-male and female-female joining pieces.

Wooden train set points
Wooden train set points

Points and adaptors

Track pieces such as the points shown here, can be thought of as combinations of other standard pieces - in this case, a long curve and a medium straight. You can work out how they fit into your layout, knowing the standard sizes.

Short curves are available, with a radius of 110 mm, permitting parallel curved runs with a spacing of 50 mm between the 110 mm and 200 mm radius tracks. Curved turnouts of the same radius can be seen as two overlapping short curves. Three way points are a combination of two long curves and a medium straight.

T-Junctions, diamond crossovers, track splitters and double curved turnouts can all be seen in a similar way, as hybrids of two or more basic straights and/or curves.

All sounds very complicated and technical, doesn't it? But it's not, really.

Moving up a level

Having looked at the possibilities available with curved and straight track, we now come to the exciting world of 3-D. Once you start adding different levels to your layout, it literally opens up a new dimension. We mentioned the use of a three arch bridge in a basic figure-of-eight crossover and there are several other bridges available, including a double suspension bridge, a railway viaduct, a truss bridge, a river bridge, a lifting bridge and a footbridge.



There is also a bridge expansion set that lets you make your own bridges. Ascender and Descender tracks, made to link one level to another, 60 mm higher, are included in the Bridge expansion set. The length, 230 mm corresponds to a long straight of length 215 mm. Packs of high level blocks are available to carry track at the next level up.

To see the full range of bridges and high level accessories, visit our Little Shop of Knowledge website at www.littleshopofknowledge.co.uk.

Tunnels, Level Crossing, Accessories & Rolling Stock

Tunnels are a quick and easy way to add interest to a basic single-level layout. Children derive a lot of pleasure from the simple action of pushing a train through a tunnel, or over a level crossing. The level crossing enhances the layout by introducing roads, adding a new depth to the layout and opening it up to vehicles that can take alternative routes between layout buildings.

In addition to the basic layout parts we’ve already mentioned, all of the manufacturers have a wide range of accessories to give your layout a particular ”feel” – whether it be industrial, with steel works, timber works, cement works; or farming, with a milk & water depot, or construction, with cranes and the like. Bigjigs has introduced a range of environmental awareness accessories, having a dockside recycling station and electric car station. To see the full range of accessories, visit www.littleshopofknowledge.co.uk

Of course, the whole purpose of the track layouts we’ve been discussing is to carry the trains that carry the passengers or freight and this is where the manufacturers differentiate themselves from each other. Learning Curve, for example has the licensed Thomas and Friends range. Bigjigs have their own unique range, including the Heritage Engines, such as the Mallard, the Green Arrow and Sentinel, the original of which is at Chasewater Light Railway, near Lichfield, home of Little Shop of Knowledge.

One item we’ve left until now is the system that allows engines and coaches to link together. The systems we’ve mentioned all use small magnets, with domed shiny metal covers to give a flexible link, strong enough to pull a train, yet not so strong that tiny hands can’t separate them.

Because the magnets have north and south poles, the front and back have to be opposites, or they will repel each other. Fortunately for us, we don’t need to know which is north and which is south, just that the coach has to be the right way round. Luckily, the manufacturers have standardized the polarity, as well!

Finally, just a mention of train tables. These are available as sturdy, stand-alone tables, or with a pre-selected layout to save you the trouble of designing your own.

Tunnels, Level Crossing, Accessories & Rolling Stock

Wooden train set table
Wooden train set table

Tunnels are a quick and easy way to add interest to a basic single-level layout. Children derive a lot of pleasure from the simple action of pushing a train through a tunnel, or over a level crossing. The level crossing enhances the layout by introducing roads, adding a new depth to the layout and opening it up to vehicles that can take alternative routes between layout buildings.

In addition to the basic layout parts we've already mentioned, all of the manufacturers have a wide range of accessories to give your layout a particular "feel" - whether it be industrial, with steel works, timber works, cement works; or farming, with a milk & water depot, or construction, with cranes and the like. Bigjigs has introduced a range of environmental awareness accessories, having a dockside recycling station and electric car station. To see the full range of accessories, visit www.littleshopofknowledge.co.uk

Of course, the whole purpose of the track layouts we've been discussing is to carry the trains that carry the passengers or freight and this is where the manufacturers differentiate themselves from each other. Learning Curve, for example has the licensed Thomas and Friends range. Bigjigs have their own unique range, including the Heritage Engines, such as the Mallard, the Green Arrow and Sentinel, the original of which is at Chasewater Light Railway, near Lichfield, home of Little Shop of Knowledge.

One item we've left until now is the system that allows engines and coaches to link together. The systems we've mentioned all use small magnets, with domed shiny metal covers to give a flexible link, strong enough to pull a train, yet not so strong that tiny hands can't separate them.

Because the magnets have north and south poles, the front and back have to be opposites, or they will repel each other. Fortunately for us, we don't need to know which is north and which is south, just that the coach has to be the right way round. Luckily, the manufacturers have standardized the polarity, as well!

Finally, just a mention of train tables. These are available as sturdy, stand-alone tables, or with a pre-selected layout to save you the trouble of designing your own.

Wooden Train Sets on Amazon

Many Big Jigs, Brio, Thomas and other wooden train sets and accessories shown in this lens are available from Amazon.

Any Feedback Appreciated...

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    • RoadMonkey profile image

      RoadMonkey 5 months ago

      We have a lot of wooden train track in our house. My eldest granddaughter got sets of it from she was one year old and by the age of two, she could fit it together to make (sort of) complete loop. With all the additions, she and her cousins have had great fun over the years building long runs and sending the battery operated trains round it. The saddest thing I heard was when she was 8 years old, a school friend came to play and said his dad had made him give away his wooden train track because he was "too old" for it. The wooden train track with its wiggle room factor is a lot easier (and less fragile) for children to fit together than the grown up version and you don't have to worry about about getting the correct electrification of the branch lines.