Saturday, July 19, 2014

Fixing Wooden Train Tracks

My son has an obsession.  I know, I know, he's only two years old, but I'm serious - this is an obsession.  A few months ago, he received a pair of giant file boxes filled with wooden trains and tracks as a gift from a generous relative-of-a-relative whose own kids had outgrown Thomas and his friends.

My son, though, fell in love instantly.  He will spend hours playing with these things, and can list off the name of every engine he owns, which is pretty good all things considered.  As a firstborn, it's pretty much the only thing he will do completely on his own.

All this joy has one cost, though - used trains sometimes mean broken trains, and using trains sometimes means breaking trains.  We have a mixture of wooden and plastic trains, which can both have some issues: the male ends of the wooden trains can snap or split, and the female ends can chip out to the point that you can't connect them (and by 'you', I mean me and my two year old).  The plastic ones have the same kind of issues, though with them the little plastic piece at the end pops out.

I wound up with a respectable pile of "to-be-fixed" train tracks in the basement. Now that the rooms down there are finally done, I've spent a little time getting my shop organized and picking away at some of the little projects that have needed doing, and this one went up to the top of my list.

A few of the parts, the ones with the little plastic end that popped out, were easy to fix - if you still have the plastic piece, simply dip the end of the plastic bolt into a tube of clear caulk, tap it back into the piece, and wipe off any squeezeout.  Let it dry, and it should be back in place!

For the ones with an actual break, or which had permanently lost the plastic piece, fixing (or recreating) the female end of a track didn't look too hard.  A drill (either a drill press or a hand drill) can take care of the hole, and a few passes with a hand saw or table saw can connect it to the end. But that wouldn't be practical to do for all of the dozen or so broken pieces I had - for one thing, that would then leave me with too many female-female adapters.  As importantly, shortening the piece wouldn't work at all for the curved ones like bridges and arches.

The first thing I found online was a set of train track router bits from Rockler.  These look awesome, and if you're making your own tracks it could be really cool ... but $150 would buy you a lot of brand new tracks from the store.  It just wasn't practical for me.

Then I ran across this guy's blog post about the exact same issue.  He had some tracks with a plastic connector that kept popping out. Apparently, he found a post suggesting that you use some eye screws and drywall anchors (also called molly bolts) to put in a new male adapter.  I was able to find both the drywall anchors and eye screws on Amazon, which either makes me a terrible person who will doom the old-fashioned brick and mortar store, or a smart shopper.  I'll leave it to you to judge.

The molly bolt and eye screw combination worked great for the pieces with the plastic part that had popped out.

Simply put in the molly ...

... cut off the part sticking out ...

... then twist in the eye screw.

The all-wood tracks were even simpler.

First, cut off anything that's broken so that you have a perfectly flat surface ...

... then drill a pilot hole straight into the end (make sure it's centered across the width of the piece) ...

... and thread in the screw eye (a nail helps to turn it tight).

Once you have it in, check it against an unbroken female end to make sure you have the depth right (it's okay for the screw to be a bit crooked if necessary).

That's it - a simple little fix, took me less than half an hour to do a dozen or so pieces.  This can fix broken wooden Thomas train tracks, or Melissa & Doug, or Brio, or any of a half-dozen others.  All told, it was a satisfying bit of time in the shop.  And the look on my son's face when he came downstairs the next morning and found a bunch of 'new' pieces sitting on the table waiting for him made it well worth the effort.