In these dark times, is there still a good wooden train set?
December 7, 2018 11:40 AM   Subscribe

Essentially looking for an update of this 2011 post. What's the best wooden train set for my little barbarian engineer in 2018?

Basically, I'm trying to get Tiny Croft (the littlest Tomb Raider) a wooden train set for Christmas and good lord is it more complicated than I ever imagined! So many brands, so many options, so many different prices! A lot of good advice in the previous post, but I think it's starting to show its age. For example, looking at the current Thomas sets, it looks like Fisher Price has changed its track connectors to some new design to make them incompatible with other brands.

Basically, what's my best option if I'm starting from scratch, want her to have more than just a figure eight with an engine on it, and am willing to spend money for quality, but want to make sure I'm getting her the most for whatever I do end up spending?
posted by Naberius to Shopping (17 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Brio/Thomas is still the gold standard in wooden train sets. Melissa and Doug and Ikea tracks / trains are compatible with the Brio "standard" so you can buy nice trains to put on dirt cheap track from ikea.
posted by Dr. Twist at 11:46 AM on December 7, 2018 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Here is a guide I found very useful.
posted by agatha_magatha at 11:48 AM on December 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

I also came in here to say dirt-cheap Ikea tracks + beautiful Thomas trains + special track pieces from Thomas. Hours and hours of fun, and they'll all hold up (including the Ikea pieces) until your kids have kids. (My kid is now 15 but we still pull these out and play with them.)

Also I'm talking about the wooden Thomas sets, not the cheaper/larger plastic sets they make, which you can usually find at places like Walmart and Target. You can easily see the difference when you look at them.
posted by BlahLaLa at 12:19 PM on December 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Get the cheapest basic track set you can find and then trick it out with some fancy pieces from Brio or Thomas. They're all compatible as far as I can tell (we have a massive, massive collection that's a combination of stuff we've bought and stuff we've been handed down and it's all a hodgepodge). Some of the tracks are over 15 years old at this point and belonged to our nephew--in a few years when he has his own kids, we'll pass the whole lot back to him. Tracks are tracks are tracks but it's the special tunnels and bridges and freight yards and turntables that make the magic happen. Save your money for those items.
posted by soren_lorensen at 12:33 PM on December 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My mom got our toddler some Brio stuff and we bulked it out with some much cheaper stuff from Ikea which is also wooden and seems to be of perfectly good quality (basically indistinguishable to me except that it doesn't say "Brio"). This means that in the future my mom can get my kid nicer Brio presents like stations and roundhouses if she wants (she can't be stopped) and we have plenty of basic track stuff as well.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 12:37 PM on December 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

Yeah, you're right that there's a new connector type that you need to watch out for, that is basically shaped like two "s" shapes that interlock with each other instead of (what I'm increasingly uncomfortable referring to as) the male-female connectors of traditional Brio tracks. But that new kind of connector is, IIRC, specific to one company. Melissa and Doug, Brio, plenty of Thomas, and apparently (I'm just here learning) IKEA tracks will all work together.
posted by gauche at 12:42 PM on December 7, 2018

Best answer: As someone who has spent a lot of time helping small people play with wooden train sets in the last couple of years, they will enjoy playing with any quality of train set, even the ones from the box off the curb with wood glue and pen marks all over. Get just a few trains at first and then you can add more if your child likes particular colors, passenger vs. freight train, etc. The stocking-full-of-trains was a big hit last year, and this year will be too I suspect.

Some suggested add-ons to whatever set you get (links are for illustration, I haven't bought these specific items):

Double-ended connectors -- you don't need 18, but you will be happier if you have more than one of each. We call them "knob-to-knob" and "hole-to-hole" connectors.

More tunnels/bridges! The best kinds of bridges for little kids don't need supports because they are either two solid pieces or they have a built-in platform for the sloping-up piece to rest on (e.g. this example). More advanced tunnels can string together enough bridge pieces like these, using duplos/wooden blocks for supports, and make slopes that span your entire floor and couch, because that is definitely what you are looking for.

Look for connectors that are solid wood in preference to plastic knobs that can (will) break off.

Second-hand is a great way to flesh out your system; wooden track is wooden track and your kid will not care about subtle stylistic differences. That said, be warned that some wooden trains are too tall for some tunnels (specialty letter cars, bah), and we have a battery powered train that is too wide for some bridges. With enough exotic switches and connectors you can make routes around low tunnels or narrow bridges and that can be part of the game.
posted by puffyn at 12:48 PM on December 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Besides the new connector, my other concern with Thomas stuff is that they've redesigned the trains themselves as well and they just look tacky and cheap to me now. This is the current Thomas from Fisher Price.

Here's an older Thomas I looked up on Ebay.

The early Thomas episodes with all model work (and George Carlin!) were her gateway into trains to begin with, so I'd love to get her Thomas trains, but these just don't look right.

agatha_magatha, I'm indeed finding your guide very useful. (And she doesn't even have anything to say about the current Thomas line on the grounds that she can't think of anything nice to say...)
posted by Naberius at 12:59 PM on December 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

We basically stick to Brio and have been very happy. I bought my son the basic Brio figure eight set when he was about 2, then for his third birthday got the very awesome Brio Deluxe Railway Set. It’s an investment but still going strong three years later. We’ve added a couple of things (a Ferris wheel and the Golden Gate Bridge, and also some more trains and passengers), and play with it constantly. If you have room a train table would be amazing too. We got one second hand for $20.
posted by JenMarie at 1:07 PM on December 7, 2018

We have a couple of the newer thomas trains themselves. they are garbage. they can't do corners going downhill, they just fly right off the track. so...yeah. the ikea trains, even though they're very basic, perform much better. (we don't have much else yet, so otherwise I'll defer to the knowledge above).
posted by annabear at 1:08 PM on December 7, 2018

I wasn't able to link earlier, but here are links to the sets I was referring to in my anwser:

Brio Figure Eight Train Set

Brio Deluxe Railway Set

Brio Double Suspension Bridge (aka Golden Gate in my earlier answer)

Brio Train Ferris Wheel

(looks like the Ferris Wheel is unavailable; that's just to give you an idea of the variety of add-ons you can get)
posted by JenMarie at 1:38 PM on December 7, 2018

Our Brio set gets a ton of loving, it’s sturdy and has amazing pieces. My son’s favorite is the tunnel that makes noise (a toot toot, a rumble, or an owl! He loves owls!).
posted by lydhre at 5:45 PM on December 7, 2018

Melissa and Doug and Ikea tracks / trains are compatible with the Brio "standard" so you can buy nice trains to put on dirt cheap track from ikea.

I got Ikea wooden train tracks a couple of years ago and they absolutely did not connect to Brio. This was in the UK, I don't know if the Ikea stuff differs in different regions (or if it's been improved since then). I was pretty irritated (since it said "compatible with major brands!") and got a refund.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 5:56 PM on December 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The Ikea tracks I bought in the US last year are indistinguishable from the Brio ones.

something I forgot when I originally posted is that wooden trains come up all the time on craigslist if you are looking to start or expand.
posted by Dr. Twist at 7:07 PM on December 7, 2018

I have seen router bits that will turn standard wood stock into compatible track, so if you have a woodworker in your life, that may be an option.

In addition to buying used, just ask. When my herd was younger, I sent an email around my department and one guy brought me like four grocery sacks of track! We wrapped it up and gave it to the kids, and they didn’t care that we hadn’t bought it at a store.
posted by wenestvedt at 11:33 AM on December 8, 2018

Lehman's has it:
posted by hampanda at 2:07 PM on December 8, 2018

Response by poster: Okay, the orders are in, and stuff is on its way! Based on advice here, and especially on the Play Trains! guide that agatha_magatha pointed me to, I put together a custom package.

I was already leaning toward Brio, and the obvious solution would be this Brio set in a handy storage box. One and done. But while I think all those cranes would be awesome to an older child, it seems a bit overly complex for Tiny Croft. And I was wondering if I could get more bang for the buck by piecing together my own set. I quickly found that the issue with a lot of the simpler Brio sets is they don't come with much track. A plain figure eight at most, sometimes just a circle! I wanted to be able to build a more interesting layout for her with some switching options, so based on your input, I went with cheap track and then tricked it out with Brio stuff.

I started with this bulk track from Conductor Carl. There's a lot of track options out there, of varying prices and quality levels, but the woman from Play Trains! said this is what she uses for all the layout photos in her book and what she takes to train shows to set up layouts that get played with hard. That sounded good enough for me. So there's enough track to do some more interesting things, plus a bridge!

Then I added Brio stuff. I started with the Farm Railway set because she loves farm animals and tractors and the like, and it seemed more on her level of complexity. Plus there's kind of a crane she can play with in the barn, and it got her some rolling stock. And a little bit more track, but you see what I mean about the Brio sets. Not a lot of track to work with. I guess they're assuming you'll be adding these on to some bigger set.

Then I added the Train Garage so she'll have another building along the line. And if you leave both doors open it can double as a tunnel.

I figured that was enough infrastructure to get her started, so I filled out the rest of my budget with trains. I got her the Brio Cargo Train. More freight cars so she can make longer trains, and I think the cargo is all interchangeable. A lumber car with three logs that I assume she can also lift with the crane on the barn. And the Old Steam Engine because it was cute and didn't cost much. Finally, I did pick up an old Thomas for her on eBay. Hopefully it's not beaten to death. If it was, it didn't cost that much, and she probably won't care anyway.

(For Thomas stuff, what you want is the old discontinued Thomas Wooden Railway. The new stuff is called Thomas and Friends Wood, and I take exception to it for reasons I've already gone into. There is still Thomas Wooden Railway stuff out there, but it's going, and it's getting more expensive.)

And it struck me about halfway through this that I really should get her a little engineer's cap because it's appropriate and my god, does that kid love a hat!

So that's my main Christmas item for her done, for about the same cost as the green box set I linked above, but I think better tuned to what she likes and where she is in her play style. Thanks so much to everyone for your advice, and Merry Christmas!
posted by Naberius at 10:27 AM on December 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

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