model train set on track

Grandkids Coming? Set this layout up FAST!

e*Train Issue: Jan 2018   |   Posted in:

By By Bob Harder
[email protected] – (217) 779-8502   Winter 2018 

Whenever the grandkids come over, they always ask, “Can we see Grandpa’s trains?!” Off we go to the train room where they can watch – and sometimes ‘drive’ – one of the five trains that I have running on my 12-foot by 12-foot ‘L-shaped’ layout. Soon I can hear one of them say, “I wish I could be the ‘Engineer’ of my OWN train …”.  After a few such pleadings, I realized that they COULD be their own ‘Engineer’ – all it would take would be a little ‘homework’ for me before they came to visit next time. 

Here’s how I built a quick-setup 4-foot by 8-foot, 1/2″ thick plywood, floor-level layout for kids … and you can too!

First step: Find an area where you can set up a 4′ x 8′ layout “Just while the kids are here …” (You might need this quote for Grandma!). Usually, furniture in a family or living room can be temporarily rearranged to make enough room. A bedroom is also an option, but it is much more fun to have the layout ‘where the action is’ so the whole family can enjoy watching the kids (‘of all ages’) play with the trains. The area right in front of the TV is a GREAT spot for this! The photo below shows the area we usually use in the rearranged living room.

For the ‘benchwork’ support, buy eight plastic crates typically available from office supply stores, the kind used to hold file folders (they look like old-fashioned milk bottle crates); cost about $5 each. Set them out in a ‘square’ pattern’ so that four crates can support a 4-foot by 4-foot piece of plywood. (For some tips on how to prepare the plywood for a layout, see my previous article ‘Build a Portable-Storable Layout’. Quick version: cut 4×8 plywood in half, cover with two 4×4 carpet pieces from Home Depot, add track, have fun!)

You can also adjust the spacing between the crates slightly to make room for storage boxes for track, engines and cars, plus buildings and toys that the kids can play with on the layout.

This is a good time to get your transformers and extension cords all in place since you can easily route the wires between the crates before placing the plywood down. Rather than having to plug in and unplug the transformer(s) every time you are ready to run the trains, I use an extension cord with an on/off switch at one end (typically used for Christmas trees). With an adapter, one such switch can easily turn on three transformers or more.

Next, place one of your prepared 4′ x 4′ plywood pieces on four of the plastic crates; adjust it so it feels stable. Place the second 4′ x 4′ plywood along-side the first piece and secure them together with the paint stick/binder clip method (again, see previous article) The weight of the track and train is usually sufficient to keep the plywood and carpet pieces together, so connecting the two is not really necessary.

The photo below shows some contrasts between plywood color and track types (FasTrack and slot-car). A natural ‘ground’ coloration looks best for most train layouts; a solid gray color might look best for train and road race setups. I paint all of my boards a ‘camo tan’ on one side and medium gray on the other to best accommodate the various layouts I use from time to time.

Final step: lay down some track, add an engine and some cars, sprinkle in buildings to taste … and start running trains! It’s easy to start with a Lionel Ready-to-Run set, complete with an oval of FasTrack, engine, cars, and a transformer. Photo 9 shows a Lionel ‘Lincoln Logs’ set, complete with some log cabins that come with the set, plus a few added Lincoln Log sets available from stores like Toys ‘R Us, Wal-Mart, Target, etc. Be sure to let the grandkids do most of the setup … they’ll love doing it … and ‘hands on’ kids make great future ‘Engineers’!

As the grandkids continue to visit, let them help you expand the layout by shopping for some switches and track for a siding:

Or a simple slot car track and cars, possibly adding some ‘Cars: The Movie’ vehicles, or Legos and Playmobile sets, whatever they like best:

As the grandkids grow, it may soon be time to ‘grow’ that small slot-car oval into a full-fledged road race track, with a train full of additional NASCARS heading to the speedway!

WARNING! As you share your love of trains with your growing family, you may work your way up to an action-packed 4′ x 8′ railroad empire, complete with multiple reversing loops, long and short passing and dead-end sidings, and a bunch of accessories that “came out of nowhere!” (again, a quote you’ll want to practice for Grandma!). With a layout that big, it would be a shame to pack it away when the grandkids leave, don’t you think?

Happy Railroading!