My son likes wooden trains. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, since I like the bigger metal (and sometimes plastic) trains that run on O gauge track. The downside to Brio and Learning Curve (Thomas) trains is that sometimes they seem to cost nearly as much as Lionel, even though they’re essentially carved blocks of wood. But I learned how to buy wooden trains cheap.
There are several ways to save money on them, it turns out.
I’ve read several places online that off-brand track is inferior to Brio and Learning Curve. I’m not sure what the motive is behind the people saying this, because I don’t find that to be the case at all.
My wife bought an unbranded wooden train set at a steep discount that turned out to be made by a company called Maxim. I can’t tell a difference between it and Brio track. The fit and finish is virtually identical, except for the Brio track having the name “Brio” stamped into it on one side.
We also own some Imaginarium-brand track from Toys R Us. For all I know, it was made by Maxim. There’s nothing wrong with it either.
I haven’t bought any yet, but many of the shops around me sell Melissa & Doug track. I don’t see anything wrong with it either.
So buy the off-brand track, or even an off-brand starter set. It works well. And if your kid doesn’t play with it, you’re not out a lot of money.
Build your own train table
Second, build your own table. Here are some free plans. You can do it for $20 worth of materials available at any lumberyard or home center, and the result is a bigger, sturdier table than the commercial tables that cost $90 and up (and up). If you don’t want to cut plywood, take the plans with you and get them to cut the plywood for you at the store. It’ll cost 50 cents or a dollar extra and saves a lot of time.
Spend on the trains
I do think the Brio and Learning Curve trains are better quality than most of the off-brand stuff I’ve seen. There’s less play in the axles so they roll straighter and stay on the track better, and they’re more consistent about the polarity of their magnets.
Not only that, my son responds immediately to Thomas characters he recognizes. Yes, two Thomas engines from Learning Curve cost nearly as much as a nice Imaginarium-brand set from Toys R Us. But that $30 train set isn’t a bargain if it sits forgotten in the bottom of a toy box.
So I recommend buying some Thomas, Brio, and/or Whittle Short Line (made in St. Louis!) engines and cars and using them with whatever usable cars come with the off-brand starter set.
It’s not necessarily as easy as driving to Target, but you can find used Thomas engines, cars, and accessories. Check Amazon, eBay, and train shows. At the last Great Train Expo I attended, there was as much Thomas there as Lionel. Used examples of the more common engines like Thomas and Percy were selling half (or less) the cost of buying them at retail. And, at least initially, those common engines–Thomas, Percy, Edward, James, and Gordon–are the ones pretty much every kid wants.
Another option is Christmas and birthdays. There’s almost always something, even in the big brands’ product line, to fit a gift budget, and friends and relatives will (hopefully) appreciate knowing that they can buy something that will get lots of playtime. I know buying trains makes my relatives nervous, but there’s one rule that always works. You can’t have too many freight cars. And in freight cars, duplicates don’t matter. Take a look at a real train sometime and you’ll see tons of duplication. So when in doubt, buy a freight car.
When it comes to track, I can understand why people sometimes attach track to the layout semi-permanently with screws, I don’t really recommend it. Part of the fun is re-arranging the track, and laying out track is a good way for kids to learn geometry. It’s certainly the only use I ever had for the subject. I might as well get my son introduced to it early. You can use Suretrack to secure track without screws.
Download some track plans and change things up. Suretrack and Squirreltracks are two sites with several interesting layouts. As kids get older, they can change track plans around themselves. And imitating layouts as best they can without exactly the same pieces as in the instructions is a good exercise. It teaches improvisation and resourcefulness.
And finally, if making the train table yourself isn’t quite enough and you want to try your hand at making cars, Todd Hoogerland has a great page telling all about how to do it.
So while it’s easy to spend a fortune on wooden trains, it’s not entirely necessary to do so. I learned how to buy wooden trains cheap, and so can you.