Santa Made A Train Table

On the off-chance that my three-year old reads my blog, I present to you the following somewhat factual overview of a certain Christmas present:

Our youngest son really likes those wooden train sets that kids play with. He plays with them all the time at pre-school and even as a small rag-tag set of track pieces and train cars that he plays with at home. While he didn’t directly ask for a train set for Christmas we figured it was a nice gift to have Santa bring him.  I like that they are made from wood, colorful and can be arranged in various configurations to suit the imagination.

We looked online so we’d have some idea of what to tell Santa we wanted. Target had a great sale on a small set, including a table, on Black Friday, but alas by 4 o’clock that day when we decided to pull the trigger they were sold out. So we found a track set we liked and I volunteered….er, volunteered that Santa could make the table.  Figure $70 for the set then like $80 in material for the table. Santa’s time is free. We sent off our order.

Here’s where my story telling gets creative….Ok so a few day later we received “instructions“, including a sample of each piece in the train set. Since Santa knows I’m a designer, and would not dare to tread on my turf, he allowed me to take the pieces, set them up and figure out the design of the train table. I checked around and landed on 16″ tall, which is a toddler friendly height. The table itself ended up needing to be pretty big. I set up the train track and measured about 48″ wide and 36” deep with some buffer around the track.  We decided this was okay after I consulted a few online table sizes, and measured the area(s) upstairs where the set would be stored / played with.

Santa included special “dust” and a map in his instructions: I was going to work side by side with one of his certified “elves” in an undisclosed “north pole” location. I sprinkled the dust into the gas tank of the Rabbit, loaded my tools and design drawings and cranked the stereo to 11 playing “Magic Carpet Ride“….and we were off at light speed.

Arriving at the “workshop” I knocked and was greeted by a tall surly “elf” who smelled of gin (I’m making this up) and looked a lot like my brother (not making that up).

“Oh crap!” I said to the elf. “I forgot my drawings!”

So we sketched out what was in my head. The elf made some suggestions to make the table even nicer, like instead of butt joints and cleats, we could use the router to recess the wood into the boards and make really nice durable joints (there’s a word for that but I have no idea what it is, and I’m not looking it up….if you want a technical overview go call Norm Abram). 

The material we used for the table is cabinet grade birch plywood. The two sheets we got on sale because they were “water damaged“, presumably not by Santa’s reindeer, but you never know. The cost about $42 apiece.  We cut four leg panels: two at ~36″ wide and two at ~48″ wide, we routered slots into each and joined them together, along with a 36″ x 48″ bottom panel. After pinning them together with a nail gun we countersunk 2-3 screws into each joint, I capped each screw with a wooden plug: glued in place during painting. Note, we sanded and rounded over all of the edges with a router to give a nice clean safe appearance to every panel.

Next we pinned 4.25” tall blocks to the interior perimeter to act as support for the removable top. The “elf” had a great suggestion that we split the top to make it easier to remove. At 36″ x 48″ it’s a big heavy top, so good call in that regards. Another bonus is one could play with just one top installed and store the other under the other top, providing the imagination with two levels of play…..gravel pit, lower level….hell….whatever you want.  More fun.  Each panel had a 1.5″ x 4.5″ cut out hand hold to ease panel removal.  Very desinger-ly indeed.

We then loaded the assembled table and table tops into the Rabbit and with a twist of the key we magically transported ourselves back home to my studio. I proceeded to spend the next several days painting the table. First a few coats of white trim paint on the table and tops, then some varnish on the table. I left one side of the tops white, and on the other I set up the train set, traced some lines and laid out various roads, trees and a harbor.  I painted the play top in a back-ass-ward manner, but you learn don’t you….I should have started by painting everything green then masked of subsequent layers of paint for the water, rocks, roads, etc.  In the end though I thought it looked pretty nice. I covered the top in varnish as a last step.

One note, I ended up spending about $25 in paint, and $80 in material plus countless hours of labor, so I spent a lot more than I would have if I just bought a table. But this table was made with love (and magic), including getting to spend a few hours of quality time working alongside a real craftsman “elf” who was generous enough to donate his time to the project.  Making your own table will not save you money, but I think it’s a more treasured object because of it.

In the end I think our little guy liked his gift from Santa. Both of our boys enjoy playing with the table and we like looking at it.  Here are some pics from the project.

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